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.