078 The Real Jesus


For nearly two millennia one Person–Jesus, the Christ–has loomed above all others, forever inviting inquiry, adoration, skepticism, rejection. Consequently, Christians must ever seek to discern and portray the truth about Him. They do so, frequently, because non-Christian thinkers have called into question the claims historically made by the Christian Church. Responding to the current climate, Luke Timothy Johnson, Professor of New Testament and Christian Origins at the Candler School of Theology, Emory University, has written The Real Jesus: The Misguided Quest of the Historical Jesus and the Truth of the Traditional Gospels (San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, c. 1996).

Johnson wrote the book, he says, “to blow the whistle on a form of scholarship I consider misguided and misleading” (p. vii)–most visibly the activities of the “Jesus Seminar.” Given the publicity garnered by this project, largely through the promotional genius of its leader, Robert Funk, sensational claims have edged aside scholarly substance. In part, this is due to the fact that authentic religion is conservative, promoting stability in both the created and social orders. A media-shaped culture such as ours, however, craves the exceptional, the radical, the outrageous. Knowing this, Funk and his colleagues have managed to manipulate the press and TV, foisting on the public a less-than-accurate portrait of Jesus.

Funk and friends, dealing with reporters rather than well-grounded scholars, get away with statements such as Jesus’ “only friends are the religious, economic, and moral outcasts of society” (p. 12). Or He was “a social gadfly,” never a “goody-two-shoes,” and, amazingly, in the words of Leif Vaage, probably “a party-animal, somewhat shiftless, and disrespectful of the fifth commandment: Honor your father and mother” (p. 15). Suitably attuned to the sexually-liberated ‘nineties, most Seminar participants, Funk says, “believe that Jesus probably was not celibate, that he did not advocate celibacy as a life-style, and that he had a ‘special’ relationship with at least one woman, but that it may not have been a sexual relationship” (p. 13). Perhaps he prayed–but it matters little–for he was a down-to-earth social activist.

Jesus Seminar members forever seek to get “behind” the texts of the New Testament. Largely discarding the material in the Gospels as unhistorical, they still seek to construct a “historical” Jesus of some sort (usually a Jesus who rather resembles a thoroughly liberal 20th century professor’s idealized advocate for the world’s “poor”). Looking for data, they gladly embrace non-canonical materials such as the “Gospel of Thomas.” Thus the Seminar adds Thomas to its recently-published scripture, The Five Gospels: The Search for the Authentic Words of Jesus.

Given the publicity surrounding the Jesus Seminar and its highly skeptical strategies, Johnson casts a skeptical eye on its activities and the alleged scholarship of its participants. He summarizes and critiques the work of popular writers (Barbara Thiering, John Shelby Spong, A.N. Wilson, Stephen Mitchell), as well as academicians (Marcus Borg, John Dominic Crossan and Burton Mack). After skillfully dissecting their presentations, Johnson identifies “constant traits” which characterize their position: 1) a rejection of the canonical Gospels as historically true; 2) a refusal to use other canonical books, such as Paul’s epistles; 3) the insistence that Jesus and his followers must be understood in sociological terms, especially emphasizing his preference for the poor; 4) though claiming “historical” interests, they fundamentally write theological treatises; 5) historical knowledge, as they determine it, must be normative for faith; 6) all of them claim to be “Christian,” thus calling the Church to embrace their version of “Christianity.”

As Johnson then makes clear, there are two radically different views of Jesus. Some continue the Enlightenment’s project of “historical criticism.” The Jesus Seminar, and its fellow-travelers, present a man who struggled for justice and who calls us to do likewise. Thus varieties of “liberation theology,” with its Marxist undercurrents, waft through the corridors of the Church. Race, class, gender become the great Gospel concerns. Energized feminists argue that the lovableJesus who incarnated “female wisdom” and manifested “all the appropriate gender-inclusive attitudes,” was “supplanted by the patriarchal Paul” who, despite some extraneous egalitarian rhetoric, in fact suppressed women (p. 65). Whether Catholic or Protestant, such “Christians,” Johnson suggests, are in the process of destroying the Faith.

