Review: Jesus: A Life in Class Conflict by James Crossley and Robert J. Myles

Book: Jesus: A Life in Class Conflict by James Crossley and Robert J. Myles

Publisher: Zer0 Books, 2023

Overview: By applying a historical materialist method to the life of Jesus, Crossley and Myles present a compelling, challenging, and potentially radical portrait of Jesus and the Jesus movement. This book is balanced and scholarly; it approaches a familiar subject with fresh insight, leading to several significant discoveries that will be relevant for anyone interested in the life of Jesus. The result is a robust foundation for a renewed political interpretation of Jesus and the Jesus movement, one charged with revolutionary possibilities.

James Crossley and Robert J. Myles examine the life of Jesus by paying close attention to the material and class conditions surrounding the Jesus movement as a whole. This is not the first time a historical materialist approach has been applied to the New Testament (Fernando Belo). Still, this book has the merit of being scholarly and readable, presenting new evidence and arguments with careful and well-presented conclusions. As such, the research is highly valuable, no matter where one stands on the precise meaning of how that research is interpreted.

Related to this method of interpretation is one of the main points of the book, which is to argue that Jesus should not be understood according to a “great man” interpretation of history but as “a product of the social and material conditions of their time and place” (p. 2). The “great man” interpretation views historical change to occur whenever a courageous individual makes it happen. But that overlooks the complexities of historical movements, especially the social dimensions behind any lasting change in history. Jesus, too, is situated as the leader of a movement, one with numerous parallels (such as John’s), yet also one with its own distinct message and method. This does not downplay the potential significance of Jesus as a key organizer of the movement, but this method situates him and his movement within a broader socio-political context, reading him less mythically and more realistically. As such, the book pays close attention to the class conflicts surrounding Jesus and his movement.

The book stresses the political dimension of the Jesus movement, labeling it “revolutionary millenarianism.” A summary of the aims and objectives of the movement are explained in this way:

“Caught up in millenarian and messianic beliefs about God imminently and dramatically intervening in human history to transform the world for the better, the Jesus movement would act as a vanguard political party with its own politburo and would be installed through decisive divine judgment as the custodians of a new theocracy, a dictatorship serving the interests of the peasantry. Come the revolution, the fortunes of the agrarian world would be turned upside down: non-elite sectors of Jesus society were guaranteed a life of plenty; the rich, however, would have to relinquish their wealth or suffer ruinous consequences” (p. 21).

Crossley and Myles think this belief in the imminent kingdom is the most probable core of the Jesus movement. But that also means, by its own metric, the movement ultimately failed. The “dictatorship of the peasantry,” i.e., the kingdom of God, never materialized as expected. Within this framework, Crossley and Myles present a reading of Christ’s death as a “ransom for many,” not in terms of the atonement theories that later developed but in terms of the movement’s messianic hopes that such a sacrifice would be the catalyst for bringing about the Kingdom of God.

Whatever we make of this historical insight, it is notable that this research uncovers more of the explicit political dimensions of Christ’s crucifixion, writing how the “most likely scenario” is that “Jesus was unceremoniously executed for being a deranged insurrectionist” (p. 228). Ransom, in this sense, means paying with one’s life in an illusion to money spent to free those in captivity. It was thus situated as an act to propel end-time expectations and the divine reversal of the kingdom.

Yet it is also interesting how Crossley and Myles note that historically speaking, it is very likely there were genuine experiences of a post-mortem appearance of Jesus. But this only acted as a sign to validate the belief that Jesus’ death would usher in the end times. Thus, the resurrection inaugurated the general resurrection of the kingdom. It was immediately expected that the new world would dawn here and now, that God would establish the kingdom on earth as it is in heaven. Of course, when that did not happen, the movement was left to re-interpret the meaning of the movement and of Jesus’ death.

The historical research presented in this book makes a compelling case that Jesus and his movement were deeply involved in class conflict from the beginning, that it was a politically charged movement with expectations of radical transformation in the here and now, and that we miss so much of the movement and its meaning by ignoring the social and material conditions of the time. In that regard, it offers a potent foundation for a re-discovery of the political Jesus, perhaps even of the revolutionary Jesus. The results of this research need not exclude the possibility of faith, of course, but faith also need not hinder or contradict the results of research. As such, the book is invaluable for understanding the background of Jesus and his movement according to the class conflicts and material conditions of the time in which he taught and lived.

I want to thank Zer0 Books for a review copy of this book. I was not obligated to offer a positive review and have presented my honest reflections here. 

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