Monday, September 05, 2011

Historical Jesus vs. Real Jesus

In The Five Gospels the Jesus Seminar warns against looking for a comfortable Jesus. That is sound advice. What I have tried to demonstrate in this book, however, is that the truly uncomfortable Jesus, the genuinely “countercultural” Jesus, is not the one reconstructed according to the ethos of contemporary academics-whether it is Crossan’s politically correct revolutionary Jesus or Borg’s charismatic-founder Jesus or any of the others-but the one inscribed in the canonical Gospels. The Jesus who truly challenges this age, as every age, is the one who suffers in obedience to God and calls others to such suffering service in behalf of humanity. This is the Jesus that classical Christianity has always proclaimed; this is an understanding of discipleship to which classical Christianity has always held.

- The Real Jesus, epilogue, by Luke Timothy Johnson

Earlier this summer I praised Bord for his book Jesus. I found some of Borg's explanations for the Gospel accounts to be surprisingly fresh, startling, and insightful. However Borg, as do others of the Jesus Seminar, play down Jesus' divinity. He doesn't come right out and say that the resurrection didn't happen, but he does describe the resurrection in terms of an "experience" more than an event, one that was perhaps more psychological in nature than physical. Borg downplays the importance of the Gospel of John, again true to his Jesus Seminar affiliation. Members of the Jesus Seminar tend to think John inauthentic to the "historical Jesus."

Johnson in The Real Jesus, provides a wonderful rebuttal to the weaker points of Borg and other Jesus Seminar writers. Johnson points out that the "historical Socrates" is not the real Socrates, no more is the quest for the "historical Jesus" going to lead us to the real Jesus. Johnson favors working with the canon to uncover who Jesus really is, rather than throwing out Gospels or epistles that don't seem to jive with the historians' preconception of who Jesus is. Johnson argues that our best way to learn about Christ is through the writings of his first followers and the early church. Johnson recognizes the diversity of perspectives in the canon, but rather than finding them a problem, accepts that the early Christians accepted the plurality, and so should we. Instead of focusing on minute differences and discounting one Gospel or the other, Johnson focuses on what he calls the "pattern of Messiahship" the big themes and major teachings of who Jesus is and his message that are present in all four Gospels.

The first half of the book is a bit of a diatribe against the Jesus Seminar folks, and Johnson doesn't really come into his own ideas until the second half, but it is worth reading through the whole thing to fully appreciate both sides of the "historical Jesus" versus "real Jesus" argument.
Sadly Borg and the Jesus Seminar camp are excellent at marketing themselves, and so Jesus was a New York Times bestseller, whereas The Real Jesus is not a well known book. If you only have time for one, read The Real Jesus. Besides, it's shorter!

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