Dec 15, 08
Chirstians, particularly those on both extremes: liberals and fundamentalists
Read in December, 2008
The primary point Luke Timothy Johnson seems to be making in this book is that the "real Jesus" is not the "historical Jesus" at all – for the "historical Jesus" is impossible to reliably reconstruct and has influenced absolutely no one living today. The "real Jesus" is, rather, the living Jesus, Jesus as actually experienced and understood by those whose lives and communities His presence transforms. The author makes a convincing argument against the Jesus Seminar, highlighting its spurious methods of scholarship. While he skewers the Seminar's methods, he also questions its motives: "Is what is claimed to be a pursuit of the historical Jesus not in truth a kind of flight from the image of Jesus and of discipleship inexorably ingrained" in the New Testament? "Instead of an effort to rectify the distorting effect of the Gospel narratives, the effort to reconstruct Jesus according to some other pattern" than the Gospels "appears increasingly as an attempt to flee the" countercultural "scandal of the Gospel."
The gospels are an interpretation of Jesus's historical life, but it is those gospels that, through interpretation, reveal the "real Jesus." The living Jesus, Jesus as understood by those who experienced transformed lives and transformed communities, and who wrote the New Testament, IS the "real Jesus." This is so simplistic, and yet I have to confess that I have quite overlooked this simple concept whenever I am caught up in discussions with people over this or that minor biblical inconsistency, or this or that historical likelihood. How easily Christians allow themselves to be caught up in this "historical proof" of Christ mindset, forgetting, sometimes, that if Christ is truly living, as we Christians claim Him to be, then He cannot be "really" known as a figure in history, anymore than I can be fully understood as a person on the basis of only my first fifteen years of life.
History, the author argues, is a limited mode of knowing, and historical analysis cannot reveal all truth. It is pointless to chop up the gospels into little pieces in an attempt to reconstruct historical truth, because the gospels are written as literary units and are only useful if approached with respect for their literary integrity as interpretive works. Alternative historical theories of who Jesus "really" was are simply not what the earliest Christians (based on the oldest available Christian writings) perceived him to be. Ultimately, any Christian's claim to experience the real Jesus "can be challenged" on moral or religious grounds, "but not historically"—because historical knowledge cannot get at experience (which is necessarily interpretive). The author is not touting some anti-intellectual line; far from it; rather, he is simply insisting that there are limits to historical and material modes of knowing.
This about sums it up: "The claims of the gospel cannot be demonstrated logically. They cannot be proved historically. They can be validated only existentially by the witness of the authentic Christian discipleship." And this authentic discipleship--rather than constantly striving to prove the improvable to skeptical minds—ought to be the Christian's focus. "The more the church has sought to ground itself in something other than the transforming work of the Spirit, the more it has sought to buttress its claims by philosophy or history, the more it has sought to defend itself against its cultured despisers by means of sophisticated apology, the more also it has missed the point of its existence, which is not to take a place within worldly wisdom but to bear witness to the reality of a God who transforms suffering and death with the power of new life."
This was a book that enabled me to think about and appreciate things I already believe from a different and, at the moment at least, more satisfying angle. I recommend the book to any Christian who questions or has ever questioned the value of the gospels for revealing the "real Jesus." The book has its flaws, and it is not precisely quick or poetic reading, but I gave it five stars because it is rare for me to find a book these days that I really feel does something for me both intellectually and spiritually—and this did.