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A Historical Look at Crucifixion

John Dominic Crossan is professor emeritus of biblical studies at DePaul University in Chicago. A native of Ireland, and ordained as a priest in the United States, he left the priesthood in 1969. Crossan is a founding member of the Jesus Seminar, a group of scholars who meet to determine the authenticity of Jesus' sayings in the Gospels. Crossan wrote the books Jesus: A Revolutionary Biography, The Historical Jesus and Who Killed Jesus? Exposing the Roots of Anti-Semitism in the Gospel Story of The Death of Jesus.


Other segments from the episode on April 1, 2004

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, April 1, 2004: Interview with John Dominic Crossan; Commentary on the word "infoganda."


TIME 12:00 Noon-1:00 PM AUDIENCE N/A

Interview: John Dominic Crossan discusses crucifixion and

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

Easter is coming, celebrating the resurrection of Jesus Christ after his
crucifixion. His scourging and crucifixion is the focus of the Mel Gibson
film "The Passion of the Christ." We're going to take a historical look at
crucifixion which was a widespread form of punishment in antiquity. My guest,
John Dominic Crossan is professor emeritus of religious studies at DePaul
University and author of the books "The Birth of Christianity," "Jesus: A
Revolutionary Biography" and "Who Killed Jesus." Crossan describes his work
as combining faith and history. He's a former Roman Catholic monk in the
Servite order and the former co-chair of the Jesus Seminar which investigates
ancient historical evidence to help understand the life and times of Jesus.
The seminar is controversial in part because it does not take the Gospels
literally and uses history to reconcile the different versions of Jesus' story
as told in the four Gospels of the New Testament. I asked Crossan how long
crucifixion was used as a form of execution.

Professor JOHN DOMINIC CROSSAN (Jesus Seminar): Crucifixion was practiced as
a form of, I would call it, state terrorism for centuries before it became
infamous under the Romans.

GROSS: And who practiced it?

Prof. CROSSAN: Basically, the Carthaginians did it. The Greeks did it. It
was one of the supreme penalties invented in and around the Mediterranean

GROSS: Now I was surprised to read in one of your books that there was for a
while a Jewish practice of crucifixion. For what reason?

Prof. CROSSAN: There's a difference between what I call living crucifixion
and dead crucifixion. In dead crucifixion, the person is put to death. The
criminal is put to death by, say, it could be garroted or strangled, and then
literally the body is hung up as a warning, hung up dead, in other words, and
there seems to be a tradition of that in some of the Jewish sources. The
Roman crucifixion was living crucifixion. In other words, the person was
impaled on the cross or on the stake while still alive and allowed to die in
that position.

GROSS: Now who were some of the people that were typically punished with

Prof. CROSSAN: In general, especially in the Roman situation, you can say
almost definitely it was almost synonymous with the slaves' execution. It was
a warning to other slaves not to flee, not to commit a crime, not, of course,
to kill their master or mistress, and it was extremely public. Its point was
not so much the amount of suffering, though, of course, it was a horrible
suffering, but it was a public warning. You're literally hung up like a
poster: Don't do what this person did or you'll end up as this person did.
So very much for the lower classes and especially for slaves.

GROSS: Now you say that during Roman times, crucifixion was one of three
primary ways of capital punishment. There was crucifixion, being burned alive
and getting fed to the lions.

Prof. CROSSAN: The Romans talked about supremas suprechia(ph), supreme
penalties, and they really didn't calculate them in terms of the amount of
suffering. They really calculated them in terms of annihilation. So being
crucified, being fed to the beasts, as it were, or being burned alive. The
function was there would be nothing left to bury. So even when they were
finished with your corpse, the relatives, the loved ones would have nothing to
bury. There would be no tomb where they could mourn, where they could come to
grieve, where they could even, say, eat with the beloved dead. They wished to
annihilate you and to do it publicly.

GROSS: Even with crucifixion?

Prof. CROSSAN: The theory behind crucifixion actually was that you would be
left on the cross until you were consumed by wild beasts or wild animals.
Usually crucifixion was low enough so that the packs of dogs who play in a
place like that all the time could consume your body. It was a form of
annihilation. Now we know, for example, that there was one case in the first
century because we have found the heel bone of a crucified person with the
nail still in place and this person was honorably buried. So it is possible,
of course. It depends upon whether maybe you could bribe the guards or have
enough influence to get the body given to you. Then you could get the body
back, but in theory, the purpose of crucifixion was to leave the body there
until there was nothing left.

GROSS: Was scourging or whipping usually the first step before crucifixion?

