Skylar Burris's Reviews > The Real Jesus: The Misguided Quest for the Historical Jesus & the Truth of the Traditional Gospels

The Real Jesus by Luke Timothy Johnson
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's review
Dec 15, 08

really liked it
bookshelves: christianity
Recommended for: 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.

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Reading Progress

10/02/2008 page 80
43.96% "Not sure where he's going with this theologically, but he sure skewers the Jesus seminarians well."
10/28/2008 page 120
65.93% "My brain hurts."
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Comments (showing 1-5 of 5) (5 new)

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message 1: by booklady (last edited Sep 23, 2008 08:09PM) (new) - added it

booklady Not to split hairs, but I guess I don't understand the term/expression "the historical Jesus". I mean I have heard it used and I know what it's supposed to mean so that's how I used it, but in reality, Jesus can't be divided into a historical and/or a scriptural figure anymore than His divinity and humanity can be separated.

To me there is only Jesus and He was -- IS -- real; He is God and man. As man He was born into human history and so in that sense He existed in a historical time frame the same way I do now. So the reality of His historicity, of His place as a being in human history, affects my belief in Him very much. Not sure if that is what Johnson is saying or not.

message 2: by Skylar (last edited Sep 24, 2008 05:11AM) (new) - rated it 4 stars

Skylar Burris I think the "historical Jesus" refers to that part of Jesus's life and sayings that it is thought can be reasonably supported by critical historical methods, that part which does not rely primarily on faith in the Christian tradition. I think the point Johnson is making (and I haven't finished it yet) is that there really is no way of getting to the "historical Jesus" outside of Christian tradition, that there really is not any reliable information about Him outside of the Christian tradition or outside of the Gospels. So you either accept that tradition or you don't; but it's silly to pretend there is somehow a better way (than Christian tradition) availble to us for getting at who Jesus really was - all of those presumably "historical" methods really involve people making assumptions about who Jesus must have been (based on who they WANT Jesus to have been) and then cherry picking from the tradition to support the picture they have ordained.

I think his point is that the Jesus of the Gospels is as close to the historical Jesus as we are ever going to get.

From the standpoint of those who do historical Jesus studies, however, the Gospels are largely legend and creations of theologians who wanted to support their point of view, which contain a kernel of truth about the real man Jesus, and they think they can get to that kernel. Johnson is saying this is an absurd and self-aggrandizing quest. Either you believe in the Jesus of tradition, or you believe in a Jesus entirely of your own making. The Jesus of the Gospels may not completely and perfectly reflect who Jesus really was, but it more completely and more perfectly reflects who Jesus really was than anything else available to us.

message 3: by booklady (new) - added it

booklady Okay, I think I 'get' it. Thanks Skylar! I have this book too. Since I'm almost finished with Jesus of Nazareth I really would like to read it. It sounds like another light to shine into dark places.

Skylar Burris I'm liking it so far, but I may take a detour from it since I just got his "Creed" from the library, and I own this one - but have to return that one - so I'll probably read that one first. I'm excited by that one as someone who came out of a non-creedal tradition into a creedal one.

message 5: by booklady (new) - added it

booklady It sounds like a very valid endorsement of the book. I still haven't gotten around to it, but I really hope to! Thank you for your thoughtful, articulate and specific review. It gives me enough factual information to know that this is a book worth reading.

God bless!

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