Book review: The Birth of Christianity

by John Dominic Crossan


I’ve read many of Crossan’s books, and although they can be dry, they do always provide something to sink your teeth into. He seems to write two kinds of books: Long, scholarly tomes, and short, interesting summaries. The Birth of Christianity is (unfortunately or fortunately, depending upon your purpose for reading) of the former type.

Crossan attempts in this book to initiate more scholarly research into the early years of Christianity, by which he means those years after Christ died but before the Gospels were published. Years 30-70 AD. His ideas are controversial–hey, every publication by every liberal Christian will be controversial–but they are well documented. In my opinion, too well documented. I don’t think Crossan needs 641 pages to explain and support his research. He delves deeply, for example into the topic “memory and orality,” to bolster his opinion about how poorly our memories operate and thus how unreliable oral transmission is.

Nevertheless, Crossan’s picture of early Christianity and particularly his long discussion of various types of eschatology (apocalyptic, ascetical, ethical) are important to the understanding of the Jesus movement of the first century. He explains how different communities of Christians could share different eschatological ideas–and you don’t have to think of eschatology as the end of the universe, but merely the end of an age and the dawning of a new kind of life–and develop very different brands of Christianity. Crossan traces the emphasis of early Christian communities into two traditions: Jesus’ “life” and “death.” The moral teachings of Jesus and the passion-resurrection tradition. Both, Crossan insists, are very early traditions; for example, he discusses the Common Meal Tradition. Is it a giving-sharing experience, or a eucharistic experience? From this merger of traditions grew the latter church.

I definitely recommend reading The Birth of Christianity and I think it will be an important foundation for continuing research into this era. I would  not, however, insist that the casual read the entire book cover to cover. Perhaps he will one day publish an abbreviated version. :)