Prof. CROSSAN: In general, scourging preceded crucifixion, and the primary
function of scourging, again, was not simply to create suffering. If the
function of suffering was the poor person would be kept in the barracks and
tortured for weeks. The function of scourging was to reduce resistance.
They did not want the person, for example, staggering through the streets with
a crossbar cursing Rome or fighting them all the way. This was public
spectacle. What you wanted was somebody reduced to the state that the most
they could do was stagger, as it were, to crucifixion unresisting. So, yes,
usually scourging would have preceded crucifixion.

GROSS: In your book "Who Killed Jesus," you quote a couple of the historic
references to crucifixion, including the Jewish historian Josephus and let me
read a short paragraph that you quote by him. "They were whipped, their
bodies were mutilated, and while they were still alive and breathing, they
were crucified while their wives and the sons whom they had circumcised in
spite of the king's wishes were strangled, the children being made to hang
from the necks of their crucified parents." And that's from the book "Jewish
Antiquities." I've never heard this before, that children were also killed
while the father was being crucified and the child was hung by the neck of the
father on the cross?

Prof. CROSSAN: I think probably what you have read there is the most horrible
example that we have in the whole of the ghastly literature about crucifixion.
That women were probably crucified I think is absolutely certain. What was
done to the children is probably best not even imagined because the function
of crucifixion again is state terrorism. And when, for example, the legions
marched, they did not want to have to come back for one or two generations.
So they made a terrible example of what they were doing, to deter future

GROSS: Here's another quote from Josephus from the book "Jewish Wars." "They
were accordingly scourged and subjected to torture of every description before
being killed and then crucified opposite the walls, 500, or sometimes more,
being captured daily. The soldiers out of rage and hatred amused themselves
by nailing their prisoners in different postures and so great was their number
that space could not be found for the crosses nor crosses for the bodies."
Put that in context for us.

Prof. CROSSAN: The context of that is the destruction of Jerusalem, the
burning of the temple by Titus in the year 70 of the common era. And what is
happening is either Jews who are trying to escape from the doomed city or
who'd been captured after its fall, Josephus says 500 a day were being
crucified until they almost ran out of wood. And one of the things that's
emphasized there is that there is no definite way in which a person could be
crucified. I mean, it wasn't that everyone had to be on a cross and the cross
had to look like this. It could be on a stake, it could be on a tree, it
could be anything that literally--and it's a horrible way to put it but this
is what they are doing--they are hanging up a warning as it were on the wall.
The mutilated body of a crucified person had become a poster for don't do

GROSS: How does Jesus' crucifixion as described in the Gospels compare with
what is known historically about the procedures of crucifixion?

Prof. CROSSAN: In general, the crucifixion itself, and in a way, the Gospel
has only one word, they crucified him. They don't describe the details that
would show up, for example, in a play or a film. You don't have to decide if
you're reading the Gospel, `Does Jesus carry only the crossbar, or does he
pull a huge cross, an upright, already in position?' It simply says it
crucified him. Another thing it does tell you is that the crime as it were,
the alleged claim of being king of the Jews was the sign given that you'd
always have in a crucifixion, saying, `This is what this person did.' So the
crime is as it were hung around his neck or attached to the cross in some way.
But everything that's said about the crucifixion of Jesus would fit quite well
into what you'd expect in the first century crucifixion.

GROSS: And it said he was scourged and it said he was mocked.

Prof. CROSSAN: The mocking is probably a separate issue, and in one sense,
the mocking is terribly ironic because he's being mocked as a pseudo-king.
And, of course, any reader of the Christian New Testament, the Christian
Gospel, believes profoundly that he was a king far more than Caesar was or
Pilate as a local governor, that their mocking was profoundest truth. So in a
way, the Gospel spends far more time--if you count the verses. I think
there's about four verses on the mocking and there's only one single word in
Greek for the scourging. They wanted to describe the mocking because of the
tremendous irony that the soldiers mocked him as a king. I have no idea
whether that is historical or not. They certainly could have, but the point
of insisting on it is the irony that he was being mocked as a king and, of
course, we Christians who are reading this Gospel believe him most profoundly
to be king, not just of the Jews but of the world.

GROSS: When did the cross become a symbol of Christianity?

Prof. CROSSAN: Very, very, very, very slowly and cautiously. In the time
before Constantine, that is, before the beginning of the fourth century when
Christianity became more or less the official religion of the Roman empire,
you have very, very many mentions, of course, from Paul's letters on of the
cross of the crucifixion, but you don't see pictures of it. The very earliest
one we have actually of the crucifixion is--again, we're back to the
mocking--a page in the Palatine Palace in Rome was mocking a fellow page who
apparently was a Christian. His name was Alexandrus(ph). So the page
scratches on the wall of their dormitory as it were a model of the crucifixion
in which Jesus is portrayed with the head of a donkey and written underneath
it is: Alexander(ph) Worships His God. And probably that's the only way it
could have been shown as a mocking of the crucifixion until after the victory
of Constantine.

