PROLOGUE

NOT WHERE I EXPECTED TO BE


Dawn on Sunday, June 4, 1967. The road emerged from the sheltering confines of the Judean hills and the full glare of the rising sun hit the front seats of the taxi. The driver was moving very fast, too fast even for empty roads, down from the Old City of Jerusalem, into the Jordan valley, over the river’s bridge, and eastward to Amman across the desert plateau. All of that still belonged, for one last day, to the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan.

I sat in the front next to the driver, sat in utter silence from the front gate of the French Biblical and Archeological School to the departure drop at the International Airport. He was staying and I was leaving although I think that fleeing is the more appropriate technical term. Jordanian tanks were digging in as fixed gun implacements on the north side of the road as it finally descended onto the valley floor. They would be lethal if Israeli soldiers streamed down the road. They would be fatal if Israeli jets screamed out of the sun. I had only one thought, clear and sharp to this day, but then roiling through my mind like a mantra: What a shitty way to end a stay and leave a country!

 

I had lived for two years at that famous French school, just outside the northern wall of the Old City, half-way between Damascus Gate and Mandelbaum Gate. That latter pseudo-gate, too, had only one day left. In the preceding weeks shopkeepers taped their windows and drivers painted their headlights down to narrow slits. The Jerusalem Airport was closed to lengthen its runway for the new Boeing 747s and that left Amman, presuming the Jordan bridge intact, as the only airway exit before war broke out. Embassies and consulates told their nationals: Unless you have to stay, get out; hereafter, you are on your own. The United Nations Command removed their dependents from Israel and Jordan across the Galilean border into Lebanon and on to Beirut or Cyprus. There were many Irish families among them, wives and children of army officers under U.N. auspices on the Israel-Jordan demarcation line or of non-military personnel at U.N. headquarters in the old British Mandate’s Government House south of Jerusalem. I knew several families very well after two years, had been at their parties for other Irish U.N. officers from the demarcation line between Turks and Greeks on Cyprus, had appeared on Jordanian TV with them for St. Patrick’s Day, had gone on trips with them north to Damascus and south to Aqaba, and had baptized some of their children at the traditional site of Jesus’ baptism in the Jordan river. (High noon in July, with the young mother’s back tight against the retaining wall in an attempt to get some shade. We heard no heavenly voice, we saw no descending dove, but we all had, directly or indirectly, some very cold beer from the big white cooler in the back of the big white Jeep.) Then one day, they were all gone, and I did not get a chance to say good-bye to any of them. I still feel it to this day: the dawn, the sun, the mantra.

It was already late to be leaving and, of course, much later than I then knew. It was late not because of either bravery or stupidity on my part. I was a monk with a vow of obedience and I had to wait for permission from my religious superiors in America. Much more importantly, I was a monk with a vow of poverty and I had to wait for airfare from my financial superiors in America. But early or late, Amman Airport for a flight to Rome was not where I was supposed to be that day. I was supposed to be on my third and final visit to Israel during the first two weeks of that month and by June 4 I should have been somewhere in Galilee, maybe even at Nazareth. I never got there and recognized the irony immediately since I was not only a monastic priest but already a New Testament scholar with a focus on the gospels. I had no idea then how great the irony of that lost chance, that non-visit was to become.

Between 1965 and 1967 I had been everywhere and seen everything in the ancient Middle East. Everywhere except Galilee. Everything except Nazareth. At various times and in no hurry I had spent weeks in Greece and Turkey, Lebanon and Syria, Iraq and Iran, Morocco and Tunisia, Egypt and the Sinai. Great trips, weird trips, unforgettable trips.

