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Luke Timothy JohnsonAugust 02, 2010

I find myself these days trailing a band of wandering academic troubadors, scholars who are invited by congregations to give lectures as part of adult education programs. More often than not, I follow the likes of Marcus Borg, John Dominic Crossan, N. T. Wright and Bart Ehrman, and I am frequently invited as someone who can “represent another view.” In other words, I am a sidenote to the preferred menu of historical Jesus offerings. When I do offer an alternative way of thinking about the Jesus of the Gospels, there are invariably some in the congregation who find it puzzling that I should be so at odds with what they take to be the best of biblical scholarship. In short, 25 years after the Jesus Seminar started a new round in the historical Jesus controversy and 14 years after I tried (in The Real Jesus) to show how contemporary historical Jesus scholarship was—with some exceptions—bogus, there is still an eager audience for the tune these troubadors sing.

The reasons are not hard to find. The troubadors are, without exception, extraordinary teachers and public speakers with well-earned reputations for instructing in a lively and even entertaining fashion. Mr. Borg and Bishop Wright, moreover, explicitly embrace Christian identity and convey a positive rather than negative sense of what scholarship can offer. Ehrman is a gifted teacher. And Mr. Crossan is sui generis, a man so full of wit and verbal play that I am personally willing to hear him speak on any subject at all. The personal charisma of the speakers is undoubtedly part of the appeal.

The speakers have also effectively marketed their presentations as genuine scholarship; they claim to make publicly available the critical approach that, they suggest, other academics also follow but keep within the professional guild. Congregations and parishes starving for some intellectual stimulus are eager consumers. Few follow closely what biblical scholars are doing. What basis for comparison is available in books from Barnes & Noble? Audiences have little reason to challenge the troubadors’ claim to represent the best the academy has to offer. In fact, were these congregations aware of the desperately trivial character of much academic scholarship, they would be even more willing to accept as vital and necessary the words of those who are providing insight into the figure of Jesus for the church rather than developing another esoteric methodology for the sake of tenure.

Most of all, I think, congregations are truly eager to learn about the human Jesus and too often find what they hear in sermons and Sunday schools to have little intellectual substance or spiritual nourishment. They desire a grown-up faith, and the itinerant speakers appear to offer a quicker, more interesting path to such maturity than is available through traditional practices of faith. For those schooled to value information over insight, the offer of historical knowledge about Jesus seems just the ticket.

Limits of History

There is absolutely nothing wrong with studying Jesus as a historical figure, and if we so study him, it is correct to bracket the premises of faith. The sort of project undertaken by Msgr. J. P. Meier in A Marginal Jew, which tests what elements in the Gospel accounts can be historically verified, is perfectly legitimate and yields genuine results. But as Monsignor Meier himself recognizes, the empirically verifiable Jesus is by no means the “real” Jesus. It is more than legitimate, moreover, to learn as much history as possible about the first-century world of Jesus. The point of this knowledge, however, is to become better and more responsible readers of the Gospels themselves. It is not to deconstruct the Gospel narratives in order to reconstruct a “historical Jesus” and claim thereby to have discovered who Jesus really was. Still less is it to propose such a reconstruction as normative for Christians today.

History is a limited way of knowing reality. Dependent on the fragmentary bits of what was observed, recorded, saved and transmitted from the past, recognizing that all human witness is biased and cautious about speculating beyond available evidence, responsible historians know they deal only in probabilities, not certainties. Theirs is a descriptive art rather than a prescriptive science. And in the case of Jesus and the Gospels, the critical problems facing all historical reconstruction are extreme, warning investigators against pushing against the limits. Thus, historians can assert with greater or lesser probability certain facts about Jesus (his death by crucifixion) or certain patterns of his ministry (speaking in parables) or even certain incidents (his baptism by John). But historians cannot on the basis of those probable conclusions offer an alternative narrative or interpretation from those found in the Gospels.

Just such a pushing of the limits of responsible historiography, however, just such an offering of alternatives to the Gospels is what has propelled the entire historical Jesus project, today as in the past. Three aspects of the project are objectionable even when one grants the legitimacy of using history for Jesus. First, history cannot deliver what the historical Jesus project promises, namely a solid version of Jesus other than that of the Gospels. Second, the effort to reconstruct such an alternative Jesus leads to a distortion of the methods that belong to sober historiography. Third, and most sadly, the Jesus offered as an alternative is often a mirror image of the scholar’s own ideals. It is not surprising, then, that virtually every sort of Jesus reconstructed by scholars in this generation is based solidly on the Jesus of the Gospel of Luke, for this is the Jesus we most admire—political, public, prophetic, the one who includes the marginal and challenges the status of the powerful. In this sense, the multiple versions of the “historical Jesus” often presented by lecture or by book today have precisely the same status as apocryphal gospels in the early church: They can entertain and sometimes even instruct, but they are not a foundation on which to build the church.

An Alternative

So what do I offer the congregations who invite me to share my “alternative view”? I try to affirm their desire for a mature and intellectually alive faith and encourage the study of history as a means for a more responsible reading of the Gospels. I am convinced that the more genuine a sense of historical study such seeking Christians gain, the less they will be prey to the distortions of those who trade on the title of historian while offering only a form of personal apocrypha. But I emphasize that the real point of historical knowledge is not the dismantling of the Gospels but a fuller engagement with the Gospel narrative. One of the perhaps surprising results of the best historical study of first-century Palestine, I point out, is that the incidental information provided by the Gospels concerning Jesus’ political and cultural context and religious environment tends to confirm rather than disprove the information about those matters in the Gospels.