On the other hand, the traditional Church, with its creeds, has ever insisted Jesus was, far more than a man, the God-man who was born of the Virgin Mary, rose from the grave, and ever lives at His Father’s side. This, Johnson insists, is the “real Jesus.” In contrast to the “liberal” churches, which discount such, those churches which hold to the historic creeds clearly connect with hungry hearts in our world. “We see, then, a fascinating phenomenon: the form of Christianity most explicitly at odds with modernity is enjoying the greatest success in terms of growth and real political influence, while the form of Christianity that seeks to accommodate itself to modernity verges ever closer to the margins of irrelevancy and even extinction” (p. 64).

Leading the charge to irrelevancy and extinction are practitioners of “historical criticism.” Amazingly, for nearly 200 years, this deeply skeptical approach to the Church’s authoritative scriptures has been conducted within the very bosom of the body–the Church–which the critics have progressively destroyed! Ever seeking to get “behind” the texts of the canon, asking questions intrinsically unanswerable, such critics have effectively undermined the authoritative scriptures. And in the process they have denied, to many people, the possibility of ever knowing the “real Jesus.”

To Johnson, “The ‘real Jesus’ for Christian faith is the resurrected Jesus, him ‘whom God has made both Lord and Christ’ (Acts 2:36)” (p. 142). The real Jesus arose from the grave and now lives among us. “The Gospels, therefore, provide access to the ‘real Jesus’ precisely insofar as they reflect the perception of him given by his postresurrection existence” (p. 144). The Gospels, taken in their entirety, not chopped up into bits and pieces in the historical critical method, provide a coherent and eternally meaningful portrait of Jesus. Johnson’s response to the Jesus Seminar provides a useful evaluation of much modern biblical scholarship. He further offers positive suggestions as to how biblical scholars such as himself should approach their task. Primarily, he urges those entrusted with teaching to faithfully serve the Church, not the academy, and to truthfully portray the “real Jesus.”

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Whereas Johnson writes as a New Testament scholar, Gary R. Habermas acts as an apologist in The Historical Jesus: Ancient Evidence for the Life of Christ (Joplin: College Press Publishing Company, c. 1996). Given the continual “quest for the historical Jesus,” he seeks to uphold the integrity of biblical texts and traditional doctrines.

He first examines the various challenges to the orthodox tradition which have been set forth during the past centuries–arguments such as the “swoon theory,” the “Qumran Connection,” the alteration of the story by Jesus’ followers, etc. In general, he shares journalist Louis Cassels’ judgment: “‘The amazing thing about all these debunk-Jesus books is that they accept as much of the recorded Gospels as they find convenient, then ignore or repudiate other parts of the same document which contradict their notions'” (p. 98). Then there are the “demythologizing” endeavors of Rudolph Bultmann and his followers, who find little “historical” in the New Testament but delight in certain truths to live by contained therein. Thus corps of critics sought to extract, from the first century, insights applicable to the 20th–discarding antiquated notions such as Virgin Birth, miracles or Resurrection. Bultmann’s views rested on no historical data. Indeed, they were a priori assumptions he brought to his study. His disinterest in historical data, as many observe, make Bultmann very much a modern gnostic.

Similar biases clearly characterize a current corps of scholars who seek to interpret early Christianity in gnostic terms, fueled by manuscripts discovered at Nag Hammadi in 1945. The Jesus Seminar, with its reliance on Bultmann and devotion to gnostic texts, is the most visible demonstration of this movement. Habermas shows how scholars such as John Dominic Crossan tell us much about themselves and their ideas, but have little bona fide commitment to historical evidence.

After critiquing the skeptics, Habermas turns to the evidence–the “old stuff,” the documents! Primary sources, he argues, provide accurate, trustworthy concerning Jesus. He first stresses that the “Christological Creeds,” such as found in Romans 1:3-4 and 10:9, seem clearly derived from the very beginnings of the Christian community. Especially important is 1 Cor. 15:3ff. “That this confession is an early Christian, pre-Pauline creed is recognized by virtually all critical scholars across a very wide theological spectrum” (p. 153). Probably composed in the mid-30’s, picked up by Paul when he visited Jerusalem, it “provides demonstrable early, eyewitness testimony for the resurrection” and essential elements of the Christian Faith (p. 157). These creeds clearly contain a dozen or more of the most basic truths Christians have always believed.

