Interview: John Dominic Crossan on Challenge of Jesus

In Part 1, we introduced John Dominic “Dom” Crossan’s ambitious new 16-week Bible study course, complete with full-color study book and illustrated lectures by the Bible scholar on DVD. You can find out more about this new multimedia curriculum at the website.

Today, we welcome the popular scholar and teacher back to ReadTheSpirit.


DAVID: Not too many years ago, guys like you and your colleague Marcus Borg were considered theological bomb throwers. Now, you two seem to be beloved guests in congregations nationwide. What changed? You guys—or American Christianity?

DOM: We haven’t changed in what we’re saying, but you are right. Now, we find ourselves welcomed in so many churches, as many invitations as we can accept. Actually, there are too many invitations to accept them all. I’ve been working as a scholar since 1970 and, for the first 20 years of my life, I was perfectly happy doing my research and writing my books for other scholars. Probably no normal human being ever read what I was writing back then. Then, around 1990, we all broke out into newspaper headlines with what we were saying about the historical Jesus. A lot of people were stirred up by the newspaper headlines and seemed quite upset.

DAVID: I think a lot of people misunderstood what you were saying.

DOM: There were a lot of people, back around 1990, who thought that we were trying to prove that the Bible was somehow a big deceit. People thought we were saying that Jesus probably didn’t say or do most of the things in the Bible. There was a lot of misunderstanding about what we were saying.

I do think that the terrain in many churches across the country has changed. People are much more receptive to the kind of research we do. I know that I haven’t changed what I’m doing or saying. What I have done all along is serious research. My standard always has been that I will never cheat on where I see history and faith meeting. I won’t make up history and I won’t deny faith just because people want to push these conclusions in one direction or another.

Acceptance from Networks to Congregations Nationwide

JOHN DOMINIC CROSSAN. An image from his video lectures on DVDs that are part of the new Challenge of Jesus.DAVID: As a journalist who has covered your work for 20 years, I think that’s a fair assessment of what has happened. People are more open to the conclusions you’ve reached these days. One sign of your widespread acceptance is the long list of network-TV documentaries in which you keep appearing, year after year.

DOM: Yes, I’ve been on PBS, Discovery, National Geographic, the History Channel and many others. The number of people who watch those channels must be huge, because I can’t walk through an airport anymore without being recognized. Someone will stop me and say, “You’re the Bible guy, aren’t you?”

DAVID: There are a lot of skeptical writers, these days, publishing books about Christianity and the Bible. Some very popular writers describe themselves either as atheist or agnostic. But, you still regard yourself as a Christian, don’t you?

DOM: Yes, and I can say that I know what the term means, if we are truly followers of Jesus. I describe myself as irrevocably Roman Catholic, which means that I love the community and the tradition.

DAVID: You’re somewhat distanced from the Catholic church, though.

DOM: Yes, I guess I’m in something like an exile. But actually most Sundays throughout the year, I’m in some church somewhere. Most of those Sundays, I’m preaching.

DAVID: What kinds of churches invite you most frequently?

DOM: I don’t see much of a pattern. Numerically, though, it’s most frequently Episcopal, United Methodist and United Church of Christ churches. But there’s really no group that doesn’t invite me. I’ve even been invited more than once to a Baptist seminary to discuss these issues. And, at the Baptist seminary, it wasn’t a debate. I wasn’t invited as an opponent. I was invited to seriously discuss Bible scholarship.

Why The New Challenge of Jesus Series is So Unusual

DAVID: We’re strongly urging readers to get these new multi-media materials you’ve produced and offer the full 16-week series of classes, using your book and videos. The main reason is: This is unique stuff. It’s really amazing. You go into great depth about the ancient world into which Jesus rose to worldwide prominence. Here’s a good example of why I’m calling this “unique:” You devote four weeks to helping us understand the dramatic rise of the Roman Empire and the nature of its Imperial Theology. I can’t imagine PBS or National Geographic producing a series about Jesus’ life—and spending that much time on the setting, before Jesus even shows up. You start talking about Jesus’ life in the fifth week.

DOM: The main principle I emphasize in the opening of this series is that we have to understand the matrix surrounding Jesus’ life. We have to understand what was happening in the Roman imperial world to understand the radical challenge Jesus represented.

