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Jesus and the Gospels

Jesus and the Gospels

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Jesus and the Gospels

Course No. 6240
Professor Luke Timothy Johnson, Ph.D.
Emory University
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Course No. 6240
  • Audio or Video?
  • You should buy audio if you would enjoy the convenience of experiencing this course while driving, exercising, etc. While the video does contain visual elements, the professor presents the material in an engaging and clear manner, so the visuals are not necessary to understand the concepts. Additionally, the audio audience may refer to the accompanying course guidebook for names, works, and examples that are cited throughout the course.
  • You should buy video if you prefer learning visually and wish to take advantage of the visual elements featured in this course. The video version is not heavily illustrated, featuring dozens of visuals including illustrations of Jesus, his disciples, and some of the most important episodes from the Gospels; maps of ancient Judea that help you locate the action of these narratives; and revealing photos of Gnostic gospels from the Nag Hammadi Library.
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Course Overview

The figure of Jesus has tantalized both Christians and non-Christians who have sought definitive answers to questions about his words, his acts, and even his very existence. For most of the last 2,000 years, the search for those answers has begun with the Gospels, but the Gospels themselves raise puzzling questions about both Jesus and the religious movement within which these narratives were produced. They also provide sometimes bewilderingly diverse images of Jesus.

What accounts for this great diversity in the images of Jesus that have emerged, or in the approaches taken to understanding the story of his death and resurrection? Is it possible to shape a single picture from the various accounts of his life given us by these Gospels? Can we really know who Jesus was?

What are the 'Gospels' and What Can We Learn from Them?

Jesus and the Gospels is a far-ranging course. It examines not only the canonical Gospels of Mark, Matthew, Luke, and John familiar to us from the New Testament, but also the many other, apocryphal narratives and literary works that have contributed to our perceptions of Jesus, Mary, and Christianity. All of these works are encompassed by the word "Gospel."

Professor Luke Timothy Johnson attempts to show us the human Jesus underlying the many portraits we have. He approaches the Gospels and our perceptions of Jesus from a different perspective than the popular quest for the "historical Jesus." (The Teaching Company course The Historical Jesus offers a fascinating look at this approach.)

Professor Johnson asserts that the portrait of Jesus addressed by such an approach, legitimate and compelling though such an approach may be, leads to questions that are virtually "impossible to answer satisfactorily" through proper historical methods.

"It is, after all, as literature that the Gospels influenced history. And it is through literature that present-day readers can continue to encounter Jesus," he says.

Veteran Teaching Company Professor Johnson has designed this course to examine the Gospels as literary productions. The lectures seek to encounter not the Jesus behind those compositions, but the Jesus found within them.

"This is precisely the Jesus who has shaped Western culture, that has shaped the Christian religion," he says.

"It has never been the historical Jesus who has served as the motivating force for anything, except during his lifetime, but rather the Jesus who is inscribed in these Gospels."

Professor Johnson, who spent nine years as a Benedictine monk, is one of his field's most distinguished and famous scholars. He is the author of 20 books and several hundred articles and reviews, and has been repeatedly honored for his teaching skills. At Emory University, he has twice received the "On Eagle's Wings Excellence in Teaching" award.

In these lectures, presented with passion, a scholar's attention to nuance, and a delightful sense of humor, he considers not only what is being said, but how it is being said. And because these narratives were born of an oral tradition, he often reads aloud to best convey their full richness and original meanings.

Professor Johnson uses a vivid example of a family's recollections of a grandmother's life and advice to illustrate how such oral traditions evolve and the role they would have played in creating memories of Jesus. His example makes it clear how such a process would have been at work, allowing a common understanding of Jesus to grow among his first followers and subsequent converts.

An Understanding of Jesus Born from a Complex World

That shared understanding of Jesus developed within a complex world, and for several lectures before he turns to the Gospels themselves, Professor Johnson introduces you to that world. He reveals a volatile mixture of Mediterranean culture, Greek ideals and realities, Roman governance, and the religion of Israel from which Christianity began.

By the time he turns to the actual Gospels, Professor Johnson has laid a thorough foundation for understanding not only the different issues of faith (in fact, aspects of Jewish Torah) each Gospel is emphasizing, but also the real-world logistics of spreading that faith during the early Christian era.

