Review of Luke Timothy Johnson, The Real Jesus: The Misguided Quest for the Historical Jesus and the Truth of the Traditional Gospels, and Carol Zaleski, The Life of the World to Come: Near-Death Experience and Christian Hope

National Review 48:14 (29 July 1996)

J. Budziszewski


We would never think of saying "Only if you remain in your seat may you take a walk," or "only if you keep a fast may you have your dinner."  Yet to religious believers, the message of the culture is "Only if you can prove your faith are you rationally entitled to it."  To back up Biblical story one is expected to use history, so now we have a quest for the Historical Jesus; to back up religious doctrines one is expected to use science, so now we have scientific studies of such things as near-death episodes.

The results of these exercises have not been encouraging.  Nominees for the Historical Jesus today include a peasant Cynic philosopher, an itinerant wonder worker, a revolutionary ideologist, a "shiftless party animal," and an out-of-the-closet activist "as queer as you or me."  Curiously, many a Historical Jesus chaser finds that the object of his pursuit is a lot like himself.  Near-death narratives present a similar difficulty, for Christians tend to have Christian experiences, Buddhists Buddhist, and New Agers New Age.  Some of those resuscitated say they found judgment "over there," others only self-esteem.  Some say they learned of Hell and Heaven, others just Heaven, still others neither Hell nor Heaven but reincarnation.  It seems these people cannot even get their colors straight.  We keep hearing about a loving white radiance that everyone wants to join, but philosopher A.J. Ayer came back complaining about a nasty red one that he wanted to put out.

In the midst of this chaos we find our authors, each upholding a part of orthodoxy.  While Timothy Luke Johnson argues that the real Jesus is the risen and living Lord that Christians have known all along, Carol Zaleski defends the traditional belief in the afterlife.  On the other hand, our authors take very different views of their respective subjects.  Though no enemy to historical research on Christian origins, Professor Johnson sharply and powerfully attacks the methods and pretensions of the Historical Jesus movement.  By contrast, Professor Zaleski is sympathetic, even favorable, to the literature of close brushes with death.

Johnson's sharpest barbs are for the travelling medicine show called the Jesus Seminar, a mixed group of scholars and wannabes who use colored marbles to vote on "what Jesus really said."  (Red: "That's Jesus!"  Pink:  "Sure sounds like Jesus."  Gray: "Well, maybe."  Black: "There's been some mistake.")  The voting is merely media bait, for co-founder Robert Funk brazenly admits that the Seminar's "real Jesus" is a deliberate fiction.  "We need," he says, "a fiction that we recognize to be fictive."

But Johnson persuasively argues that the issues involved in the Historical Jesus movement are much larger than the antics of Funk & Co.  The methods of the movement are flawed at the root, so that even the work of honest investigators is compromised.  Inevitably they find themselves throwing away their best evidence.  For instance, any adequate approach to the gospels would try to understand their literary qualities.  Instead the movement scholars destroy these qualities by cutting the texts to bits.  We are speaking of something much more radical than merely taking passages out of context, though that is bad enough.  By these methods the Lord's Prayer need not even be viewed as a prayer; it can become a mere collection of sayings, each of which is viewed in isolation.  So far as movement scholars are concerned, the opening phrases "Our Father" and "Who art in heaven" might just as well have come from different books.

With this step the movement scholars have put themselves in a corner.  Having annihilated structure and context, they can no longer use them to help decide which of Jesus' sayings are authentic.  Other criteria must come into play, and here the fun begins.  In the first set are standards any historian would use, like Multiple Attestation:  An alleged Jesus saying is more likely to be authentic if more than one source reports it.  In the second are standards used only in the Historical Jesus movement, like Dissimilarity:  An allged Jesus saying is more likely to be authentic if nothing in previous Jewish or subsequent Christian tradition resembles it.  In the third are standards used only by Funk & Co., like the one I call Zen:  An allegded Jesus saying is more likely to be authentic if it is short and paradoxical.  Johnson rightly criticizes the Seminar's criteria for poisoning the well.  "These are not 'criteria' at all," he says, "but assumptions that are attached to a predetermined vision of the Jesus who is supposedly sought."  One can only wonder why he does not make the same point about some of the standards in set two.  The Dissimilarity standard has come under broad attack already, and for good reason.  Ruling out every Jesus saying that sounds either Jewish or Christian predetermines our vision just as surely as ruling out every long one does:  It guarantees a Jesus who is alienated from his people, does not believe Himself Messiah, and never founds a Church!