GROSS: Have you thought about if so many people were crucified, if it was
such a common form of execution, why did that become the symbol for Jesus

Prof. CROSSAN: The crucifix or the cross only became the symbol for Jesus
always, always as accompanied by the resurrection. I mean, this is two
things: execution and resurrection--death, resurrection. Always the two
things because, of course, the point is that Jesus was officially, legally,
publicly executed by Rome. It wasn't that Pilate made a mistake or that
Pilate simply was rounding up people and he grabbed Jesus by mistake. Jesus
was executed by the normal sea of the civilization of his day. Then, of
course, when you say that God raised Jesus from the dead, you've got two
things on a collision course: Rome crucified Jesus; God raised Jesus. Then
the inference is very clear. This God we're talking about is on a collision
course with Rome because God, as it were, countermanded the official decree of
Rome. And so if you take away the resurrection, then the crucifixion becomes
almost meaningless or you have to get into another theology in which the
crucifixion is the center of Christianity all by itself.

GROSS: When you, as someone who studies the historical Jesus, think about the
resurrection, do you think about it as metaphor or as actuality?

Prof. CROSSAN: I think of it--I would not make the distinction of metaphor or
actuality. I would make the distinction of metaphor are literal because
metaphors can be very actual. For example, the metaphor for me is that to
claim resurrection for Jesus--and I can leave it completely whether you take
it metaphorically or literally, either way, what you are claiming is that
something has happened here which is going to change the way the world sees
everything and I think that is right because the claim you're making is that
God has reversed the normalcy of civilization. And that's why it's very
important for me to insist that Pilate from his point of view got it right.
He looked at Jesus. He said, `This person resists our law and order, as it
were. Not a violent resistor or I'd have rounded up all his followers like I
rounded up Peravisus(ph), but, yes, he resists us and, therefore, he must be
publicly executed.'

Now to say that God has reversed that decision puts God on a collision course
with the normalcy of civilization. That I believe is actual 'cause I believe
in what happened at the death of Jesus is that we were confronted with a
warning that violence is going to destroy us. We got a warning that if you do
not resist evil non-violently, violence will destroy us. I think something
did happen because that was a warning and we have not been heeding it for
2,000 years.

GROSS: My guest is John Dominic Crossan, professor emeritus of religious
studies at DePaul University and former co-chair of the Jesus Seminar.
We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(Fund Drive)

GROSS: My guest is John Dominic Crossan, former co-chair of the Jesus Seminar
which uses ancient history to understand the life and times of Jesus. When we
left off, we were talking about his interpretation of the resurrection.

With the resurrection, do you think that there was some kind of physical
transformation that happened to the actual body of Jesus?

Prof. CROSSAN: No, I don't. I am completely convinced that Jesus had told
people before his death that the kingdom of God has already arrived and that
we have begun to participate with God in what I'm going to call the great
cleanup. The fancy word for that is eschatological consummation, the great
cleanup of the world, the attempt to make it a just place. I am absolutely
certain also, historically, I'm speaking, that people had visions of Jesus
after his execution. They had visions and they're not hallucinations. They
are visions. They are apparitions of Jesus. When they put those two things
together, they said then, `Jesus has risen as the beginning of the general
resurrection.' That's the only thing the word could have meant to them. It's
not a personal private privilege for Jesus. He has risen as the head of those
who have died before him and as the promise of those who will die after him.

I take that metaphorically. I do not take it actually. I do not think all
around Jerusalem on Easter Sunday morning there were hundreds of empty tombs
and I don't think the people who believed in the harrowing of hell ever
suggested, `Let's go out and check the tombs of the prophets to see if they're
gone.' I think they knew quite well what they were saying. They were saying
something which they took metaphorically and which we take literally and I
think we've kind of lost the actuality.

GROSS: Now something that I find a little confusing. When we were talking a
little earlier about crucifixion, you were explaining that for most Roman
crucifixions the dead body was left on the cross to be eaten by the birds of
prey and by the wild dogs, and part of that was punishment for the family.
The family would not be given the remains to be buried. There'd be no tomb,
there'd be no remains. But the remains of Jesus is such a fundamental part of
the Christ story. Do you think an exception was made for him, that there were
remains, that there was a body?