More important, I try to show how encountering Jesus as a literary character in each of the canonical Gospels makes possible a more profound, satisfying and ultimately more “historical” knowledge of the human Jesus than that offered by scholarly reconstructions. Once readers recognize and begin to appreciate the diverse portraits of Jesus found in the Gospels, not as the poor offerings of historical sources but as the rich witness of faith, they begin to sense that the human Jesus is a far richer and elusive reality than either superficial belief or superficial historical scholarship would suggest. Such literary appreciation of the Gospels also leads to the insight that despite their divergent perspectives and themes, they converge impressively precisely on the historical issue that is of the most vital importance concerning the human Jesus, namely his character. What sort of person was Jesus? Each Gospel witnesses to the truth that Jesus as a human being was defined first by his radical obedience to God and second by his utter self-giving to others. This Jesus of the Gospels is the same Jesus found in the letters of Paul and Peter and in the Letter to the Hebrews. It is the historic Christ who shaped the identity of Christian discipleship through the ages and generated prophetic reform in every age of the church.

‘He Lives Now’

Most of all, I try to remind my audience that the entire quest for the historical Jesus is a massive deflection of Christian awareness from its proper focus: learning the living Jesus—the resurrected and exalted Lord present to believers through the power of the Holy Spirit—in the common life and common practices of the church. To concentrate on “the historical Jesus,” as though the ministry of Jesus as reconstructed by scholarship were of ultimate importance for the life of discipleship, is to forget the most important truth about Jesus—namely, that he lives now as Lord in the full presence and power of God and presses upon us at every moment not as a memory of the past but as a presence that defines our present. If Jesus is simply a dead man of the past, then knowing him through historical reconstruction is necessary and inevitable. But if he lives in the present as powerful and commanding Lord, then he must be learned through the obedience of faith.

Jesus is best learned not as a result of an individual’s scholarly quest that is published in a book, but as a continuing process of personal transformation within a community of disciples. Jesus is learned through the faithful reading of the Scriptures, true, but he is learned as well through the sacraments (above all the Eucharist), the lives of saints (dead and living) and the strangers with whom the exalted Lord especially associates himself. Next to such a difficult and complex form of learning Jesus as he truly is—the life-giving Spirit who enlivens above all the assembly called the body of Christ—the investigations of historians, even at their best, seem but a drab and impoverished distraction.

Such is the tune I sing as I follow in the train of the troubadors dancing before me through the scattered parishes and congregations of this country. It is an old song, what St. Augustine called the “alleluia song.” But it is also always new and always renewing.

Listen to a conversation with Luke Timothy Johnson.

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Eduardo Garza Mora
13 years 9 months ago

Excellent article: it is time for Christianity to remember where the truth historical Jesus can be found.

In separate events Peter and Paul defended their faith based on the historical truth of the events that surrounded the life of Jesus. And that historical truth did include extraordinary events, which we call supernatural. Trying to reconstruct an historical Jesus excluding the extraordinary events that surrounded his life is therefore only a partial reconstruction: the so call historical Jesus is then a cartoonish version of the true Jesus who walked this hearth.

Extracting from Jesus these extraordinary events (which is quite similar to excluding the Gospels as an historical reliable reference of the life of Jesus) may be driven by two different reasons. On one hand, many scholars think they would look foolish if they accept extraordinary events as actual events that occurred in this hearth: in order to look professional and in tune with the prevailing rationalistic trend, they rather take the safer approach to extirpate all those events from the life of Jesus. On the other hand are those with a personal agenda: they do not like the teachings of the Gospels, so the best approach is to claim that the Gospels are not truly reliable, as – according to those “scholars” – in the Gospels the actual historical truth was manipulated to serve the personal agenda of some of the early Christians.

To make a point: the Catholic Church does not believe in the resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth because otherwise our faith would be vain. The Catholic Church believes in the resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth because it is a historical fact. Truth and faith are blended together and are inseparable.

Let’s make no mistake, the Jesus of the Gospels is the truth historical Jesus.
13 years 8 months ago
Professor Luke Timothy Johnson write convincingly on the often controversial scholarship issue of the "historical Jesus." His presentation clarifies the murky attempts of some others, doing so especially with the golden nib of Faith, dipped into the indelible brilliant  fluid source of Divine Revelation  spotlighting the Divine persona of Jesus, apart from which there can be no satisfactory conclusion.

Others not so honest, deal with what seems to me to be like a "Jack-in-the-box" approach, or a "pop tart" mentality. I mean a "now you see me, now you don't" adventurism, giving Jesus a kind of periodic re-resurrection, "the stone rolled back"  by their restless spirit. To me, these people are like New Testament agnostics, some even, perhaps, closet anti-Christian antagonists, a few may actually be  bona fide scholars who have lost their way listening to "teachers with itching ears!" The whole thing seems to be an exercise in a kind of humorless drollery, out of which, as with as with any "heresy" a grain of truth may emerge. Jaded as their scholarship of the "historical Jesus" is, valuable informational nuggets may be uncovered, which end up as jewels in the Crown of the King of Kings!

On the contrary, Professor Johnson's scholarship sets the heart on fire with an Emmaus-like  experience as he  speaks, a predictable part of every authentic confirmation, or re-confirmation in Christ by the Holy Spirit. It swells the heart and,
illumines the mind, sets free the soul to soar like a dove, or like an eagle, singing Augustine's "Alleluia Song" as Professor Johnson suggests.