Beyond New Testament data, archaeology and non-Christian sources offer supplementary details. Historians such as Tacitus, Suetonius, and Thallus; government officials such as Pliny the Younger, Trajan, and Hadrian; Jewish records such as the Talmud, the Toledoth Jesu, and Josephus; and Gnostic documents all add certifying information which make the Gospel accounts credible. Pliny’s letter provides an example of such: “They (the Christians) were in the habit of meeting on a certain fixed day before it was light, when they sang in alternate verses a hymn to Christ, as to a god, and bound themselves by a solemn oath, not to any wicked deeds, but never to commit any fraud, theft or adultery, never to falsify their word, nor deny a trust when they should be called upon to deliver it up; after which it was their custom to separate, and the reassemble to partake of food–but food of an ordinary and innocent kind” (p. 199).

In addition, ancient non-New Testament Christian sources provide confirmations of more primitive claims. The letters of St. Clement of Rome, St. Ignatius of Antioch, Quadratus, Barnabas, and Justin Martyr are close enough to the Church’s origins (Clement probably knew Peter, Ignatius probably knew John) to add to our historical perspective. Tying it all together, Habermas says: “We have examined a total of 45 ancient sources for the life of Jesus, which include 19 early creedal, four archaeological, 17 non-Christian, and five non-New Testament Christian sources. From this data we have enumerated 129 reported facts concerning the life, person, teachings, death, and resurrection of Jesus, plus the disciples’ earliest message” (p. 250). The data, of course, are not all equally impressive, but taken together they build an enormously strong case. Compared with other persons in the ancient world, we know, through historical methods, a great deal about Jesus!

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A much more focused work, but clearly useful in apologetics, is Eyewitness to Jesus: Amazing New Manuscript Evidence About the Origin of the Gospels by Carsten Peter Thiede and Matthew D’Ancona (New York: Doubleday, c. 1996). Thiede, a German papyrologist, provides the scholarly data; D’Ancona, a British journalist, shapes the material into a readable story. This book, though hardly targeting believers, certainly bolsters their faith in the trustworthiness of the Gospels. Nothing could be more needed, both for the Church and the world, for “the Gospels are the very building blocks of our civilization” (p. 153). “Recently, scholars have begun to explore once more the idea that the Gospels were biographies in the Graeco-Roman sense and to observe their similarities with that particular, extremely stylized genre as it expressed itself in works such as Suetonius’s Lives of the Caesars and Tacitus’s Agricola” (p. 166).

In part, the story is a detective story, a mystery! It deals with the discovery of three bits of papyrus, fragments of Matthew 26, in Magdalen College, Oxford–what Thiede thinks may be “the oldest extant fragment of the New Testament” (p. 2). If authentic, these fragments may help settle questions concerning the dating of the Christian Scriptures. Indeed, they may well demonstrate “the institutional sophistication and ambition of the Church before the destruction of the Temple and even suggest a well-developed ecclesiastical strategy already at work in the mid-first century A.D.” (p. 6). If so, it may very well be “one of the most important documents in the world” (p. 7).

Its import resides in this: it would undermine the systematic endeavors of biblical scholars to sever the scriptures from historical facts, to make them a record of what early Christians thought, not what they observed. Describing this scholarly world, A.H.N. Green-Armytage wrote: “‘There is a world–I do not say a world in which all scholars live but one at any rate into which all of them sometimes stray, and which some of them seem permanently to inhabit–which is not the world in which I live . . . In my world, most every book, except some of those produced by Government departments, is written by one author. In that world almost every book is produced by a committee, and some of them by a whole series of committees. In my world, if I read that Mr Churchill, in 1935, said that Europe was heading for a disastrous war, I applaud his foresight. In that world no prophecy, however vaguely worded, is ever made except after the event. In my world we say, ‘The First World-War took place in 1914-1918,’ In that world they say, “the world-war narrative took shape in the third decade of the twentieth century'” (p. 8). The Magdalen papyrus could help restore the New Testament to its traditional role: the historical basis for the Church’s faith.

Thus technical details concerning the papyrus must be considered. In a chapter entitled “Investigating the Magdalen Papyrus,” the authors try to explain some of the intricacies of textual criticism, the highly precise quest for the most accurate replication of the text, demonstrating why the Magdalen Papyrus has been recognized for its authenticity and importance by the finest scholars in the world. Next, it is necessary to pursue the story of how these fragments were found and ultimately deposited in Magdalen, so we learn how an English clergyman, Charles Huleatt, acquired them, nearly a century ago, in Egypt; ultimately they found their way to Magdalen, where they rested in relative obscurity throughout this century. They were then assumed to belong to the third or fourth centuries, hardly significant in view of the much larger manuscripts available.

