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The relation of the Christ of faith to the Jesus of history is a topic fraught with controversy in theological circles. It also has implications for the way Christian believers understand and practice their faith. We invited Luke Timothy Johnson to reflect on the topic and state his own position, which he did in “The Jesus Controversy,” published in America on Aug. 2. We have asked two biblical scholars with different views, one a Catholic, the other a Protestant, to respond to Professor Johnson’s article. The three articles together give an indication of the scope of current thinking by mainstream scholars. All three articles appear online, where readers can add their own insights, experience and viewpoints. —The Editors

Following the Troubadours

How the historical Jesus tests—and strengthens—our faith

Bernard Brandon Scott

The biblical scholar Luke Timothy Johnson has sung the same tune for a long time, one that reassures those who are satisfied with the status quo. The quest for the historical Jesus, however, was founded on a rejection of the status quo.

Professor Johnson’s argument plays out in a series of either/ors, the implication being that one side is the false position and the other the true one. A primary opposition for him is the historical Jesus and the real Jesus. Who can argue for the impoverished Jesus of historical efforts when one can have the real Jesus? But if one challenges both the obviousness of the categories and the necessity of the opposition, then suddenly the tune becomes discordant.

Scholars have created “apocryphal gospels,” Johnson charges. These modern apocryphal gospels stand in contrast, of course, to the true, canonical Gospels. He offers no proof that these are either apocryphal or gospels, but rhetorically, the category once established is irresistible. Who could possibility prefer an apocryphal gospel to a real Gospel?

That the Jesus of these apocryphal gospels “is often a mirror image of the scholars’ own ideals,” is an old, well-worn charge. For the sake of argument, let’s grant that Johnson is right, that these are all mirror images of the scholars’ own ideals. Is that not also the case of the Jesus of Mark’s Gospel and every other Gospel? So the real Jesus turns out also to be a reflection of the various Evangelists’ ideals about Jesus. The real Jesus is just as constructed as the historical Jesus of the modern apocryphal gospels. Even more, the real Jesus turns out to be multiple, a different Jesus conjured up by each Evangelist, just as scholars conjure up multiple images or reconstructions of Jesus. If one is honest, the tradition has conjured up even more images of Jesus, perhaps an almost infinite number.

Johnson has a solution to this problem: “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.” Johnson argues that this Platonic essence is reconstructed from the Gospels’ convergent pictures of Jesus by historical method, historically verified. His argument reminds me of Adolf von Harnack’s argument in What Is Christianity?: “In the first place, they [the Gospels] offer us a plain picture of Jesus’ teaching, in regard both to its main features and to its individual application; in the second place, they tell us how his life issued in the service of his vocation; and in the third place, they describe to us the impression which he made upon his disciples, and which they transmitted.”

This Platonic essence is convenient but not self-evident. It is not a historical statement, as Johnson declares, but a theological judgment, and not the only possible theological judgment about the Gospels. He maintains that the Gospels “converge impressively precisely on the historical issue that is of the most vital importance concerning the human Jesus, namely his character.” This raises inevitable historical questions. Where does this convergence come from? Would any Gospel writer acknowledge Johnson’s Platonic essence? So general is his Platonic essence that I wonder if it is helpful or even distinctive. Is it not true of other historical characters? Again, if we grant this as a valid summary of the character of Jesus in all four Gospels, where did those authors get their information? How does one know they are right in their judgment? Maybe they are just following the lead of Paul or Mark.

These questions lead back either to history or to Johnson’s preferred modality, faith. You have to take it on faith. Faith is not innocent. Push below the surface and faith is a stand-in for authority. To take it on faith means to take it on authority. But then, whose authority? How does one test that authority? Once again one faces historical questions.

Not only do I find Johnson’s categories not established by rigorous method; I also find his either/or method of argumentation unconvincing. There is another option. Historical criticism can be a both/and. Historical analysis is deconstructive and often corrosive to authoritarian claims. History does not grant certainty, only probabilities, but then neither does faith grant certainty. If it were certain, we would not need faith. A historical understanding of early Christianity presents a range of options and demonstrates development and difference within the early movements that sprang up from those seeking to follow Jesus. That can be liberating but also challenging and threatening.

Johnson concludes with a passionate plea about the proper focus of Christian awareness: “learning the living Jesus…in the common life and common practices of the church.” But how do we know this is the real Jesus? For Johnson, the either/or is history versus faith. That for me is a false dichotomy. Faith must always be tested, and that raises historical questions (as well as other kinds of questions), which provide only probability. There is no way around it, unless faith is an authoritarian claim. Given the bankruptcy of authority in the church today, we should take any such claim of authority with a historical and deconstructive grain of salt. That is why people are listening to the troubadours.

In Defense of the Historical Jesus

Empirical studies of the Gospel are limited. They are also necessary.