For example, you learn, in his discussion about Luke–Acts, about the enormous significance of accepting Gentiles into the new faith without requiring circumcision or the observance of Torah. Professor Johnson points out how easy it is to forget, after more than 2,000 years of looking at Jesus from a Christian perspective, that the followers of this new faith saw themselves as observant Jews deeply committed to Torah, and that such a gesture was a profoundly radical act.

You also learn about the many issues that created for many Jews a "cognitive dissonance," even as they accepted Jesus as the Messiah foretold in the Old Testament.

His manner in facing death, which the Gospels reported as fearful, didn't conform to Greek ideas about the heroes who might ascend to God's presence. His very life, including non-observance of the Sabbath, seemed to be a repudiation of the obligations of Torah as they were understood by observant Jews. Most of all, there was the manner of his death, for Deuteronomy had marked as "cursed" anyone who "hangs upon a tree," and Jesus had been crucified as a criminal.

The first Christians resolved this dissonance by reinterpreting their symbolic world, and Professor Johnson describes how this reinterpretation is already taking place in the letters of Paul.

Explore the Synoptic Gospels

Throughout his lectures, Professor Johnson moves in and out of close analyses of key lines of text, balancing his readings and explanations of the significance of language and terminology with overviews about important issues with which scholars have long grappled. These include both the authorship of the Gospels and what is known as the "synoptic problem," untangling the literary relationship among the Gospels of Mark, Matthew, and Luke.

Those three works are known collectively as the Synoptic Gospels (from "synopsis"), since they cover essentially the same events in Jesus's life, with the Gospel of John considered to stand apart. You learn how issues of language, material, and sequence have tantalized scholars for years. And you see how "Q," a hypothetical source of written sayings, has been accepted by a majority of today's scholars as satisfying some of their questions, at least for now.

Meet A Jesus You Might Never Have Encountered

But it is the figure addressed by the Gospels who dominates these lectures, sometimes in ways less familiar than the portrayals of Jesus we most often encounter.

The four canonical Gospels don't address Jesus's younger years, for example. Professor Johnson shows how apocryphal Gospels such as the Proevangelium Jacobi were written to fill in such gaps, as they did so many others, offering up details ignored by the canon. In one of these, the Infancy Gospel of Thomas, you meet a childhood Jesus who would be all too familiar to a modern-day parent, becoming a teenager both wondrous and perverse before evolving into the Jesus represented to us today.

Similarly, most of today's doctrine about Mary, especially in Roman Catholicism, does not come from the canonical gospels. Its source is the apocryphal Proevangelium of James, which has also influenced Christianity's views on sexuality and the body and the images of Mary and Joseph most common in Western art. In fact, even the Nativity images you see every Christmas come not from the canon, but from apocrypha.

Professor Johnson also includes several lectures on Gnosticism, a form of Christianity that arose in the 2nd century, proclaiming the faith as a religion of enlightenment through the saving of knowledge.

Jesus and the Gospels concludes with a look at how Jesus is understood today, not only by Christians as they worship, but also by theologians, historians, and artists. Dr. Johnson points out how many of these latter-day perspectives, including films like The Passion of the Christ, can rightly be considered as apocrypha in their own right.

