(CNN) 2011 — One of his first fan letters came from someone who declared:
“If Hell were not already created, it should be invented just for you.”
Other critics have called him “demonic,” “blasphemous” and a “schmuck.”
When John Dominic Crossan was a teenager in Ireland, he dreamed of becoming a missionary priest. But the message he’s spreading about Jesus today isn’t the kind that would endear him to many church leaders.
Crossan says Jesus was an exploited “peasant with an attitude” who didn’t perform many miracles, physically rise from the dead or die as punishment for humanity’s sins.
Jesus was extraordinary because of how he lived, not died, says Crossan, one of the world’s top scholars on the “historical Jesus,” a field in which academics use historical evidence to reconstruct Jesus in his first-century setting.
“I cannot imagine a more miraculous life than nonviolent resistance to violence,” Crossan says. “I cannot imagine a bigger miracle than a man standing in front of a tank in Tiananmen Square.”
In another time, Crossan’s views would have been confined to scholarly journals. But he and his best-selling books, including the recent “Jesus: A Revolutionary Biography,” have changed how biblical scholars operate.
Crossan believes the public should be exposed to even the most divisive debates that scholars have had about Jesus and the Bible. He co-founded the Jesus Seminar, a controversial group of scholars who hold public forums that cast doubt on the authenticity of many sayings and deeds attributed to Jesus.
The 77-year-old Crossan has built on the seminar’s mission by writing a series of best-selling books on Jesus and the Apostle Paul. With his silver Prince Valiant haircut and his pronounced Irish accent, he’s also appeared on documentaries such as PBS’s “From Jesus to Christ: The First Christians” and A&E’s “Mysteries of the Bible.”
Crossan’s overarching message is that you don’t have to accept the Jesus of dogma. There’s another Jesus hidden in Scripture and history who has been ignored.
“He’s changed the way we look and think about Jesus,” says Byron McCane, an archaeologist and professor of religion at Wofford College in South Carolina. “He’s important in a way that few scholars are.”