Then again, Johnson is not ultimately interested in how much of the Gospels historians can confirm.  Surprisingly, the reason is not so much his confidence in their trustworthiness as his lack of concern about it.  The "real" Jesus, he says, is the one we know now.  To be sure, Christian faith has always involved some historical claims about Him.  However, it is based not on his ministry but on his resurrection, not on his former deeds and sayings but on his present power.  The same goes for the rest of the New Testament.  Scripture should challenge us, says Johnson, but we should also challenge Scripture.

I wonder if this is all a little glib.  Yes, Christian faith has always held that the crucial thing is to find the risen Lord, but it has never held that having found Him one may throw away the map.  "Test all things," said Paul, because the heart is apt to deceive itself, not least in its most elevated moments.  If the Jesus we seem to hear today teaches differently than the Jesus of the gospels, then he is "a different Jesus" and we should stop our ears.  He may transform us, but not as we ought to be transformed.  Therefore, Scripture is not merely a preamble to religious experience, but its interpreter and judge.  That is the tradition.

The dangers of religious pragmatism would seem to be especially clear in the near-death experiences of which Zaleski writes.  Though frankly admitting that what happens to people while they are "out" is profoundly shaped by their prior desires and expectations, she labors mightily to miss the point.  She says the experiences are real.  Yes, but so are hallucinations.  She says they give powerful expression to the ideals of those who suffer them.  Yes, but these ideals are inconsistent.  She says they bring good fruits.  Yes, but only if we are willing to gauge goodness in all these inconsistent ways.  She says they use cultural symbols for what cannot be expressed in plain language.  Yes, but they cannot all be symbols of the same thing.  She says they are in the realm of the imagination.  Now we are getting somewhere.

Understand that I do not claim to know what near-death experiences really are.  Neither does Zaleski, yet she uses them to draw conclusions.  The burden of the book is that we are "rationally and morally entitled to believe in life after death."  But if the warrant of Biblical faith is insufficient, then how imagination provides another is hard to see.

Nor is Zaleski content to believe in life after death; she hopes for universal salvation.  This is even more puzzling because it evinces a preference for some near-death narratives over others.  The ones with Heaven are in; the ones with Hell are out.  What shall we say, then, about the latter?  "The problem with these scenarios has been their deployment by a theological tradition that tried to know too much, and took pleasure from the torment of the unjust."  This is an odd position for a defender of orthodox doctrine, inasmuch as it puts Jesus among those who tried to know too much.  Though no one in Scripture spoke more than He about love, no one in Scripture warned more than He about damnation.  In her indifference to such details, the attitude of this author resembles that of Johnson.  For both, the Jesus of experience is strangely disconnected from the one who taught and acted in Palestine.  It matters greatly what He “speaks”; it matters little what He spoke.

Midway through his book, Johnson comments on the Western Christian response to intellectual challenge.  Why has it become so feeble?  "Because the boundaries between church and academy, and the negotiations between faith and historical criticism, are so confused," he says.  "Academicians are both within and against the church.  Clergy are both believers and critics of belief.  So complex are the combinations that any significant conversation is virtually impossible."  I suggest that this is true, but only half the truth.  Not only church and academy, but the heart is divided.  The very apologists are at war with themselves.  "For that which I do, I allow not; for what I would, that do I not; but what I hate, that do I."  In order to uphold a part of faith, they hold another down.