During the lead up to Christmas and Easter each year, there is a spat of programming around biblical and theological themes – specifically about the life of Jesus. (As I write this during Holy Week 2017, CNN and PBS are running especially grotesque examples of this genre.) This is a pop culture equivalent of the fascination that many scholars and pseudo-scholars have shared throughout the centuries, from the earliest gnostics to the 20th century Jesus Seminar. Unfortunately, most of these are attempts to reconstruct a “real” Jesus more adaptable and interesting to the popular culture of whatever time and place, rather than diving more deeply into the Biblical and patristic record.
From the first, the church has endorsed a variety of views on Jesus. We have four gospels in the New Testament, when we might have had one. Of course, many so-called gospels have been rejected by the church as well (these rejected gospels provide the grist for the mill of the biannual “NEW SECRETS OF JESUS” programming we continually endure). In this morass of various Jesus’ on offer, how do we determine true from false savior?
The esteemed Emory professor Luke Timothy Johnson, recently retired, provides a helpful sieve in his polemic work The Real Jesus, which took ruthless aim at the specious scholarship of the Jesus Seminar. According to Johnson, the real Jesus of the gospels and the tradition has a story with very clear lines:
When the witness of the New Testament is taken as a whole, a deep consistency can be detected beneath the surface diversity. The “real Jesus” is first of all the powerful, resurrected Lord whose transforming Spirit is active in the community….the one who through the Spirit replicates in the lives of believers faithful obedience to God and loving service to others. Everywhere in these writings the image of Jesus involves the tension-filled paradox of death and resurrection, suffering and glory.
Within the New Testament, no other pattern joins the story of Jesus and that of his followers. Discipleship does not consist in a countercultural critique of society. Discipleship does not consist in working overwhelming miracles. These elements of the Jesus tradition are not made normative in the way that the pattern of obedient suffering and loving service is.
In other words, the real Jesus cannot be known apart from the clear arc of his story in the New Testament: sacrificial service, radical love, death and resurrection. Any other Jesus is a reconstruction – and, as Schweitzer noted almost a century ago – most likely a self-aggrandizing fiction. This takes away the edge, the beauty, and the heart of the Jesus we meet in the New Testament.
I’ll let Johnson have the last word:
For our present age, in which the “wisdom of the world” is expressed in individualism, narcissism, preoccupation with private rights, and competition, the “wisdom of the cross” is the most profoundly countercultural message of all. Instead of an effort to rectify the distorting effect of the Gospel narratives, the effort to reconstruct Jesus according to some other pattern appears increasingly as an attempt to flee the scandal of the gospel. (p. 166)
Do you agree with Johnson’s portrait of “the real Jesus?” Why are we continually attracted to visions of Jesus that outside of the earliest witnesses? Leave a comment below!