People have been asking me for some time if my personal history is influencing my historical reconstruction of Jesus. This is a valid question on two levels. First, to what extent does a personal life or social situation influence one's reconstruction of history? How does who you are influence what you do? For example, I've been accused that because I've left the priesthood I am trying to destroy Christianity (although I don't find that hatred inside of me anywhere). Second, how has what you've done influenced who you are? After thirty years of scholarship, what, if anything, do I believe in? These two questions form a sort of prologue and epilogue, an interactive loop that was worth exploring.
Did you write this book more for yourself or for others?
In many ways, I wrote it more for myself, but in response to the questions of others. I wanted to know for myself what, if anything, in my life has influenced my work. I would say that I wrote the book for myself as a professional, as a responsible scholar responding to the questions and concerns of others.
If you had to choose one thing from your book you'd want readers to go away
with, what would it be?
I would want readers to be more interested in the historical Jesus than in the historical Crossan. I would prefer that they learn something about God and Jesus, about the gospels and earliest Christianity, about church and world, rather than about me. I would want readers to be interested in me only as a way of introducing them to all of those much more important facets of life.
You mention that your monastic education and training taught you that how
you think is more important than what you think. Do you see this as
influencing your work today?
Yes. I don't think my superiors intended to teach me that, but it was the result, and it eventually forced me to clash with them. They wanted me to think what they thought. And I wanted to think independently of that. If the monastery were a corporation divided into different departments, they would want everyone to fall under marketing and public relations. I wanted to be doing research and development. The only integrity of a scholar is to report what you find. If you don't you're an apologist.
I began to have trouble with my vow of obedience when it moved past what to do and where to go (no problem there) into what to think and what to say (big problem there). I need to use my mind to think and to say openly what I see. That is a scholar's only integrity. To be right or wrong is for others to decide. To be honest or dishonest is for oneself to decide. I set out originally to become a monk because of the adventure of monastic life, and I later found that same adventure in scholarly work. However, there was no adventure in being told what you are to say.
You mention several times in "A Long Way from Tipperary" that you didn't plan
out your life. You've ended up where you are, and the places you've been,
because it just happened that way. Do you consider your path to be God's
will for you? How much weight do you give to your individual decisions?
I'm not sure where the line is there. I don't know how much God tells us and how much we tell God. In my scholarly work, I know that I am changed because of the questions people raise. I see the changes in print. But with God it's different. How do you judge the interaction between human and divine will in any situation?
The major steps in my life, including falling in love, were not my own plan. Once they happened, I said yes to them and recognized their importance. I did not make them happen, but I accepted them when they did, Most, however, were not my original plan.
For example, I did not write "The Historical Jesus" for a popular audience. I did not expect anyone outside my academic colleagues to read it. However, in 1991, when Peter Steinfels, religion reporter for The New York Times, found that book interesting, he put it on the front page of the paper for Christmas. That changed everything and I accepted the challenge of becoming a public intellectual.
Do you feel as though part of your mission as a scholar is to be such a
Yes. I believe that my job as a scholar is to be public and to educate (not indoctrinate) as best I can. (Education is knowing all your options, indoctrination is only knowing another's command.) And I feel that our official scholarly biblical institutions should support the outside public forum equally with the insider academic study. Speaking to the modern public should be respected as much as translating ancient documents. But the respect is not evenly distributed.
Where do you most obviously see your past and present converge?
The sense of adventure . . . that life or study or research--especially research about God or religion--should be a magnificent adventure. If it ever stopped being that, I would reevaluate what I'm doing.
I became deeply aware of this sense of adventure as a point of continuity when I explored why I wanted to become a priest. After all, my father was a banker. Why didn't I become a banker? What excited me about my father is what he did apart from being a banker: his love of books and reading. The process of reconstruction is fascinating, as is the contents of the reconstruction itself. I get to learn about the adventure of Jesus' life. If it were boring, I'd stop.
In "A Long Way from Tipperary," you describe your many life transitions--from
priesthood to marriage, monastery to university, academic scholar to public
intellectual. Which has been the most difficult?
The most difficult has probably been the transition from my life as an academic scholar to public intellectual. I was very comfortable teaching undergraduates and doing research in an academic environment. It is difficult to go from having your work read only by your peers to having your work be read in public. And there are really no models for public religious intellectuals. Public religious figures, like Billy Graham, yes, of course. But not public religious intellectuals. That is new ground.
If you could quote just one passage from your book in conclusion, which one
would it be?
This, from page 200: "What happened [after the Render to Caesar incident in Mark 12:13-17] is only recorded by a fragmentary Irish gospel carved in runic characters on a weathered monolith in northern Donegal. Said Mary of Magdala: Did you notice, Jesus, that the emperor Tiberius was called Son of God on the front of that silver denarius? Jesus said nothing but only smiled gently. Peter of Capernaum immediately interrupted them as he always did whenever Mary and Jesus got into conversation. Said he: Did you notice, Jesus, that he was called "Supreme Pontiff" on the back? Once again Jesus said nothing but this time he started to laugh. He laughed and laughed and laughed. He was hardly able to stop. But he never told his companions what was so funny."