Prof. CROSSAN: It's utterly possible because of the--Philo, for example,
does mention the possibility of a body being given back to the family. And in
a way, it's not so much a punishment for the family as a punishment for the
person because they're being annihilated. And we have the crucified heel bone
of somebody who is honorably buried. So it is utterly possible that in
exceptional cases, either because you bribed the guards or because you were
able to get some influence, it was utterly possible to get the body and give
the body normal burial.

Now the problem is that the Jewish law of Deuteronomy says by nightfall the
body must be off the cross. I have no evidence, and I would expect that the
Romans did not follow Jewish law 'cause the purpose of crucifixion was to let
you die in agony on the cross, and if the person--let's imagine a case in
which the person was only crucified by late in the afternoon, they would not
be taken down from the cross. So the question is, and this is the question:
Is the story of Joseph of Arimathea in Matthew, Mark and Luke are of Joseph of
Arimathea and Nicodemus in John, is that an historical record of what happened,
or is that Christians' best hope of what they hope might have happened without
knowing what had happened to the body of Jesus?

GROSS: So you think that the Gospels might be more about that hope than the
reality, more about hope than journalism.

Prof. CROSSAN: Here is the problem. When you look at Mark, Matthew, Luke and
John, the story of the burial of Jesus, knowing that Mark is the basis for
Matthew and Luke and that possibly, this is debated in scholarship, they may
be the source for John. You watch the body. The body burial gets steadily
better. It's a hasty, hurried burial in Mark. By the time Matthew and Luke
read Mark and develop the story, it's burial in a tomb in which nobody else
has been laid and they're explaining to you why Joseph of Arimathea was able to
be a counselor for Jesus but not against him on Thursday night as it were.
The story is developing. By the time you get to John's account, the burial of
Jesus is--I wouldn't even say royal. It's transcendental. There are so much
spices used it would fill almost the entire tomb. It's a magnificent burial.
It's the burial of the son of God when you get to John.

You know, what happens is as a historian, when I retroject that trajectory of
a burial getting better and better and better and I ask what was there in the
beginning, it doesn't look very good. It looks to me all they might have had
at the very beginning is a hope that maybe some pious non-Christian Jew out of
respect for the law of Deuteronomy would have buried Jesus' body, but that
immediately then raises the issue that they see, `Well, wouldn't he have also
buried the two robbers who were crucified with Jesus. Now wouldn't there be
at least three in the tomb and would it be a public tomb for criminals and
then how would we know which was Jesus' body.' And so you can see them, I
think, grappling with the difficulties of a story which I don't think is
historical. I think it is their fervent hope, their best hope that somebody
took care of the body of Jesus, but none of that, by the way, in any way, is
for or against resurrection because resurrection is a new creation by God.

GROSS: Religion scholar John Dominic Crossan. We'll be back in the second
half of the show.

I'm Terry Gross and this is FRESH AIR.

This is NPR, National Public Radio.

Coming up, we continue our conversation with John Dominic Crossan, religion
scholar and former co-chair of the Jesus Seminar. We'll hear his thoughts on
the film "The Passion of the Christ" and hear why Crossan is no longer a monk.

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross, back with John Dominic Crossan, professor
emeritus of religious studies at DePaul University. He describes his work as
combining faith and history. He's a former monk in the Servite order and the
former co-chair of the Jesus Seminar, which turns to ancient history to
understand the life and times of Jesus. The Jesus Seminar has been
controversial because it focuses on history and doesn't accept the Gospels as
literal truth. Crossan's books include "The Birth of Christianity" and "Who
Killed Jesus."

I know that you've seen Mel Gibson's movie, "The Passion of the Christ," and
I'm wondering if you could give us your short review of how the Jesus story is
told in the movie.

Prof. CROSSAN: I've seen it twice, a month apart. I saw it at the end of
January and, again, at the end of February. So I had a good month in--to
think about it. Basically, there's a couple of things that any passion story
or any passion drama does. You take the four Gospels, and there are four of
them, by the way, and you reduce them to one. And then you reduce that one
Gospel to simply execution and then you reduce that execution to passio, the
Latin word for passion, and--meaning `suffering.' So everything coalesces on
the suffering of Jesus.

Therefore, for example, there is nothing in Mel Gibson's movie except brief
flashbacks, more to increase the poignancy, about the life of Jesus, so by the
time you come to the execution, and the resurrection, of course, is even more
fleeting in this movie, you have no idea why anyone, anyone at all, would want
this person dead, let alone executed publicly. You don't even understand it.
Nor do you understand why, for example, it begins with a nighttime arrest of
Jesus, accompanied by Judas, who betrays him. Why was that necessary?
Couldn't the authorities have grabbed him anytime they wanted?

