Paul for the People: John Dominic Crossan Imagines a “Letter to the Americans” In His New Video Series

John Dominic Crossan made his reputation as a New Testament scholar and expositor, doing prodigious amounts of original research and attracting attention (and controversy) in the most rarefied circles. But convinced that biblical study is not worth much if it can’t be shared with the people in the pews, Crossan has most recently been creating video packages for group study in churches, seminaries, and university classes.

Crossan follows 201o’s “The Challenge of Jesus” with the newly released “The Challenge of Paul,” available free of charge to up to 1,000 congregations, colleges, or seminaries.

Intrigued by the idea of bringing high-end critical pedagogy to the people, I asked Crossan how his passion for biblical studies led him to want to engage with laypeople – and what that experience has been like.


Peter Laarman: You are doing these elaborate video projects with the Dykes Foundation.  What’s that been like, and have you ever felt you need to oversimplify when you are working with laypeople who are completely new to this kind of material?

John Dominic Crossan: From about 1970 to 1990 I was writing primarily, if not exclusively, for a scholarly audience up to and including The Historical Jesus: The Life of a Mediterranean Jewish Peasant (1991). After Peter Steinfels referenced my book on the front page of the New York Times, I began to accept invitations to speak at churches. Because of the demands of such weekend visits, which usually included as many as four lectures plus preaching on Sunday, in 1995 I took early retirement from DePaul University. It was just not possible to do my own research, publish my books, continue to teach undergraduates, and also speak to church groups on the weekends.

I began to write, lecture, and (more recently) develop videos primarily for an audience of people who already feel that traditional Christianity, or at least what they thought was traditional, has become inadequate and unbelievable.

I have found the experience to be exhilarating and very valuable, although it was something that simply happened to me without my having plotted and planned it. Today I would go so far as to say that scholarly research on the Bible is inadequate or irrelevant if at least some of the scholars do not communicate their insights to laypeople who are eager to think and who are aware that baptism is not the same as lobotomy.

It’s important to stress that I have never felt it necessary to water down my scholarship in dealing with a lay audience. Faced with the task of delivering the gist of a book that it took me two to three years to write in just two or three lectures, I had to think very clearly about the most important points and present them as effectively as possible. When you have just three hours to present the essence of a book, that time constraint becomes a marvelous discipline for clarifying what must be said and also what need not be said so that the major points stand firm and clear.

The “Challenge of Paul” material I have reviewed is compellingly watchable. That is partly due to your charm as a teacher, but the images you use to back up your points are also completely arresting. How does it all get put together?  It looks like a complicated production process.  

Preparing The Challenge of Jesus and, now, The Challenge of Paul has been the most difficult and the most rewarding work I have ever done. I feel privileged to be able to do it in partnership with David and Deborah Dykes. David is an incredibly capable producer—a real perfectionist.

Creating green-screen videos is far, far harder than writing a book or giving a lecture. When I lecture I never read from a prepared script unless, of course, to quote a biblical passage. I usually have a prepared script, but speak from an outline in my mind. That allows me to interact more compellingly with the audience. But in the case of these videos I could not work from an outline in my mind, but the sequence of images in my mind. I had to figure out what I wanted to say, and say it by means of a series of images I had already obtained through my extensive travels in Greece and Turkey “in the footsteps of Paul”—visits I have been making annually since 2000.

This meant that I had to prepare an outline, point by point, of what I was going to say and append to it a list of images correlated with each point. Then I would speak in front of a green screen, knowing the production team would drop in the proper images at the proper time. Not that it was a wooden or mechanical process for them. They could handle the images creatively, add other images of their own, and generally make the interaction of voice and image dance happily together.

A further difficulty is that it is much easier to talk to an audience than it is to talk to a camera (e.g., cameras don’t laugh at my jokes). The videos were prepared in a studio and the only “audience” was the Dykes Foundation team. I had to ignore them and speak above their heads to the camera.

There is also a fatigue factor. Due to the expense of hiring a professional studio, we rolled up our sleeves and did all of The Challenge of Paul in four extended takes on a single very long day.

It’s exhausting work, it’s painstaking, but the end result makes it all worthwhile. I know from 26 years of teaching undergraduates that getting them all to read the assignments is extremely difficult. The same with book discussion groups in churches: as time proceeds, less and less gets read. The advantage of a short but rich video is that all can watch it together, can re-run it if there is debate about the content, and can then discuss together what was seen by all.

Paul is such a commanding figure, often considered the de facto “founder” of Christianity through the influence of his letters. What misconceptions about him do you feel it’s important to clear up? How did the revolutionary Paul get domesticated, so to speak?  And should we still hold him responsible for the joylessness and the relentless focus on depravity that is so often associated with Pauline theology? 

The primary misconception of Paul is that he was the founder or inventor of Christianity. That is a thought that would horrify Paul, as if all his emphasis on Christ was something like a cover-up for what he was actually doing.

What happened historically is that Messianic Judaism (because that’s what Christianity was at the time of its inception) started in the small hamlets of Galilee. Had it stayed there, it would have been destroyed completely in the Roman war of 66 to 74. By then, however, it had long broken out from Galilee, going first to Jerusalem.

