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John Dominic Crossan
By:  Erick Nelson
Last Updated:  Monday December 03, 2007

   John Dominic Crossan

John Dominic Crossan is Professor Emeritus of Biblical Studies at DePaul University in Chicago. Crossan is co-chair of the Jesus Seminar, and, according to his publisher, Harper Collins books, is considered "the preeminent expert on the historical Jesus."

Summary of his View

The first thing I want to say about John Dominic Crossan is that he is undoubtedly one of the top New Testament scholars in the world, and is considered by his peers to be absolutely brilliant.  He is an original.  

It is also clear that his view is much more complex than Borg's and Spong's.  His New Testament work is his own, from scratch, while Borg and Spong build upon the foundation of others. 

It is a pity (for me, at least) that I have so far been unable to correspond with Crossan.  I include him, nevertheless, because he is a proponent of the essentials of the 'Metaphorical Gospel' theory.

His most important points are:

Of course, Dr. Crossan's complete view of the New Testament is considerably more complicated and comprehensive than these few bullet points - but these are the points that are especially relevant to our discussion.

Metaphorical Gospel

Where do you go to find a scholar's point of view? - to his autobiography!  Crossan has two - a web bio and a full-length book.  The Westar Institute web autobiography "Almost the Whole Truth - an Odyssey", he is clear enough:

"The last chapters of the gospels and the first chapters of Acts taken literally, factually, and historically trivialize Christianity and brutalize Judaism.  That acceptation has created in Christianity a lethal deceit that sours its soul, hardens its heart, and savages its spirit.  Although the basis of all religion and, indeed, of all human life is mythological, based on acts of fundamental faith incapable of proof or disproof, Christianity often asserts that its faith is based on fact not interpretation, history not myth, actual event not supreme fiction.  And because I am myself a Christian, I have a responsibility to do something about it."


Crossan's fuller (book-length) autiobiography is called A Long Way from Tipperary, a candid and revealing account of his life and development - all too brief - it becomes clear that Crossan passionately believes that (many of) the gospel accounts were not intended literally, but rather metaphorically. 

It was interesting to note that, as a boy raised in the Catholic church, he learned about Jesus not from the New Testament or from scholarly treatises, but from the songs, chants, liturgies, and prayers of church life.  In his experience, these stories were not presented either as literal nor as figurative - the issue as such simply did not exist.

"They were not called stories but mysteries, and although they were distinguished as, respectively, the Joyful, the Sorrowful, and the Glorious Mysteries, any one was presumably as mysterious as another.  Nobody insisted they were literal; nobody suggested they were not."  p 132

After he had studied the New Testament, especially as it relates to the Historical Jesus, for a number of years, Crossan's professional assessment was that the Metaphorical Gospel view was true.  Jesus told parables about life; his followers told parables about him.

"We began [with the Enlightenment] to think that ancient peoples ("other" peoples) told dumb, literal stories that we were no smart enough to recognize as such.  Not quite.  Those ancient people told smart, metaphorical stories that we were now dumb enough to take literally."  p 148

Crossan is eloquent and passionate about how we should interpret the Bible - understanding the powerful metaphors, parables - but he is clear that a metaphorical (only) understanding was indeed precisely the intention of the original writers.

"Both concerns derive from my attempt to understand what certain stories meant to the people who first told them"  p 163

"I had used the example of misreading Aesop to explain the vacuity of hearing an ancient story as historical when it was never intended as such. ... My own term for reading a piece of recorded past as history when it was intended as parable is the Aesopic fallacy."  p 133-4

Crossan mentions in another context that he resolved never to add to anti-semitism, nor to "brutalize the Gospel writers" (p 163) by interpreting them literally.  To say that the stories are "only" fictional, for Crossan, misses the point, and trivializes the issue.  It's the meaning that matters.

"If the story had been created, and especially when it had, that only pressed the question:  What was its purpose, message, meaning?  If it was history, that might be explanation enough.  If it was parable, the explanation was only beginning.  ... 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? ... Was it, for example, a parable, that is, a fictional story with a theological punch, a made-up tale that kicked you in the rear when you weren't looking?"  p 133-4

At times, he seems to say that this "parable" stance was not self-conscious. 

