"He comes as yet unknown into a hamlet of Lower Galilee. He is watched by the cold, hard eyes of peasants living long enough at a subsistence level to know exactly where the line is drawn between poverty and destitution. He looks like a beggar yet his eyes lack the proper cringe, his voice the proper whine, his walk the proper shuffle. He speaks about the rule of God and they listen as much from curiosity as anything else. They know all about rule and power, about kingdom and empire, but they know it in terms of tax and debt, malnutrition and sickness, agrarian oppression and demonic possession. What, they really want to know, can this kingdom of God do for a lame child, a blind parent, a demented soul screaming its tortured isolation among the graves that mark the edges of the village?" -- from "The Gospel of Jesus," overture to The Historical Jesus The Historical Jesus reveals the true Jesus--who he was, what he did, what he said. It opens with "The Gospel of Jesus," Crossan's studied determination of Jesus' actual words and actions stripped of any subsequent additions and placed in a capsule account of his life story. The Jesus who emerges is a savvy and courageous Jewish Mediterranean peasant, a radical social revolutionary, with a rhapsodic vision of economic, political, and religious egalitarianism and a social program for creating it. The conventional wisdom of critical historical scholarship has long held that too little is known about the historical Jesus to say definitively much more than that he lived and had a tremendous impact on his followers. "There were always historians who said it could not be done because of historical problems," writes Crossan. "There were always theologians who said it should not be done because of theological objections. And there were always scholars who said the former when they meant the latter.' With this ground-breaking work, John Dominic Crossan emphatically sweeps these notions aside. He demonstrates that Jesus is actually one of the best documented figures in ancient history; the challenge is the complexity of the sources. The vivid portrayal of Jesus that emerges from Crossan's unique methodology combines the complementary disciplines of social anthropology, Greco-Roman history, and the literary analysis of specific pronouncements, anecdotes, confessions and interpretations involving Jesus. All three levels cooperate equally and fully in an effective synthesis that provides the most definitive presentation of the historical Jesus yet attained.
Especially noteworthy is his approach to the documentary evidence of Jesus' words and deeds. He draws upon 200 years of New Testament exegesis and Christian Biblical studies to create "An Inventory of the Jesus Tradition by Chronological Stratification and Independent Attestation." I was probably more excited by this Appendix than by most of the book. The first stratum (30-60 C.E.) contains: several Pauline epistles; non-canonical gospels and fragments, including the Gospel of Thomas, and the Gospel of the Hebrews; and finally sources now embedded in the canonical Gospels, including the Sayings Gospel Q, the Miracles Collection and the Cross Gospel. The Gospel of Mark, which I had always considered one of the oldest sources, falls into the second stratum (60-80 C.E.), and Matthew, Luke, and John fall in the third stratum (80-120 C.E.) (along with many other documents/fragments in these strata). He then creates a hierarchy of sayings and stories based on the strata and the level of independent attestation. The lower the stratum (i.e. the closer in time to Jesus) and the greater the number of independent sources, the greater the weight/probability that Crossan assigns to that tradition.
Armed with all of these powerful tools, Crossan reaches the following conclusion about the original Jesus of history: Jesus was a "peasant Jewish Cynic." He preached and practiced radical egalitarianism symbolized by an open table at which the despised and outcast (including women) were welcome, and where he, though teacher and healer, was also a lowly servant. At some point he left rural Galilee for Jerusalem, and after creating a disturbance at the temple, was promptly crucified. The passion and resurrection stories were slowly built up from scriptural exegesis as scribal followers tried to make sense of what had happened to their master.
The Historical Jesus is heavy reading on multiple levels (regarding both faith and scholarship). If you haven't read anything yet on the historical study of Jesus, I highly recommend the approachable (and much, much shorter) Jesus: A Revolutionary Biography, which is a popularized and condensed version of The Historical Jesus.
But The Historical Jesus is much more than just those ideas. Crossan examines the Palestinian climate, tossing in influences of Jewish culture and Greco-Roman culture, a hundred years on either side of Jesus. This is a vast and detailed scope of history, but it kind of overwhelms the first half of the book. Crossan spends a lot of time with Josephus, for example - good for examining the Jewish-Roman War, but only tangential to the historical Jesus. Once Crossan hits his stride with the Gospels, however, it's a great and thorough examination of how Jesus related to his culture and religion.
For a briefer, more concentrated work by Crossan about Jesus, people unfamiliar with his work/historical Jesus studies might be better off with Jesus: A Revolutionary Biography. The Historical Jesus almost functions best as a reference book; there's a lot going on here, and I know that I'm going to come back to it often because it has a lot to offer, but it's not the most approachable book on the subject.