Well, if you've been reading the story from Palm Sunday on--Sunday, Monday,
Tuesday, Wednesday, as we would say, of that week--the crowd is all on the
side of Jesus. It's said again and again and again. In the Gospel, the high
priestly authorities are afraid to move because the crowd around the side of
Jesus. And in Mark 14:1-to-2 they give up. They finally say, `Well, we can't
do it during the festival. There'll be a riot.' Then comes Judas. And Judas
says, `I can arrange it. I can arrange that you'll get him apart from the
crowd at night.'

So what is not in this movie at all is that the whole Jewish crowd in
Jerusalem is so much on the side of Jesus that it requires this nighttime
arrest and an apostolic traitor to get him. And there's none of that in this
movie. All the Jews that are in this movie, except for what I'm going to call
Christian Jews, are people like Simon of Cyrene, who are converted into
Christians--all the non-Christian Jews are bad. They simply are. And it
doesn't work to say everyone is a Jew. Because it's quite clear, for example,
that Simon of Cyrene becomes a good Jew when he becomes a Christian.

GROSS: When did passion plays become popular? When did it become popular to
focus stories on the suffering, the crucifixion and suffering, of Christ?

Prof. CROSSAN: The emphasis on the suffering of Christ, almost to the
exclusion of everything else, is really very much a medieval idea and may well
reflect the experiences of people. If people are suffering, and I mean
seriously suffering, say with plague or something like that, or invasion, then
to think of the sufferings of Jesus is extremely consoling. And the script
that Mel Gibson used from the dolorous passion of our Lord Jesus Christ
according to the meditations of Ann Catherine Emmerich is a good example. She
had a life of suffering. She had a life of hardship, Augustinian nun who
spent the last 10 years of her life bedridden, in great pain. And no wonder,
of course, that she had an almost mystical union with the sufferings of Jesus.
Of course, she herself was in intense suffering. So the emphasis on suffering
is--How shall I say it?--appropriate, maybe? Maybe even necessary for people
in intolerable pain. Outside that, it becomes dangerously close to

GROSS: What do you mean by pathological?

Prof. CROSSAN: I mean, when you start to focus on suffering and the whole
meaning of, say, Jesus' life being reduced, and that word was carefully
chosen--reduced to suffering, it is not the way anyone thought about it in the
1st century. The Romans did not compute suffering. They didn't say we have
to make this person suffer as much as possible or they would have kept him in
the barracks and tortured him for weeks on end. Their purpose was not
suffering, but public warning. So when you bring it all down to suffering,
it's very hard to show it without sadism. And that's what happens in this
movie. How can you show two hours of unrelenting brutality and ask people to
watch it and ask people to feel that they want it to happen because it's their

So you have to be, as it were, on the side of the Roman soldiers. You have to
want it. You can't even agree with that Jewish woman who cries out in the
crowds `Somebody stop this!' You can't. You are being co-opted into
collusion with sadism. And I think there is no evidence that I know of that
the soldiers who scourged Jesus were sadistic brutes, as they're shown in the
movie. They could have just been executioners doing their dirty job, wanted
to get it over, and get back to the barracks. So when you emphasize suffering
to that extent, it is almost impossible not to slip over into sadism or even
into religious pornography.

GROSS: Now when you say that the Romans were uninterested in sadism and
suffering, they just wanted to set a public example, but isn't the whole point
of the public example that you don't want to be the victim of sadists and you
don't want to suffer, so it's it finally really about sadism and suffering?

Prof. CROSSAN: It's a very delicate line; I agree with you. But did a person
who was scourged and crucified suffer? Of course. Of course. But, for
example, by insisting on the public, the public nature of it, they were
insisting on their priorities. Their priority was not to make the person
suffer. Their priority was to make a public example of this person. For
example, if they scourged the person and the person died, they have failed.
They have failed in their purpose, if the person simply died over the
scourging. That's not their purpose. If the person died on the way to
crucifixion, they failed again. They have to get the person to the cross to
die on the cross. That is their purpose. So of course there is suffering.

GROSS: My guest is John Dominic Crossan, professor emeritus of religious
studies at DePaul University and former co-chair of the Jesus Seminar. We'll
talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: My guest is John Dominic Crossan, former co-chair of the Jesus Seminar
which interprets ancient history to help understand the life and times of
Jesus. Crossan's books include "The Birth of Christianity" and "Who Killed

Let me ask you about one of the key figures in the story of Jesus and that is
Pontius Pilate.


GROSS: What was his actual position in the Roman empire?