Recent methodologies, increasingly precise scholarly methods, however, led some papyrologists such as Thiede to re-evaluate things. Given new data concerning the circulation of “codex” copies of popular books in the first century, the Magdalen “codex” could, in fact, have come from that era. Thiede thus began to argue, drawing on materials from the Quoran Caves–which we know could not have been composed after A.D. 68– for a first century dating for some fragments of the New Testament. Some abbreviations, the shape of some letters, the use of abbreviations for “holy names”– clear evidence that the early scribes unambiguously declared “Jesus the Christ is Lord and God–arguably place the Magdalen fragments in the same era as the Dead Sea Scrolls. (It is also certain, incidentally, that Markan papyrus 7Q5 from Cave 7 shows that 1 Timothy 3:16-4:3 was written before the fall of Jerusalem.) Remarkably, we have a Greek manuscript, the Oxyrhynchus Papyri, clearly dating from A.D. 65/66, which closely resembles (in words and style) the Magdalen fragments.

Since the codex copy in Magdalen had to come from a “first scroll,” the original work must have been written before A.D. 66. For a century, New Testament scholars, comfortable in their “historical critical” methodologies, have argued that “St. Matthew’s Gospel is a very late community creation, artfully describing Jesus as miracle worker, theological thinker and prophet, according to the liturgical need of the eighties of the first century” (p. 125). Such assumptions may well prove passe! Mounting evidence may very well restore the Gospels to their traditional position as “trustworthy eyewitness material from apostolic times” (p. 125). Indeed, “The worldwide sensation arising out of the reediting of the St. Matthew papyrus at Magdalen College, Oxford, is not an end in itself but merely a beginning” (p. 127). As Graham Stanton, in Gospel Truth? (1995), declared: “‘If accepted, this date would revolutionize our understanding of the origin of the Gospels and just about every other aspect of earliest Christianity'” (p. 101).

The authors conclude: “Bultmann was wrong: the authors of the Gospel could hear far more than the faintest whisper of Jesus’ voice. Indeed, the first readers of St. Matthew may have heard the very words which the Nazarene preacher spoke during his ministry; may have listened to the parables when they were first delivered to the peasant crowd; may even have asked the wise man questions and waited respectfully for answers. The voice they heard was not a whisper but the passionate oratory of a real man of humble origins whose teaching would change the world” (p. 168).

Still more: There is now good reason to suppose that the Gospel according to St. Matthew, with its detailed accounts of the Sermon on the Mount and the Great Commission, was written not long after t he Crucifixion and certainly before the destruction of the Temple in A.D. 70; that the Gospel according to St. Mark was distributed early enough to reach Qumran; that the Gospel according to St. Luke belonged to the very first generation of Christian codices; and that internal evidence suggests a date before A.D. 70 even for the non-synoptic Gospel according to S. John (as the highly respected German academic Klaus Berger argued in 1994). These are the first stirrings of a major process of scholarly reappraisal” (p. 169).

Maybe a fresh wind is blowing through the halls of academe! And it’s blowing, of all places, in the dry-as-dust realms of papyrology! This is a fascinating book, though its details are often quite erudite and beyond a layman’s ability to fully fathom.

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In a 12-page appendix (pp. 275-286), Habermas sets forth “An Apologetic Outline” which is most helpful. He structures his case in three sections: 1) The Trustworthiness of the New Testament; 2) The Historicity of Jesus; 3) Miracle-claims. We have persuasive manuscript evidence, arguably written at an early date by eye-witnesses or men who knew eye-witnesses, clearly historical and, ironically, more readily accepted by trained historians than New Testament critics. That Jesus was a historical person, about whom we know a great deal, seems clearly demonstrable. And finally, though academic critics such as Bultmann may find miracles offensive, they do so more out of loyalty to 19th century science than any intrinsic impossibility. Miraculous events such as the Resurrection, reported by trustworthy witnesses, may very well merit belief. Reflecting diligent research and rigorous attention to data, Habermas’ work is an up-to-date defense, apologetics in the most admirable sense.