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Friday, April 11, 2014

What I’m Reading: The Real Jesus

In the past couple of years I have intentionally been reading books about the “Historical Jesus,” books by scholars like Geza Vermes, John Dominic Crossan, Willie Marxsen, John P. Meier, Raymond E. Brown, and etcetera…  Some I have appreciated.  Others I have rejected.

This week I read Luke Timothy Johnson’s book The Real Jesus: The Misguided Quest for the Historical Jesus and the Truth of the Traditional Gospels[i]   The lengthy subtitle probably gives it away… Johnson isn’t especially keen on the whole “Historical Jesus” thing.  This isn’t a “Historical Jesus” book per se.  It is instead a critique of the whole quest for a Historical Jesus movement in general.

One of the blurbs (gah! how I hate that word) on the back of the paperback copy I have describes the book as “Passionately argued.”  It is that.  Very.  At times you can almost hear the hairs on the back of his neck bristling as he writes.  Not that he ever ventures into viciousness or personal attack.  But Johnson is very passionate about correcting what he understands to be the very egregious errors of the quest for the “historical Jesus,” particularly those errors perpetrated by the Jesus Seminar.

Johnson argues that the specific –facts - of history (which are only available to us with degrees of probable certainty ) cannot be separated from the narrative that gives them framework and meaning.  But that they are not necessary to see and to trust the patterns and, more importantly, the meaning of the Christian faith, and the life, death, and resurrection (being an event entirely outside the scope of the historian’s craft) of Jesus.

But in his effort to swing the pendulum away from the fanciful and far-fetched historical reconstructions of Jesus back toward reasonable scholarship, Johnson is critical of even those who would seem to agree with him- specifically John P. Meier – who affirms with Johnson that the “Historical Jesus” cannot be mistaken for the “Real Jesus” or even the “Theological Jesus” presented in the Gospels.

This bit of over-zealousness, and the fact that the book (written in 1996) already seems quite dated – are the only drawbacks to the book, in my armchair theologian’s opinion.  Otherwise, it’s a healthy corrective to some of the more outlandish claims made about Jesus and the gospels.

[i] Johnson, Luke Timothy, The Real Jesus: The Misguided Quest for the Historical Jesus and the Truth of the Traditional Gospels, HarperCollins Publishers, San Francisco CA, 1996.

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