In Egypt. I climbed atop Mount Sinai for the tradition, atop the Great Pyramid for the view, atop the Nile Hilton for the bar. In Morocco. I drove along the royal road from Casablanca to Marrakech to Fes to Rabat on a trip that was to last four days but never got farther than the La Mamounia Hotel in Marrakech. I thought I felt sick but it might just have been that beautiful outdoor pool with the Atlas Mountains as distant backdrop (Che sera, sera). In Iraq. From Baghdad to Babylon I was on a good, paved road. But then from Babylon at noon through Ur at dusk to Basra at midnight, there was a paved road in the Hachette Guide’s fantasy but packed earth on the Iraqi government’s reality. I had a cheap ride in a new Mercedes on delivery to the Gulf, the driver waited at a rest-stop, and then followed an oil-truck across the desert as it headed for the excess-gas fires flaming along the coast. In Turkey. The English-speaking travel agent in Antakya got a pre-paid driver and “car” to take me through the Cilician Gates in the Taurus mountains to stops at Lystra, Derbe, and Iconium, Pauline sites with nothing much Pauline (or anything else) to see, and on to a final destination at Antalya’s airport. The driver slept in the car every night, drove slowly and pointedly up every mountain, and tried to make me pay for the petrol at every pump. We stopped each day for lunch, I let him order, and indicated that I wanted the same. Somewhere south of Konya on our last day together he began by popping a large pepper in his mouth. I did the same, felt my tongue explode, and poured in a whole glass of water to put out the fire. Across the table, my driver was chewing contentedly, looking me straight in the face, and smiling.

In those days Jordan controlled both Transjordan, the West Bank, Bethlehem, Qumran, and the Old City of Jerusalem. Since I was living in Jordan, it was easy to visit any of those areas and the Old City itself was a daily walk. I had been a dozen times to Bethlehem with colleagues or visitors. I had been a dozen times to the site where Jesus was born, according to parable, but never to Nazareth where he was born, according to history. I had not planned it like that but that was how it happened. I had been everywhere except Galilee. I had seen everything except Nazareth.

In those years tourists were allowed to cross Mandelbaum Gate in only one direction, leaving Jordan for Israel or Israel for Jordan. They could not return. But certain foreign residents in Jordan, for example ordained ministers or field archeologists, were allowed double-crossings, over to Israel and back, but not too often and only at carefully pre-arranged and pre-permitted dates. It was also imperative never to get an Israeli stamp on your passport or entry into countries such as Syria or Iraq would thereafter be denied. An Irish citizen like myself carried two passports, one stamped "Valid for travel to Israel," and another for everywhere else, especially for Arab countries hostile to Israel.

To make a double-crossing you had to get permission well in advance from both Jordan and Israel (yes, contact with Israel was possible even from the Jordanian side), present yourself at checkpoints on either side of no-man's-land (euphemistically, Mandelbaum Gate) at the designated hour going and returning, remember carefully which pocket you had which passport in, and get the right stamps in the right places. In order not to push my luck, I had planned three double-crossings during my time in Jordan, one for the south, one for the middle, and one for the north of Israel. I had no trouble with the first two in 1966 and I was holding the most important northern one for the first two weeks of June in 1967. I had permission to cross on June 1 and return on June 14. I was not where I expected to be that June 4.

To be elsewhere than expected started far back at the beginning. I should have been born in Galway but started life in Tipperary instead. In 1934 my parents were living in Portumna, Co. Galway, where my father was working in the Hibernian Bank. The nearest town with lying-in and nursing-home facilities was Nenagh, across the Shannon, in Co. Tipperary. I am grateful to them for that decision since it gave me the very appropriate title for this book. A Long Way fromGalway would not work quite as well. Being where I had not expected or becoming what I had not planned is now a pattern of life I have come to recognize and accept. Again and again, things started out to be this, ended up by being that, started to go here, went instead there. Ireland to America, monastery to university, priesthood to marriage, academic scholarship to public discourse.

Those who planned my life thought, as I did, that they could make me both monastic priest and seminary teacher. They found, as I did, that it would have to be one or the other. Every institution, even a church, needs research and development, marketing and sales, promotion and public relations. Every institution, especially a church, needs to know which is which, who is where, and when it is doing one and not the other. Religion, Christianity, Roman Catholicism were my life but I worked at reformation and reconstruction as both were going out of fashion having been in for but a fleeting moment. Eventually, after nineteen years, I left the monastic priesthood to get married. Even if I could have stayed and married, I would not have done so. By then the more profound conflict was not between my vow of celibacy and marriage but between my vow of obedience and scholarship. The truth may make you free but it may also make a lot of other people extremely annoyed. Margaret and I were married. We swore ourselves to one another 'til death do us part. Death did.

