John Dominic Crossan was a teenager in Ireland, when he dreamed of becoming a missionary priest. Jesus was extraordinary because of how he lived, not died, states Crossan, one of the world’s top scholars on the “historical Jesus,” a field in which academics use historical evidence to reconstruct Jesus in his first-century setting. Crossan states he never planned to be a Jesus scholar but was drafted to play that role by the Roman Catholic Church
Crossan believes the public should be exposed to even the most divisive debates that scholars have had about Jesus and the Bible. He co-founded the Jesus Seminar, a controversial group of scholars who hold public forums that cast doubt on the authenticity of many sayings and deeds attributed to Jesus.
The 77-year-old Crossan has built on the seminar’s mission by writing a series of best-selling books on Jesus and the Apostle Paul. With his silver Prince Valiant haircut and his pronounced Irish accent, he’s also appeared on documentaries such as PBS’s “From Jesus to Christ: The First Christians” and A&E’s “Mysteries of the Bible.”
Crossan states Jesus was an exploited “peasant with an attitude” who didn’t perform many miracles, physically rise from the dead or die as punishment for humanity’s sins. “I cannot imagine a more miraculous life than nonviolent resistance to violence,” Crossan states. His best-selling books, including the recent “Jesus: A Revolutionary Biography,” have changed how biblical scholars operate. Crossan’s overarching message is that you don’t have to accept the Jesus of dogma. There’s another Jesus hidden in Scripture and history who has been ignored.
Crossan states his father, a banker, and his mother, a housewife, didn’t push religion on him. He was raised in a traditional Irish Catholic church where faith was “undiscussed, uninvestigated and uncriticized.” “I didn’t grow up in an atmosphere where the Bible was stuffed down my throat.” He grew up in a small town in Ireland reading adventure stories like “20,000 Leagues under The Sea” and reciting poetry with his father on long walks. He wanted adventure and travel. The missionary priests who visited his boyhood school with stories of mission trips to Africa seemed to offer both. Crossan immersed himself in the world of the Bible for the rest of his adult life. When he entered a monastery at 16, church leaders told him they wanted him to be a scholar because he had already taken five years of Latin and Greek.
He became a priestly prodigy: ordained by 23; a doctorate at 25. He studied in Rome and Jerusalem, and eventually became a New Testament scholar who became known as an authority on the parables of Jesus. (Crossan saw them as subversive literary gems.) His days as a priest would end, though, because of the same forces that shaped the rest of his career: the clash between church dogma and scholarly truth.
Crossan states it was “bliss” being a priest and scholar in the mid-1960s because the Roman Catholic Church had instituted a series of modernizing reforms. But conservative church leaders fought those reforms, and Crossan says they pressured him to steer his research toward conclusions that reinforced church doctrine. He left the priesthood in 1969 after he angered church leaders by publicly questioning the church’s ban on birth control. He married, and settled into a career of teaching and writing books that were read primarily by other scholars.
Later, however, Crossan would anger church leaders again. Crossan is also reviled in a way that few scholars are. Some critics say he’s trying to debunk Christianity. In 1985, Robert Funk, a New Testament scholar, asked Crossan to join him on a risky mission: Expose the public to academic debates about the historical Jesus. The seminar was Crossan’s first wide exposure to the public. The media gravitated to him because he was a scholar who didn’t talk like a scholar.
He became known for his sound bites inspired, he states, by Jesus’ use of parables to distill complex truths in pithy but provocative sayings. Explaining why America’s reliance on military might was similar to Rome’s. “There’s good news and bad news from the historical Jesus. The good news: God says Caesar sucks. The bad news: God says Caesar is us.”
Crossan’s public profile rose another notch in 1991 when The New York Times ran a front-page story two days before Christmas on his book, “The Historical Jesus: The Life of a Mediterranean Jewish Peasant.” The book became a bestseller, and Crossan followed up with more. He says people were anxious to embrace a faith with “brains and heart,” and learn the history behind the text, not just its wording.
Crossan states that he’s “trying to understand the stories of Jesus, not refute them.” Consider his understanding of the resurrection. Jesus didn’t bodily rise from the dead, he states. The first Christians told Jesus’ resurrection story as a parable, not as a fact. “Crucifixion meant that imperial power had won,” Crossan states. “Resurrection meant that divine justice had won. God is on the side of the crucified one. Rome’s’ values are a dead issue to me.”
Most were parables, too, Crossan states. But there were some exceptions. “I’m completely convinced that Jesus was a major healer. I don’t think anybody would talk about Jesus if all he did was talk.” People like to talk about Scripture, but Christians should also know history to understand Jesus, Crossan stated.
In Jesus’ time, Rome was forcing many Jewish families into destitution, with high taxes and land seizures. Some Jews advocated violent rebellion, but others opted for non-violent resistance. Jesus called for nonviolent resistance to Rome and just distribution of land and food. He was crucified because he threatened Roman stability, not as a sacrifice to God for humanity’s sins, Crossan states.
If you believe in a God that uses violence to “save” humanity, you’ll start believing that violence is permissible in certain circumstances, such as suicide bombing or invading other countries to spread democracy. The human addiction to violence, though, is so ingrained that even the authors of the New Testament had trouble accepting Jesus’ nonviolence, Crossan states. So they did a little editing.
Crossan’s proof: Jesus preaches nonviolence at the beginning of the New Testament. By the book of Revelation, he’s leading armies through heaven to kill evildoers. “Christianity both admits and subverts the historical Jesus,” Crossan states.
Crossan claims growing up Irish “makes you skeptical about empire.” But he says he came of age in the first generation after Irish independence when hatred of the British was not pervasive. Crossan once wrote in his memoir that he learned two things from Irish history: “One, the British did terrible things to the Irish. Two, the Irish, had they the power, would have done equally terrible things to the British (they did it to one another with the British gone).”
After spending much of his life in the Roman Catholic Church, Crossan is now an outsider. Crossan has also broken with church tradition by marrying. He married Margaret Dagenais, a university art professor, soon after leaving the priesthood in 1969. She died of a heart attack in 1983. Today, his current wife, Sarah, is a yoga teacher and photographer. She’s also his partner in travel. Crossan wanted to see the world as a boy. Now he sees it as a man. The two often travel to holy sites, where she takes photos that Crossan later uses in church presentations.
Crossan is not worried that his work will shatter people’s faith in Jesus. The closer one gets to the historical Jesus, Crossan states, the more extraordinary Jesus becomes. “A lot of people in the first century thought Jesus was saying something so important that they were willing to die for it. If people finish with my books and now see why Pilate executed him and why people died for him, then I’ve done my job.”