Adela Yarbro Collins

Luke Timothy Johnson makes a good case for the importance of, in his words, “the living Jesus—the resurrected and exalted Lord present to believers through the power of the Holy Spirit—in the common life and the common practices of the church.” But in his essay Professor Johnson also claims, “History is a limited way of knowing reality.” I must point out that all ways of knowing reality are limited. Even experience of “the living Jesus” is limited by the questions and needs of individual believers, by the leadership of professional ministers and by the ethos of particular congregations and churches.

Johnson praises (faintly) the excellent work of Msgr. John P. Meier in A Marginal Jew and cites with approval Monsignor Meier’s recognition that “the empirically verifiable Jesus is by no means the ‘real’ Jesus.” Both scholars are right in saying that historical methods can give us only a partial picture of Jesus. In my view, however, the “real” Jesus is absolutely unknowable. Anyone who makes a claim about “the real Jesus” is speaking rhetorically and not making a verifiable claim about reality. Historians are concerned with the human Jesus who was born, lived and died, leaving traces that can be studied using historical methods. The resurrected and exalted Lord is just as much a construction of those who worship and experience him as is the historical Jesus constructed by scholars.

In his book The Real Jesus, Professor Johnson was very critical of the Jesus Seminar. The basic idea and procedures of the seminar are, in principle, admirable. I attended a number of their meetings in the 1980s, which were early years in its history. Each meeting focused on a particular topic—for example, the parables. One or more scholars volunteered to research the parables of Jesus in preparation for the meeting to see what previous studies had concluded about them and to evaluate the evidence for their origin. Then these scholars gave presentations at the meeting itself, arguing that Jesus had spoken some of the parables and that followers of Jesus created others after his death. After the presenters had laid out the evidence and the arguments, the assembled scholars debated these findings. After extensive debate, a vote was taken on each parable. Every member of the seminar would place a bead in a basket: red for the view that Jesus most probably spoke the parable, pink for the view that he probably told it, gray for the view that he probably did not tell it and black for the view that he most probably did not.

In an ideal world, well-educated and well-informed scholars would assess the evidence and arguments with an open mind and vote in accordance with the stronger evidence and arguments. I am sorry to say that such was increasingly not the case in later meetings of the Jesus Seminar, notably in the 1990s. Scholars had preconceived ideas, such as the conviction that Jesus was a teacher or philosopher, not a prophet, and these ideas determined how they voted, regardless of the evidence.

This situation, however, is not a fault unique to the Jesus Seminar. It is characteristic of the human condition. There will always be more and less competent scholars and better and worse arguments and thus more and less reliable historical conclusions. Similarly, there are more and less competent professional ministers, better and worse types of common life and more and less helpful common practices in the church.

Johnson aims “to show how encountering Jesus as a literary character in each of the canonical Gospels enables a more profound, satisfying and ultimately more ‘historical’ knowledge of the human Jesus than that offered by scholarly reconstructions.” Such an attempt does indeed have value. But many Americans, inside and outside the church, care about history in a stronger sense and about historical methods and results. In other words, they want to know in what ways the Gospels represent the actual Jesus accurately and in what ways they are fictions or later theological interpretations of Jesus that contradict or go beyond what historians can determine about the past. Historians recognize that the Gospels are interpretations of Jesus from the perspective of faith in him as the Messiah, Son of God or Son of Man and that this faith is founded upon the experience and proclamation of his resurrection, an event that by definition is beyond history.

In Johnson’s view, “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” (emphasis added). Imitation of the character of Jesus has long been a high value in the church. It would truly be the manifestation of the kingdom of God on earth if all members of the church would imitate these two aspects of Johnson’s reconstruction of the character of Jesus. The trouble is that in the history and present life of the church, radical obedience and utter self-giving are moral values that only some members of the church are seriously expected to practice. Already in the second century, Ignatius of Antioch taught that the members of Christian communities should obey the bishop as they would obey God. Such advice creates too great a gulf between the clergy and the laity. The value of obedience can serve to increase the power of the hierarchy in the church and to limit the participation of lay people in general and women in particular.

The study of the historical Jesus, however limited the reliable results may be, is an important means of testing theological interpretations of Jesus that claim to be based on the intentions and life of Jesus. Those with a good grasp of the current state of research on Jesus can discern whether such interpretations are indeed congruent with the probable mission and aims of Jesus.

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Steven Deedon
13 years 8 months ago
Johnson's conception of Jesus as radically obedient to God and utterly self-giving to others sounds more inspired by the Christ hymn of Philippians and atonement theory than to a reading of the gospels.  We can all be grateful that Johnson's perennial harangue against Jesus scholars meets a firm response from exegetes.

