The Historical Jesus: Five Views (Part Three on Luke Timothy Johnson)

See previous parts One and Two.

Luke Timothy Johnson’s chapter on ‘Learning the Human Jesus’ was both highly interesting and attractive, but also left me with too many questions about the “historical Jesus.”

Johnson articulates that in the past he has espoused a position that ‘Jesus is best learned through practices of faith in the church’ (pp. 154-5) – ‘Jesus is not a dead man of the past but a living Lord of the present’ (155); ‘…not an object of scholarly research but the subject of obedient faith’ (155).  Johnson notes that too often the Quest has been undertaken ‘to discredit Christian claims concerning Jesus’ (156).

Now, what can a historical pursuit of the person of Jesus gain us?  Johnson is skeptical that we gain much.  The sources outside of the Gospels offer very little other than occasionally as control over our NT sources.

How to the NT Gospels hold up when viewed purely as ‘historical’ accounts of Jesus?: ‘It is simply impossible fully to harmonize these accounts while still retaining any credibility as a historian.’ (159) – But there are some convergences that give us useful information (multiple attestation).

When all is said and done, a historical sifting of the various sources on Jesus yield only very little “factual” (true-to-history-and-the-way-the-past-played-out) details: Jesus was a real Jewish man who died by execution.  This is helpful, Johnson argues, if for nothing else, to show that ‘the Christ symbol [which is] attached to the historical person of Jesus…is not infinitely malleable’ (160).

Can historical research (from a critical standpoint) help us in other ways?  Johnson admits that when such research is undertaken, it leads to a better understanding of the ancient context which, then, informs our understanding of the Gospels.  The constant danger of Questers is a blindness to the fact that it becomes ‘a theological agenda wearing the external garb of history’ (p. 167).

Instead, Johnson advocates a (purely?) literary approach  which ‘engages the human Jesus as a literary character in the narratives written about him within fifty to seventy years of his death’ (p. 168).  In that way, fact-based recovery of history is not as important as recognizing that (in the Gospels) ‘plot and verbal differences are part of a larger deliberate literary crafting’ (p. 168).

Can the Gospels, then, tell us anything really about Jesus the human of the past?  Johnson affirms his literary view, but offers this proposal: though the Gospels differ as witnesses to various events and sayings, they converge and ‘agree’ on Jesus’ character (ethos) (p. 173).

RESPONSES: I particularly appreciated Dunn’s views.  He still wonders ‘why the differences between the Gospel narratives are present and what we are to make in historical terms of the differences between the Synoptics and John in particular’ (p. 191).  How important is it that Jesus did and said any of the things in the Gospels?  How do we know?

Next up: James Dunn and ‘Remembering Jesus’.


The Historical Jesus: Five Views (Part Two on Crossan)

I have caught up on several chapters now of The Historical Jesus: Five Views (IVP, 2009).  The previous part was on the introduction and the chapter by Robert Price (“Jesus was not a real historical person…probably”).  This chapter is on the views of John Dominic Crossan and “Jesus and the Challenge of Collaborative Eschatology” (pp. 105-32).

Crossan is insistent that Jesus must be understood in the context of the Roman Empire: after all, we must remember that before Jesus there was a human in the first century BCE that carried the title “Divine, Son of God, God from God, Lord, Redeemer, Liberator and Savior of the World’ (p. 109) – Augustus.

In order the get Jesus, though, you need to understand eschatology – not an understanding of end-times, but that the eschaton would be ‘the Great Divine Clean-Up of the World’ (109).  Rulers and their kingdoms would be judged and overthrown by God.  This helps us see that the lines between politics and religion weren’t as firm in their day as in ours.  Jesus was challenging the ideology of Empire, but through non-violent means.

As for the life of Jesus (and Crossan affirms that he was certainly a real being), Crossan traces his thought as follows.  Jesus originally accepted John the Baptist’s theology that saw God’s kingdom as coming imminently (p. 125), but changed his mind (after John was killed).  Instead, Jesus decided to focus on God’s presence now – because John was not rescued by God, the kingdom must be already here and now.  Thus, ‘it is not that we are waiting for God, it is that God is waiting for us’ (125).  That is where Crossan gets the term “Collaborative” – it is an ‘eschatological dialectic between the human and the divine world’ (125).

There are significant differences between John and Jesus’ approach to their ministries.  John was the whole show – he had the power (to baptize) and if he died, his whole ministry died.  Jesus learned from this and took a different approach where he passed on the power and message and equipped others to carry it out as well.  In Crossan’s words, ‘John had a monopoly, but Jesus had a franchise’ (126).  [Nijay: Personally, however pithy Crossan’s words are, I don’t like the analogy because it makes it sound like Jesus opened a Chicken Shack or something….]

What is God wanting us to do in collaboration?  Resist evil political powers in non-violent way.

RESPONSES: I won’t go through each response, but what several point out is that Crossan has to do a lot of psychologizing in his construction, and we have seen in the past that it is very difficult to presume what was in the mind of Jesus.  Secondly, the Gospels themselves don’t really give us this impression that Jesus’ main interest was opposing Caesar and his way of ruling.  Overall, Crossan takes the Jesus Seminar approach to the Gospels by dicing it up and working from the bits he finds ‘authentic’, and his own analysis is as controversial as any of the other ones performed by Seminar members.

Now, I am not familiar with the details of the Quest, but it seems like Crossan’s approach has similarities with the way that liberal protestants focused on the morality of Jesus versus his Messianism and death/resurrection.

As I read the responses, it confirmed that IVP put together a very good crew in this book – experts who are all along the spectrum of interpretation, but when they agree on a criticism against Crossan (or any other participant), it is helpful to see where methodological consenses lie (though Price is often following his own track, but that doesn’t mean his response points are invalid, just not in line with the others).

More to come…

The Bishop Approves…

As some of you know, I wrote ‘N.T. Wright for Everyone: the Apostle Paul’ as a (very brief) summary of the Bishop’s views on Paul in preparation for the Wheaton conference in April in his honour (the British spelling is also in his honour!).

A couple of notes:

1. I emailed Bishop Tom and let him know of this, though I felt there was about a 1% chance (maybe less) that he would have a chance to respond.  Well, the good news is that he did respond and found my summary to be ‘fine’ – I’ll take it.  In fact, I am in the process of printing that email out and framing it.  (Coincidentally, my PhD diploma just came in the mail today…what drawer should I stuff that in…I’m sure I will need to photocopy that at some point…)

2. The scribd document has now been read over 1700 times in the last six days – thank you to all of you that posted links and promoted it.  Whatever it takes to educate the masses on what is ‘Wright’! 🙂

3. I have heard that the registration numbers for the conference are very promising (I don’t think I am giving away insider secrets to say that this will probably be the biggest turnout they have seen for this conference).  I really feel that, though this will be a painful 6 hour drive, it is going to be a must-see event.  Plus, if an act of God struct the conference and wiped out N.T. Wright, Markus Bockmuehl, Richard Hays, Kevin Vanhoozer, and Sylvia Keesmaat – well, its just better for me if I go with them to wherever they are going.  (I have done enough blog posts and received enough comments in the past to say this: I am just kidding).