The question comes back to me immediately and inevitably.  Undergraduates asked it, and audiences still ask it:  "Yes, but are you saying everyone knew they were only parable back then, or that they thought they were history back then, but you think they are parable right now?"  I try not to show pain at that slipped-in word only, and I used to answer something like this.  Ancient people could hear those stories and not ask that question about literal truth.  If they believed them, they were true.  If not, not.  I do not speak like that anymore.  It was a condescending answer because, more and more, I find those ancients just like us and us moderns just like them.   In matters of vital importance, moderns and ancient alike accept or reject stories far more on an ideological than an evidentiary basis.  We too, Enlightenment or not, ask far too seldom:  "Yes, but is that literally true?" ...

However, the Metaphorical Gospel view is so fundamental, so crucial, to his whole view of the New Testament and of human life itself, that he in a sense sums up his book with an appeal to it.  He tells a poignant story of a former minister who had "stayed away" from the church for thirty years.  When meeting with Crossan and others, this man had finally opened up about his ordeal.  And the man died  within minutes. 

"He talked at length about what had happened years before and how he had felt about the church all those years ever since.  He saw now that there might be hope for a church that would never do such things again, that would not demand people believe literally stories that were intended metaphorically, and that would insist on justice inside and outside itself."  p 203 (emphasis mine)

Note that not only is the literal interpretation of the gospel stories the very thing which apparently motivated this tragedy, but it is set in opposition to justice itself. 

Prophecy Historicized

In Crossan's view, the gospel writers consciously and intentionally took Old Testament stories and themes and created fresh stories in which the hero (Jesus) seemed to fulfill prophecies of old.  This view is similar, although not identical with, Spong's midrash explanation.

"Recall, first, how "searching the Scriptures" created Jesus' infancy narratives in Matthew, Luke, and even before them." (Jesus - a Revolutionary Biography p 143)

"What we have now in those detailed passion accounts is not history remembered but prophecy historicized. ... I mean such units sough out backward, as it were, sought out after the events of Jesus' life were already known and his followers declared that texts from the Hebrew Scriptures had been written with him in mind." (Jesus - a Revolutionary Biography p 145)

"Next comes the prophetic passion -- the search by scribally learned followers ... Finally came the narrative passion -- the placing of such prophetic fulfillments into a sequential narrative with its origins well hidden within a plausible historical framework." (Jesus - a Revolutionary Biography, p 145)

The crucial question, "Why did the gospel writers create such stories", is answered by saying that they were metaphorically understood by the writers.

"But if the Barabbas incident did not actually happen, why did Mark create such a story?... His narrative about Barabbas, was, in other words, a symbolic dramatization of Jerusalem's fate, as he saw it. Finally, whenever such stories are judged to be authorial creations, their author's purpose is seldom just literary embellishment. It is usually either symbolic dramatization, as here (process become event in my earlier terms); or prophetic fulfillment, as with the Triumphal Entrance; or both, as with the infancy stories seen in Chapter 1." (Jesus - a Revolutionary Biography p 142-3)

True as Gospel

As a participant in the well-publicized "Jesus at 2000" email debate, Crossan gave an extremely vivid example of what he means when he talks about this phenomenon. He gives an example of two stories which are, in his view, factually false yet "true as gospel."

"Mark describes the Son of God almost out of control, arrested in agony, fear, and abandonment. John describes the Son of God in total control, arrested in foreknowledge, triumph, and command. Each interpretation spoke directly to and from the experience of the writers' communities but different experiences begot different theologies of the passion's inception." (Email Debate, Feb 18)

"Two radically different interpretations of the same event. As history, they cannot both be true, even if we were never able to tell which, if either, actually happened. . . . But as gospel they are both true." (Email Debate, Feb 18)

"In my opening message I said that Mark and John made up two radically divergent accounts of Jesus' passion, one intended to help persecuted Christians die and the other intended to help marginalized Christians live. I said both were true as gospel but neither was true as history (that is, I do not think either writer knew the exact details of Jesus' arrest or death).

True as gospel, of course, means symbolically true for the Christians who wrote those stories and for us Christians who still read them as statements from faith, for faith, to faith." (Email Debate, March 19)

He holds this technique up as a model to be followed. The authors, he asserts, took the basic historical incident and adapted - that is, completely changed - the story to fit their own circumstances and needs.

What is the relation between the historical Jesus and the Christ of Faith? The man Jesus is used, as it were, as a peg to hang one's coat, as a catalyst, around which stories are developed. Without the historical peg there is no hero; without the man Jesus there would be no Christian movement. But the content - the coat on the peg - can, apparently, be anything which the growing spirituality of the church can imagine or desire, without any basis in fact.