Monastic priest to academic scholar and then academic scholar to public intellectual. We scholars speak to one another in a language dense with technical terms and bristling with footnotes, references, disagreements, qualifications. That keeps the amateurs away, leaves us free to choose our subject without external interference (unless we need grants), permits us to say more and more about less and less, and tempts us to carve out our own tiny kingdom where nobody else may safely enter. For religious scholars that system has special advantages. It protects us from thinking anything relevant enough for public controversy and, if we think up something like that, from formulating it in a way that any outsider could understand. If, one is, as I am, an expert on the historical Jesus and earliest Christianity, it may be wiser to avoid conflicts between faith and history in one's own heart, one's own church, and one's own public community. Stay peacefully academic and let the ivy round your walls curl comfortably around your conscience.

An academic scholar is not the same as a public intellectual. It is quite possible to be either one and not the other. It is also possible to be both. A public intellectual in religion is, however, a rather special case, an endangered species from the past and an uninvented species in the present. We have high-profile religious hucksters and frauds, cheats and criminals, pederasts and rapists. We have high-profile religious activists and ministers, pacifists and preachers, saints and martyrs. But public religious intellectuals are much harder to find. They live publicly and openly where reason intersects with revelation and history intersects with faith and they answer equally and honestly to both those imperious demands. Their job is to think out loud about religion in general or Christianity, for example, in particular, and to so do within public discourse and not just denominational confession. For me that role means speaking as publicly as possible about the gospels and the New Testament, the historical Jesus and earliest Christianity, in language true both to their ancient first-century situations and their modern twenty-first century continuations. And, as publicly as possible is not a question of volume but of clarity, not of spin and hype but of honesty and accuracy. The purpose is not indoctrination but education. And education means awareness of all your options. The hope is for debate without caricature and argument without derision.

After joining DePaul University in 1969 I spent my first twenty years in teaching required courses to undergraduate students and in writing scholarly books for academic audiences. I loved that combination and neither sought nor wanted any other situation. I was one of the very, very few scholars in the whole world whose professional life was focused exclusively on the historical Jesus, that is, the reconstruction of Jesus’ life as lived in the first century's first quarter, long before it was creatively recorded and necessarily reinterpreted by the gospel writers in that century's last quarter. It was not unusual for experts on early Christianity to write a book about Jesus but it was very unusual, then or even now, to devote one's entire professional career to that subject. I did not understand that strange omission until the 1990s when the Jesus Wars made it clear that historical Jesus research is open-heart surgery on Christianity and maybe also on civilization itself. You may have a quieter life on some other topic, some lesser subject, like Paul, for instance. In any case, with my academic colleagues as primary readers, I was far, far away from any wider audience, any public conversation, and general lay interest.

I was still imagining an exclusively academic reception committee when I wrote The Historical Jesus: The Life of a MediterraneanJewish Peasant in 1991 but that was when everything changed. Peter Steinfels, religion reporter for the New York Times was fascinated by two graduates of Rome's Pontifical Biblical Institute, two professors at Catholic universities but one a priest and myself an ex-priest, with two books on the historical Jesus coming out that same Fall. He put the story on the front page of the paper for Monday, December 23, and it appeared not only there but in papers using the New York Times Wire Service and abroad in the International Herald Tribune.

With that public launch my book stayed for six months among the top ten religion bestsellers in Publishers Weekly and, when it peaked there as No. I in June 1992, I thought I now had my fleeting minutes of instant fame. But something was happening out there that I still cannot fully understand. There were very many Christians, apparently, for whom nineteenth-century rationalism had broken into secularism and fundamentalism, into twin extremes which richly deserved each other. Those centrist Christians demanded both reason and revelation, both history and faith, both mind and heart. They knew that history was not just history anymore and that Jesus research opened up all the theological and religious questions worth asking. It also, in fact, appealed to exChristians, paraChristians, and postChristians.

