A Long Way from Tipperary: What a Former Irish Monk Discovered in His Search for the Truth
John Dominic Crossan
(San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 2000) 216 pp., $23.00 (hardback)
Dom Crossan is a nice guy—I know him—but he has some controversial things to say about Jesus and the New Testament stories about him. A prominent scholar in so-called historical Jesus studies—the effort to find the human Jesus as he lived at the turn of the era—Crossan believes Jesus was a kind of Jewish Cynic, a follower of an eastern variety of an important Greek philosophy. Cynics are often remembered for having had threadbare wardrobes and bare feet, but they were also sharply critical of misplaced values and human folly. This fits nicely with Crossan’s portrait of the historical Jesus as a radical Jewish peasant living under oppressive Roman rule who practiced nonviolence and was prepared for the martyrdom that would necessarily follow from his protests.
Critics often accuse Crossan of creating this portrait of Jesus from his own Irish roots and in consonance with his recent, somewhat radical, theology. Crossan looks into a deep well, his critics say, and sees his own face at the bottom. “You see Jesus as an exploited and oppressed first-century Jewish peasant because you are thinking about, sympathizing with, and projecting backward upon him and his companions the fate of nineteenth-century Irish peasants,” Crossan quotes his critics as saying. His new book is intended to explore that charge. It soon becomes his apologia pro vita sua.
It is true that Crossan’s views about Jesus as a Cynic have not been widely endorsed by the scholarly community. Perhaps for that reason, Jesus’ alleged Cynicism is not even referred to in this book. But Crossan’s portrait of Jesus is still penetrating and is certainly intriguing. There is much that mainstream historical Jesus scholarship can agree with—and even what it cannot accept, it can respect. What really gets Crossan into trouble is his blunt denial of the historical accuracy of much of the Gospels. Although his position here, too, is common among critical New Testament scholars, in Crossan’s case it has led to considerable public vituperation, at least in part because he has become what he calls a “public intellectual.”
Crossan was catapulted from relative scholarly obscurity to notoriety in 1991, when New York Times religion editor Peter Steinfels decided to review simultaneously two very different books about the historical Jesus, one by Crossan1 and the other by John Meier.2 Meier’s much more conservative book provided a foil for 026Crossan’s rather liberal treatment. In their wisdom, the editors of the Times decided to put Steinfels’s double review on the front page. And that was it.
It was not only Crossan’s critical judgments that fed the fire. He was also an ex-priest. He had married—not once, but twice (his first wife passed away after 14 years of marriage). And, as this book makes plain, his theology at times can be considered somewhat radical. Reconstructing the historical Jesus is, for him, “a way of doing necessary open-heart surgery on Christianity itself.” “The mode of authority, the style of leadership, the primacy of obedience demanded by the Roman Catholic hierarchy is a crime,” he writes, “if not against humanity, then at least against divinity.” “God is more radical than we can ever imagine.”
As might be expected, Crossan believes he has often been misrepresented in the press (and by scholars, as well). Not surprisingly, the press has focused on the seemingly heretical views of this ex-priest. They also want to know why he left the priesthood. Was sex involved? So he undertakes here to set the record straight, with admirable honesty—but nevertheless somewhat obscurely in places.
He often wonders, as he recites one episode after another in his personal history, whether his background affected his views. But rarely does he explicitly conclude that it did in any specific way. Nonetheless, he recognizes that the charge “has a valid core,” not only for him, but for all researchers.
Crossan does not deny his negative views pertaining to the historicity of the gospel stories, but he says that’s only a part of his interpretation. The rest is absolutely necessary in order to understand his position.
He protests a story in the Chicago Tribune that summarized his views as follows: “Jesus was a mortal man in the fullest sense of the term. He was conceived and born in the conventional way (no Virgin Birth), did not perform miracles (no Lazarus, no loaves and fishes, no lepers), did not undergo resurrection (no Easter) and after his execution, was probably eaten by wild dogs (no joke).”
Crossan does like to be provocative—for example, with the “wild dog” bit. Or when, in the book under review, Crossan recounts how the Roman governor Quintilius Varus burned Sepphoris (3.5 miles from 028Nazareth) and enslaved its inhabitants: “How many women in and around Sepphoris were raped by those legionary troops?…I do not ask if Mary was raped, but was any woman not?”
But was the Chicago Tribune’s description of his views accurate? Crossan admits there was “no mistake in that.” His complaint is that the newspaper report had “no sense of parable.” It told only one side of the story: In short, it was incomplete. “To say that a story is not history may be accurate, but it is also not enough. You have to ask, first, if it was intended as fact or fiction and, if as fiction, what its purpose was—was it a pure entertainment or a teaching device?”
