How to Read the Bible and Still be a Christian: Struggling with Divine Violence from Genesis Through Revelation

by John Dominic Crossan (2015), reviewed by Vern Ratzlaff

Do we have to deal with a bipolar G-d, a G-d of vengeance and retribution in the Old Testament and a G-d of mercy and love and rehabilitation in the New Testament?  A violent G-d and a non-violent Jesus?  Crossan develops a way to deal with this conundrum.  He takes seriously the full sweep of biblical data.  For example, the Year of Jubilee, Leviticus 25, spells out that the land belongs to G-d and every fiftieth year was to be a Jubilee, a year of liberation, redemption and restoration.   But if this was the understanding of land tenure, why is there so little mention of it in later texts?  E.g., Isaiah 5:8 is a diatribe against expansion of real estate ownership.  Why the move from divine decree to mere suggestion?  Crossan points out the process; ‘there is a struggle between G-d’s radical ideal for us (Lev. 25), which I call the radicality of G-d, and the standard coercive ways that culture in fact operate (Is. 5:8) which I call the normalcy of civilization’ (p 24).

Crossan documents this biblical sequence of acceptance/rejection, assertion/subversion (p. 24), in its views on slavery; the radicality of G-d prompts Paul to ask for Onesimus’ manumission; normalcy of the Roman culture concerning slavery is assumed by Ephesians and Colossians; a vision of the radicality of G-dis put forth, and then later that vision is domesticated and integrated into the normalcy of civilization so that the established order of life, slavery, is maintained.  A powerful hermeneutical methodology, especially as Crossan uses it to overcome ‘escalatory violence’.

Vern Ratzlaff is a pastor and professor of historical theology at Lutheran Theological Seminary in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, Canada.