Response to Luke Timothy Johnson’s The Real Jesus -- By: Adela Yarbro Collins

Journal: Bulletin for Biblical Research
Volume: BBR 07:1 (NA 1997)
Article: Response to Luke Timothy Johnson’s The Real Jesus
Author: Adela Yarbro Collins


Response to Luke Timothy Johnson’s
The Real Jesus

Adela Yarbro Collins

The Divinity School, University Of Chicago

According to the preface, a major purpose of Luke Timothy Johnson’s book The Real Jesus is “to sort out some of the strands in a moment of complex cultural confusion” (pp. v–vi). He sees the Jesus Seminar as a symptom of institutional collapse, characterized by the effort of scholars to bypass the ordinary contexts of their activity in order to effect cultural change by direct competition with conservative Christians; the ambiguous role of the media as the arena for this cultural battle; and especially the battle over identity boundaries within Christianity itself. He also addresses the classic philosophical and theological problem of the connection between history and faith, since it is a major factor in the current controversy. In my response, I would like to address these two main points briefly.

The “battle over identity boundaries within Christianity itself “ from Johnson’s perspective evidently includes ambiguity in the role of scholar-teacher. He is puzzled by Marcus Borg’s “desire to be both a critical historian and a builder of Christian faith” (p. 41). He asks, if Borg is a Christian, why should it matter to him if the New Testament retrojected divine qualities back onto Jesus? Conversely, if he is a critical historian, why should he worry whether the historical Jesus is irrelevant to the faith? Johnson finds it odd that Borg assumes that “the human vision” of Jesus is to be a norm for “the new vision” that shapes Christian discipleship.

Johnson admits that only in a non-existent “tidy world” could it be the case that the role of builder of Christian faith and the role of critical historian would each have a single social location (p. 58). Nevertheless, such tidy distinctions seem to be his ideal. The builder of Christian faith belongs in the Church and the critical historian in the academy. The present social reality in the United States, however, is one in which the connection between ideologies and social structures is not so neat. As Johnson recognizes, there is a variety of versions of the church and a variety of realizations of the academy

and they influence each other in complex and ever changing ways. But he views this situation as “the disheveled, distraught, and depressed condition of both Church and academy as American culture slouches toward the millennium” (pp. 58-59).

This theme recurs in the Epilogue, where Johnson presents himself both as a Christian and as a critical scholar and where he explores the possibilities for a “truly critical biblical scholarship w...

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