 Let me suggest, perhaps too simply,  that "historical Jesus" scholarship is  like a piece of fruit. The above-mentioned New Testamment agnostics et al, eat the meat and discard the core where the seeds reside. Professor Johnson and his ilk get down to the core, retrieve its seed, planting it in the soul-soil of Faith-enlightened scholarship and the GRAPEVINE which is Jesus takes root and flourishes! We are its branches!  
Michael Olson
13 years 8 months ago

St. Paul in Hebrews 13:8  tells us "Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today, and forever."
That's quite a historical statement!  It is known and documented that Jesus has been showing up in history  as well as in our time, in the lives of many, yes, in the lives of saints like St. Teresa of Avila, but also in the lives of many "ordinary" people.  The content of those encounters is often surprising, which may be an understatement.   

An interesting book on this subject is SACRED ENCOUNTERS with Jesus
by G. Scott Sparrow, Ed.D.  While the author is not himself a Catholic, the book bears a NIHIL OBSTAT by the Censor Librorum and an IMPRIMATUR from the Bishop of Dallas, September 16, 2002.  That whole scenario is a bit of church history in itself and perhaps one of the reasons people seek ways of encountering Jesus, "the same yesterday, today, and forever"  in ways that are meaningful to them.
Patricia Coppolino
13 years 8 months ago
A very interesting article.  I have read some of Bart Ehrman's work and am now working my way through Msgr. Meier's "A Marginal Jew," so it is interesting to read this perspective on the historical Jesus scholarship.  Msgr. Meier states up front in his work that knowing the historical Jesus is not at all the same as knowing the "real" Jesus, a point that Prof. Johnson notes in his article. Knowing the "real" Jesus is ultimately an exercise in faith, not fact.  After all, if everything in the Gospels could be proven historically, Christianity would not require faith any more than believing George Washington was our first president would require faith.  

Still, I do believe that the historical Jesus scholarship is important to what Prof. Johnson calls the "desire for a mature and intellectually alive faith" and an historically "responsible reading of the Gospel."  To me, this means stripping away (or at least reevaluating) the "embellishments" of Jesus' teaching added by the institutional Catholic Church and by Christians down through the ages.  

I am skeptical of the claim that these institutional Church "embellishments" of Jesus' teaching are uniformly divinely inspired.  On how many occasions do the Gospels reflect Jesus' frustration that his disciples just didn't get it?  As human beings, they interpreted Jesus' teaching with regard to their own understanding of the world, which is not what Jesus intended.  And while scripture records that "their eyes were opened" to the truth of Jesus divinity after the resurrection, I'm not convinced that this holds true for everything recorded in the NT.  Human beings are still human beings, and they see things in the light that enhances their own worldly authority, theological preferences, and view of social order.

Moreover, the words "scripture says" have been used to justify all manner of human oppression through the ages, from demonization of Jews, to the torture of the Inquisition, to the persecution of scientists like Galileo and Teilhard, to the enslavement of Africans, to the marginalization of women, right down to the present pedophile cover-up.  So, to me, it is useful to know what Jesus and his apostles actually taught, and historical Jesus scholarship is the tool for uncovering this.  

And one final point:  As a woman, I can assure Prof. Johnson that is is hardly "trivial" to me whether Paul actually taught that women should be "submissive" or if, as Prof. Ehrman suggests, that (and similar) language was added to Paul's writing by the early Church to justify the marginalization of women.
David Nickol
13 years 8 months ago
I suppose this approach is fine for those who are already committed Christians, but what about those who are uncertain? Luke Timothy Johnson's approach requires a great deal of faith - faith that the early Church chose wisely as they gradually fixed the canon, faith that the evangelists correctly interpreted their sources, faith that oral tradition was passed along without any significant distortion, and faith that those around Jesus understood what he was saying. It seems to me Johnson is asking us to believe that sharing the faith of those who wrote about Jesus is having faith in Jesus. 

Also, if the Catholic Church is going to put such great weight on a particular saying of Jesus (for example, on the indissolubility of marriage), it seems to me critically important to know exactly what he said and what he meant. What Jesus says about marriage in Mark 10 is more strict  than what he says in Matthew 5, and Paul invents a loophole. Of course, if you believe the Church is guided by the Holy Spirit and can't be wrong, then you take the Church's word that Jesus intended an absolute prohibition on divorce and remarriage. 

It may be that the search for the historical Jesus is futile - one definitive portrait - but certainly the historical-critical method is extremely useful.

Also, at least from the viewpoint of the nonbeliever or the almost-believer, the fact that there are no accounts of Jesus written by those who were not intent on proselytizing makes a critical examination of the Gospels a necessity. What followers write about a charismatic leader cannot always be taken at face value. 
David Nickol
13 years 8 months ago
Just an addendum to the above. Not all of those pursuing the historical Jesus are believing Christians. Bart Ehrman is an agnostic, and Géza Vermes is Jew. Johnson's “alternative view” is not open to them.
James Caruso
13 years 8 months ago
Regarding the article by Luke Timothy Johnson