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36 lectures
 |  30 minutes each
Year Released: 2004
  • 1
    Why Not "The Historical Jesus"?
    This opening lecture shows how history is and is not helpful in learning about Jesus and why a comparative literary analysis of the Gospels is at once a more responsible and satisfying way to engage this fascinating yet illusive person. x
  • 2
    The Starting Point—The Resurrection Experience
    Virtually everything we know about Jesus comes from Christian sources. This lecture takes up the starting point for engaging Jesus: the distinctive Christian understanding of the resurrection. x
  • 3
    The Matrix—Symbolic World of Greek and Jew
    This lecture introduces the complex 1st-century mixture from which Jesus and the Gospels arose, including Mediterranean culture, Greek ideals and realities, Roman governance, and the religion of Israel. x
  • 4
    Parallels—Stories of Greek and Jewish Heroes
    This lecture provides a context for approaching the distinctive character of the Christian Gospels through a survey of stories told about other significant figures in Greco-Roman and Jewish cultures. x
  • 5
    The Context—Jesus in the Memory of the Church
    The Gospels are compositions from the communal memory of the earliest Christian movement. This lecture sketches the first stages of that movement and the social settings within which Jesus was remembered. x
  • 6
    Earliest Stages—Paul and the Oral Tradition
    Over a period of some 40 years, the memory of Jesus was shaped by the continuing experience of believers in communities. We consider the basic patterns of memory found in the oral tradition. x
  • 7
    Why Compose Gospels?
    The writings of Gospels represented a real shift in the understanding of "good news." The answer to the question "Why compose Gospels?" leads to a consideration of the nature of the Gospels. x
  • 8
    The Synoptic Problem and Its Solutions
    Three of the canonical Gospels are alike and different in striking and puzzling ways. This lecture exposes what is known as the synoptic problem and offers solutions, including a discussion of the hypothetical source of sayings known as "Q." x
  • 9
    Gospel of Mark—Apocalyptic and Irony
    This lecture deals with the literary aspects of Mark, particularly the creation of dramatic tension, the apocalyptic outlook of the Gospel, and the ironic way the evangelist turns apocalyptic. x
  • 10
    Gospel of Mark—Good News in Mystery
    This lecture examines the powerful and paradoxical Jesus created by Mark. For humans, it is a mystery that both attracts and repels. x
  • 11
    Gospel of Mark—Teacher and Disciples
    The drama of discipleship in Mark's narrative instructs readers concerning their allegiance to Jesus. Readers are to imitate him, not his first followers. x
  • 12
    Gospel of Mark—Passion and Death
    Mark has prepared his readers for Jesus' suffering and death by a series of prophetic statements, but the importance of Jesus' death—and the way he died—is shown by the amount of attention Mark gives to Jesus' last days. x
  • 13
    Gospel of Matthew—Synagogue Down the Street
    Because Matthew uses Mark's Gospel in constructing his own version of the good news, it is possible to deduce with considerable confidence his own interests, which point to a context of competition and conversation with Pharisaic Judaism. x
  • 14
    Gospel of Matthew—The Messiah of Israel
    Matthew's concern with proving that Jesus is the Messiah spoken of by the prophets is shown by the genealogy with which his Gospel opens, his infancy account, and his use of explicit scriptural citations. x
  • 15
    Gospel of Matthew—Jesus and Torah
    Matthew's Gospel not only shows that Jesus' life fulfills messianic expectations as expressed in Torah, but also shows Jesus as the definitive interpreter and very personification of Torah. x
  • 16
    Gospel of Matthew—Teacher and Lord
    Matthew's careful redaction of Mark's use of "Teacher" and "Lord" shows that Jesus is understood as the risen Lord who teaches the church. No other Gospel gives such explicit attention to the instruction of the church as such. x
  • 17
    Luke-Acts—The Prophetic Gospel
    The Gospel of Luke and the Acts of the Apostles form a single literary composition in two volumes that can properly be called "Luke's Gospel." x
  • 18
    Gospel of Luke—God’s Prophet
    In Luke's Gospel, Jesus is presented as a prophet, delivering a radical message of reversal of human norms in the name of God's visitation. x
  • 19
    Gospel of Luke—The Prophet and the People
