SANTA ROSA, Calif. — "Our father ..."
Most Christians can fill in the words that follow: "... who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name, thy kingdom come, thy will be done ..."
But wait — let's rewind. John Dominic Crossan, a renowned, if controversial, scholar of Christianity, says the essence of the Lord's Prayer can be found in those first two words, in fact, in the single word "father," which, he believes, encapsulates an entire first century world view lost to modern churchgoers.
"After that," he says, "everything would follow."
Crossan, a former Catholic priest who teaches at DePaul University, is an old hand at challenging contemporary Christian assumptions. A slight man with a thick Irish accent, a deep spiritual well and an impish sense of humor, he is one of the founders of the Jesus Seminar, a liberal Christian organization that is devoted to the study of the history of Jesus and early Christianity.
The group, which recently celebrated its 25th anniversary with a gathering in Santa Rosa, Calif., is respected in some circles for its scholarship, and in others, viewed as heretical for its skepticism. Among its more controversial declarations are that many of the miracles attributed to Jesus did not occur, at least not as described in Scripture, and that Jesus did not physically rise from the dead.
Crossan has written several books about the historical Jesus. In a sense, he said in an interview, each one has helped lead to his latest book, "The Greatest Prayer: Rediscovering the Revolutionary Message of the Lord's Prayer" (HarperOne 2010).
In it, he dissects the Lord's Prayer (also known as the Our Father), line by line, word by word. There is nothing new about this: Most faiths do the same with their important liturgies, and there is a long tradition in Christianity of parsing the Lord's Prayer for its deeper meaning.
But Crossan's interpretation is not exactly conventional.
"Let's say it's a fresh and defensible reading of the prayer text, though definitely not the traditional interpretation," said Clay Schmit, a professor of theology at the Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena, Calif., and academic director of its Brehm Center for Worship, Theology and the Arts.
"The traditional interpretation focuses on the relationship between the Father ... and the individual," Schmit said. "It seeks an alignment between the will of the person making the prayer with the will of the Father."
Crossan calls the Lord's Prayer "a prayer from the heart of Judaism on the lips of Christianity for the conscience of the world."
To understand it, he said, it is necessary to comprehend the culture in which it was written, that of first century Judaism. The prayer appears in the New Testament twice, in slightly different forms: In Matthew 6:9-13, and in Luke, 11:2-4. In both cases, it is delivered by Jesus, which helps explain the revered status it holds.
When Jesus' disciples heard the prayer, Crossan said, they would have responded differently than a modern churchgoer. To begin with, he said, the term "Father" — "Abba" in the original Greek or Aramaic — connoted a "householder," one who oversaw the affairs of a family. A householder, he added, would have been judged by how well he provided for everyone.
When the prayer continues with "hallowed be thy name," he said, what it means by "hallowed" is "a fair distribution for all, the justice of an equitable household."
In other words, Crossan said, the prayer is about "distributive justice," about making sure that all are cared for.
"It is revolutionary," he writes, "because it presumes and proclaims the radical vision of justice that is the core of Israel's biblical tradition.... It dreams of an Earth where the Holy One of justice and righteousness actually gets to establish — as we might say — the annual budget for the global economy."
Not everyone agrees.
"That sounds to me like a very agenda-driven interpretation," said Steven Porter, who teaches the Lord's Prayer to graduate students in his theology classes at Biola University, an evangelical Christian school in La Mirada, Calif. He said he would challenge any student who made that argument in class.
"While I might very much agree with a lot of the points there about distributive justice, and might think there are plenty of passages in Scripture that do seek justice for those who are oppressed and so forth, to find those in the Lord's Prayer seems like a stretch to me," he said.
He did agree with Crossan on another point, though: That this is Christianity's greatest prayer.
"I think for the Christian tradition, this prayer of Jesus' has to be the greatest," Porter said. "It has to be seen as kind of the foundational prayer of our faith. This is the founder of our faith teaching us how to pray."