Crossan sets out a very carefully structured thesis in this book: parable is not only the main way in which each of the gospel writers tells us about the teaching of Jesus, it is also the way they present the whole story of Jesus. This is characterised by the Emmaus picture on the cover.
In Part I (Parables Told by Jesus), he distinguishes three different types: riddle parables, example parables and challenge parables. Riddles generally require explanation, examples should be relatively obvious, but challenge implies a message pointed at a particular group or community of people. All of these types exist in literature of the time (e.g. Jewish, Greek and Roman) as well as in the gospels. However whereas a given parable may appear in different gospels, the interpretation is often not the same, and the way it is presented may even suggest a different type (e.g. challenge rather than example).
In Part II (Parables Told about Jesus), each of the four gospels is analysed as a challenge parable, in which the message and story about Jesus is slanted in order to challenge or even attack a particular group. Thus Mark is challenging the Twelve in Jerusalem (c.70 CE), Matthew attacks Pharisaic Judaism, while Luke-Acts and John both attack Judaism and challenge Rome. This is where the subtitle reference to ‘fiction about Jesus’ comes to the fore.
Crossan does not attempt to sort out which bits are fiction and which might be fact. He shows that making parables out of history was already common in both Jewish and Roman contemporary culture, and gives suitable examples. In particular, the phrase ‘Son of God’ was not originally Christian but Roman, used to describe Augustus and other Roman Emperors, so its application to Jesus Christ was a deliberate challenge to Roman hegemony, however else it might be interpreted. In some ways we might view the gospels in a similar way to modern historical novels, in which the author attempts to fill in the story between reported facts and round out the characters involved. However both the enormous cultural gulf between the 1st and 21st centuries and the highly charged message of the gospels make this a somewhat limited comparison.
This is a closely argued and compelling book in which Crossan summons up impressive amounts of evidence. He goes to some lengths to make sure that the reader can follow where he is going, what has been established in each chapter and how this leads to the next one. As might be expected, it will be a challenge to anyone inclined to take a literalist view of the gospels. It should however be read by everyone who is even slightly curious about how the four gospels came to be written the way they are.