Luke Timothy Johnson is Catholic scholar who has received considerable praise from conservative Protestant scholars on his biblical commentaries and other writings. He begins his essay by observing two ways of getting to know Jesus. The first is “through the practices of faith in the church, through prayer, worship, the reading of Scripture, and encounters with saints and strangers. This premise is based on the fact that Jesus is not a dead man of the past but a living Lord of the present, and that the tradition of the church, beginning in the Gospels, got Jesus right when they viewed all of his story from the perspective of his resurrection and exaltation, for that is who he now truly is.” This Jesus, Johnson argues, is “not an object of scholarly research but the subject of obedient faith.” (155) This position “rejects the adequacy of historical study for getting at Jesus as he truly is” and is the one that Johnson holds. The second way to get to know Jesus is through historical reconstruction. “The premise here is that Christian tradition got Jesus wrong from the beginning” and that therefore the Gospels “and for that matter, all the New Testament testimony concerning Jesus of Nazareth, must be corrected by critical historiography.” (156) This position views Jesus “solely as a dead man of the past rather than as an active subject in the present.”
Johnson attempts what he considers “the most responsible way of employing the Gospels as sources for” knowing the human Jesus. Johnson clears the air that he is not, contrary to what some of his critics have alleged, an opponent to historical inquiry. Rather he says Jesus must be treated just like any other historical figure of the past. The investigator must remain within the parameters of what is potentially verifiable. As for the Gospel narratives themselves Johnson says it is “impossible to harmonize them while still remaining any credibility as a historian.” (159) Johnson provides a basic outline of what a historian may confidently believe concerning Jesus. Among these are that Jesus was a Jew in the first century, his baptism by John, he chose twelve disciples, and that a movement arose around him and spread quickly within twenty-five years of his death. The historian can also be fairly confident in some of the teachings of Jesus such as his proclamation of God’s rule.
Johnson moves on to enumerate four basic limits of history. 1) Historians “construct history rather than simply find it.” (161) 2) History is limited to knowing only a portion of the past. We simply can’t know everything that took place. 3) History is limited by “its total dependence on sources.” (162) 4) Finally, history can only describe. It can never prescribe the future. With these limitations in place Johnson feels that an event like the resurrection is not “historically verifiable.” (164) When we come to the Gospels as sources of information we find them to be far too sparse and biased. Furthermore, they “disagree on the most basic points.” (165) Based on this the scholar can only assert “the bare bones of an event.” (166) For Johnson then typical historical Jesus research is not historical research at all but rather “a theological agenda wearing the external garb of history.” (167)
Johnson suggests that the Gospels be read literarily rather than historically. We shouldn’t ask “did Jesus say or do this” but rather we should ask “‘what does attributing this saying or that deed’ do to shape the meaning of the character of Jesus within the narrative.” (168) Johnson weaves his way through the Gospels to show the similarities of their portrayal of Jesus and the disciples. In Mark the disciples are “mentally incompetent and morally deficient.” (169) In Matthew they are “intelligent” and in Luke they are “prophets-in-training.” Each of these depictions matches a corresponding picture of Jesus. Each Gospel unfolds a “literary character” of Jesus “whom the reader engages in each narrative.” In spite of the fact that the Gospel witnesses disagree on so many facts about Jesus Johnson believes they still have a remarkable witness to the character of Jesus. We see Jesus as having an obedient faith in God with a “self-disposing love toward other people.” (174)
This approach to Jesus is one which is “accessible to all who can read narratives intelligently” and yields an understanding of Jesus as richer than typical historical Jesus publications. It is the Jesus of the Gospels rather than the “historical Jesus” that “galvanized Francis of Assisi, Martin Luther, Martin Luther King, Dorothy Day and Mother Teresa.” (177)