"The Real Jesus: The Mistaken Quest for the Historical Jesus and the Truth of the Traditional Gospels," by Luke Timothy Johnson (Harper San Francisco, 182 pp.; $22, hardcover).
"Who do scholars say that I am?" asked a recent CT cover story on the flourishing industry of Jesus studies (Mar. 4, 1996). The answer seemed to be almost anything but the risen Christ worshiped by believers around the world. Yet, while the radical revisionists have claimed the lion's share of media coverage, their conclusions are by no means representative of the whole spectrum of New Testament scholarship. Now, from within the scholarly guild, Luke Timothy Johnson has mounted a frontal assault that demolishes the pretensions of the Jesus Seminar and reaffirms the Christ of faith.
Johnson's book "The Real Jesus" is one of the most exhilarating religious books published in this decade. His formidable task, which he performs with gusto, is to sort out the claims made by Marcus Borg, John Dominic Crossan, Robert Funk, Burton Mack, and other much-publicized scholars so that Christians, and other fair-minded people, can take stock of what is actually being asserted.
A former Benedictine priest and currently a professor of New Testament at the Candler School of Theology at Emory University in Atlanta (in 1995, Doubleday published his commentary on the Epistle of James in the acclaimed Anchor Bible series), Johnson is a soft-spoken man, at first glance an unlikely candidate for polemics. He was motivated to write his book, he says, out of a genuine sense of outrage over the preposterous claims being made by the Jesus Seminar and its fellow-travelers--above all, the claim, repeatedly reinforced by the media, that their peculiar form of scholarly reductionism somehow represents the "consensus view" of "most" New Testament scholars.
In fact, says Johnson, the conclusions reached by the Jesus Seminar represent the views of a tiny minority of mostly second-rate scholars working at mostly second-rate schools. None of the current Jesus Seminar scholars teaches at any of the major centers of New Testament scholarship in the United States--such as Yale, Harvard, Princeton, Duke, Union, Chicago, or Emory. While the Jesus Seminar publicists would often speak of 200 "participants," Johnson says, in fact only about 40 people attended the meetings and wrote papers.
Of these, only a few, such as founders Crossan and Funk, have any sort of prestigious credentials as scholars. Some, such as Paul Verhoeven (director of the films Basic Instinct and, most recently, the NC-17-rated Showgirls), are not New Testament scholars at all and participated merely as interested observers.
The views of some 40 people cannot reasonably be said to represent the thinking of, say, the more than 6,900 members of the Society of Biblical Literature (SBL) and the thousands of others, in and out of graduate school and seminaries, who have had some contact with systematic biblical study.
Johnson does not merely challenge the credentials of Jesus Seminar members; indeed, he is at his best when he "deconstructs" the philosophical assumptions and methodological idiosyncrasies that underlie so much New Testament scholarship. Far from displaying a more scientific, more "critical" view of the New Testament, Johnson says, many of these scholars are touchingly naive in the way they approach historical sources and in their understanding of what history actually is or can achieve. The epistemological gullibility of these exegetes--especially regarding the nature and limits of historical knowledge--simply astonishes Johnson.
The problem that underlies much of contemporary New Testament scholarship, Johnson says, is a serious misunderstanding about what constitutes historical knowledge. Indeed, he argues, fundamentalists and skeptical historical-critical scholars share the same error: they believe that history--understood as what can be known using modern techniques of historical reconstruction--is the ultimate criterion of truth against which the Gospels must be judged. (It should be noted that Johnson's use of the term "fundamentalist" is elastic, at some points referring to views that would be held by a majority of evangelicals. The same ambiguity attends his references to "conservative" scholars.)
The more literalistic fundamentalists believe the Gospels can be proven historically true; the modern skeptics believe they can be proven historically false; but both believe that "history" is the ultimate judge of the "truth" of the Gospels. This is a burden that history (as a discipline) simply cannot shoulder.
Johnson observes that this attitude itself displays a remarkably "pre-critical" understanding of history. Far from being a neutral record of "what really happened," history is a creation of the human intellect, a creation based not merely on highly fragmentary evidence but also on the personal concerns and prejudices of the people writing the history.