Crossan makes an important distinction between history and parable. In his own words, parable is “a fictional story with a theological punch, a story created precisely for that theological or, better, religio-political punch.” Yet he bridles at the idea that it is fiction. He draws a distinction between a story that is nonhistorical and something that is untrue. A parable may not be historical, but may nevertheless be true. He speaks of something that is “metaphorically true.” “Much in the Gospels,” Crossan tells us, “was intended to be taken parabolically and symbolically rather than factually and historically.”
He doesn’t flinch at the historical question, however. Indeed, one of the “abiding concerns” of his lifetime of research has been “to establish simple historical accuracy.” “History matters.” But that is not the only concern. In the end, whether or not it happened is not important to his faith. He left the priesthood, but he did not leave the church—nor did he stop loving it.
Slowly, he moves into theology: Denouncing the historical accuracy of the gospel accounts becomes for him an “ethical imperative.” It is important that Christians “not claim our story is fact and true, theirs is myth and lie, if both are powerful and particular parables. For centuries, we Christians have declared our Jesus story is history in a way unique for all the world. Our Jesus did, in an actual, factual, historical sense, such things as no one else has ever done or ever will do. It is not just a perfectly valid case of faith expressing itself by parable, in Christianity as in any other religion; it is that all others have parable (or myth), and we alone have history. It is necessary, once again, to call things by their proper name, and to apologize not for two thousand years of legitimate particularity, but for two thousand years of illegitimate superiority.”
How did Crossan arrive at this point? Born John Michael Edmund Crossan in 1934 in County Kildare, Ireland, Crossan became a priest not from any excess of piety, but simply because it sounded adventuresome, especially studying abroad (see sidebar to this article). “What impressed me was that monastic life meant challenge, that foreign mission meant adventure.” He tells his story well—how he became a monk (and took the name Dominic), then a priest, and finally a Bible scholar. For some, there may be a lesson in this. Becoming a Bible scholar changed his life—whether for the better or worse depends on your viewpoint, but that is what happened. He was not bothered by the poverty vow, or even the vow of chastity. (He seems to interpret the latter as celibacy and implies that a little sex was OK—“The vow of chastity is not about chastity, but about celibacy.” “It was already quite clear by the late 1960s 050that heterosexuality (that’s all I knew about) was quite available, even or especially while one remained a monastic priest.”) It was the vow of obedience that finally got to him. And the obedience was related to the Bible. Otherwise, he loved the monastic life.
The Second Vatican Council in the early 1960s brought new life to critical Catholic biblical scholarship. For Crossan, “it was bliss in that dawn to be alive.” Yet “bliss for some was shock for others, and that created tensions,” inevitably leading to Crossan’s “dispensation” to leave the priesthood, a trauma not unlike divorce.
That, too, however, is not the whole story. At the same time the church was becoming more liberal with respect to acceptable biblical scholarship, things like ecclesial obedience “came under debate, [as] did clerical and even monastic celibacy.” For Crossan, that meant “deliberate experimentation with female friendships and sexual relationships.” And of course he fell in love.
Journalists often ask him why he left the priesthood, and he admits to telling them it was to get married. But that’s not the whole truth. He says that even if he could have married and remained a priest, he would have left. He never minded “obedience in terms of where to go and what to do.” In the end what he could not stomach was “obedience in terms of how to think and what to say.” “The only integrity that scholars have is to say honestly what they have learned and to say clearly what they have discovered.” For him, this led to “a conflict of interest” that he “could no longer endure.” The papal Imprimatur “has no place on the front pages of a research investigation or a historical study,” he says. And in the church hierarchy he finds “a structural abuse of power.”
Crossan suggests that “for the future of the church I love” a Third Vatican Council should be convened in which the Pope and all the bishops present themselves “in a solemn public ceremony in St. Peter’s Basilica [and] implore God to take back the gift of infallibility and grant them instead the gift of accuracy.”
When John Dominic Crossan found that much of the Gospels was parable rather than history, he had to say so, and that caused problems. Yet in some paradoxical way, he still loves the church that raised him and he cannot leave it. This is his cri de coeur.
A Long Way from Tipperary: What a Former Irish Monk Discovered in His Search for the TruthA Memoir John Dominic Crossan (San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 2000) 216 pp., $23.00 (hardback) Dom Crossan is a nice guy—I know him—but he has some controversial things to say about Jesus and the New Testament stories about him. A prominent scholar in so-called historical Jesus studies—the effort to find the human Jesus as he lived at the turn of the era—Crossan believes Jesus was a kind of Jewish Cynic, a follower of an eastern variety of an important Greek philosophy. Cynics are often […]