Book Review: The Real Jesus


Luke Johnston, esteemed scholar and professor of New Testament at Candler School of Theology, confronts media hyped pseudo-scholarship in a battle to define The Real Jesus. According to Johnston, the real Jesus is the Jesus of faith portrayed in the New Testament Gospels, rather than the Jesus modern scholars piece together by historical reconstruction. Thus, Johnston sets out to challenge popular assumptions about the role modern historiography often plays in matters of faith. Above all, his book seeks to remind the church and the academy (with an emphasis similar to Martin Kähler in a previous generation), that the real Jesus is not merely the Jesus of first century Jewish Palestine, but above all, he is the resurrected Lord experienced by the worshiping community today.

By way of summary, Johnston wrote this book in response to issues he considered “extremely serious and worthy of controversy” (vi). His introduction conveyed two primary proposes for the book. First, Johnston saw the need to address culture’s growing confusion about Jesus, a confusion exacerbated by the Jesus Seminar and other revisionist scholars, who in turn, capitalized on the media’s penchant for publishing anything that challenged the church’s traditional conception of Jesus. Second, and at a more fundamental level, Johnston saw the need to address the longstanding “conceptual confusion” displayed in church and academy regarding the relationship of history and faith (vi).

In pursuit of this twofold purpose, Johnston first took aim at the Jesus Seminar exposing many of the common fallacies of popular Jesus scholarship. Without pulling any punches, he assured his readers that the Seminar “stand[s] as a far better example of media manipulation than of serious scholarship” (1). The packaging of themselves as a scholarly guild, their voting with colored beads on the authenticity of various sayings of Jesus, and their unorthodox and provocative statements about Jesus, were all calculated to stoke the flames of controversy and draw media attention. Furthermore, as far as their “scholarly credentials” are concerned, Johnston clarified that the group was comprised of a relatively small number of people, among whom only a few were published scholars. This fact alone made their claim to represent scholarship or the academy absurd (3). In fact, Johnston noted, much of their undeserved popularity derived from the lamentable tendency of the media to ignore religious topics expect when controversial. Moreover, in a section reflecting meticulous investigation, Johnston thoroughly documented how often the media willingly offered one-sided coverage along with provocative headlines in order to bolster the Jesus Seminar’s notoriety (20).

After undermining the legitimacy of the Jesus Seminar, Johnston turned his sites on various popular Jesus books trending at that time with the aim of exposing the pattern of pseudo-scholarship running through them all. He engaged the writings of influential “amateurs” like bishop Spong, along with “academicians” Marcos Borg and John Dominic Crossan. Johnston’s critique shows how artfully these authors seek to style their writing as objective historiography without airing the theological agendas driving their work (50). More damaging still, after clearly starting from assumptions that largely predetermine their conclusions, these self-proclaimed historians of Jesus all demonstrably operate without the necessary historical controls (50) .

Segueing into the second and most essential part of his critique, Johnston confronted what he believed to be the fundamental fallacy driving pseudo-scholarship and cultural confusion about Jesus, namely the assumption “that historical knowledge is normative for faith and therefore for theology” (55). Johnston argued that this epistemological assumption which gave historical knowledge authority over faith inadvertently entered the church, academy, and culture through the hermeneutics of Martin Luther and his Protestant successors. He argued further that this egg which Luther lay eventually hatched in Germany in the form of higher criticism, and developed into the historical criticism that dominated biblical studies throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.

Thus, in view of the underlying assumptions of this tradition, Johnston examined the practice of historical scholarship with the intention of highlighting its problems and limitations for matters of faith. As a mode of knowing historical knowledge derives from a highly interpretive process (82). The primary sources scholars use for historical reconstructions are inevitably selective and reflect their own perspectives and interpretations of people and events. Furthermore, all serious historians recognize that their reconstructions are  more or less shaped by their own ideological commitments (84). At the end of the day, the best historians can achieve are degrees of probability. Therefore, Johnston asserted that no scholar worth his or her salt can ever claim to have reconstructed the “real” person or event (85). Thus, by means of these clarifications, Johnston hoped that people would now have enough perspective to dismiss the claims of those who often exploit the popular meaning of the word “historical” in order to establish their own dubious reconstructions as “what really happened” (81).

 A few critical observations emerge from summarizing Johnston’s main arguments. These issues will be dealt with in descending order of significance, dealing first with the less significant matters and progressing to more noteworthy issues.

First, Johnston’s book, though aimed at combating a popular misconception within the broader culture, is not quite popular reading. His arguments assume an intermediate knowledge of church history, philosophy, and biblical studies that likely exceed a popular audience’s ability to evaluate. Johnston even acknowledged that the reason the public is captured by “the spectacular rather than the substantive” is because they do not “read extensively or critically” (79). I totally agree! Even so, as an admirably apt piece of writing, his book may fail to garner the attention it deserves because pitched at a slightly above average level. Of course, on the other hand, his book may fail to attract a popular audience simply because the public generally finds intrigue, conspiracy theories, and sensationalism about Jesus more interesting than the traditional Gospel portraits.

Next, Johnston’s branding Luther as the catalyst who introduced the assumption of history as judge of faith is somewhat reductionistic (66-76). Certainly, Luther and other Protestants advocated ideas that were later cherry-picked and used rhetorically by the fathers of modern biblical criticism, but to insist that “Protestant and specifically Lutheran presuppositions pervade critical biblical scholarship,” conveniently ignores the more formative impact Enlightenment thinkers like Spinoza and Lessing had on the emergence of biblical criticism (German Lutherans like Lessing having long left the hermeneutical assumptions of the Book of Concord far behind!). Moreover, contrary to Johnston’s argument, the assumption that “recovery of origins means recovery of essence” was not a distinctively Lutheran assumption (68), but rather a widespread assumption bequeathed by the Renaissance. Protestant Luther, as well as Roman Catholic Erasmus both assumed  (rightly in my view) that going back to the sources held potential for reforming ecclesiastical views that had subsequently deviated from apostolic tradition.

The most problematic aspect of Johnston’s argument is that it has the effect of diminishing the importance of the time-space reality of Jesus’s incarnation in favor of the present existential experience of him as risen Lord. Johnston recognized that Christian faith has involved some historical claims about Jesus, but insisted the emphasis has been “based on religious claims concerning the present power of Jesus” (133). Thus according to Johnston, “Christian faith as a living religious response is simply not directed at those historical facts about Jesus” (144). Surely, Johnston offers his readers a false choice. From the beginning, believers have based their faith on both apostolic testimony and the personal experience of the Spirit of Christ (1 Cor. 15:1-8;  2 Pet. 1:16-21; 1 John 1:1-4). These two testimonies are inextricably bound and mutually informing . Most important, they corroborate one another by convincing believers that the Jesus of first century Roman Palestine, (though now inhabiting a “spiritual body”) is nonetheless the same Jesus who burns in their heart and mind as they pray.

Overall, Johnston’s book accomplished his purpose elegantly. His substantial critique of the Jesus Seminar remains relevant for assessing popular and scholarly treatments of Jesus twenty years later. Johnston’s clarifications of the limits of historical knowledge for faith is salutary and have helped me think more clearly about the relationship of both in my own research.


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