At the same time, one wishes that historical critics would limit their use of the term, "empirical."  Notwithstanding the contributions of archaeology and anthropology, most Jesus scholarship is the progeny of rationalism (no criticism intended), not empirical observation.  Even the social science critics (the Context Group, e.g.) often must extrapolate, and apply social science models analogically across cultures and centuries in applying them to Jesus and his time.

Steven Deedon is currently at work on PARABLES OF GALILEE, a narrative for film that re-imagines the Jesus story based on the work of Historical Jesus scholars.
James Lindsay
13 years 8 months ago
Restating what I said in response to the original article:

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. (Indeed, I am sure the CDF would actively oppose it now if it gained any currency - Professor Collins is right about how scripture is traditionally used to bolster authority).  My view of the Passion 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.
13 years 8 months ago

The heart of Prof Collins' argument lies in the last paragraph:

”The study of the historical Jesus, however limited the reliable results may be, is an important means of testing theological interpretations of Jesus that claim to be based on the intentions and life of Jesus. Those with a good grasp of the current state of research on Jesus can discern whether such interpretations are indeed congruent with the probable mission and aims of Jesus.”

It is this point that Johnson rejects. I hope I don't misinterpret Luke Johnson, but as I understand arguments developed over many years, his main point of departure is that the sources cannot sustain any speculation over Jesus' biography beyond some very vital but very basic points. Therefore, if one accepts the truth of Christian teaching as expressed in the Creed (the subject of a book by Johnson that had a profound impact on yours truly) then the reality of Jesus is found in (hopefully) the Church and in the ideas held by those who accept the Creed. Both have been shaped by the Holy Spirit and thus reflect Christ. And central is faith in Christ as the risen and living Lord. 

I'm not a biblical scholar, but I have spent a lifetime teaching and writing history in American colleges. The study of antiquity is a kind of busman's holiday for me. Because I do my work on 20th century warfare, a subject about which we have a surplus of data if not wisdom, I can appreciate well the different evidentiary world inhabited by anyone trying to make sense of the ancient Mediterranean. (It is a bit sobering to think that the central source concerning the life of Alexander the Great is Arian's biography written 400 years after the king's death. Similar historical holes exist in great number in the field.) I certainly agree with Johnson's dismissal of attempts by the Jesus Seminar and others to flesh out the biography of the “Marginal Jew” using either the post-WWII texts or advances in other fields. We have learned much and know more about the world of Jesus and how people navigated that world. In the hands of cautious scholars like Larry Hurtado we can make informed statements concerning the beliefs and practice of the early Church. (I don’t understand why Johnson lets Father Meier off the hook. No matter how many footnotes generated and no matter how well he explains the 1st century eastern Mediterranean world, he does no better than Bart Ehrman at describing the real Jesus.) Nothing learned in the 20th century, however, tells us anything reliably new about the actual words or motivations of Jesus of Nazerath.

So, if Johnson is correct about the sources, then his accompanying argument that those seeking to find the “historical Jesus” are really pursuing theology is affirmed. In the case of people like Ehrman they are using the same techniques to attack theology itself. (I’ve never understood why anyone would need to study the life of Jesus to reject the Christian message or the concept of God. It has, however, become another useful weapon for modern anti-clerics.) I think Prof Collins makes this point clearly by stating that the newest speculations, in the hands of those “with a good grasp of the current state of research” (natch: those in the guild will know best) can be used to test theological interpretations. For the unwashed, I think this means that the last 30 years of Jesus research makes it safe to junk all or parts of the Creed. Johnson argues that the evidence to do so, particularly coming from Nag Hammadi, if subjected to the same level of criticism repeatedly aimed at the Canonical Gospels and Epistles, is extremely weak. It can, however, be employed to create a more “useful” Christianity for the 21st century post-industrial world. And why not if we can only speculate, in Prof Collins’ words, on the “probable mission and aims of Jesus.” Make history a matter of probability and truth really is in the eye of the beholder.

The problem is that to make Christianity more convivial for today’s intelligentsia, such as it is, we will have discard the belief behind the beautiful words recited every Sunday that begin “We believe in God the Father almighty.” Doing so rejects the idea that these words reflect the reality of Christ and were shaped in an unknowable way by God. I fully realize that the teachings of the Church have changed over the centuries as a result of a kind of dialogue, often untidy, that is both internal and with the outside world. I fully realize that this dialogue continues. Until today, however, our Church has been remarkably consistent on matters such as the divinity of Jesus, the transcendent purpose of Christ’s death, the physical reality of the Resurrection and the movement of human life, individually and collectively, toward some kind of judgment and end determined by God. It also includes an affirmation of a Scripture that requires the subordination of the self for others when following the command to “love your neighbor.”  I, for one, would very much like to know if those saying Mass today do so with their fingers crossed, knowing that the ideas of the Creed do not fit well with the narrative of a man that was literally a “Marginal Jew.” 
Edwin Steinmann, JD
13 years 8 months ago

The historical Jesus inquiries overlook the elephant in the living room, seem to me; overlook the commonly observed fact that people who have been dead three days don’t get up, except in dreams and visions—some of which are mind-boggling and life-transforming, such as Saint Paul’s.

