(HarperSanFrancisco), Luke Timothy Johnson, 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 the Jesus Seminar and its promise to deliver a strictly historical reconstruction of Jesus.
In what he called "a more constructive sequel," Johnson wrote
(HarperSanFrancisco, 1998), an effort to think through the implications that the real Jesus is the living, resurrected Jesus.
In contrast to the work of the Jesus Seminar--all of the emphasis being on the historic Jesus who lived in the past--you make a strong case for needing to study the living Jesus. Why?
Learning a living person is a much more complex enterprise than doing research on a dead person. A dead person stands still; a living person is active and can continue to surprise.
The resurrection is the starting point of Christian religion. Jesus didn't found the church by his ministry. The church came into being because of the resurrection. Everything that Christians do, every time they pray to God through Jesus, there's the conviction that Jesus is more powerfully alive 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 our faith?
If Jesus' resurrection were a simple resuscitation of the body, that would be a divine sleight of hand that was good news for Jesus but wouldn't change the existence of anybody else.
The other extreme, which is equally dangerous, is to understand the resurrection as only the memory of a community, or a moral example, or the power of Jesus' teaching, or some sort of vague, spiritual existence that tends to become defined in psychological terms. The resurrection is rather the beginning of something fundamentally new. Jesus shares--now powerfully--the very life of God.
The resurrection experience goes beyond history: It means acknowledging that we have been touched by a transforming transcendent personal power; that Jesus is powerfully alive in the community when we gather in his name. So the resurrection must be defined first of all not simply in terms of what happened to Jesus but what happened to Jesus' followers.
And the evidence that Jesus is alive is the presence of the Holy Spirit?
In the New Testament, the fundamental symbol of this availability of Jesus is the Holy Spirit. We have the Spirit because Jesus is Lord. How do we know Jesus is Lord? Because we have the Spirit. The essential claim is that the Spirit of God through Jesus is present to reshape human freedom into the image of Jesus. Insofar as that's the fundamental resurrection claim, it is as available now as it was then.
How can we learn this living Jesus?
I would start with the practices of the living community--we learn Jesus 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 we actually take into ourselves his identity.
Another way to learn Jesus is through Jesus' embodiment in the little ones--the poor ones--of the earth and in the entire tradition of Christian hospitality that says that when you receive the stranger, you receive Christ. People like Mother Teresa and Dorothy Day--the passion that drove them was not only the desire to do good; it was above all to see 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 the few but valuable outsider perspectives on Jesus that we have--the sober observations in Tacitus, the few remarks from Josephus, and so forth--and compare them with the New Testament sources and ask: On what points do these accounts converge?
Based on this analysis, we can make a number of important historical judgments about Jesus: that he was a Jew of the first century who worked among his people, that he was executed as a criminal under Pontius Pilate, that he had a movement following after him. We can also with a rather high degree of probability identify broad patterns of his activity: that he was a teacher, that he was a wonderworker, that he associated with the marginal elements of society. We could even historically 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 as possible in order to understand the writings of the New Testament. It's irresponsible to say that one can read the New Testament without cracking its linguistic, cultural, symbolic code, which is totally different from our own.
What's really remarkable is that in all of the research done in the past 50 years, nothing in the Gospels has been disconfirmed in terms of that kind of historical investigation. All of our modern research doesn't overturn what the Gospels tell us; the Gospels remain our best source.
So where do the modern historical scholars you criticize go wrong?
You can't know dance except by dancing, right? Our thought should move instead toward the dense, rich symbolism of the Gospel narratives. By no means do I want to evaporate Jesus' humanity, but I want to show how we might apprehend it in all its complexity rather than in a kind of narrow sociological stereotyping that ends up with an abstract Jesus: He's a peasant so he has to walk like a peasant, talk like a peasant, have only one completely consistent line of thought and activity.
How do we go about finding out what we most want to know about scripture?
When we're reading ancient texts, often we need to do a bit of research, but the research ought to be driven by the need for meaning--not the narrative as an excuse for doing historical research. What's built into every strictly historical examination is that the narratives--as narratives--are wrong, that tradition got Jesus wrong, and that, therefore, the Gospels need to be deconstructed in order to get to the real Jesus.
How do people go about becoming powerful readers of the Bible?
Too often, we begin Bible study by showing them all the ways in which they can't read. "You don't know archaeology, you don't know history, you don't know what's going on, so let me instruct you on what you're supposed to find in the text." Whereas, I am convinced that if you take any 10 people off the street, bring them into a room, have them read a passage of Scripture together, and work with them as you're reading, within an hour they will come up with every solution to the text that's ever been invented in the history of scholarship.
There are at least four dimensions of the New Testament text that must be engaged if we want to begin to learn the living Jesus: the anthropological, the literary, the historical, and the religious. Jesus Questers get it wrong when they say that all we have to engage is the historical.