The Gospels According to Luke

Candler professor Luke Johnson stands at the forefront of a public theological battle over the historical truth of the Christian gospels

By Allison O. Adams

Early last Easter morning, Luke Timothy Johnson was in his office in Bishops Hall fine-tuning the sermon he was to deliver later in Cannon Chapel, when his phone rang. "It was a little old lady from Avondale Estates who had read about me in Time magazine," says Johnson, the Robert W. Woodruff Professor of New Testament and Christian Origins in the Candler School of Theology. "She called to say that I had made this the happiest Easter she had had in many years."

These days, such congenial words are welcomed by Johnson, a former Catholic monk who is now a mainline biblical scholar. Since the January publication of his book, The Real Jesus: The Misguided Quest for the Historical Jesus and the Truth of the Traditional Gospels, he has found himself at the forefront of a theological battle royal that pits faith against history, tradition against religious revisionism.

Johnson has emerged as a key figure in the burgeoning debate about the "search for the historical Jesus," a scholarly initiative that attempts to document the literal existence of Jesus at the expense of widely held beliefs about his life, death, and resurrection. Chief among the proponents of this line of thinking is the Jesus Seminar, a consortium of some two hundred biblical scholars who have since 1985 been seeking to verify or disprove sayings and actions attributed to Jesus.

Johnson's sharp criticism of such scholarship and its influence on Christianity in the United States has been widely reported. "Things of fundamental importance are being distorted," he told Time magazine.

The main source of this distortion, according to Johnson, is the Jesus Seminar, led by co-founder Robert Funk, a former assistant professor of biblical theology at Emory in the late 1950s who later founded the Westar Institute in Southern California. Seeking to discredit Christian fundamentalists who interpret the Bible literally, the seminar works to dispel the image of Jesus set forth by the American "religious establishment," which "has not allowed the intelligence of high scholarship to pass through pastors and priests to a hungry laity," as Funk wrote in 1985 in the first issue of the seminar's journal, Forum. During their semi-annual meetings, members of the Jesus Seminar endeavor to reach consensus by voting on the historical veracity of specific passages with color-coded beads placed in boxes.

Johnson, who describes scholarship of this class as "the purest poppycock," asserts in The Real Jesus that the Jesus Seminar is "a symptom of a deeper and more disturbing institutional collapse." Scholars have targeted both conservative and mainstream Christians in their efforts, he says, and the popular media serves as a murky battleground. Biblical scholarship as it is carried out by the Jesus Seminar, Johnson suggests, blurs the boundaries between church and academy. He accuses the seminar of playing "fast and loose" with the mission and meaning of critical history. "Historical analysis can yield real knowledge about earliest Christianity and the figure of Jesus," he writes. "But there are intractable limits to this knowledge. . . . The New Testament writings yield some historical information, but that is not what they do best. . . . [They are best understood] when their literary integrity is respected and appreciated."

Johnson denounces not only what he calls the "bad history and bad theology" of the Jesus Seminar but also the image of Jesus it projects. In its historically reconstructed Jesus, the seminar presents "a sort of faculty lounge lizard," he says. "He's multicultural; he's inclusive; he's politically correct; he's not embarrassingly divine; he doesn't talk about suffering and sacrifice. He's kind of a neat guy who invites everybody to the table and doesn't make any demands.

"Despite all the diversity of the four Gospels, they share a very consistent narrative imaging of Jesus as the radically obedient one who gives his life and service to others and who calls other people to share in that same path. This is never found in the proposed historical Jesus, the bits and pieces. Pieces alone don't create a portrait."

Johnson also attacks the Jesus Seminar's unabashed self-promotion. The seminar's meetings have invited extensive coverage in print and on television, and they have even caught the attention of filmmaker Paul Verhoeven (Robocop, Basic Instinct, Showgirls), who is planning a movie based on the seminar's findings. "Jesus is the central symbol for Christianity," Johnson says. "Reshape Jesus and you reshape Christianity. The seminar's agenda is to change Christianity as a cultural phenomenon by coming up with a different version of Jesus. In this age of mass media, if you can market this Jesus sufficiently, it just might work."

Ironically, the publication of The Real Jesus has thrust Johnson into the same media glare he eschews. Cover stories on the historical Jesus debate in Time, Newsweek, and U.S. News & World Report which ran during Holy Week discussed Johnson's work. He has also been featured in the New York Times and on ABC, CBS, and CNN. While Johnson says he is uncomfortable with the attention, he believes the public debate is worthwhile. "The division within Christianity in this country is very deep," he says. "I tend to feel that my book would not change anybody's mind, but it offers support to those, such as the lady in Avondale, who need it for the position they hold."

Vernon Robbins, professor of New Testament and Christian Origins in the Department of Religion and a member of the Jesus Seminar from 1985 to 1991, is critical of Johnson's polemical engagement in the public debate as well as his failure to offer a more scholarly assessment of the seminar's work. "The people in the Jesus Seminar have gathered the best research throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries to assess the traditions about the life of Jesus, the sayings and the stories," Robbins says. "It's simply not fair to caricature them as doing bad theology, bad history, bad analysis. Luke Johnson's book does not show any special internal knowledge of the debates about the quest for the historical Jesus. Rather, his analysis is of headlines in popular journals and newspapers.

"Although some of Johnson's criticisms in terms of going after a public discussion are accurate and appropriate, unfortunately, in my view, his book simply joins that conversation in the same angry mode. It doesn't seem to me to rise above the negative level of discussion and contribute substantively toward moving it ahead."

But Johnson insists in The Real Jesus, "Even the best historical reconstruction cannot supply `the real Jesus,' any more than it can supply `the real Socrates.' . . . More mischievous than the claim to reveal the `real Jesus' is the implication that historical reconstruction provides so fundamental a critique of Christian faith that the church needs to reexamine its creeds." Ultimately, the Jesus of faith communities, he argues, is "the resurrected Jesus. . . . [T]he real Jesus for Christian faith is not simply a figure of the past but very much and above all a figure of the present."

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