Let's learn the living Jesus

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Article Scripture and Theology

With his 1996 book The Real Jesus (HarperSanFrancisco), Luke Timothy Johnson established himself as one of the most forceful critics of the Jesus Seminar's promise to deliver a strictly historical reconstruction of Jesus. Christian faith, Johnson says, has never based itself on such a reconstruction, even though it has always involved historical claims about Jesus.

His critique also raised important issues for how Christians understand the meaning of the Resurrection, the church, and the ability to become skilled readers of the Bible.

In what he called "a more constructive sequel," Johnson wrote Living Jesus (HarperSanFrancisco,1998), an effort to think through the implications that the real Jesus is the living, resurrected Jesus and that being a Christian means learning this Jesus and modeling one's life on him.

Johnson, the author of several books on scripture and Christian history, is professor of New Testament and Christian origins at Emory University's Candler School of Theology in Atlanta.

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. I choose the word learning rather than knowing in order to emphasize the progressive, ongoing, and open-ended character of discipleship. I'm loathe to say that I know Jesus; I'm more willing to say that I'm in the process of learning Jesus.

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. But it is the very heart of Christian faith. 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.

If we don't start with the living Jesus, then we're not Christian.

What do you see in the Resurrection of Jesus that is so crucial to our faith?

The Resurrection is not a problem to be solved but a mystery in which we're implicated and involved. Therefore, we hazard guesses rather than give definitions. We have to locate our understanding of the Resurrection between two extremes.

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. One of the reasons why I'm so against history as the exclusive way of studying Jesus is that if history has to do with human events in time and space, then it must define the Resurrection as a resuscitation.

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 human Jesus has been brought fully into the power of God.

One difficulty in reading the New Testament with regard to the Resurrection is that we tend to take narratives that are really attempts to figure out and interpret who this Jesus is, and read them as though they were flat reportage about events. This way of reading is clearly an error.

If we ask what really happened historically, well, history can see certain things. History can get at the death of Jesus, history can talk about an empty tomb, the proclamation of his followers, and what was happening to them.

But the Resurrection experience goes beyond history: It means acknowledging that we have been touched by a transforming transcendent personal power; that Jesus who was executed as a criminal 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. If we believe what the texts are saying, then we must say that people have been in touch with the power of God through the death of Jesus, and the only way to account for this possibility is that Jesus is alive.

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. In I Corinthians 12:1-3, we see that the Holy Spirit and Jesus as Lord are mutually related. 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. The resurrected Jesus finds embodiment in the body of the Messiah, the church. Saint Paul doesn't use the term Body of Christ casually. We are the body of the Messiah; there's a sense of corporate identification of this body and Jesus' glorified body. 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.

We also learn Jesus in the saints. As a teaching device with groups, I get people into small groups and ask them, "Who are the saints from whom you learned Jesus?" Parents, grandparents, uncles and aunts, teachers, and friends figure prominently. What's striking is that these people were in various humble ways truly saints. Their ways of giving themselves were impressive. It wasn't their words about Jesus, it was the way in which they showed Jesus.

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?

I think there are a couple of ways in which a historical study of Jesus is useful. The first is that Jesus is a historical figure. Historians must work with Jesus, because they can no more exclude Jesus from their purview than a biologist can exclude trees. 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. It's quite a remarkable fact: All of our modern research doesn't overturn what the gospels tell us; the gospels remain our best source.

But that's as far as we can go. History can't give us what we would most like to know about Jesus: what the nature of his ministry was, what his self-consciousness was. We have no firsthand primary sources. We don't have Jesus' diaries or letters in the way we have Gen. Douglas MacArthur's.

Everything that comes to us about Jesus comes through the perceptions of others-everything. Even when it's Jesus' speech, it's always heard speech. So you can't eliminate tradition to get to Jesus.

So where do the modern historical scholars you criticize go wrong?

If one's entire model of doing New Testament scholarship is driven by history, then you make two fundamental mistakes with the figure of Jesus. First, you distort proper methods of history. Second, you end up with a mirror image of yourself. That's why many of the Jesuses in books today look like late 20th century, North American academics!

Part of what the historical Jesus people are trying to do is protect and preserve the humanity of Jesus-but it's very questionable whether history is the best way of doing it.

You can't know dance except by dancing, right? You can do a history of dance, but it's not the same thing as dance. 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 you get people to dance?

One way of dancing is through the liturgy. A task of theology is to stop thinking only about the world that produced the Bible and start thinking about the world that the Bible has produced-to begin to move to the Bible's rhythms. Part of this comes through the recovery of practices of movement.

Our movement toward God, using the metaphor of pilgrimage, becomes real on Rogation days when we walk through the fields, as we sing the Litany of the Saints, as we march from one place to the other.