13 years 8 months ago
Luke Timothy Johnson, for my money, is overly generous to the Jesus crowd he is "following." He is like a one man truth squad trying to clean up after these guys. A generation ago, atheist lecturers on the Chatauqua circuit used to hold up a watch and dare God to strike them dead. These guys are slicker. They ask people to prove Christ rose from the dead or else. We have had the canonical gospels for close to 2,000 years and they have served us well. Jesus warned about chasing after the false prophets. Luke Timothy Johnson isn't chasing after them. He is pursuing them. 
Leonard Villa
13 years 8 months ago
The Christ of history/ Christ of faith distinction never had a Catholic pedigree and was rejected by John Paul II in his encyclical on the missions.(Redemptoris Missio #6)  Vatican II teaches that the Gospels give us what Jesus really said and did.(Dei Verbum #19)  The real issue is what is history?  Did no history exist before the so-called historical-critical method?  That method itself has a history and is subject to philosophical and theological criticism as to its science and scholarship. Moreover different schools using the critical method have come up with very different results: the Tubuengen types, the British scholars, the Scandanavian Upsula school. Luke Timothy Johnson seems to holds on to the Christ of history/Christ of faith distinction. I wish he would have gone into more fully the notion of history advanced by Crossan, Ehrman, and Meier and its philosophical presuppositions.
13 years 8 months ago

"Cogito ergo sum"  the filosophical justification for subjective interpretations for all reality,includng revelation.   How alive it is in today´s subjective society.

Joe Pettit
13 years 8 months ago

I take the shorter version of Johnson to go like this: good theology cannot be derived from historical studies alone.  With this, I am in complete agreement.  Anyone who thinks that historical investigation into Jesus will finally determine the proper theological understanding of Jesus is confused, and has at least committed a category error, of sorts.

That said, I think Johnson completely overlooks one of principle reasons people get interested in the historical Jesus.  Beyond an interest in the humanity of Jesus, which is what Johnson proposes, I think there is also a strong sense that some very traditional claims about Jesus are not credible.  Consider:

1) If evolution is true, then there was no “Adam and Eve,” Jesus cannot literally be the “New Adam,” nor can he have any salvific relationship to an “original sin,” if that sin is understood as a specific act by an original person in time.

2) The various fulfillment texts in the NT are almost certainly a literary device used by the gospel writers to promote their gospel narrative, and not actual historical occurrences verifying the authenticity of Jesus’s messianic status.  Beyond the fulfillment texts themselves is the question of the widely held belief that the gospels are themselves historically true, a belief that is impossible to hold after careful reading of the texts.  Johnson himself refers to the literary character of the gospels and to the diverse understandings of Jesus present in them, but then seems entirely unwilling to wonder if many Christians would find such claims unnerving.

3) As Joseph Fitzmeyer recently demonstrated (The One Who Is To Come), the Christian use of the term messiah as applied to Jesus bears little theological resemblance to the Jewish uses of the term.  If Jesus was a Jew, and if his earliest followers were Jews, it does not indicate a simplistic reliance on history to wonder if there has not been some very important theological innovation in the Christian appeal to the messianic status of Jesus.  Such theological innovation might also be suspected in uses of the phrase “Son of God,” but, here again, the point is not to use history to prove something right or wrong, but rather to begin to wonder how firm the authoritative foundation has been for making such claims.

4) Biblical studies show that it is almost certain that the earliest followers of Jesus expected an imminent Second Coming.  It does not indicate a simplistic reliance on history to wonder where they got this idea from, and what it might mean that they got it so wrong, and that now 2,000 years have passed without the Second Coming, one still wonders about this early confidence.

5) Biblical and historical studies strongly suggest a much, much more Jewish Jesus than traditional Christian thought has admitted, and so various anti-Jewish theologies that have come hand in glove with various theological claims about Jesus are seen to be unpersuasive.

Many more examples could be raised, all of which make the same point: there are well informed reasons to wonder about the credibility of many traditional theological claims about Jesus. 

Of course, what a living church must do with such problems is proclaim a credible gospel while attending to the best of historical studies.  Consider what Johnson does in the above article.  The core gospel affirmation is this:

Such literary appreciation of the Gospels also leads to the insight that despite their divergent perspectives and themes, they converge impressively precisely on the historical issue that is of the most vital importance concerning the human Jesus, namely his character. What sort of person was Jesus? Each Gospel witnesses to the truth that Jesus as a human being was defined first by his radical obedience to God and second by his utter self-giving to others.

If this is the theological core that Johnson wishes to run with, more power to him.  I think there are a lot of Christians who could affirm this Jesus (and Jews and Muslims for that matter!) without worrying about other theological claims regarding Jesus that are less credible.

Finally, what about faith?  Johnson seems to suggest that anything but a robust faith in the creedal Jesus indicates something of a lack of trying on one’s part, and I find this very troubling.  Even he looks for theological language that circumvents the creeds.  For example,
To concentrate on “the historical Jesus,” as though the ministry of Jesus as reconstructed by scholarship were of ultimate importance for the life of discipleship, is to forget the most important truth about Jesus—namely, that he lives now as Lord in the full presence and power of God and presses upon us at every moment not as a memory of the past but as a presence that defines our present.
Even Johnson’s Jesus lives now “in” the full presence and power of God, and not “as” the full presence and power of God..  In this sense, Jesus is an icon of God.  But to suggest that the Jesus in whom Christians should place their faith is a theologically obvious Jesus, rather than one that must be searched for again and again, is simply to suggest that nothing at all has happened since humans first encountered the man from Nazareth.

