Higher Critical Review

Luke Timothy Johnson.  The Real Jesus: The Misguided Quest for the Historical Jesus and the Truth of the Traditional Gospels.
San Francisco: HarperCollins 1996. vii + 182 pp. $12.00 (pbk)

Reviewed by Robert M. Price. Institute for Higher Critical Studies
JHC 4/1 (Spring, 1997), 156-158.


This book sometimes sounds like it is trying to debunk the research of the Jesus Seminar and to substitute a different set of more conservative and more balanced critical conclusions. The "real Jesus" of the title would then seem to be a "more realistic" Jesus, one based on a methodologically superior historical study. But this turns out not to be the thrust of Johnson's treatise after all. His criticisms of radical New Testament critics like Burton Mack and the Jesus Seminar (of which I am proud to be a Fellow and in whose deliberations I am privileged to have participated) are finally beside the point.

Johnson gives an altogether false impression that the Seminar uses some far-fetched and idiosyncratic methodology that respectable scholars would not deign to touch with a ten-foot pole. (Incredibly, he actually supplies a list of elite divinity schools whose highly paid professors are the only ones he considers legitimate scholars!) The fact of the matter is that most of the Fellows of the Jesus Seminar are far less skeptical, less methodologically rigorous, than Rudolf Bultmann and the critics of the previous generation. Their methods and assumptions differ little from those Johnson and his allies use. Nor are the results attained by the Jesus Seminar anything particularly new, as anyone familiar with the last few decades' of biblical scholarship will be aware. The only thing new about the Jesus Seminar is that it has made a point of going public with the commonplaces of professional biblical scholarship.

Traditionally, ministers learn at least a smattering of biblical criticism in seminary, but they are careful to keep mum about it in the pulpit lest they arouse the ire of the pious. One suspects that the Jesus Seminar's decision to go public (caricatured by Johnson and his allies as crass publicity-hunger) has put people like Johnson in an uncomfortable position. Those to whom he and his colleagues are accountable never quite understood what was going on in the scholarly guild, and now that the Jesus Seminar has blabbed it, Johnson, Richard Hays, Raymond Brown, and a number of others suddenly find themselves in the role of Peter, denying their former comrades as many times as they can before the cock crows.

Ironically, despite Johnson's tirades against New Testament critics who treat the Gospels and the Acts of the Apostles as fiction, his own lasting contribution to scholarship, his published dissertation The Literary Function of Possessions in Luke-Acts (Scholars Press, 1977), is a brilliant piece of the very sort of literary analysis he fulminates against in The Real Jesus. If he can make the kind of sense he does of the author's intention in Luke and Acts, then Luke and Acts are fiction, not history.

All Johnson's subsequent work has been what James Barr calls "maximal conservatism." In his The Writings of the New Testament, for instance, he argues for the authentic Pauline authorship of the Pastoral Epistles (I and 2 Timothy and Titus), an anachronistic dinosaur of a view rendered pretty much incredible ever since Schleiermacher in the last century. It is clear that he now longs for the pre-critical paradise of traditional beliefs about biblical authorship and accuracy. What happened to change Johnson's scholarly judgment from radical to conservative? Nothing really. And here is where we discover how his criticism of the supposedly unsound methods of modem biblical criticism is just a blind, a smoke screen. Eventually Johnson admits that historical research cannot yield a definite portrait of the historical Jesus. That way lies agnosticism.

But then, as so often happens with religious writers, agnosticism magically transforms itself into fideism, a leap of faith. Instead of trying to build a plausible, historical Jesus construct out of elusive and shadowy evidence, says Johnson, we ought to be satisfied with the Christ of faith, the Son of God character of the Gospels and of Roman Catholic dogma. This is what he means by "the real Jesus" the one the institutional Church thinks its owns the copyright on.

In short, Johnson has no better theory of the historical Jesus to offer than that of Burton Mack or Robert Funk or John Dominic Crossan. No, he wants something else entirely, the traditional stained-glass savior of Christian dogma. It is for him finally a matter of historic faith, not of historical fact. Of course he feels sure the facts, could they be recovered, would fit the theological Christ, the "real Jesus." But how does he know this? By faith!

And this admission sheds some light on all those neo-conservative traditionalist positions Johnson takes in this book and in his other recent publications. It would seem that he has opted, as a matter of theology, for the traditional, "authorized" version of Christian origins, and so he allows himself in every case to be escorted to amenable conclusions, not by the data but by simple consistency with his traditionalist preferences. It is not so much a matter of scholarly opinion as it is company policy. He has abandoned the task of historical scholarship to serve as an ecclesiastical spin doctor. He has an institution and a party line to defend. Let him defend it. But let us be careful not to confuse the result with historical inquiry.

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Copyright © Institute for Higher Critical Studies, 1997
Darrell J. Doughty
Institute for Higher Critical Studies
Drew University, Madison, NJ, 07940
ddoughty@drew.edu