Monday, April 13, 2009

Review of Timothy Luke Johnson's, The Real Jesus
Dennis Ingolfsland

Chapter 1 of The Real Jesus is a broad overview of the Jesus Seminar in general. Johnson described the Seminar as a group of scholars selected on the basis of agreement with goals and methods for studying Jesus and who used a biased process in a social mission against traditional Christianity (Johnson 1996, 2-6).

Chapter 2 was essentially a literature review covering recent books on the historical Jesus, from the less responsible to the more substantial. Beginning with the less responsible, the first on the list was Jesus and the Riddle of the Dead Sea Scrolls by Barbara Thiering (1992). According to Thiering, Jesus was the Wicked Priest of the Dead Sea Scrolls. Jesus was crucified, given a poison to make him look dead, and buried in a cave at Qumran. Simon Magus was also crucified but survived, crawled through a tunnel from a connected tomb and gave Jesus something to enable him to purge the poison and recover. Johnson evaluated Thiering’s work as nonsense which defied all canons of serious historical research (Johnson 1996, 29-30).

The next books Johnson reviewed in his less responsible category were Born of a Woman and Resurrection: Myth or Reality (1992) in which Episcopalian Bishop John Spong charged that the Gospel writers covered up what really happened in the story of Jesus. According to Spong, Mary was actually raped and bore an illegitimate child, Jesus, who grew up and married the prostitute Mary Magdalene at Cana. The resurrection, according to Spong was actually the realization that the life of Jesus reflected a new way of understanding God, a way contrary to the view of God as exalted king. Early Christians misunderstood when they concluded from the resurrection that Jesus was divine (Johnson 1996, 33).

According to Johnson, Spong took the legitimate category of midrash and expanded it to include all of the New Testament. The use of midrash provided Spong with the method by which to discredit the New Testament as an historical source and also provided a way in which to re-write history. Johnson characterized Spong’s liberalism as tired rationalism, his argumentation as specious, and his conclusion as banal (Johnson 1996, 33-34).

Johnson next turned his attention to the work of British biographer A.N. Wilson (1992). According to Wilson it was not the historical Jesus but the hateful Paul who was responsible for Christian beliefs. Wilson constructed a view of Jesus on the work of Geza Vermes’ book Jesus the Jew in which Vermes likened Jesus to such charismatic figures as Honi Circle Maker (Vermes 1973). Wilson believes that Jesus was simply a charismatic Jew and his resurrection was merely a resuscitation. According to Johnson, Wilson’s methodology was to create an attitude of skepticism regarding the historical reliability of the Gospels by discussing surface problems in the text. Once the historical reliability of the text was questioned, Wilson was free, according to Johnson, to select whatever struck his fancy (Johnson 1996, 36).

Stephen Mitchell’s The Gospel According to Jesus (1991) was reviewed. According to Johnson, although Mitchell mentioned scholarly criteria for historicity, he relied more on his own feeling of fitness. The result was a Jesus whose entire gospel consisted of “The love we all long for in our innermost heart is already present, beyond longing” (Johnson 1996, 38). According to Mitchell, Jesus’ message of the kingdom was a “…state of being, a way of living at ease among the joys and sorrows on our world” (Johnson 1996, 38). Johnson noted that Mitchell’s support for his conclusions was notably lacking. Johnson characterized Mitchell’s work as a classic example of finding what one intended to find (Johnson 1996, 38).

Johnson then turned his attention to the more substantial studies of which Marcus Borg (1987, 1994) was the first. Borg’s Jesus was a charismatic Jew similar to Chanina Ben Dosa and Honi the Circle Maker, a view for which Borg relied heavily on Geza Vermes. Borg also saw Jesus as a healer, sage, prophet and founder of a renewal movement within Judaism, views with which Johnson agreed.

But Johnson noted how little actual history was in Borg’s work and charged Borg with asserting much and demonstrating little. According to Johnson, Borg was an example of how Jesus was being forced into the mold compatible with assumptions of contemporary American academy (Johnson 1996, 42-43).

According to Johnson, Crossan adhered to consistent methodological procedures more than other authors (Johnson 1996, 45).[1] Crossan’s insistence that all traditions about Jesus be treated equally appeared fair at first glance, but closer examination showed that the evidence was fixed. The fact that Crossan asserted an amazingly early date for extra-canonical materials, and late dates for canonical materials without even discussing the views of those scholars who disagreed, showed that Crossan’s position was assumed, not demonstrated. Crossan seemed to hold any source outside the canon as more reliable than any source within the canon. Johnson commented that motives other than doing serious history were at work (Johnson 1996, 47-48).

Crossan did not seem to realize that confining Jesus to the category of peasant increased the historical implausibility of Crossan’s work. If the so-call open comensality practiced by Jesus was not religious in nature, why did it provoke religious leaders? And if the religious leaders were not provoked, why did a bland Jewish peasant gain the attention of Roman authorities? If Jesus’ death was no more than an accidental occasion of an oppressive Roman rule, why was it remembered at all? If the Resurrection appearances were simply a means to legitimize the authority of early leaders in the Christian movement, why would there be a Christian movement in the first place (Johnson 1996, 49-50).

The final work covered by Johnson was that of Burton Mack (Mack 1988, 1993). For Mack, Jesus was a wisdom teacher after the pattern of Greek Cynics who engaged in a social experiment which was not concerned with divinity or salvation. According to Johnson, Mack required the reader to make the following assumptions. First, all the so-called Q material came from the same source.[2] Second, Mack’s reconstruction of Q was all the material that document ever contained.[3] Third, the original form of Q could be reconstructed by omitting the changes made by Matthew and Luke. Fourth, Q contained all there was to know about the beliefs of the Q community. Fifth, it was possible to discover specific stages of redaction in Q.