What has the dream/vision-making mind, aka “Holy Spirit,” been telling us for 2,000 years? That is the question to be pursued, seems to me, not whether Jesus said or did this or that, as fascinating and absorbing as such historical inquiries are. Could it be that it is our “death” and our “resurrection” (following our letting go and letting God be God in and through us) that saves us, that unites us with our Maker, consciously, in the here and now?

Could it be that Jesus has carried all these years the projection (all projections are subconscious) of what our Maker wants from each of us—unitive consciousness? A mode of self wherein consciousness and the unconscious, the “Holy Spirit,” are truly in sync, i.e. a human/divine mode of self, so to speak?

Has the time arrived to move on, from historical inquiries to depth psychology, the time when a devout Christian is either a mystic or nothing at all?

Obviously, I think that’s where we are headed.  My two cents. 

Leonard Villa
13 years 8 months ago
What's needed is a criticial analysis of the presuppositions of the Jesus of history scholars and what is the scientific value of those presuppositions? For example, one critic put it: When a New Testament scholar presupposes,f or example, that the prophecies of the destruction of the Temple provide decisive evidence for authorship after A.D. 70, this critical principle is based on the proposition that prophetic knowledge of the future is impossible. The Jesus of history in opposition to a Christ of Faith does not have a Catholic pedigree.  Quite the opposite.  Pope John Paul II rejected the distinction in his mission encyclical.  It is also still worth reading Karl Adam's comments on the subject in his Christ of Faith.

13 years 8 months ago
The previous comments were written by authors that are way above my pay grade. Let me kick the discussion down a notch.

My first reading of Johnson's article was one of shock. I was amazed that an author of his stature would lower himself to denigrate fellow scholars with a comment that he was "trailing a band of wandering academic troubadors (sic)". Not nice, IMHO.

I read authors like Meier, Brown and Ehrman for two reasons: one, they write in a language I can understand and two, because I want to base my belief in a Jesus of faith that is based on a Jesus of history not on a Jesus of fable.

A second reading of Johnson brought me great sadness. For me, the piece was redolent of academic envy. While civility might not be dead in the pages of America, an article of this ilk demonstrate to me that it is at best moribund.
James Barrens
13 years 8 months ago
I am sorry to report that this exercise by the three professors seems to shed no light on these issues.  The pros and cons of the Historical Jesus and the Christ of Faith are rehashed and reassembled and no new insight is offered or gained.

Dei Verbum states:
"...the books of both the Old and New Testaments in their entirety, with all their parts, are sacred and canonical because written under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, they have God as their author and have been handed on as such to the Church herself."

So the Church, being the "repository of the truth", for 2000 years has taught the Holy Spirit, God-penned Christ of Faith, and the Church has always opposed, despite the whole of Dei Verbum, any other interpretation of that model (see Pelagius, Luther, Martin,et. al. to the present day). To expect the Church to reinvent Jesus is folly.  Hence, the arguments of the three professors, earnest as they are, are moot. 

Personally, I suspect that this issue will not be resolved until the Parousia!
David Jackson
13 years 8 months ago
Some years back a homiletic professor told me "I find The Social Science Commentaries on the Gospels" to be the best sermon preparation."  I have been enriched by them.  I also have found Kenneth E. Bailey's works, Jesus Through Middle Eastern Eyes, Poet and Peasant, and Through Peasant Eyes (Literary and cultural approach to the Parables in Luke) very insightful.  I find Luke Timothy Johnson's attitude a detriment to the real insights being offered by researchers, seekers, scholars and searchers.
Maggie Rose
13 years 7 months ago
hair splitting isn't necessarily a virtue but in the case of the jesus seminars hair splitting has made for academic careers. hair splitting is what academics do though and some of the advancements made through this type of scholarship can be a good thing if done responsibly. not all of it is. defending one's points can become a purpose in its own right. who can know the mind of God? what if God is more than okay with faith's struggle (legitimate growth can and does occur) and is merely tolerant of know-it-alls quests to nail things down (no pun intended). scholarship of any variety is reductionist. God may come down in humility to be with us but God is not reductionist. the jesus seminar scholarship serves people of faith up to a point and serves the investigator/presenter a bit further (career making) and serves the general public almost none at all. that's what i think of the jesus seminar arguments. it's the tree of knowledge and babel all over again. stay wise: keep your perspective. it's only words, thoughts, and careers. explanations don't move the heart.

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