Johnson demonstrates that, despite unending claims of "value-neutral," scientific rigor, the scholarship that undergirds the Jesus Seminar and similar enterprises is based on wild speculation and minuscule evidence. For example, whereas in the past New Testament scholars thought they saw hints of common sources used by the New Testament writers--most famously, a hypothetical collection of Jesus' sayings, called Q, used by Mark, Matthew, and Luke--some of today's scholars now brazenly assert they can reconstruct, with precise detail, both these sources themselves and their stages of development. They now speak about Q1, Q2, Q3, and Q4.
This, Johnson avers, is preposterous, and explains why so much of contemporary New Testament scholarship is viewed with derision by mainstream historians. The entire edifice is "a house of cards," he says. "Pull out one element and the whole construction crumbles."
In fact, Johnson argues, authentic Christian faith is not now, nor ever has been, based on historical reconstructions of who Jesus was. He reminds his readers that Christians do not have faith in this or that scholarly account of the historical Jesus, but in the living Christ raised from the dead. "Christian faith is directed to a living person," he writes. "The 'real Jesus' for Christian faith is the resurrected Jesus, him 'whom God has made both Lord and Christ' (Acts 2:36)."
According to Johnson, the Resurrection (the heart of the Christian faith) should be understood as a " 'nonhistorical' event that has historical effects." Being "nonhistorical" does not mean that the Resurrection did not happen, only that determining whether or not it happened is beyond the scope of the historian. One needs more than the facts of history to do that. History may provide many details consistent with a traditional understanding of Christ's resurrection (the formation of the church and its early writings), but the discipline has reached its limits when it encounters "the passage of the human Jesus into the power of God. . . . The problem lies with history's limited mode of knowing." According to the church, one needs to meet Christ today to make sense of what happened in the tomb on Easter.
Still, evangelical scholars would want to close the gap Johnson leaves open between the Christ we encounter today and what is said of him in Scripture. While Johnson talks about a "resurrected," "real," and "living" Christ, he seems to allow the possibility of some discontinuity between the Bible's witness and the "real" Jesus. At the same time, he does not rule out the church's view of Jesus for informing our interpretation of the Gospels--something the Jesus Seminar's rules forbid.
Given the explosive nature of Johnson's book, you would think that he would have been prepared for the media frenzy that followed its publication. But on the day that I catch up with him, he is a bit frazzled. The phone has been ringing nonstop in his suburban Atlanta home, with requests for radio interviews, public appearances, and so on.
"I find it all a bit unsettling," Johnson says. Although he is the author of a widely respected textbook, "The Writings of the New Testament: An Interpretation" (Fortress, 1986), and numerous scholarly commentaries, Johnson is not accustomed to the bright glare of publicity.
"This is a book I never thought I would write, for two reasons," he says, during a lengthy interview. "First of all, I'm not a person who is particularly interested in entering the public fray. And second, I've never been particularly interested in the 'historical' Jesus. I found it possible to be a Christian my whole life, to be a monk, to be a priest, and to never hear about the [problems surrounding the] historical Jesus."
Now 52 years old, Johnson is a former Benedictine priest who studied New Testament at Yale University, left the priesthood, got married, and taught for 20 years at Yale Divinity School and Indiana State University.
He was born in Wisconsin, the youngest of six children, but both his parents died when he was very young. At the age of 11, he was shipped off to the Deep South with his oldest brother and ended up at a private Catholic high school, Saint Joseph's Seminary in Covington, Louisiana, run by Benedictine monks. "They put a little card on you saying, 'To God from the Church,'" Johnson chuckles.
He gradually fell in love with the Benedictine liturgy and with the life of a monk. When he graduated from Saint Joseph's, at the age of 19, he became a Benedictine and remained one for nine years, eventually being ordained to the Roman Catholic priesthood. He completed his studies in philosophy and theology at Saint Meinrad School of Theology in Indiana and picked up an M.A. in religious studies at nearby Indiana University.