[cross-posted on a dotCommonweal discussion of this article]

Joe Pettit
13 years 8 months ago
My apologies for the formatting issues in my above post.  To the Powers that Be at America, please feel free to correct them and to delete this post.
13 years 8 months ago
Thanks to the author for again revealing the true nature of this group & their co-horts,  many of whom were not mentioned  in this article, in their attempt  to not only de-Christify Orthodox Christianity but also to establish an emerging Para-christian church.I have seen , heard & read in their talks , books & DVD's a theme that is attractive to all those individuals who are dis-satified  with the present structure & positions of the Catholic Church in matters of faith & morals.

As a physician who teaches bio-ethics to medical students & residents , motive is alway a chief principal in deciding whether an action is valid, moral & ethical.  So, I ask what can be the motive that leads such a group to promulgate their slogans & ideas. ?  I have a hunch that unhappiness may play a role in some of their decision making actions along with with past hurts that they may have encountered with the Church.. Taking a cue from Pascal I believe them to be good, rational people in search of God but who at present have not found Him & are unhappy.

Furthermore, when reviewing their material either in person or secondarily a sense of spiritual elitism seems to manifest itself in their presentations..In fact, my present Pastor, who is an avid follower of some of these individuals once told me during one of their DVD presentations that I had not reached the higher level he had achieved because of my dualistic personality..Give me dualism or give me death!!

Thus, what is all this about ? Jesus, of course!! Keep it simple stupid..And the surest way to find Him is to go to the Tabernacle in any Catholic Church & you will encounter Him where "He Lives Now".
13 years 8 months ago
I just want to say that I liked this article very much.  I think it is very important to begin with and be guided by the Gospels, treasured for two thousand years, as we search in knowledge and prayer for Jesus.
13 years 8 months ago
If someone quacks like a secularist, or walks like a secularist, can he be anything other than a secularist? I'm talking about Post #11 by Joe Pettit, which convinces me he's a full blown secularist, who with one swish of his "pen" tries to demolish millennia of Christianity, nullifying Catholicism and its Pauline/Patristic input. This means he ends up neither Christian, nor Catholic, even if he might think he is! Who cares about "format" which seems to be his concern - it's what he says that counts and I find his arrogance very upsetting, so upsetting that I can't keep my mouth shut!

It goes without saying that I disagree with everything he says and although I'd like to tackle his remarks one, by one, I'll single out one very important assertion said early on as follows. "If evolution is true, then there was no Adam and Eve (and) Jesus cannot literally be the 'New Adam" nor can he have any salvific relationship to an 'original sin' ... ".

First off, it's not a matter of "if" - evolution is part of the  deposit of Natural Divine Truth revealed through scientific revelation. Pope John Paul II admitted as much in public statements and even Augustine (354-430) spoke of "mitigated evolution" at least in "lower forms of life." If he had the data we have today, he might conclude, that the evolution of the species is the way the Triune God chose to create everything, sharing if you will the fundamental characteristic of the Divine lifestyle, wherein Trinitarian procession in Undivided Unity evolves everlastingly without beginning, or end, one from the other total and complete.  I would concur. Indeed, everything in some way or the other evolved and in some cases continue to evolve, in meaningful procession. 

So then, according to the natural order of things, when did God "discover" Adam and Eve? Or better put, when did Adam and Eve "discover" God? Everything in Revelation is about the "discovery of God," Eden's folly pre-eminently so! However, or whenever it happened, therein we have the beginning of Salvation History vaguely sketched in Genesis and millions of years in the making, all the handiwork of God for Whom one day is like a million years and a million years like one day.

Respectfully then, within that frame discover the arrival of sin, also the legitimacy of Jesus as the "New Adam" and his salvific relationship to humanity, indeed to all materiality as the Incarnation demonstrates. Therein lies on its deathbed secularism, spawned from the spew of the tyranny of relativism.

Yes, Revelation happened within the folds of the mantle of evolution, the God-designed "security blanket" wrapped around all materiality, eminently from the Creator. It is a type of "Joseph's Coat of Many Colors" the "many  colors" being the multi-facetted zig-zag of evolutionary outcomes, held together by Divine Providence "Who orders all things sweetly." Rethink your premise, Joe, for we are the offspring of a mighty God who sings as Frank Sinatra did, "I did it MY way!" Jesus is Lord!
Joe Pettit
13 years 8 months ago
I regret upsetting you.  That was not my intention.  I think this is probably not the place to discuss the Trinitarian nature of evolution, but I will give it some thought.
13 years 8 months ago
Joe, regarding your #16 post I have no intention of getting into a lengthy  "I say, you say" exchange in postings, but I do want to acknowledge your response briefly, to mine
saying simply, thanks for responding and suggesting that you do look into the hypothetical that, the "Unknowable One" is infact, an Evolutionary Being. Also do as Dr. Carrozza post #13 suggested - spend time before the Tabernacle, there to get info on the "historical Jesus" possible nowhere else. 
David Nickol
13 years 8 months ago
Bruce Snowden:

The problem of evolution and Adam and Eve is more difficult than you make it out to be, and although this is not the forum in which to debate it, let me just clarify - at least from my point of view - where the difficulty lies. According to the Catechism of the Catholic Church, "390  The account of the fall in Genesis 3 uses figurative language, but affirms a primeval event, a deed that took place at the beginning of the history of man. Revelation gives us the certainty of faith that the whole of human history is marked by the original fault freely committed by our first parents." For this to be true, the entire human race would have to be descended from two individuals who lived recently enough to be sufficiently developed intellectually and morally to be culpable for an act of such magnitude that all of humanity suffered for it and required a Redeemer to repair the damage. 