When I was in the monastery, for example, we walked in ranks everywhere, with the senior moving first and the junior coming last. Quite literally the sense of life as a pilgrimage toward God was deeply and physically impressed as the seniors died and you moved up in ranks.

Another example: I once taught a class called "Paul's Jesus." We didn't call it "Christology"-it was just a class seeking who Jesus is in Paul's letters. We took each letter and asked, "What is the particular way in which Jesus appears in this letter?" with no agenda except learning how to dance to Paul's tune, to follow Paul's music.

I don't think the Bible describes our world; the Bible imagines it, and by imagining it creates a world drenched with grace from God.

How else can liturgy help us learn Jesus?

The thing about liturgy is that it is lifelong, it is repetitive, it is a practice. When I go to Mass on Sunday, usually my mind doesn't show up until after the sermon, and my heart doesn't show up until the kiss of peace.

Fundamentally my body needs to worship more than I do, and so I get my body there and the liturgy works on me. What was it that I was feeling in the people next to me? Was it the smells, the sound, the sense of being Catholic that I have in my parish in downtown Atlanta, so catholic in its range of race and socioeconomic conditions?

In the public liturgy of the church, I gain a sense of a life of sharing that is so incompatible, in every respect, with a life of hoarding. Where does this come from? It comes from the Body and Blood, it comes from all the repetitions of "do this in memory of me."

So it's the sacraments that make a difference for Catholic identity?

No, not only the sacraments. It's the entire sense of home, where one belongs, one's tradition. You genuflect, you kneel, you stand at the right time, all of this leads to all this stuff that is in the bones.

I really do think our bodies know things our minds don't. You can analyze prayer or you can pray, but you can't do them both simultaneously. The problem with liberals, generally, is they want to do both simultaneously. And the problem with conservatives, generally, is they want to do one and never the other. What we need is a healthy oscillation between our animal selves and our analytic selves.

How do we go about finding out what we most want to know about scripture?

What I want to push more is the ability to read narratives for meaning. Insofar as any kind of biblical scholarship helps us do that, I think it's great. But I don't think we need scholarship for that, I think we need skilled readers. I teach what I call "collaborative exegesis," people sitting around the table reading and trying to be responsible to other readers as well as the text-not exegesis as a research mode, but exegesis as skill in reading. Not exegesis as information, but exegesis for transformation

When we're reading ancient texts, of ten 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. My mantra is: We learn history to understand the narratives; we don't deconstruct the narratives to do history. Where people encounter Jesus is in the narrative; he's not somebody outside the narrative we can get to in some other way.

And never was.

Never was. The New Testament literature was never outside of the post-Resurrection world of meaning. 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.

Even if it were possible to get to that historical Jesus, it would still be too high a cost because, in fact, we thereby lose the Jesus who has been shaped out of the human memory of him and the Resurrection experience, of which the gospels are made up.

One of the reasons I begin my book Living Jesus with the framework of the resurrected Jesus, and learning Jesus in the context of the church, is that this involves several risk-filled but responsible choices-one of which is to read Jesus through the rule of faith, the creed. Another is to read Jesus through the canon of scripture. These historical processes may have been flawed. But there are no other responsible means to this narrative figure except through the context of creed, canon, and apostolic succession.

How do people go about becoming powerful readers of the Bible?

Most folks are much more intelligent and capable of reading than some of us are willing to grant, and part of the difficulty is not liberating them to do just that.

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.

What we need to do is to encourage forms of reading that liberate people's intelligence. It's like listening to people's stories. It's risk-filled; it's a little messier than having a neat set of lesson plans.

I try to help people become stronger readers by urging them to do powerful readings rather than weak readings, to do responsible readings rather than irresponsible readings. It's the simplest, oldest method of study. It's how Jews do midrash. We read the passage out loud, and we begin to talk about what it means.

We've gotten so fixated on product rather than process, on theology as something that fits within the covers of a book, rather than theology as a living process among God's people.

What's the difference between responsible and irresponsible readings?

I don't think there's one right reading of a text, but I think there are wrong readings. A wrong reading of a text can misunderstand its grammar, its syntax. It can be anachronistic, it can be totally idiosyncratic. Right readings are responsible, and responsible means being responsible to the text and responsible to other readers-I offer my reading to you, and you offer a reading as well. In other words, together, by sharing our interpretations, we begin to hone in on the possible meanings of a text. Powerful readings are transformative. They give rise to more meaning. They are not safe and banal and dead.

What I'm arguing for is a broader understanding of what critical reading of the New Testament involves. 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.

This article appeared in the June 2000 issue of U.S. Catholic magazine (Vol. 65, No. 6, pg. 18-22).