In 1970, Johnson returned to his monastery and taught there for one year. This was at the height of the turmoil in the Catholic Church following the Second Vatican Council. Johnson wanted to become a Scripture scholar and decided to concentrate on the New Testament because, he says, "there were fewer languages to master." He applied to, and was accepted by, Yale University, where he studied under such famous scholars as Wayne Meeks.
While at Yale, Johnson decided to leave the priesthood. He met and married a woman ten years his senior, who already had six children (they have subsequently had a seventh together). "I found the transition from being a Benedictine monk to being the father of six children, and then seven, not to be that dramatic," Johnson claims. "Benedictine life is all about building community or building family, and so I found it excellent training to be a father."
He finished his Ph.D. at Yale and taught, from 1976 to 1982, at the Yale Divinity School. Although he was part of the "famous Yale revolving door for junior faculty"--meaning Yale rarely grants tenure--Johnson enjoyed his time there. And as an ex-priest, he says, he was frozen out of his natural environment, Catholic seminaries. "I was in a situation where ex-priests were not welcome even in Catholic universities, and that continues today," he says. He was a bit late in the "leaving game," Johnson adds, and the great heyday of Catholic liberalism had passed. Breaking your vows was not as easily forgiven in the 1980s and '90s, under the current pope, as it had been in the freewheeling 1960s. "There was a tremendous conservative reaction, especially in seminaries," he says.
As a result, when he realized he would not be offered tenure at Yale, Johnson went to Indiana University and taught there for ten years, from 1982 to 1992, in the Department of Religious Studies. He loved the "hard-boiled intellectual life" of a state university, but felt strangely "divided" there. "Being outside the context of the community of faith was not good for me, for my heart," he says. But in 1992, he was asked to come to Emory University to be the Robert W. Woodruff Professor of New Testament and Christian Origins at the Candler School of Theology, a Methodist seminary.
Johnson sees his greatest contribution as a teacher in helping believing Christian students understand that they don't have to choose between what he sees as the narrow literalism of some brands of fundamentalism and the equally narrow skepticism of historical-critical scholarship. Both of these approaches, Johnson says, miss the point of what the New Testament is trying to accomplish--which is to proclaim the risen Christ as a powerful reality in the lives of believers here and now.
Johnson values the contributions that historical-critical scholarship has made to the study of the New Testament, and he is certainly more in that camp, intellectually, than he is in the fundamentalist camp. Johnson says his objection to the members of the Jesus Seminar is not that they use the tools of "critical" scholarship, but only that they use them badly.
"I'm giving a lecture on this stuff at Ministers Week here" at Emory University, he explains. "And I use the analogy of my relationship with my wife. It's as though I were to spend days and nights closed up in my study, analyzing the historical records of my first date with my wife, trying to figure out if she really was who she said she was. And all the while she's outside my study crying or calling to me, trying to get my attention. That's what so much of New Testament scholarship strikes me as being like."
In the end, though, what really disturbs Johnson about the new "quests for the historical Jesus" is that they all want to focus on a Jesus other than the one portrayed in the Gospels--a proto-feminist, social revolutionary, Cynic sage, or whatever--because the Jesus found in the actual Gospels is so disturbing.
"I think what really causes me chagrin is that people parade this kind of piety about how concerned they are about what Jesus really did and how it shakes the foundation of faith," he says. "No one wants to deal with the image of Jesus in the classical Christian tradition--the image of Jesus that inspired, for example, Saint Francis of Assisi, the image of giving one's life in suffering for others. "This is so much more countercultural and provocative and threatening than any image these skeptical New Questers have come up with. And certainly more challenging and threatening than that of normal, comfortable Christian piety. In other words, if we uncover and confront the Jesus in the Gospels, then we really have something kind of scary to deal with--because that's the image of Jesus that Christian discipleship is supposed to follow. And that's frightening to many people."
Robert J. Hutchinson is a freelance writer based in Orange County, California.
Copyright © 1996 Christianity Today, Inc./CHRISTIANITY TODAY Magazine
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