Geneticists tell us that the most recent female common ancestor (mitochondrial Eve) lived about 150 thousand years ago in Africa, and the most recent male common ancestor (Y-chrosomal Adam) lived about 65 thousand years ago, also in Africa. So "Adam" and "Eve" never met. Exactly how accurate those findings may be is open to question, but the weight of scientific evidence is clearly against the idea that the entire human race descended from two parents. 
13 years 8 months ago
David, I don't like to get involved in multiple posts and hope this is the end of it.

 All I want to say relative to your response is, if you're right, what fools we Believers have been!  Revelation debunked!Of course I believe you're wrong in that under the Fatherhood of God and the Brotherhood of Jesus we become the family of God, with Adam and Eve not our only biological First Parents,  but rather  the specially chosen First Parents of Humanity at large chosen by God whenever and however he did, on the way to redemption via Revelation  specifically the Incarnation. So much more that needs to be said, but enoughs aid simply plainly and without glo I add - not simple, but simplistic you might say.

 If Believers are right a lot of debunkers are in for a big surprise! Thanks for your post. 
David Nickol
13 years 8 months ago
Bruce, I don't think dividing everyone up into two groups - believers and debunkers - is really warranted. When I was in Catholic grade school in the 1950s, we were taught that the story of Adam and Eve was literally true. Now it is the position of the Church that the story is in figurative language. We were taught that babies who died without being baptized went to Limbo. Now we are told that was never really an *official* teaching. I can only imagine what would have happened if I had told the nuns I didn't believe in Limbo! Fifty or a hundred years ago, who would have dreamed that a Pope (a Polish Pope!) would apologize to the Jews for the part the Church had played in anti-Semitism? The Church in some cases "debunks" itself - and quite rightly so. I personally would not demand that a Christian - in order to qualify as a "believer" - assent to the teaching that the human race descended from two parents.
Tammy Gottschling
13 years 8 months ago
First, I would like to thank Johnson for his articles that I enjoy reading and reflecting on from a Catholic theological perspective.  That said, the apologetics posted by Joe Pettit I found articulate, coherent and challenging beliefs or wrestling with Johnson's premise.  
If propositions are not the ultimate object of faith, but the proximate objects of faith; both arguments, in my opinion, presented the reader with substance to think about. A foundational belief of Christianity is Faith and Reason are friends and should take one's intellect closer to the truth, that is God.   Bravo! 
13 years 8 months ago


Thank you for printing Luke Timothy Johnson’s article in America’s August 2 issue. Although I wish the editors had limited the article to the last three paragraphs entitled, ‘He Lives Now’. The first three-quarters of the article left me asking, why is America printing this? Here are a few of the bumps I encountered.

In Paragraph 1, Johnson mentions “Marcus Borg, John Dominic Crossan, N. T. Wright and Bart Ehrman” in one breathe, and introduces the four with “the likes of Marcus Borg,...” creating the impression the four men are alike in their theology and historical conclusions. But anyone who has read “The Meaning of Jesus,” or the newer “The Meaning of Jesus: Two Visions” by N.T. Wright and Marcus Borg knows Wright is different in both approach and conclusion from Borg, Crossan or Ehrman. When Johnson writes, “I do offer an alternative way of thinking about the Jesus of the Gospels,” or “that I should be so at odds with what they take to be the best of biblical scholarship,” or when he refers to the four as “The troubadours” he strengthens the impression the four are monolithic, and he alone stands in opposition to each of the others. Finally, Johnson refers to “the Jesus Seminar” and “the historical Jesus controversy,” as if Wright were part of this, and shares the agnostic and skeptical thinking of Crossan and Ehrman. Why would Johnson employ argumentation that is misleading, and appears to be unfairly self-serving?

In paragraphs 2, 3 and 4, when Johnson says, “The speakers have ... effectively marketed their presentations as genuine scholarship,...” he creates the impression, for those unfamiliar with the four, that their work is not genuine scholarship. When he writes, “were these congregations aware of the desperately trivial character of much academic scholarship,” he creates the impression he is speaking of these four men, and reduces their work to triviality without justifying this. These and other terms and phrases in these paragraphs are at best inaccurate and unfair, and sound like a poorly crafted attempt to discredit his rivals ad hominem. Finally, when he bemoans the popularity of “itinerant speakers,” he gives me the impression he is jealous, and willing to be unprofessional in his critique.

Limits of History

In the Limits of History, Johnson refers to “the “real” Jesus,” as if he and those who agree with him are the only ones who know the real historical Jesus. But he never offers evidence for this claim. When he says, “The point of this knowledge ... is to reconstruct a ‘historical Jesus’ and claim thereby to have discovered who Jesus really was,” he does not explain why the point could not be to deconstruct the Gospel narratives and reconstruct a “historical Jesus” in order to discover who the historical Jesus really was. Again, when he claims, “historians cannot on the basis of those probable conclusions offer an alternative narrative or interpretation from those found in the Gospels,” he does not justify himself. He labels these methods: “pushing of the limits of responsible historiography,” and as such denies the good these efforts might produce. He refers to “sober historiography” without adequately defining and defending what he means. And when he says,“most sadly, the Jesus offered as an alternative is often a mirror image of the scholar’s own ideals,” is he not mirroring his own bias—presenting a Jesus as an image his personal ideals? And when he refers to Luke’s Jesus as “the Jesus we most admire,” who is the “we” he refers to?