When Paul arrived on the scene, he went to Jerusalem. As a pilgrimage city, Jerusalem would allow this new form of Messianic Judaism to begin to move out along the pilgrim networks.

The crucial decision facing Messianic Judaism concerned whether Gentile converts could become full members of the Messianic community without undergoing circumcision. Paul was part of that decision, but so were Peter and James, as we know from Galatians 1. That process would have happened if Paul had never existed. What Paul added to it was his decision to focus on the major capitals of the eastern Roman provinces and then, after twenty years, to try and move westward to Spain. Paul’s project was to get Messianic Jewish cells going in the capitals, from whence they could expand to the other cities and eventually the countryside. The other major achievement of Paul was to write and to leave behind him letters that slowly but surely formed the theology of Messianic Judaism.

As for revolutionary impact: embedded within Messianic-Christian Judaism is a significant level of disruptive social, political, and economic content. You can see some of that in the baptismal details given in Galatians 3:26-29. Claims of full equality between female and male or between master and slave (a Christian master could not have a Christian slave) were socially explosive. Thus it is not surprising, if also very saddening, to see how soon such visions of equality were de-radicalized back to Roman normalcy. In Colossians and Ephesians this de-radicalization is already fully evident.

In regard to the anti-sexual dimension, I view Paul himself as a programmatic celibate. I suspect that he was already one as a Pharisaic Jew (like other Jewish celibates in Egypt and Qumran) before he ever became a Messianic/Christian Jew. Bad theology can interpret celibacy to mean that sex is evil (but, of course, if it is evil or depraved, what virtue is there in abstaining from it?).

Paul intended his celibacy to offer personal witness that what civilization treats as “normal” (sex, marriage, children) is not an inevitability of human nature. In other words, if it is possible to abstain from sex, might it not also be possible to abstain from violence? Celibacy (or monastic silence, poverty, obedience) is a witness that the world that God so loved is not necessarily to be equated with the world that we so love.

Empire and the presence of imperial values within Western Christianity is a central theme of both “The Challenge of Jesus” and now “The Challenge of Paul.” But is it conceivable for religion in our time to carry a counter-imperial valence? Another way to ask this: Can you envision a time when more than a relatively small number of Christians will actively challenge and oppose the imperial project? Or is not so much a matter of numbers as it is of intensity?

At this point we have to take with equal seriousness both human evolution and the core of the biblical tradition—or either one separately, as I take the same message away from each.

For Jesus and Paul, it is never just about being against Rome. As you can see from Daniel 7, the alternative to imperialism—to the dreary succession of empires—is something the biblical writers call the Reign of God. What is mainly at issue is violence.

If you look at human evolution since our species surged out of Africa 70,000 years ago and announced its distinctiveness with the Neolithic/agricultural revolution, we have never created a weapon we did not use nor one less violent than the one it replaced. Looking at that trajectory, its mantra of “peace through victory” and its vain hope to control violence by more extreme violence, what future do we imagine for such a species?

I want to begin with that question because, without it, the biblical mantra of “peace through justice”—the claim that all should get a fair share of what belongs to us all—comes across as romantic at best and delusional at worst. What I am interested in is the point at which the biblical claim and human evolution intersect: the point where we might break through to a different way.

I do not know how many awakened people are needed to change this trajectory of escalatory violence (the default “normalcy” of civilization) or what we may have to go through if we are ever to attain it at all. I will simply say this, and I think Paul might agree with it: if you are not interested in biblical religion, then at least get interested in human evolution (Paul would call it “creation”).

Put simply, the effective counter to all imperialisms with their wars and violence will come not just from what you call the “counter-imperial valence” of good religion but from the force of human evolution itself. It is not just the moral arc but also the evolutionary arc of the universe that is long but bends towards justice.

President Trump continues to rely on the support of a hard core of mainly white evangelical leaders. They are a key part of his base; he even previewed his tax cutting blueprint while hosting a bunch of them for dinner at the White House. If Paul were active today, what message do you think he would want to send to this group?

In the prologue to the new video series I imagine Paul writing a letter called To the Americans and written in the same blunt style he used to address so many communities across the eastern Roman Empire. It’s worth speculating about what he might say.

He might, for example, ask us about our Pledge of Allegiance and admire the fact that we proclaim liberty and justice for all under God. He might note that this is exactly what he has been talking about from one end of the Mediterranean to the other. But he would tell us not to worry too much about that phrase “under God,” because if we use our freedom to establish justice for all we will be living under God whether we know it or not or acknowledge it or not.

Paul would also be fascinated by our Declaration of Independence and its claims that all are created equal with such God-given-from-Creation rights such as life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. He would note with approval how the Declaration speaks to the whole world.

Then no doubt, he would ask us whether we living up to what we proclaim. He might even get a little testy with us, as he did with Peter in Antioch (Galatians 2), and call us out as hypocrites for proclaiming such a magnificent identity but not living up to it, not even to the basic minimum that might be expected.

He might well wonder, if he were writing today, whether, instead of moving more and more toward fidelity to our declared identity, we are moving more and more away from it. But, being Paul, he would probably end up by being hopeful because he always ends his letters on a note of hope, even when writing to the most difficult and intransigent communities.