Sixth, the stages of redaction were entirely self contained—in other words, the writings of one stage did not influence the writings of another stage.[4] Seventh, the history of the Q community could be reconstructed from the stages of redaction. Finally, the Q community was entirely unaffected by the influence of the Jerusalem church or Paul’s mission. Johnson characterized Mack’s entire argument as pure flimflam and charged that it was highly unlikely that Mack was interested in history at all (Johnson 1996, 53).

Johnson concluded that all these works rejected the canonical gospels as reliable sources, ignored the evidence of Paul, and had a theological agenda in denying traditional Christianity. According to Johnson, what was at stake in modern views of Jesus was a culture war in which modern American Christianity was classified by its responses to the challenge posed by modernity. Johnson pointed out that the unfortunate legacy of the enlightenment was the conviction that the only truth worth considering was that which was empirically verifiable—in this case, historical (Johnson 1996, 60).

Chapter 4 pointed out the limitations of history, which according to Johnson, were deeply problematical. History, by its nature, was not only selective, but was interpreted through the eyes of the writers. Sorting through the maze of subjectivity was what made history so difficult, and “…the complete lack of such critical awareness….” on the part of many authors of historical Jesus books was what was so disturbing. In the case of the Jesus Seminar, even their use of historical criteria was highly subjective and was not consistently applied (Johnson 1996, 83-86).

In Chapter 5 Johnson applied the problems of history in general to the problems of the historical Jesus in particular. The gospel writers disagreed dramatically in their stories of Jesus. Johnson focused, however, on the substantial agreement in the gospel stories and concluded that there was good reason to believe that the agreements were in some fixed form at an early date. Johnson’s historical method was, therefore, to find converging lines of evidence. Johnson’s method was based on the assumption that when several witnesses disagree on a wide range of issues, their agreements were significant and increased the probability that what they agreed on happened (Johnson 1996, 107, 110-112).

After critically analyzing the Testimonium Flavianum in Josephus, Johnson concluded that Josephus asserted Jesus to be teacher and wonder worker who ran into trouble with Jewish leaders and was executed under Pontius Pilate. After discussing the Talmud, Suetonius, Tacitus, and Lucian of Samosata, Johnson pointed out several lines of convergence: use of the title Christos, Jesus’ location in Palestine/Judea, Jesus’ death by execution and the continued presence of a Jesus movement in Josephus’ day. Equally important was what the sources did not say about Jesus, namely there was no indication that he was part of a political or military movement (Johnson 1996, 114-117).

Johnson then examined the evidence from Paul and other New Testament writers—excluding Gospels—and concluded that the lines of convergence point to Jesus as being a Jew of the tribe of Judah who was a descendent of David. Jesus was a teacher whose mission was to the Jews. Jesus was tested and prayed for deliverance. Jesus interpreted his last meal with reference to his death, stood trial before Pilate and was crucified in a way that somehow involved the Jewish leadership in his death. Jesus was buried and appeared to witnesses after his death. Johnson pointed out that while the lines of convergence did not prove historical accuracy, they did, nevertheless, show that such memories of Jesus were fairly widely circulated and were less likely to be a product of the Evangelist’s invention (Johnson 1996, 121-122).

Johnson next discussed the Gospels. He included a favorable evaluation of the work of John Meier who had rigorously applied historical criteria—especially the criteria of multiple attestation--to the task of minutely analyzing the Gospel narratives in order to determine what went back to the historical Jesus (Johnson 1996, 127-133).

Johnson’s critique of the problem of historical Jesus studies was outstanding. Unfortunately, the medicine he offered in solution to the problem was almost as bad as the illness. For Johnson, it was Jesus as risen Lord who was experienced in church and encountered in the Eucharist who was the real Jesus (Johnson 1996, 142). If the real, or existential Jesus was not the historical Jesus, what reason did people have for assuming their encounters with that Jesus were any more valid than a child’s experience of Santa Claus?

Johnson finished the book with an answer to the objection. For Johnson, faith was apparently not simply a blind leap into the abyss, neither was it based on a historical reconstruction of Jesus. Johnson argued, rather that in all 4 Gospels as well as the rest of the New Testament documents, there emerged a pattern or character of Jesus’ life and death as one of “…radical obedience to God and selfless love toward other people…” (Johnson 1996, 158). The character of Jesus life was the pattern of discipleship to which modern Christians should hold.

[1] See also Crossan 1973, 1985, 1988, 1991, 1994, 1995).
[2] In other words, it was at least hypothetically possible that the material which twentieth century scholars identify as Q actually came from two or more separate sources used by Matthew and Luke.
[3] The reader must be familiar with Mack to understand Johnson’s point here. Mack argued quite specifically about what the Q community did and did not believe based on his reconstruction of Q. For example, Q supposedly contained no references or allusions to the resurrection of Jesus—a conclusion which was subject to debate—therefore the Q community did not believe in the resurrection of Jesus. The problem was that if Q was originally larger than the material common to Matthew and Luke, it may very well have contained references to the resurrection.
[4] Johnson was a little unclear in his explanation. Presumably what he meant was that if the writers of the supposed Q2 had allowed their work to be influenced by the writers of Q1, Q2 writings might evidence a mixed character containing elements of Cynic sayings and rules/rejection motifs combined into one. But if that were the case, it would be impossible to separate the sayings into Q1, Q2, and Q3 in the first place. The fact is that Q does in fact have passages which show evidence precisely of a mixed character (Ingolfsland 1997).