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Real Jesus

Real Jesus

by Luke Timothy Johnson, Harpersanfrancisco

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The Real Jesus—the first book to challenge the findings of the Jesus Seminar, the controversial group of two hundred scholars who claim Jesus only said 18 percent of what the Gospels attribute to him—"is at the center of the newest round in what has been called the Jesus Wars" (Peter Steinfels, New York Times). Drawing on the best biblical


The Real Jesus—the first book to challenge the findings of the Jesus Seminar, the controversial group of two hundred scholars who claim Jesus only said 18 percent of what the Gospels attribute to him—"is at the center of the newest round in what has been called the Jesus Wars" (Peter Steinfels, New York Times). Drawing on the best biblical and historical scholarship, respected New Testament scholar Luke Timothy Johnson demonstrates that the "real Jesus" is the one experienced in the present through faith rather than the one found in speculative historical reconstructions. A new preface by the author presents his point of view on the most recent rounds of this lively debate.

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The Barnes & Noble Review
What happens when you take Jesus out of church? What happens when you examine the gospel stories not merely as spiritual documents but as historical ones? When you see Jesus naturalistically, as a human being living in and interacting with society? If you are a Christian, what does that do to your faith?

Thomas Mann once wrote, "To separate Church and religion means to give up separating the religious from madness." Something like this fear seems to motivate Luke Timothy Johnson's The Real Jesus. Besides being a New Testament scholar, Johnson is a laicized Catholic priest and former Benedictine monk, and this perspective colors his withering critique of the field of historical Jesus studies. He doesn't like this broad, unwieldy, interdisciplinary movement, this unorchestrated effort by historians, archaeologists, anthropologists, and others to find scraps of information about a certain human being who lived in Palestine two millennia ago. Professor Johnson's basic complaint is that this work is going on in the hurly-burly of society at large rather than in the sheltered cove of "the church and the academy," where he believes it belongs.

This is very much in line with traditional Catholic thinking. Historically, the Church has placed itself and its representatives in an intermediary role, with the task of translating the language of the Divine into a form that ordinary humanity can comprehend — the middleman between God and the people. But this historical-Jesus business hasn't followed those rules. To the bewilderment of biblical scholars, who are used to beingignoredby everyone except their colleagues, ordinary people have been buying their books, sifting through their arcane arguments, attending lectures, buttonholing scholars who appear on radio talk shows. People are grappling with the issues on their own.

And they are very big issues indeed. For the whole approach of critical scholarship is naturalistic: It presumes that the Jesus of history came into and left this world according to the same natural forces that govern the rest of us. Such theologically charged concepts as the virgin birth and the bodily resurrection are seen by this scholarship as not literally true, and in fact the Bible sleuths think they have an angle on where and when these mythic overlays were added to the Jesus story.

This is not to say that historical Jesus scholarship dismisses the truth of Christianity; many of these scholars (including the many who, like Professor Johnson, are or have been Christian clerics) insist that their work does not dispel the gospel portrait but rather shows the limitations of our modern consciousness, which tends to equate "truth" with scientific or literal truth.

This is where Professor Johnson's book is helpful. He considers the media attention paid to the historical Jesus, and especially to that media-savvy group, the Jesus Seminar, to be a mirror image of the attention given to so-called Christian fundamentalism in the 1970s and 1980s. In both cases delicate nuances of spirituality and philosophy are reduced to sound bites. Thus anyone with a passing interest is likely to be misled or confused.

This is a valuable point. What this field is tinkering with is our culture's definition of truth, and attempting to alter something so fundamental requires a lot of work and careful attention. Professor Johnson himself, for example, whom scholars I have spoken with regard as a theological conservative, has a view of the resurrection that does not seem very conservative to me, and which demands a great deal of attention. If I understand him, he does not believe in a literal bodily resurrection. "[T]he resurrection is not a claim that Jesus was resuscitated, that he resumed his former life after a 'clinical death' experience," he writes. He goes on to say that "A resuscitation...does not begin a religion.... It is not what is being claimed by the first Christians." Later he says, "The Christian claim concerning the resurrection in the strong sense is simply not 'historical.' The problem in this case is, however, not with the reality of the resurrection. The problem lies in history's limited mode of knowing."

In common with virtually all of the scholars whose work he castigates, then, Professor Johnson seems not to view the resurrection in the way that Christianity has long insisted — as a real, bodily, historical event — but as a spiritual event that history and science are not equipped to deal with. The value of his book is that it warns us not to take a Newsweek cover story or a Jesus Seminar press release as adequate treatment of these multilayered issues.

The problem I have with The Real Jesus is that Professor Johnson seems to believe that because of these difficulties, ordinary people cannot or should not grapple with these issues on their own, unaided by the church. I don't begrudge him his opinion, and he may be right: That way, as Mann suggested, may lie madness. But I would simply point out as a matter of fact that a lot of ordinary people are grappling with these historical issues, on their own or in a church setting. We are living in an era of radically individual approaches to religion. Why are people streaming into newfangled evangelical/pentacostal churches? Why are crystals and channeling and Eastern religions so popular? Right or wrong, this wandering, Road-Warrior approach to spirituality is a feature of our time.

Professor Johnson zeroes in on one small part of this vast trend — the search for the historical Jesus — and declares that the scholars engaged in it are leading people astray. But he's got it backwards. If anything, the scholars are playing catch-up, following in the wake of a larger cultural ship, attempting to do for traditional Christianity what people in other areas have been doing for some time: Find a way to bring scientific knowing and spiritual knowing together.