    This lecture examines Luke's portrayal of Jesus' call for a real conversion, along with the distinctive passion account that shifts blame toward Jewish leaders and away from ordinary Jewish people. x
  • 20
    Acts of the Apostles—The Prophet's Movement
    Jesus' followers prove themselves to be prophetic and radical successors, including extending Jesus' understanding of God's people by an even more radical inclusion: accepting the Gentiles into the people without circumcision and the obligation to observe the Law. x
  • 21
    Gospel of John—Context of Conflict
    Asking about the relationship between the Synoptics and the very different Gospel of John leads to the consideration of John's style, structure, and symbolism, and the discovery of something far more complex than the simple and straightforward account of an eyewitness. x
  • 22
    Gospel of John—Jesus as the Man from Heaven
    John's powerful portrait of Jesus combines a constant insistence on his full humanity, while also portraying him as the revelation of God. x
  • 23
    Gospel of John—Jesus as Obedient Son
    John's Gospel has sometimes been considered the most anti-Semitic New Testament composition. This lecture considers the complex ways it engages the world of Judaism. x
  • 24
    Gospel of John—Witness to the Truth
    In John's Gospel, the most extensive teaching of his followers takes place after the close of Jesus' public ministry. John portrays Jesus' death and resurrection in terms of the "hour" of his "being lifted up" and "glorified." x
  • 25
    In and Out—Canonical and Apocryphal Gospels
    This lecture sketches the historical process of canonization in early Christianity, touches on some of the implications of the distinction between canonical and apocryphal, and provides an overview of the apocryphal Gospels. x
  • 26
    Young Jesus—The Infancy Gospel of James
    The Protevangelium of James is an excellent example of how apocryphal Gospels sought to fill the gaps in the story of Jesus and is the source of many of the artistic conventions connected to the figures of Joseph and Mary. x
  • 27
    Young Jesus—The Infancy Gospel of Thomas
    The Infancy Gospel of Thomas illustrates how, in some Christian circles, convictions concerning the divinity of Christ tended to obscure his full humanity. x
  • 28
    Jewish Christian Narrative Gospels
    Here Dr. Johnson examines what is known about the narratives ascribed to followers of Jesus who also remained faithful to the Jewish heritage of Torah observance. x
  • 29
    Fragments of Narrative Gospels—Gospel of Peter
    This lecture looks at a Gospel mentioned in ancient canonical lists; nothing more was known about it until the late 19th century with the discovery of a single manuscript containing a portion of it. x
  • 30
    New Revelations—Gnostic Witnesses
    This lecture introduces Gnosticism and discusses two of the "Gospels" that were known before the discovery of the Gnostic library at Nag Hammadi, the Gospel of Bartholomew and the Pistis Sophia. x
  • 31
    Jesus in Word—The Coptic Gospel of Thomas
    Even more than the Gospel of Peter, the Coptic composition discovered at Nag Hammadi in 1947 has generated interest and controversy, especially concerning the figure of the historical Jesus. x
  • 32
    Jesus in Word—Two Gnostic Gospels
    This lecture looks at two compositions from the Gnostic library at Nag Hammadi, one showing Jesus in dialogue with some of his followers and the other containing a commotion-causing portrayal of Jesus and Mary. x
  • 33
    The Gnostic Good News—The Gospel of Truth
    One of the most impressive and original compositions in the Nag Hammadi library is a composition identified in antiquity as The Gospel of Truth, a theological reflection on the meaning of Jesus. x
  • 34
    The Gnostic Good News—The Gospel of Philip
    This lecture examines another "Gospel" that bears little resemblance to the narrative versions found in the New Testament, a strange and beautiful set of reflections on the life of the Gnostic Christian. x
  • 35
    Jesus in and Through the Gospels
    This lecture addresses some of the implications of the Gospels, wonders at the mysterious figure who inspired them, and marvels at the movement that encompassed so many impressions of him. x
  • 36
    Learning Jesus in Past and Present
    This final lecture takes up some of the ways Jesus continues to excite the imagination, both through the work of historians, theologians, and artists, and through the liturgical reading, art, and music of Christians at worship. x