Prof. CROSSAN: Pontius Pilate was what could best be described as a
sub-governor. He was the governor of the southern part of the Jewish
homeland of Judaea, Samaria and Idumaea. And Herod Antipas was running
Galilee. But he was--he, Pilate, was under the governor, let's call him a
first-level governor of Syria, who could hire 'em and fire 'em as it were.
Well, maybe couldn't hire 'em but he could certainly fire 'em, because he did.
So he's a very ambiguous character. He is not really the full governor. He's
a kind of a sub-governor, certainly.

He was in for 10 years and most governors were in only for two years. He
probably didn't like his job. He probably was fed up and tired. And 10 years
is a long time even though--let's see, he came in in 26 so the crucifixion was
probably only four years into his tenure. The other thing he had to deal with
was he was dealing with a temple state, as it were. He would be used to
dealing with aristocrats like himself in any other part of the empire but here
he had to deal with high priests and he could, in this case, and fire, that
high priest.

So it's a very bad administrative situation if the person that you must
negotiate with, in charge of the indigenous people that you're governing, you
can fire that person. How do you negotiate with somebody who can fire you?
So there's lots of problems with Pilate simply from an administrative point of
view before we get to his character or anything else.

GROSS: What do you know about his character?

Prof. CROSSAN: Of all the governors, or all the sub-governors, if you will,
of the Jewish homeland in the 1st century, we know more about Pilate probably
than anyone else. Some of the other ones, we only know their names. But we
know from the Jewish historian Josephus and the Jewish philosopher Philo a lot
about Pilate. And what's really ironic is that precisely what they insist
on--from Philo, for example, his gratuitous cruelty and his tendency to put
people to death without proper trial, and, from Josephus, his brutal way with
handling even unarmed crowds--exactly what they focus on show us a Pilate who
is the exact opposite of the sort of a just person doing his level best to
free an innocent person, and just forced by this shouting crowd to go along
with the Crucifixion against his best will and just kind of finally giving in.
Maybe a little weak but, you know, trying to prevent a riot. That's exactly
almost the precise opposite of what Philo and Josephus tell us about him.

GROSS: Who were the Jewish priests in the time of Jesus who called for the
execution of Jesus? Who was this class of people?

Prof. CROSSAN: The high priests were certain aristocratic families, basically
about four predominant ones, from whom the high priest was appointed, and
appointed by the Roman authorities, by the way, not by any sort of election of
their own people, during the 1st century. So, for example, the most important
house or family was the House of Annas because they had about eight high
priests in about 60 years, so they're almost the dominant one. Caiaphas, for
example, the high priest at the time of Jesus' execution, was the son-in-law
of Annas, who had been high priest before him. And Caiaphas was in for almost
17 years. So the high priest would represent, as far as the Romans were
concerned, at least the leadership of the Jewish people, and they had to
negotiate with the Romans as best they could because they were really under
the Romans.

GROSS: And is there any historical information about how the Jewish common
people felt about the priestly class?

Prof. CROSSAN: It's very, very interesting that in Mark's Gospel, just to
take that for an example, consistently on what we call Palm Sunday, Monday,
Tuesday and Wednesday of that Holy Week, it's said repeatedly, every day, in
fact, that the people of Jerusalem, presumably, are so much on the side of
Jesus that the high priestly authority who consider him dangerous and who
consider that he might bring the Romans down on them like a ton of marble as
it were, that they are against him but they cannot move against him because
the crowd is supporting him so much. And, in fact, in Mark 14:1 to 2, the
high priestly authority finally say, `We give up. We can't do it during the
festival. There might be a riot in support of Jesus.' So that, of course, is
the reason why it becomes necessary to have a Judas who will locate Jesus at
night, who will locate Jesus apart from the supporting crowd, and whom the
high priestly authorities then can get under their control.

GROSS: Historically is there any evidence that the Jewish priests called for
the execution of Jesus, and, if there is evidence of that, what are some of
the historical explanations for it?

Prof. CROSSAN: The Jewish historian Josephus sums up what happened to Jesus
by saying that the first man among us, that would be the leaders, accused him
before Pilate and Pilate crucified him. And I think that is the most precise
and accurate summary you can give to the question, `Who killed Jesus?' The
high priestly aristocracy and the Roman leadership both agreed that Jesus was
dangerous, and I think they both agreed he was not a violent revolutionary or
they would have rounded up all his followers. They agreed that he was,
however, what we might call a non-violent resister against Roman law and
order, and it's not at all necessary to demonize somebody like Caiaphas nor to
canonize somebody like Pilate. It made good administrative sense from the
Roman point of view that Jesus could--could--unwittingly, maybe--start a
rebellion. He was talking about the kingdom of God, and as far as Rome was
concerned, that was Rome. So Caiaphas and Pilate could have agreed without any
problem that Jesus was a danger. But all the evidence is that the people were
not on the side of Caiaphas.

