John Dominic Crossan, in his book Who Killed Jesus?, contrasts the radical visions of John the Baptist with those of his protege, Jesus. Both men were religious radicals who opposed the prevailing socioeconomic and political system of their day, and both men were eventually executed by the Roman authorities for their subversive activities. But Jesus's views were different from those of his mentor's.
John preached a doctrine of what Crossan terms apocalyptic eschatology. This was a belief that God would intervene in the world against the prevailing oppressive system of his time, through a cataclysmic act. John baptized his followers who then would await this moment of divine intervention. But, unfortunately for him and his movement, he was executed. This was "because his apocalyptic vision radically criticized and fundamentally subverted the religious, political, social, and economic basis for Herodian and Roman control of the Jewish homeland." By mobilizing a large group of people opposed to the dominant paradigm of Roman rule, John was a threat, and he was killed for it.
John's death no doubt brought on a crisis among his followers. Waiting on God to intervene appeared to be a failure; Roman rule still prevailed. One of those followers, Jesus, appears to have reacted in the wake of the crisis by developing a new, greatly more active message in response to the worldly corruption that he lived in. In contrast to John's passive and expectant waiting on God bringing on the apocalypse, Jesus lived and preached what Crossan calls sapiential eschatology. According to Crossan, sapiential eschatology
announces that God has given all human beings the wisdom to discern how, here and now in this world, one can so live that God's power, rule, and dominion are evidently present to all observers. It involves a way of life for now rather than a hope of life for the future.The difference between John the Baptist and Jesus can be summarized in this way, according to Crossan: "In apocalyptic eschatology, we are waiting for God to act. In sapiential eschatology, God is waiting for us to act."
In Crossan's book Jesus: A Revolutionary Biography, he elaborates on this point by stressing that while apocalyptic eschatology waits for a future Kingdom of God, Jesus's sapiential eschatology believed in a Kingdom of God that resided in the here and now, available for all of us to participate in. "One enters the kingdom by wisdom or goodness, by virtue, justice, or freedom. It is a style of life for now rather than a hope of life for the future.
This points to the power of Jesus's message. In Who Killed Jesus?, Crossan evokes the important social justice component of Jesus's teachings:
Jesus's phrase Kingdom of God evokes an ideal vision of political and religious power, of how this world here below would be run if God, not Caesar, sat on an imperial throne. As such it always casts a caustically critical shadow on human rule. It includes especially an eschatological rejection of the world as it is currently run. But the solution is that we must act now to incarnate God's power on earth rather than that God must act soon to do it for us.Imagining a world of radical egalitarianism certainly made him a threat to the Roman authorities, just as his mentor was. And like John the Baptist, he was executed.
Thus the sayings and parables of the historical Jesus often describe a world of radical egalitarianism in which discrimination and hierarchy, exploitation and oppression should no longer exist. This is his utopian dream of the Kingdom of God, in which both material and spiritual goods, political and religious resources, economic and transcendental favors are available to all without interference from brokers, mediators, or intermediaries.
Jesus's followers responded to the crisis caused by his death in a different way than how Jesus reacted to the death of his own mentor. His followers came to believe that despite his death, he was still present and living in God's presence. Eventually, this belief became mythologized into tales of a physical resurrection, but originally his followers believed not in a physical resurrection but in simply the ascension of Jesus into God's presence.
So much of Christianity over the centuries has been wrapped up in theologies about Jesus and claims about his birth, resurrection, and presumed divinity, that it has forgotten what it was that he sought to do in his life. His radical message of egalitarianism, of living the Kingdom of God that is here with us if we only choose to allow it, remains as important and valid today as it was two millennia ago. God is still waiting for us to act, to bring about the Kingdom of God, the Dominion of God, the Presence of God. We cannot do this by waiting on God to magically intervene. We can only make God's presence possible through a socially just world by acting ourselves.