DAVID: Most people probably associate the word matrix with science-fiction movies. Give us an example of why matrix is so important in understanding a major movement like early Christianity.

DOM: OK, here’s an example: Today, we can listen to a recording of a speech by Martin Luther King, talking about the inspirational power of his dreams. We may think: What a nice guy! What a great orator! How inspiring! But the civil rights movement was much larger than just Martin Luther King and one speech about his dreams. We can reduce it to that once a year in a short documentary honoring King, but the real story of civil rights is a much larger matrix of events and forces and people.

The same thing is true of Jesus. We can read the gospels and say: What a great guy! How inspiring! But what was happening around Jesus was so much larger. He represented a real challenge to the basic ideas on which Roman Imperial Theology rested.

The World of Jesus ‘Ain’t Background You Can Skip’

DAVID: You’re really blunt about this point in your new series. At one point, you actually tell viewers: Hey, when we’re talking about the world of Jesus—it ain’t background you can skip. Those are your words in the video: “It ain’t background you can skip!!!”

DOM: That’s right. Before Jesus ever existed, there was already a human being who was called God Incarnate and was given all of these titles that Christians later would use to describe Jesus. What Jesus and his early followers were doing was a direct challenge to Roman theology. Caesar, the divine conqueror, was saying that peace only comes through victory, through war. Jesus was saying that peace comes through a much different process.

DAVID: Before we publish highlights of this interview with you, we will publish a “Part 1 story” that summarizes this main point in your new series. You’re saying that Jesus wasn’t just a divine figure who came down here to save us from Hell and open the gates of Heaven. Jesus wasn’t calling this world evil and simply offering a ticket to Heaven. In fact, you’re saying, Jesus taught that this world is God’s world. You’re saying that Jesus saw this world as a good place where people can establish God’s kingdom.

DOM: Yes, that’s right. When Caesar Augustus was called Savior of the World, everyone knew what that meant. It meant that 20 years of savage, devastating Roman Civil War was over. Augustus had ended that. He brought peace, finally. When people began applying that same title to Jesus, they weren’t talking about Jesus simply taking everybody away into some other world. They were saying that Jesus was the Savior of this world. They were talking about Jesus bringing a time of peace here in this world.

If you believe in God’s creation, it’s blasphemous to say that God blew it and that this world is evil and that, in fact, this world is such a bad mistake that it should be called back to the factory. No, Jesus was talking about the transformation of this world. Pilate would not have had Jesus crucified if Jesus was talking about some other world. Pilate would have said: “Oh, you’re only talking about some other world. Well, no problem, then. We Romans are only interested in ruling this world, thank you.” That’s why it was so radical when the same titles used in Roman Imperial Theology got shifted to Jesus. Pilate understood that Jesus really was a threat to the Roman world view.

DAVID: The Romans were saying that the only way to peace was through war and victory. Jesus taught that through God’s plan of justice and compassion, peace could be achieved in a dramatically different way. That’s still a deeply stirring message of hope 2,000 years later.

DOM: Yes, Jesus’ challenge really was about the transformation of this world and this is not some secularism or humanism that I’m trying to push on people. This is based on the theology that this world belongs to God and it is good and can be transformed. That’s right out of the Bible. I don’t think the world ever will work by endlessly fighting wars in the hope that one more war somehow will bring peace. The problem is that, after each victory, the world gets more violent. In the Roman Empire, everyone thought Rome had brought a terrible new level of violence into the world. But, now, we have far more capacity for violence than Rome ever imagined.

‘This Biblical Stuff’ isn’t a dead issue

DAVID: You’re saying, in this new series, that this message is not some brand-new reinterpretation of Christianity. This is going way back to the original message of Jesus.

DOM: Yes, exactly. I am convinced that we have to radically change what we think of as Christian, Bible-based theology today. I’m convinced that this is not anything new. That’s why I call this re-olding the Christian faith. Christianity is about making this truly God’s world of justice and peace. What we’re talking about here is taking the Bible seriously. I don’t think that this biblical stuff is a dead issue. No, not at all. I believe it still can change the world.

Interested in The Challenge of Jesus?

Visit the website, where you also can see a video clip.

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Originally published at, an online journal covering religion and cultural diversity.

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