The Jesus Controversy: by Luke Timothy Johnson

Luke Timothy Johnson

I find myself these days trailing a band of wandering academic troubadours, 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 troubadours sing.

The reasons are not hard to find. The troubadours 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 troubadours’ 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.


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.


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.


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 lifegiving 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 troubadours 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.

* Mirada Global


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