GROSS: So when you look at the question, you know, were the Jews responsible
for the execution of Jesus, how do you answer that?

Prof. CROSSAN: The statement that Jews were responsible for Jesus is an
irresponsible statement. Some Jews--some Jews--opposed Jesus. We know, for
example, that the high priestly authority under Caiaphas opposed Jesus. We
also know that the crowd--that's the word that Mark uses consistently in the
days before the execution of Jesus--was on his side to the point of opposing
their own high priestly authorities. That has to be shown in any story that's
even accurate to the Gospels; I'm not even talking about historical accuracy
behind the Gospels. If you want to tell the Gospel story, you have to show
that the crowd in Jerusalem on the days preceding Sunday, Monday, Tuesday,
Wednesday are so much in favor of Jesus and so much in support of Jesus that
the high priestly authorities almost give up, and it takes Judas, really, to
give them the solution.

GROSS: You were a monk for several years.

Prof. CROSSAN: Right.

GROSS: How many?

Prof. CROSSAN: I was a monk for 19 years in a 13th century Roman Catholic
order called the Servites.

GROSS: Then you left the order and became a scholar eventually of the
historical Jesus. Is there any way of telling us, briefly, why you left the
order and then turned to scholarship?

Prof. CROSSAN: I left the order for two reasons. One was to get married, and
that was quite adequate reason all by itself. And the other one, even if I
could have stayed and got married, is that I was in constant trouble with the
religious superiors, the Cardon archbishop(ph) of Chicago, because I'd been
magnificently trained by my order to think. And as soon as I proceeded to do
it, some of the concussions I came to were not acceptable. And,
unfortunately, I've been trained to think and not to think under control, so
there was a constant tension by my religious superiors in the Archdiocese of
Chicago, not with the order.

GROSS: Can you give us an example of something that you--a conclusion that
you arrived at or a question that you kept thinking about because you were
thinking independently that was criticized within your order?

Prof. CROSSAN: Well, in one sense, the final one was in 1968. When the papal
encyclical condemning birth control was issued, I was invited to be on
national public television, in this case, in Chicago. And I said, basically,
that I thought the pope was wrong on this one. But as far as I was concerned,
he was still the pope in, much the same way I thought the president was wrong
about Vietnam, but he was still the president. And somehow or other that did
not seem to go down too well. But it was the truth. That's the way I felt.
The pope was the pope but wrong. The president was the president but wrong.
And that, more or less, brought down the Cardon archbishop of Chicago, not my
order, by the way. I'll say that again. But the Cardon archbishop of Chicago
asked my religious superior to show cause why I should not be tossed out of
the diocese within one week.

GROSS: So you left the order under pressure.

Prof. CROSSAN: Right.

GROSS: But you stayed within religion. I don't know if you continued to
practice it in the same way, but you certainly became a scholar of the
religion. Did you want to keep practicing after that, or were you so
disturbed by how you were treated that you wanted to just be a scholar and not
a practicing Christian?

Prof. CROSSAN: Oh, no, not at all, not at all. And I should insist I do not
consider at all that I was treated badly. There was lots of other people
suffered far more because they wanted to remain a priest and had to leave,
say, to get married. I already made my decision that I wanted to leave the
priesthood, even if I could get married and stay a priest...

GROSS: Right.

Prof. CROSSAN: ...because of the constant tension about theology. So I did
not really have the trauma that some people did. And what I wanted to do was
exactly what I did. I wanted to go to a Roman Catholic university, and I went
to, if I may say so, a very great one, DePaul University in Chicago. Stayed
there for 26 years, never even considered moving; told anyone that I had no
intention of moving. I loved it. And part of it was it was the Roman
Catholic atmosphere, but it was the Roman Catholic atmosphere which I could
think freely.

GROSS: John Dominic Crossan, thank you so much for talking with us.

Prof. CROSSAN: It's been a pleasure, as always, Terry,

GROSS: John Dominic Crossan is professor emeritus of religious studies at
DePaul University and former co-chair of the Jesus Seminar. His books include
"Who Killed Jesus" and "The Birth of Christianity."

This is FRESH AIR.

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Commentary: History of the word `propaganda'

When the administration circulated some fake video news releases to promote
its prescription drug plan, some people described the practice as infoganda.
But our linguist Geoff Nunberg wondered why the word propaganda wouldn't have
covered the idea as well. As he reminds us, the history of that word reflects
the changes in the way governments have learned to spin the news.


The public has gotten used to seeing advertisers ape news-show formats in TV
infomercials. So the Department of Health and Human Services must have been
surprised when the General Accounting Office announced recently that they'd be
investigating the department's use of the same techniques. The department had
sent to TV stations a video news release to extol the virtues of the
administration's prescription drug bill complete with fake reporters and a
shot of President Bush receiving a standing ovation as he signed the bill.