An Alternative

What is the “superficial historical scholarship” Johnson refers to? Is it the work of Borg, Crossan, Wright and Ehrman? Has Johnson argued convincingly that their work is superficial? While I agree that “Each Gospel witnesses to the truth that Jesus as a human being was defined first by his radical obedience to God and second by his utter self-giving to others,” I disagree that “This Jesus of the Gospels is the same Jesus found in the letters of Paul.” Paul did not write of the historical Jesus. He wrote of the Risen Christ who revealed himself and his message to Paul. Likewise, when Johnson writes, “It is the historic Christ who shaped the identity of Christian discipleship through the ages and generated prophetic reform in every age of the church,” he is not clear if he means the historic risen Christ, or the historic earthly Jesus. If the former, I agree; if the latter, I think he is wrong. It was not the historical Jesus who inspired Peter, James and the Council of Jerusalem agree with Paul’s request to free Greek Christians from certain Mosaic regulations. It was the Spirit of the Risen Christ. We could say the same for other councils and movements. Christian discipleship, since the time of Paul, has primarily been formed by this Spirit acting in creation and through the discerning faith lives of Christian disciples. Johnson affirms this in the final section, but he seems to contradict himself with his efforts to invalidate his rivals.

Finally, I wonder why Johnson did not mention contemporary Catholic scripture scholars or biblical historians. His article could create the impression that only the four troubadours and he are worthy subjects of discussion.

J.F. Izzo, S.J., Fresno, CA

August 4, 2010

David Nickol
13 years 8 months ago
Fr. Izzo,

Lots of good points.

As I recall, in The Real Jesus, Luke Timothy Johnson in a couple of instances looks askance at the work of Raymond E. Brown. Does Johnson consider himself on one side and virtually everyone else on the other (wrong) side?  
Norman Costa
13 years 8 months ago
I felt Luke Timothy Johnson's essay was very defensive. It reminded me of some small tracts in the church pamphlet rack in the 1950s and 1960s. The hot topics, back then, were the discoveries of ancient texts near the Dead Sea and Nag Hamadi, Eqypt. These pamphlets were addressed to Catholics who knew very little, and read next to nothing, about the Hebrew bible and Christian testament. The purpose was, clearly, to assure Catholics that these discoveries would not disprove the Church's claim to authenticity and authority. If future disclosures were to suggest the contrary, Catholics were cautioned, ahead of time, that such claims could not be true, anyway.
In my view, reactions to critical comments, above, were clearly ad hominem - or at least close to it. Painting a commenter with the broad brush of a label of opprobrium does not an argument make. Unfortunately, Johnson tends toward this, himself. It is entirely unnecessary. State your argument, put it up against the opposition, and let it stand on its own merits. There is always a place for a little banter among intellectual colleagues, but that is not what we see.
I thought I would continue with a more detailed criticism of Johnson's piece, and offer my insightful and incisive commentary. Well, Father Izzo and David Nichol beat me to it, and more insightful and incisive than I would have done. So all I can say is:
What Father Izzo and David Nichol said.
Edwin Steinmann, JD
13 years 8 months ago

Elsewhere (e.g., “The Real Jesus,” p. 134ff), Johnson asserts that Christianity actually started with the resurrection experiences of Jesus’ followers. I have had a truly profound “resurrection experience” of the risen Jesus in a visionary (mystical) experience. Having paid attention to my dreams for more than 25 years, I have no doubt that the mind that created that resurrected-Jesus experience/vision is the same mind that created all my dreams as well as the dreams/visions recorded in the OT and NT.  Isn’t it about time, theologians zero in on what the psychiatrists/psychologists term the “unconscious,” at least its dream/vision-making activity—as opposed to speaking in terms of “Jesus-the resurrected and exalted Lord present to believers through the power of the Holy Spirit-in the common life and common practices of the church”?  If theologians, generally speaking, aren’t aware of the correspondence between the unconscious and the Holy Spirit with respect to the dreams/visions of the OT and NT, including resurrection experiences, and such experiences today, well, that’s pretty sad. Johnson’s language sounds archaic to my ears-and lacking in psychological awareness.  My two cents.

