Review – The Greatest Prayer by John Dominic Crossan

The subtitle of his new book is “Rediscovering the Revolutionary Message of the Lord’s Prayer.” According to Crossan, the Lord’s Prayer is about Jesus’s “radical vision of justice.” He claims that “the primary meaning of ‘justice’ is not retributive [relating to punishment], but distributive. To be just means to distribute everything fairly.”

First, Jesus was not after distributive equality, as Crossan asserts. He told the rich man to sell his possessions and give the money to the poor. Similarly, in Matthew 25 those who are saved feed the hungry, clothe the naked, etc. Jesus was only concerned with a safety net for the needy. He never thought everyone should be equally rich. The “middle class” never get a dime from Jesus’ instructions – only the poor.

This idea of equality is one of Crossan’s favorite themes. It is particularly out of place here. While he claims this book is about the Lord’s Prayer, most of it is not; it consists largely of semi-non-sequiturs. Not only does Crossan give a misleading interpretation of the Lord’s Prayer, he ignores the most original part of Jesus’s message in the prayer.

Crossan spends most of the book talking about forgiveness of debts. The usual translation of the Lord’s Prayer says that if you forgive others their debts to you, God will forgive your debt to Him. Crossan interprets this as financial debts. Near the end of the book, however, he admits that virtually no one has a financial debt to God. Like the prophets, Jesus was using “debt” metaphorically, for sin. The real message, as many translations say directly, is that God will forgive your sins if you forgive the sins of those who sin against you.

This is consistent with Jesus’s teaching to allow someone to assault you - turn the other cheek – or to rob you, and so on. Strangely, Crossan failed to make the connection. The Lord’s Prayer only dictates forgiveness of such sins, not total acceptance of them. But it is still a fairly high hurdle. And it has nothing to do with justice. It is all about mercy. God will be merciful to you if you are merciful to others. Normally, we only think of God committing such acts of grace or mercy. The Torah – the Bible as Jesus knew it – does not teach you to forgive crimes against you. It teaches an eye for an eye - even if such reparations are not taken literally, but are enacted by financial penalties, etc. That is justice.

The main point of the Lord’s Prayer (apart from the prayer for one’s daily bread), is the stress on mercy. Jesus is demanding that people be merciful, much as God is. While mercy is often praised in the Bible, it is never demanded of people. This is a unique teaching of Jesus’s, which is often ignored, much like his teaching to turn the other cheek. Also unique is Jesus’s teaching that God’s forgiveness of your sins is contingent on your forgiveness of others’ sins against you. There is nothing like this in the Bible.

There are two kinds of sin – sins against God and sins against your fellow man. According to the Bible, God always forgives sins against Him as long as you repent. You can also offer a sacrifice, but repentance is sufficient. Sins against your fellow man are harder to deal with. First, you have to make it right with them, by restitution or some other means. Then you have to repent. But atonement is possible, and relatively straightforward.

The other aspect of the Lord’s Prayer that neither Crossan nor any other New Testament scholar talks about, is that Jesus is teaching how to obtain God’s forgiveness of sins. Contrary to standard Christian doctrine, he did not say, “God is no longer forgiving sins. That’s why I will soon be crucified.” Jesus said that if you forgive the sins of others, God will forgive your sins. End of story.

To reiterate, Jesus taught people how to obtain God’s forgiveness of sins. He believed that atonement for sin was readily available, and always would be. Contrary to what has become standard Christian doctrine, Jesus did not say that God was no longer issuing forgiveness. Jesus did not say to wait a little while, when he would by crucified to atone for mankind’s sins and take care of all such problems. I think the idea that he would have to die in order for God to forgive people would have shocked and appalled him.

Note that the oldest Jewish-Christian documents like the Q gospel, the Didache, and the Gospel of Thomas, say nothing of Jesus’ dying to atone for sins. This happened later, as the Jesus-movement became transformed into a kind of mystery religion. The idea of a sacrificial death enabling the salvation of others is central to the mysteries - like Osiris, or Attis, or Mithra’s slaying of the lion. There is nothing remotely like it in Judaism, which believes in a God of mercy (at least to his children), who forgives sins annually on the Day of Atonement, and on demand following repentance and, if necessary, restitution. Judaism never had any doubts about God’s forgiveness of sins, nor did Jesus – though he set the bar for obtaining it a little higher than it had been.

About this book. If you have read any of Crossan’s books on Jesus, you are unlikely to learn anything new from The Greatest Prayer. If you have never read any of Crossan’s books on Jesus, pick one of the earlier ones. They have more meat and proportionally fewer errors.


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