Crossan has the ingenuity to give a modern advertising spin to the very meaning of "good news." The "good news", or "gospel", is no longer the plain story of what Jesus said and did - that is, an account of events which are truly beneficial.

Instead, "good news" is about non-events which are perceived as beneficial by the audience regardless of their inherent worth.  It is, simply put, a message which continually changes so as to suit our changing needs and desires.

"Gospel is good news: good means from somebody's specific point of view; and news means it must be permanently updated for different times and places. But the way the gospels of Catholic Christianity do that is always to have the one and only Jesus of the 20s speak directly to the changing presents they represent" (Email Debate, Feb 18)

"Jesus-past acts and speaks as Jesus-present; Jesus-then acts and speaks as Jesus-now. And that is how he is Christ and Lord." (Email Debate, Feb 18)

Since Crossan did not respond to emails, I was unable to personally confirm that I correctly understood him, but - all things considered - the only view I can see Crossan taking is that of the Metaphorical Gospel theory.

Powell's Comments on Crossan's View

Mark Allan Powell offers this summary of Borg's view and puts it in context with contemporary N.T. scholarship:

Prophecy Historicized. This is primary for JOHN DOMINIC CROSSAN’s work. Most Christians are aware that Jesus does many things in the New Testament that fulfill prophecies of the Old Testament. Skeptical scholars suggest that, in some instances, the Gospel writers are creating facts about Jesus in order to have him fulfill the prophecies. Thus, they invented the story of the virgin birth because Isaiah 7:14 speaks of a virgin bearing a son, and they decided to say that Jesus was born in Bethlehem because Micah 5:2 indicates the Messiah will be born there. While a number of scholars may allow that such influences come into play here or there, John Dominic Crossan thinks that much (most?) of the Gospel accounts of Jesus came about this way--including everything in his last week of life.

According to Crossan, all the Gospel writers knew about that last week was that Jesus got grabbed by the Romans and crucified (possibly, according to Crossan, he was just caught up in a mob of Jewish rabble that got crucified for being in the wrong place at the wrong time. The Gospel writers, Crossan thinks, made up the rest--the stories about Jesus’ trial before Pilate, about the release of Barabbas, about Simon of Cyrene, the thief on the cross, the centurion’s confession, the burial in a garden, and of course the resurrection--the Gospel writers made it all up out of nothing to show that Jesus had fulfilled a bunch of Old Testament prophecies.

Crossan's Account of Literalization

As far as I can tell, Dr. Crossan has offered no account of the supposed literalization of the gospels. Since he does not argue for the view, he is less inclined to articulate all of its parts.  However, I'll state again that the view logically entails some transition, however complicated, from metaphorical interpretation to factual - and should be made explicit.

Crossan's Time Periods

Whereas Bishop Spong's account of literalization is fairly simple, Crossan's cannot be.  For Spong, the New Testament may be treated as a unit: All the canonical books are from the "metaphorical" pre-100 period.  It is only the following writers - some time in the second century - who begin to literalize the gospel story. 

But, for Crossan, it is not clear how the gospel ever came to be 'literalized.'  According to his Historical Jesus appendix material, Crossan sets up a framework of general time periods.  (I highlight the canonical gospels blue, and the "internal evidence" and "external evidence" epistles in black.)


Gospel of the Egyptians
2 versions of Mark ('secret gospel' plus early Mark)
P. Oxy 840
2nd version of Thomas
'dialogue collection' in Dialogue of the Savior
'signs gospel' in John


1 Clement
Shepherd of Hermas
1st edition of John' Gospel
Ignatius letters
1 Peter
Polycarp Philippians chp 13-14
1 John


2nd edition of John' Gospel
Apocryphon of James
1 and 2 Timothy
2 Peter
Polycarp Philippians chp 1-12
2 Clement
Gospel of the Nazoreans
Gospel of the Ebionites
Didache fragments
Gospel of Peter


What are we to make of this?  Note the 80-120 layer.  Matthew, Luke, and 1st edition of John share the time period with Clement, Ignatius, and part of Polycarp!  Note the 120-150 layer.  The final edition of John and Acts are placed here, coming very near Justin Martyr's era!

This certainly seems to preclude a generation-like transition from metaphorical to literal understanding, as in Spong.  Crossan must, logically, hold either that (a) the Apostolic Fathers were themselves speaking "metaphorically", or (b) both metaphorical and literal streams co-existed throughout the post-70 Christian world.