Far from sputtering out like another passing fad, interest in the historical Jesus grew steadily as the 1990s progressed. The 1996 Easter covers of Time, Newsweek, and U. S.News & World Report were on the historical Jesus as were television programs like A&E's “Mysteries of the Bible,” PBS' Frontline “From Jesus to Christ,” and ABC's News Special with Peter Jennings, “?????” I was involved in all those endeavors and tried to stay both on the cutting edge of that scholarly research and on the leading edge of its popular interpretation. I wrote about one million words on the historical Jesus in the 1990s, had three more books on that Publishers Weekly list for several months apiece, and found myself translated into nine foreign languages including Korean, Chinese, and Japanese. All of which gave me a swelled head? That is probably for others to judge but I do not think so. First, I do not take myself too seriously, my subject, yes, passionately, myself, no, generally. Second, sometimes I felt like an cause of that interest but mostly I felt like its effect and, in any case, I had learned from windsurfing that you are never totally in control, that all is balance and cooperation, and that you ride the wind and the wave you are given (Christianity and the Art of Windsurfer Maintenance?). Third, and this above everything else, I was moved and humbled by invitations from parishes to come not just for one-hour celebrity lectures but for full-weekend seminars from Friday night through all day Saturday to Sunday morning. Many if not most such discussions were also preceded by group study of the books involved.

There is, however, a somewhat tired jibe that scholars often make about others' reconstruction of the historical Jesus (not about their own, of course). That is not Jesus, they say, it is simply your own face at the bottom of a deep well. It comes to me in this customized version. You see Jesus as an exploited and oppressed first-century Jewish peasant because you are thinking about, sympathizing with, and projecting backwards upon him and his companions the fate of your own nineteenth-century Irish peasants.

It is quite true that I wanted to introduce forcibly the question of social class into discussions of the historical Jesus, to distinguish how differently things looked from the bottom up than from the top down. If you consider those perspectives equal in their views or irrelevant in their differences, compare these two sets of statistics. One set: When the RMS Titanic sank on April 15, 1912, 32% of the passengers lived and 68% died. Another set: When the RMS Titanic sank on April 15, 1912, 94% of the First Cabin women and children lived and 47% of the Steerage women and children died. Gender mattered but so did class. Yes, I wanted to know if Jesus was an illiterate peasant (unlike me) or a learned scholar (like me), because social class matters for point of view and awareness of injustice. If he came from a peasant hamlet, he was probably a peasant laborer. Although, of course, if it looks like a duck, walks like a duck, and quacks like a duck, it might be a camel in disguise.

That aside, it is easy enough to dismiss the face-in-the-well dismissal. Are you yourself not involved in some similar process in another deep well? Or, better: have you ever seen anything down a deep well? Or, best: if you did, is not the water changed by the face and the face by the water? Is not such interaction inevitable in any historical reconstruction of any historical figure profoundly interesting for either good (like Jesus) or evil (like Hitler)?

That last response raised for me the question addressed in this present book. Aside from the self-serving function of that deep-well crack when pointed only at others, it still has a valid core which applies to us all. For me it comes like this. How has my own life influenced my understanding of the historical Jesus? How does my role as a temporary background bit-player clarify or distort my view of the leading character in a very long-running on still on-going religious drama? You will notice immediately my somewhat vertiginous situation. I have to reconstruct my own life, reconstruct that of Jesus, and ponder the interaction (another reconstruction?) between them. And that is the purpose of this book.

How does the general heritage that I carry as part of a first post-colonial generation and, indeed of a European colony within Europe, qualify my vision of the first-century Jewish homeland still under imperial control? Did I decide that Jesus disliked the Roman Empire because I disliked the British Empire (but I could not dislike an empire with a truly Celtic sense of humor, an empire that returned Hong Kong but retained Belfast, gave up all of India but held on to part of Ireland)? Was it truly that last-century Irish peasantry destroyed by Penal Laws and Poor Laws, potato blight and famine disease, non-violent legal resistance and violent armed revolt, that shaped my view of the first-century Jewish peasantry, also swept by catastrophe and cataclysm, also saved by death and Diaspora?

Apart from that historical baggage, what of more individual and personal influences? I am an ex-monk and an ex-priest, does that prejudice me against religion in general or Roman Catholicism in particular, against the priesthood, the Bible, religious denomination or denominational authority? Maybe I just need the historical Jesus to attack Christianity and fill a vacuum left over from all that ex-hood? Was I transiently hurt or permanently angry from that transition? Maybe you should know this right away. My passport, still Irish after half a century in this country, gives my first name as John, with Michael Edmund as middle names. When you entered an old-time religious order your secular name-identity disappeared and you were renamed (like those people in the Bible), so, in 1950, I became Brother Dominic O.S.M. When I left nineteen years later, I kept that name: John I was, Dominic I became, John Dominic I am. Hurt, anger, hate? I do not think so, because I cannot find those feelings anywhere in my heart, but this book will let you judge for yourself.

