If you have ever seen a special on the Life of Jesus and been confused at the Jesus that was shown or have ever wondered why the Discovery Channel’s Bible didn’t quite line up with what you read in your Bible, Luke Timothy Johnson has written this book as a way to explain those in consistencies in what you read in your Bible from what you might see on a documentary. The book is written at a little bit higher level, its not a scholarly work but still tough to follow at times.
Johnson begins the book with an explanation of the rise of the Jesus Seminar and their blitzkrieg on research on Jesus. The Jesus Seminar is composed of “scholars” who author papers, hold seminars and conventions, and speak and teach on the life, teaching, death, and resurrection of Jesus. Many of the members of this organization are in some form of Academia. They have become most famous for the way they criticise (from the greek krites meaning “to judge”) ancient documents, especially the Gospels, and the history surrounding Jesus. The Seminar has a peculiar way of finding the “historical kernal of truth” hidden amongst the layers and layers of tradition and religious propaganda in the gospels (their summary not mine). Each member is allowed to vote on the historical reliability of the current statement or event associated with Jesus. This is done with 4 different colored beads: black meaning he definitely did not say or do this; grey meaning he probably didn’t do it; pink meaning it something he could have done; and red meaning Yeah that’s Jesus! (4)
Within the book Johnson points out some key issues that he sees with the Jesus Seminar:
1) The media circus surrounding it. Johnson takes issue with Robert Funk’s ringmaster personality as one who is not trying to further scholarship, but to create a media frenzy directly opposed to the church. Funk is on a mission, according to Johnson, to reclaim the gospels from the control of the church. (6-20)
2) The elevation of Apocryphal material as more historically accurate than the gospels…a ploy by liberal scholarship for centuries. The view that the Gospel of Thomas is more reliable because of its dissenting views and its un-corrupted text is another topic for another time.
3) The amount of conclusions that scholarship has arrived at. Chapter 2 traces the history of the “third quest for the Historical Jesus” and their theories on who Jesus is and was. His issue is not with scholarship, but the fact that the seminar can’t seem to come to a consensus with who Jesus was. In the last 20 years the scholars have come out with diametrically opposing view points on who Jesus was. There is no way that both sides of the seminar could co-exist, not everyone is right. (29-56)
4) The division within church as to how to approach scholarship and how to confront these teachings. We are caught between worldviews, which Johnson points out well in chapter 4.
5) History is and of itself difficult to know and understand. Johnson, himself a historian, argues that history is largely unrecorded and un-represented. In arguing that history is a difficult undertaking, especially in the methodology of the Jesus Seminar.
6) The Jesus seminar rejects any form of “religious” tainting of the Historical Jesus. They look for religious propaganda within the gospels. Johnson argues that the Jesus of Faith is the Jesus of history. By pointing to all the extra-biblical evidence for Jesus, the writings of Paul, and other evidence of Jesus, he argues for a “historical probability” where all the evidence of Jesus points to the religious community documenting it well.
All the evidence cited by Johnson in this book points definitively to a Jesus that was adequately and correctly depicted in the canonical gospels. He attacks liberal scholarship as represented by the Jesus seminar, not as heretics but as poor historians. This book was a fresh attempt to argue against the type of scholarship that permeates documentaries and media. Johnson argues for the history of the Bible.