13 years 8 months ago
It was with interest that I read Luke Timothy Johnson's "the Jesus Controversy."  Johnson points to a critical need when he refers to 'parishes starving for intellectual stimulus."  A cradle Catholic, I found as I grew up that much that was taught & said often seemed to have little to do with day to day life. In recent years I began to work with a spiritual director, a lifelong Jesuit, a true gift.  He introduced me to Borg's "Meeting Jesus Again for the First Time..."  This book opened Jesus to me in ways that few sermons ever had. I have since read other works and taken a weekend seminar with John Dominic Crossan at Loyola University.
Johnson's article disappoints as he seems to fall into two traps: 'argumentum ad hominem' and misrepresentation. From referring to most historical Jesus scholarship as "bogus" to his closing "Such is the tune I sing as I follow in the train of the troubadours dancing before me..." Johnson glibly attacks rather than convinces.
Substantively, I am struck by the misrepresentation of much of what he says. Borg makes it quite clear in his work that the Gospels are true if not literally factual in every aspect. Borg would, I think, quickly acknowledge the importance of seeing the Gospels as "the rich witness of faith." Yet Johnson presents the Jesus Seminar as opposed to this.
Quite to the contrary, the Jesus Seminar does not see Jesus as "simply a dead man of the past." To say this is to completely miss the intent of their work.
Johnson suggests that "personal transformation within a community of disciples" must occur within "the common life and common practices of the church." A most interesting & to me, limited approach. Such common practices as a male dominated hierarchy? Such practices as misleading the faithful into thinking that the church has had a celibate priesthood from the very beginning rather than just since the 12th century?"
"Transformation within a community of disciples" cannot grow and develop in the current experience of Sunday Mass as Johnson so aptly describes:  "sermons...(that) have little intellectual substance or spiritual nourishment."
I'm left with a question: Is Luke Timothy Johnson objecting to the Jesus Seminar and similar work because it goes against his preconceived preferences?  Certainly his thinly veiled attack suggest this to me. I have to wonder if he is not in fact guilty of that which he accuses others.
Norman Costa
13 years 8 months ago
Ed Steinmann:
It is my personal view that everyone should celebrate the spiritual/mystical experiences of others. All of us should be grateful for the enlightenment we receive in our own spiritual/mystical encouters with God, the numinous, a higher power, a transcendence.
I think it is a mistake when we generalize our understanding of how it works for us into a prescription for how it should work for others. Are we really going to find a 'mechanism' for a spiritual life? There is no such thing as the unconscious. There is no place in the brain where the unconscious lies. The unconscious is a concept used to describe mental life and behavior in terms of being accessible to conscious thought. The unconscious, itself, does not exist.
Let's not feel sad that others do not approach an understanding of transcending experiences in the same way we do. I've heard other people say they feel sorry for those who do not think and feel the way they do. Let's rejoice in our own spiritual encounters, and hope that others will find their own way to the same experiences. When they do, we will all rejoice with them.
Edwin Steinmann, JD
13 years 8 months ago

Mr. Costa,

The "unconscious" is just a word that psychiatrists/psychologists use, in part, to refer to that which creates dreams in us every night-and visions sometimes also.  If they could come up with a better word, I’m sure they would. One could, if one preferred, call the dream-making mind the "Holy Spirit" or "God".  For example, this from Abraham Lincoln (Jim Bishop, “The Day Lincoln was Shot,” Harper and Row, 1955, at 54):

“It seems strange how much there is in the Bible about dreams. There are, I think, some sixteen chapters in the Old Testament and four or five in the New in which dreams are mentioned; and there are many other passages scattered throughout the book which refer to visions. If we believe the Bible, we must accept the fact that, in the old days, God and his angels came to men in their sleep and made themselves known in dreams.”

I agree with Mr. Rivera’s post (#26) that Johnson in his ad hominem and unseemly attacks upon Borg, the Jesus Seminar, et al. has just erected straw men and knocked them down-and made himself look foolish in doing so.

13 years 8 months ago
Although I do not know Luke Timothy Johnson personally but have read articles
that he has written along with  several of his books I would consider it an honor & blessing to be both his brother & friend. Truth Always!! Always Truth!!
PS. the above affirmation also applies to all the other individuals that have commented on the Jesus Controversy article.
James Lindsay
13 years 8 months ago
Redefining our conception of Jesus is necessary from time to time, because he is one of us and our understanding of ourselves is growing over time.  Much of what passes for tradition was really the thinking of the day when it was set into doctrine, reflecting the understanding of human nature in whatever century that thinking occurred.  It is no more to be priviledged than the current day's thinking.

There are also more people thinking about and experiencing Jesus in the Gospels today.  In prior days, most of Christendom was illiterate and the Gospels were beyond their reach, locked into an ancient language.  Jesus in the venacular is much more accessible.

No Gospel tells the whole story, even regarding the passion.  For example, some scriptures have Jesus promising to not drink of the fruit of the vine until he does so in his Father's kingdom - yet John has him thirsting and sipping vinegar before he dies.  Since we can presume that this is not some kind of secret signal that the Gospel is a farce, there must be some meaning attached to this paradox that can illuminate the question of when he and we entered the Father's kingdom and what that means in understanding our salvation - which cannot be left to the realm of mystery. The method of our salvation must be understandable to us - not simply something that was done on our behalf 1980 years ago and half a world away.  It must be something that we can relate to.

So, what happened before Jesus said, "I thirst."  He said, "My God, My God, why hast Thou foresaken me."  Was this simply a line in a psalm or an authentic expression of His experience of our humanity in a way that the Godhead could not appreciate without the crucifixion? To answer that, we must look at what happened just prior.  Jesus said, "Woman, hehold your son, John, behold your mother."  At this instant, Jesus abandoned both his mission and his divine origins through Mary. He did not tell John to baptize all nations, he told John to take care of Mary.  In dramatization, I would stage that with Mary withdrawing her gaze in grief - and no man can endure his own mother's tears if he is at all emotionally healthy.

I doubt such an understanding of the scriptures was possible before now.  Indeed, it would have been suppressed if even proposed.  It is very human and very inconvenient if you are promoting an angry God who must be placated by a bloody sacrifice, with personal salvation depending upon seeking the merits of that sacrifice through the offices of the Church (rather than through understanding that we can go to God because God has experienced our brokenness).  That also changes how we think about morality.  It must be for us, not for God.  Our entire understanding of the natural order changes in this context, especially regarding who is "disordered," if that is even possible.
Timothy Ross
11 years 5 months ago
Of course this is Presuppositionalism. The Jesus of Faith, is NOT the historical Jesus. We know that. Dr. Scott has deomonstrated that. If the standard of historicity has to be denied in affirming the Jesus of Faith, then the Jesus of Faith is a fallacy. Reality is what it is. Affirming Reality, and the search for truth, is either the highest value or it's not. If one presupposes truth, then what are these people doing in academia anyway ? 

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