This book is about a series of transitions, from Ireland to America, from priesthood to marriage, from monastery to university, and from academic scholar to public intellectual. It is especially about the transition from a very traditional Roman Catholic faith, accepted fully and internalized completely but undiscussed, uninvestigated, uncriticized, at the start of this century to a self-conscious and self-critical Roman Catholic faith for the start of the next one (Rome was not rebuilt in a day). It is most especially about the continuity across all those transitions and across that last one in particular. That is what I find most deeply operative in my life, not a series of dislocating and discontinuous transitions but, no matter how difficult they were at the time, I find beneath them an abiding serenity, a continuity as a person, a scholar, and a Christian. Throughout this book, therefore, I am constantly looking in two directions at the same time, at the reconstruction of my own life and my reconstruction of the historical Jesus. For example, even when I talk about my own parents and my own earliest recoverable years, I will be asking simultaneously what effect those events and memories have on how I see the parents of Jesus and the infancy of Jesus.

I did not, as I said, set out to be a scholar, let alone a biblical scholar. It was thrust upon me by others but I accepted the role with enthusiasm. So also with the role of public religious intellectual. I did not plot it, expect it, or set out to acquire it. It too came from others but it too was accepted with enthusiasm. Since it was neither my idea nor my plan, I have been quite comfortable with the controversies accompanying that role. Actually, the eye of the storm is a rather peaceful place to be. The trick is to stay in the eye.

Reactions to me are necessarily diverse. One letter says: “If Hell were not already created, it should be invented just for you.” That does not scare me and, besides, the postmark is far away. But another prays: “Thank you God for Dominic, we really need him.” That does scare me, a little. Reviews can be just as divergent. One in the Los Angeles Times Sunday Book Review describes my latest book, The Birth of Christianity as “a self-absorbed academic exercise, the product of a cramped and airless world in which theories feed on theories, scholars are endlessly commenting on the views of other scholars, and words intertwine without a footing in historical reality.” But another, in the St. Louis Post Dispatch concludes that “Crossan can be credited with the exceptional command of the tools of a first-rate public intellectual.” I understand those disagreements. In the last thirty years I wrote over fifteen books about the historical Jesus and in just the 90s alone I wrote one million words on that same subject. But that is conducting open-heart surgery on Christianity and responses differ between those who consider it medical malpractice and those who consider it overdue remedy. For me it is surely time, especially as we enter a new millennium, to distinguish in public debate between spirituality and sentimentality, between religion and Prozac, between baptism and lobotomy. Besides, if one has had enough chicken soup for the soul, how about some Irish stew for the mind?

After a decade of interviews in newspapers and magazines, discussions on radio and television, lectures in parishes and seminaries, colleges and universities, I now recognize a group in this country who claim a center-of-the-road between the extremes of secularism and fundamentalism. They are also dissatisfied, disappointed, or even disgusted with classical Christianity and their denominational tradition. They hold on with anger or leave with nostalgia but are not happy with either decision. They do not want to invent or join a new age but to reclaim and redeem an ancient one. They do not want to settle for a generic-brand religion but to rediscover their own specific and particular roots. But they know now that those roots must be in a renewed Christianity whose validity does not reject every other religion's integrity, a renewed Christianity which has purged itself of rationalism, fundamentalism, and literalism, be it of Book, Tradition, Community, or Leader. I did not set out to speak to those people because I did not know they existed until about 80% of my mail told me they did. That, once again, was not where I expected to be but happily am.

I started this Prologue at home but held this last paragraph until today. The irony of living in Jerusalem from 1965 to 1967 and traveling all over the ancient Middle East but never visiting Galilee and Nazareth was compounded by writing and lecturing on the historical Jesus from 1967 to 1999 but still never visiting Galilee and Nazareth. Today is June 11, 1999, exactly thirty-two years to the month, week, and possibly even the day when I had expected to be in Nazareth for the first time. I deliberately finish this Prologue, in this place and on this date, to emphasize one point. I have, again and again, ended up where I did not plan or expect to be but, if I had to do it all over again, I would do it all over again. But it is still a long way from Tipperary.

 

         


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