Beliefnet
In his 1996 book, "The Real Jesus"
(HarperSanFrancisco), Luke TimothyJohnson, a professor of New Testament and Christian origins at Emory University's Candler School of Theology, established himself as one of the most forceful critics of theJesus Seminar and its promise to deliver a strictly historical reconstructionof Jesus.

In what he called "a more constructive sequel," Johnson wrote"LivingJesus"
(HarperSanFrancisco, 1998), an effort to think through theimplications that the real Jesus is the living, resurrected Jesus.

In contrast to the work of the Jesus Seminar--all of the emphasis beingon the historic Jesus who lived in the past--you make a strong case forneedingto study the living Jesus. Why?

Learning a living person is a much more complex enterprise thandoing research on a dead person. A dead person stands still; a livingperson is active and can continue to surprise.

The resurrection is the starting point of Christian religion. Jesusdidn't found the church by his ministry. The church came into beingbecause of the resurrection. Everything that Christians do, every time they pray to Godthrough Jesus, there's the conviction that Jesus is more powerfullyalive and more available to humans now than in his earthly ministry.

What do you see in the resurrection of Jesus that is so crucial to ourfaith?

If Jesus' resurrection were asimple resuscitation of the body, that would be a divine sleight ofhandthat was good news for Jesus but wouldn't change the existence ofanybody else.

The other extreme, which is equally dangerous, is to understand theresurrection as only the memory of a community, or a moral example, orthe power of Jesus' teaching, or some sort of vague, spiritualexistencethat tends to become defined in psychological terms. The resurrection is rather the beginning of something fundamentallynew. Jesus shares--now powerfully--the very life of God.

The resurrection experience goes beyond history: It meansacknowledging that we have been touched by a transforming transcendentpersonal power; that Jesus is powerfullyalive in the community when we gather in his name. So the resurrectionmust be defined first of all not simply in terms of what happened toJesus but what happened to Jesus' followers.

And the evidence that Jesus is alive is the presence of the HolySpirit?

In the New Testament, the fundamental symbol of this availability ofJesus is the Holy Spirit. We have the Spiritbecause Jesus is Lord. How do we know Jesus is Lord? Because we havetheSpirit. The essential claim is that the Spirit of God through Jesus ispresent to reshape human freedom into the image of Jesus. Insofar asthat's the fundamental resurrection claim, it is as available now as itwas then.

How can we learn this living Jesus?

I would start with the practices of the living community--we learnJesus sacramentally and in worship, preeminently in the Eucharist. Above all, it is in Jesus'self-giving in the bread and wine, in his Body and the Blood, that weactually take into ourselves his identity.

Another way to learn Jesus is through Jesus' embodiment in thelittle ones--the poor ones--of the earth and in the entire tradition ofChristian hospitality that says that when you receive the stranger, youreceive Christ. People like Mother Teresa and Dorothy Day--the passionthat drove them was not only the desire to do good; it was above all tosee the face of Christ in the dying and the vagrants.

What is the proper role of history in the study of Jesus?

Jesus is a historical figure.Let's take thefew but valuable outsider perspectives on Jesus that we have--the soberobservations in Tacitus, the few remarks from Josephus, and soforth--andcompare them with the New Testament sources and ask: On what points dothese accounts converge?

Based on this analysis, we can make a number of importanthistoricaljudgments about Jesus: that he was a Jew of the first century whoworkedamong his people, that he was executed as a criminal under PontiusPilate, that he had a movement following after him. We can also with arather high degree of probability identify broad patterns of hisactivity: that he was a teacher, that he was a wonderworker, that heassociated with the marginal elements of society. We could evenhistorically argue a high probability for specific events in Jesus'ministry, such as his baptism by John.

Second, it is absolutely important to learn as much history aspossible in order to understand the writings of the New Testament. It'sirresponsible to say that one can read the New Testament withoutcracking its linguistic, cultural, symbolic code, which is totallydifferent from our own.

What's really remarkable is that in all of the research done in thepast 50 years, nothing in the Gospels has been disconfirmed in termsofthat kind of historical investigation. Allof our modern research doesn't overturn what the Gospels tell us; theGospels remain our best source.

Join the Discussion
comments powered by Disqus