This point came out again and again in the dozens of interviews I have conducted with clergy and ordinary Christians who are drawn to historical-Jesus work. They know that historical reconstruction is only educated guesswork, that it isn't divining "the real Jesus," the Christ of Christian faith. Seeing what history and science can add to the picture has not diminished their faith, they say, but deepened it, made it richer and more complex. Professor Johnson himself has developed a personal view of the bedrock event of Christian faith that must seem contradictory to many traditional Catholics: He believes that the resurrection of Jesus was real but that it was not historical and not biological. This view is not contradictory to him because he has meditated on both history and spirituality. Why begrudge others this same opportunity to read and contemplate, to separate the wheat from the chaff and eventually reach their own redefinition of truth, one that suits a world in which science is so indubitably true and yet, we are discovering, so limited?

—Russell Shorto

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Chapter One

The Good News and the Nightly News

Recent years have been very good for the Jesus business in America. I don't mean the Jesus business that goes on in churches, but the profitable trade in Jesus by a variety of publications that by creating a commotion in both the academy and the church also create a media-fed demand for more of the same. Sales in scandal are high, stocks in shock are rising, and futures on the historical Jesus are sound. Commerce in the Christ has rarely been better.

In this bullish market, the most remarkable entrepreneurship has been demonstrated by the Jesus Seminar, a ten-year exercise in academic self-promotion that has succeeded in drawing an extraordinary amount of attention to itself. Indeed, it has come to symbolize, for better or worse, the controversy over "the Historical Jesus." Although it stands as a far better example of media manipulation than of serious scholarship, the Jesus Seminar provides the appropriate starting point for considering the character of the present debate over the Historical Jesus as a moment in a culture war in which the institutions of academy, church, and media are drawn into confused conflict and collusion.

The Jesus Seminar

What is the Jesus Seminar? It is a small, self-selected association of academics who meet twice a year to debate the Historical Jesus. The seminar was founded in 1985 by Robert Funk under the auspices of his Westar Institute in Sonoma, California. The Jesus Seminar has been co-chaired from the beginning by John Dominic Crossan of DePaul University in Chicago. It is Funk,however, who has been the most visible and vocal presence for the public, and the shaper of the Seminar's agenda.

Funk is no stranger to entrepreneurship or controversy. A New Testament scholar of well-established credentials, he is the former executive secretary of the Society of Biblical Literature (SBL), the most comprehensive and important learned society for biblical studies. Under his leadership, the SBL grew in size and ambition, linking up with the American Academy of Religion to form a megasociety whose national meeting gathers thousands of scholars from around the world, and spawning a number of publishing ventures under the sponsorship of the Scholars Press. Funk is, in short, a scholar with broad horizons and a knack for power that is highly personalized. Scholars Press, for example, was created by Robert Funk and followed him from his academic appointment in Missoula, Montana, to Chico, California. His directorship of the Scholars Press, however, came to "an abrupt end" with considerable controversy in 1980 (Council on the Study of Religion Bulletin, Dec. 1981, p. 143).

The Jesus Seminar is not affiliated with either the Society of Biblical Literature or the other international association for New Testament scholars, the Studiorum Novi Testamenti Societas. It does not, therefore, represent anything like a consensus view of scholars working in the New Testament, but only the views of a group that has been — for all its protestations of diversity — self-selected on the basis of a prior agreement concerning the appropriate goals and methods for studying the Gospels and the figure of Jesus. It is, from beginning to end, an entrepreneurial venture guided by Robert Funk.

These observations do not detract from the legitimacy of the Seminar or its right to conduct its business as it chooses. But in the light of its own statements and media coverage, it is appropriate to clarify its precise academic standing. Sometimes, for example, the phrase "some two hundred scholars" has occurred. To someone unacquainted with the immensity and complexity of higher education in America, two hundred scholars may seem an impressively large number. In fact, however, it is a very small number when placed against the number of New Testament scholars alone who are involved in the work of the SBL (at least half of the 6,9oo members of that organization), let alone the thousands more with substantial scholarly training in the New Testament who for personal or ideological reasons do not take part in the society's activities. And even the number two hundred is somewhat misleading, since it includes all those who were part of the Seminar's proceedings in any fashion — by receiving its mailings, for example, or reading its reports. A truer estimate of the number of participants who met regularly, wrote papers, and voted on decisions is closer to forty. The Seminar's climactic publication, The Five Gospels (to be discussed below), lists seventy-four "fellows" of the seminar. The numbers alone suggest that any claim to represent "scholarship 11 or the "academy" is ludicrous.

While the Seminar can count among its members some scholars of notable reputation (Funk and Crossan have both produced significant and well-recognized work), and while the Seminar's work increased the visibility of some others (notably Marcus Borg), the roster of fellows by no means represents the cream of New Testament scholarship in this country. Of the major graduate New Testament faculties, only Claremont is presently represented. Emory University had one participant for a time. Otherwise, the roster of fellows includes no present faculty at Yale, Harvard, Princeton, Duke, Union, Emory, or Chicago. The faculties at such schools are not necessarily hostile to the Seminar's work, but no members of those faculties are participants. The Seminar does not include established scholars from England or the Continent, although it does have some members from Canada and South Africa. Most of the participants are in relatively undistinguished academic positions. Some are not in the strict sense in academic positions at all.

These observations do not reflect on the seriousness or ability of the members. They are meant only to deflate the sometimes grandiose claims made by and for the Seminar as representing critical New Testament scholarship. It patently does no such thing.

Real Jesus, The copyright © by Luke Timothy Johnson. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All Rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.

Meet the Author

Luke Timothy Johnson is Robert W. Woodruff Professor of the New Testament and Christian Origins at the Candler School of Theology, Emory University. A Roman Catholic, Johnson was a Benedictine monk and priest before becoming a biblical scholar. He is the author of several scholarly books and has written for Commonwealth and Christian Century.

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