5 questions for New Testament scholar John Dominic Crossan

Jesus scholar John Dominic Crossan
Jesus scholar John Dominic Crossan Courtesy of Myers Park Baptist Church

John Dominic Crossan won headlines, esteem and condemnation as co-founder of the controversial Jesus Seminar – a group of New Testament scholars in the 1980s and ’90s that claimed Jesus didn’t say a lot of what was attributed to him in the Bible. Crossan, the author of more than 20 books, cast Jesus as a peasant nonviolent revolutionary who was executed by Rome.

This weekend, in a series of talks at Myers Park Baptist Church in Charlotte, Crossan will shift his focus to Jesus’ disciple Paul. This 1st-century evangelist converted Gentiles into believers in Jesus. And Paul’s New Testament letters, or epistles, are still widely quoted today – at weddings (“Love is patient, love is kind...”) and in culture war battles over same-sex marriage and the role of women at home and in church.

Crossan, now 81, is a former Catholic priest from Ireland who lives with his wife near Orlando. The Observer spoke with him by phone. Here’s some of what he said, edited for space and clarity:

Q. The theme of your weekend of talks is “Paul and the Justice of God: Is Paul an Appealing or Appalling Apostle?” What’s your answer?

A. Appealing. He has been badly misunderstood for a couple of reasons.

First of all, his language. People say: “Well, he invented Christianity. Jesus told little stories and patted babies on the head. Along comes Paul and he’s talking about ‘justification’ and ‘grace’ and ‘Son of God’ and ‘Lord’ and all this weird language.”

My answer to that is very simple: All the language that Paul uses is ordinary language from Roman imperial theology (in which even coins identified Caesar as Son of God). If you were living in a Roman city (then) and you heard Paul talking about the Son of God, Lord and all the rest of it, you’d know exactly what he was saying. You might not like it, but you’d know that he was saying that not Caesar, but Christ, is the Son of God, with all the implications.

Q. You have said that we really need Paul in the 21st century. Why?

A. Imperialism is back. Since the 1990s, it’s been said openly by politicians, especially on the right, that America is an imperialist nation and that we should accept our destiny, come out of the closet and just admit that we’re an empire and run it as well as the British did.

We need Paul because “Kingdom of God” from Jesus speaks equally against empire, but we’ve kind of domesticated that phrase. It takes Paul’s attack on Caesar in the name of Christ to make us rethink “What’s wrong with empires?”

Q. Do we have Paul to thank (or not thank) for the great division in the country over same-sex marriage? Many conservative Christians who oppose it quote Paul’s condemnation of homosexuality – the only real mention of it in the New Testament.

A. That’s not a misreading. In the 1st century, every Jewish author who mentions homosexuality or lesbianism in any way, shape or form says the same thing. They don’t just say it’s bad. They say it’s unnatural, against nature. That was basic synagogue teaching. Paul was just being a good Jew at that point.

My answer to that is that the ancient world judged sexual identity, sexual nature, in terms of organs and biology. Pretty simple thing: Do you have it or do you not have it? Most of us today judge sexual identity not by organs and biology, but by hormones and chemistry.

The basic jibe that Judaism made against paganism was two things: idolatry and homosexuality. So if you went to the synagogue, as Paul had done at Tarsus, you were told that “out there in this world all the pagans are into homosexuality. We aren’t.”

Q. What about comments regarding women that are attributed to Paul? They still rankle many who say much of Christianity wants to keep women in subservient roles in the home and in the church.

A. In (Paul’s First Letter to Timothy), it says that women should be silent, they’re not allowed to teach men – shut up and have babies.

But it was discovered a hundred years ago by comparing the various texts that six of the (13) letters of Paul (including First Timothy) were not written by Paul. They were written after Paul.

And what they’re saying (in many cases) is exactly the opposite to what Paul said. These are not simply polite continuations. These are contradictions, gutting Paul like a fish, as if someone created a letter from Martin Luther King saying “This nonviolent stuff doesn’t work. We can always take the gun.”

The purpose of the post-Pauline letters is to say, “OK, now all this radical stuff (in Paul’s earlier letters) that opposes Roman values of patriarchy, Roman values of slavery, Roman values of victory and imperialism – let’s cool it a bit on all that. Yes, you can have slaves, but you need to be kind to them. Yes, women must be subordinate to men, but men must love their wives.”

So it’s liberalism, not radicalism. Paul was a radical.

Q. In America today, both sides of the political spectrum try to claim Jesus as an ally. He’s quoted on signs at conservatives’ anti-abortion rallies and at liberals’ anti-poverty protests. How do you see Jesus in our 21st-century context?

A. Let me judge Jesus by the way Pilate looked at him. And I know how Pilate judged Jesus because he crucified him, but he didn’t round up his followers.

That tells me, from the point of view of this Roman governor, Jesus was a nonviolent revolutionary. If someone were a violent leader, you’d grab them all and have a whole row of crucifixions, all at the same time, to make your point. If you pick off a leader and crucify him alone, make an example of him, you’re telling people that he’s nonviolent but he’s not just a nuisance. He’s not just a philosopher with nice ideas because you boot those guys out of town. Romans did not crucify philosophers. You crucify activists.

The claim that the New Testament makes is that nonviolent resistance to violent injustice is not just a smart idea or a prudent idea. It’s the way God acts.

Want to go?

John Dominic Crossan will speak Friday night in the sanctuary (free), conduct a Saturday morning workshop ($45) and speak and give the worship service sermon Sunday morning (free) – all at Myers Park Baptist Church, 1900 Queens Road.

The schedule: 7 p.m. Friday (Oct. 16), lecture on “Rome and the World of Paul” and book signing; 9-11:30 a.m. Saturday (Oct. 17), workshop on “Luke and the Life of Paul” and “Justice and the God of Paul”; 9:45 a.m. Sunday (Oct. 18), forum on “Equality and the Legacy of Paul”; and 11 a.m. sermon in the sanctuary on “Justice and Love.”

To register and get more details: