Scholar brings controversial observations to local events

John Dominic Crossan, professor emeritus of religious studies at DePaul University, has been called bold and brilliant. He’s also been called a heretic and a fool.

The New Testament scholar’s views of the Gospels once seemed radical, and still are to many. He’s said there was no virgin birth, that most of Jesus’ miracles were actually parables, and that there was no resurrection. However, Crossan says invitations to speak at churches and universities have increased in recent years.

Next week he’ll visit Gonzaga University and St. Pius X Catholic Church in Coeur d’Alene to speak to students and the community about the Apostle Paul and the Early Church.

“When I started in the early ’90s I think it was fair to say I was way out on the left wing,” he said. “I think now I’m closer to the mainstream. Things have shifted, and are shifting.”

Crossan was a Catholic priest from 1957 to 1969, when he joined DePaul University. His work began causing a stir in 1991 when he wrote “ The Historical Jesus: The Life of a Mediterranean Jewish Peasant” and began speaking about his views as part of  the Jesus Seminar.

“What I was saying wasn’t anything new. Scholars always knew it, they just didn’t tell it to anyone. They wrote it in a language no one could understand,” Crossan said.

He’s written 27 books on Jesus, Paul and early Christianity and said he doesn’t intend to be provocative, he just wants to urge people to ask questions.

“The presumption that you can pick up a 2,000-year-old text that happens to be in English and know what it’s talking about is silly,” he said. “You have to do your homework. You have to prod it with questions.”

He said understanding Scripture means understanding both Judaism and the Roman Empire, which is partly what he’ll be speaking about during his visit.

People also need to know they have choices, he said. If people only learn one thing, they’re indoctrinated, not educated, he said.

He’ll be speaking at Gonzaga at 7:30 p.m. Thursday. His lecture, “ ‘Paul’ An Appealing or Appalling Apostle?” will be in Cataldo Hall.

Linda Schearing, chairwoman of the religious studies department at Gonzaga, said his presentation will be appealing to anyone interested in the Bible or ancient history and archeology, adding that his visit is an exciting opportunity for students.

“Being exposed to a scholar of Crossan’s stature is, for me, what a university is all about,” she said. “Students get the chance to listen to a variety of speakers on a range of issues that contribute to their education.  If they take a course in New Testament, for example, there is a good chance they will hear about Crossan and his ideas (even if only in a footnote). Being able to listen to a prominent scholar in person is a valuable experience for a student and can provide a stimulus for further research and discussion on the presenter’s topic.”

She noted that although the School of Business and the religious studies department are hosting Crossan, it doesn’t mean the institution endorses him.

“As a biblical scholar, I can say that I rarely hear any colleague with whom I agree on all things. That doesn’t mean that listening is pointless – especially when that person has been a foundational influence in an academic discipline,” she said.

On Friday, Crossan will be speaking at St. Pius X, 625 E. Haycraft Ave. At 10 a.m he’ll present “Jewish/Covenantal Roots of Christianity.” At 1:30 p.m. will be a “Presentation of the Parables,” and at 7 p.m. he’ll discuss “Influence of Paul on the Early Church and Today.”

“Crossan is very controversial, but I think people are very thankful we asked him to come,” said the Rev. Roger LaChance of St. Pius X. “People are just very virulent against him, but you need to read him. What he does is ask questions, which is a challenge to most of us.”

LaChance had been studying Crossan’s books for years with his friend Art Collins. Together the pair asked Gonzaga to join them in extending an invitation to Crossan to come speak.

“We’re not trying to endorse him, we’re saying that he raises real issues that aren’t being raised, that aren’t part of faith discussions,” Collins said.

On Monday at 7 p.m. St. Pius X will host an informational event about Crossan, so those unfamiliar with his work can learn about his writings.