On Comedy Central's "Daily Show," one of Jon Stewart's mock correspondents
described that kind of bogus newscast as infoganda and worried that it might
drive genuine fake newscasts like Stewart's off the air. And in The New York
Times last Sunday, Frank Rich extended the word infoganda to describe the
range of ploys the administration has used to spin news coverage, from the
editorial direction it offered to Showtime's movie "DC 9/11" and the `mission
accomplished' photo op aboard the USS Abraham Lincoln to the TV blitz by Condi
Rice and others aimed at discrediting Richard Clarke.

Infoganda seems like a natural name for this sort of thing. It fits the
pattern of those spliced-together portmanteau words, like infotainment and
docudrama. I think of those names as genre-benders. It's the media version
of "Junkyard Wars"; there's nothing new under the sun apart from what you can
cobble together from the stuff that's lying around the shop. But what's
curious about infoganda is that anybody would feel the need for a new word to
describe those government-produced news videos. There was a time when
propaganda would have done the job all by itself.

The word propaganda was originally invented by the Jesuits in the 17th century
to describe efforts to propagate the faith. But it didn't become part of the
everyday vocabulary until the time of the First World War when the British and
Germans began to use the new techniques of mass advertising and public
relations to rouse popular support for their cause.

Americans got into that game when the country entered the war in 1917.
President Wilson set up the Committee on Public Information modeled on the
British Department of Information. It became known as the Creel Committee
after its chairman, the journalist George Creel. The committee churned out
posters, pamphlets and press releases. It enlisted 75,000 people to serve as
Four Minute Men who gave short speeches at theaters and public gatherings
urging people to enlist or buy Liberty bonds. Most of that material was
pretty purple stuff laced with phrases like `bombs or bondage,' and, `If you
don't come across, the kaiser will.' But Creel denied that the committee was
trafficking in propaganda. `Our effort,' he said, `was educational and
informative throughout.' No other argument was needed than the simple,
straightforward presentation of facts.

As time went on, propagandas became more sophisticated at disguising their
product. In 1938 one New York editor objected to the deluge of phony press
releases from the so-called news services that were set up by foreign
governments to win favorable coverage. He warned that they threatened to
break down the line of demarcation between news and propaganda, particularly
if papers began to rely on them to fill their pages. But by then it was clear
that propaganda was most effective when it masqueraded as objective news.

In 1941, when FDR wanted to drum up support for tilting toward the British
side in the war, he set up the Office of Facts and Figures headed by the poet
Archibald MacLeish. New York's Mayor Fiorello La Guardia, who had been an
advocate of the program, announced that `the office is not a propaganda
agency. We don't believe in this country in artificially simulated,
high-pressured, doctored nonsense.' But in a private memo to Roosevelt, La
Guardia admitted that the agency's goal was to provide the public with what he
called `sugar-coated, colored, ornamental matter otherwise known as bunk.'
Roosevelt's Office of War Information adopted the same principle in
encouraging Hollywood to make movies that roused patriotic sentiments. As the
agency's director, Elmer Davis, put it, `The easiest way to inject a
propaganda idea into most men's minds is to let it go in through the medium of
an entertainment picture.'

Ultimately the American propaganda's greatest victory was to discredit the
word propaganda itself. By the time of the Cold War, propaganda only referred
to what the other side said and said crudely at that. The word conjured up
the bombast and strident language of the fascist and Communist, not the
soft-sell productions of our own side. Propaganda was stuff that played The
Internationale in the background, not Stan Kenton.

So it isn't surprising that the use of the word propaganda began to decline
after the Vietnam War and tailed off sharply with the fall of communism. Over
the last five years it's been only a tenth as common in the press as it was
in its Cold War heyday. That may be why people felt the need to coin the new
word `infoganda' to describe the fake news shows and contrived photo ops that
are designed to blend seamlessly into the media background.

There may be nothing new about these techniques, but the current
administration has used them more deftly than anybody since Roosevelt's day.
And they found a fertile ground in the modern media setting, where the lines
between journalism and advocacy and reality and fiction are already blurred.
As a Department of Health and Human Services spokesman said in defending that
fake news spot, `Anyone who has questions about this practice needs to do some
research on modern public information tools.' It's hard to argue with that.
In a world of infomercials, advertorials and docudramas, what's one more

GROSS: Geoff Nunberg is a Stanford linguist and author of the forthcoming
book "Going Nucular." Please, don't correct me; that's the title. It's


GROSS: I'm Terry Gross.
Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.

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