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Your professor

Luke Timothy Johnson

About Your Professor

Luke Timothy Johnson, Ph.D.
Emory University
Dr. Luke Timothy Johnson is the Robert W. Woodruff Professor of New Testament and Christian Origins at Emory University's Candler School of Theology in Atlanta, Georgia. Professor Johnson earned a Ph.D. in New Testament Studies from Yale University, as well as an M.A. in Religious Studies from Indiana University, an M.Div. in Theology from Saint Meinrad School of Theology, and a B.A. in Philosophy from Notre Dame Seminary in...
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Rated 4.4 out of 5 by 56 reviewers.
Rated 5 out of 5 by The Literary Jesus CONTENT: This is the second Theological course I have taken on Christianity – the first being “Historical Jesus” given by Professor Ehrman. The courses are complementary one to the other. In “Historical Jesus”, Professor Ehrman tries to establish what it is that we can KNOW about Jesus with something close to historical certainty. It is a critical and scientific approach to the subject. Professor Johnson tells us that although this approach has merit from the historical perspective, it leaves us with an “unusable Jesus” (I really liked that term…) from the religious, literary sense. What he means is that the historical approach takes tiny fragments from the gospels about Jesus (primarily the canonical ones), compares them, shakes them, analyzes them… at the end there is very little narrative left. In “Jesus and the Gospels”, Professor Johnson talks about what we can FEEL about Jesus, taking a literary, artistic approach to the matter instead. The first part of the course (8 lectures) sets the stage by discussing the gospel's backdrop – the Greek and Jewish century cultures and how heroes are portrayed in them, the Roman governance in Judea etc. In the next part, lectures 9 to 24, Professor Johnson introduces and analyses each of the four canonical gospels. This is really the central part of the course. Each of them is treated as an autonomous literary creation, and not merely as a source of data from which snippets can be cross-referenced and compared to snippets from other sources, as in the historical approach. In Mark, we have Jesus the Apocalyptical preacher and teacher. In Matthew he is primarily a Jewish scholar outdoing the Pharisees in the interpretation of the Torah. In Luke, he is the prophet that has come to announce the reversal of fortunes – those at the bottom will end up at the top and vice versa. Finally, in John (the latest Gospel), Jesus is the son of God while still remaining human. Many, many fascinating aspects of the gospels are discussed: The rising tone of anti-Semitism as time progresses, until in the gospel of John in reaches its climax and the Jews are blamed even for Jesus’ physical crucifixion. This tone will haunt Western civilization for millennia to come. Professor Johnson discusses the skills of the evangelists that wrote the gospels, stating for example, that Mark’s Greek was rather coarse so that both Luke and Matthew who would follow, probably written by evangelists much more fluent in Greek, would have to rework his Greek in subtle ways to make the gospels more fluent. Finally, the apocryphal gospels are discussed. These are various accounts of Jesus that are not a part of the Christian Canon. We are told that these gospels were not necessarily viewed as “illegal” or “inferior”, they were simply not to be preached in the church. In fact some of them were apparently very popular and read by monks quite often. These gospels fall primarily into two groups. The first are the infancy gospels which are extremely amusing and tell of Jesus’ early life – how he had trouble controlling his powers and often ended up using them in mischievous and harmful ways. The second group are the Gnostic gospels – whose central view is that the world is divided between spiritual and material, and that all material is evil. These gospels are almost totally non-narrative in nature and include primarily sayings of Jesus – but these are very strange and foreign in relation to what we find in the canonical gospels. The Gnostic movement seems to have had its roots in Platonic philosophy and some of these gospels are in turn quite profound and beautiful. LECTURER: it was a pleasure listening to the lectures – Professor Johnson has a deep and resonating voice and he explains his points clearly and thoroughly. It is very evident that he comes from the perspective of faith, and not from a historical perspective. When he discusses the “historical Jesus” approach, you get the feeling that he doesn’t take this approach seriously and feels that it is in some sense totally inadequate. Also, he seems extremely biased when discussing the canonical gospels – totally enamored with them… On the other hand – this is exactly what I had sought out to understand in the first place: what is it about the New Testament that makes it so attractive to religious believers? Professor Johnson answers this question very competently and entertainingly in this course. He is hardly “objective” and “critical”, but that is not what I was looking for. The “Historical Jesus” course complements this course perfectly. August 3, 2014
Rated 5 out of 5 by Engaging Presentation! Professor Johnson painstakingly describes the unique literary characteristics and spiritual message of each of the four Gospels. This course, which addresses the literary Jesus, is an outstanding complement to Prof. Bart Ehrmann's course on the historical Jesus. August 13, 2015
Rated 5 out of 5 by I could listen to this speaker all day! ...And I have! Always loved my Bible. I love it even more now! I am so glad I bought this one. I am only on the 12th lecture and have learned so much already. His delivery is excellent. His knowledge is outstanding...should be considering this gentleman's Bio. Even if you aren't Christian you will get an insight into the Bible that few lay people have. Thank God this wonderful course exists. Thank The Great Courses for having it. Yea! March 28, 2015
Rated 5 out of 5 by Fresh and Insightful Views, Engagingly Presented I have never looked forward to the next lecture of a course from the Teaching Company as much as I did with each in this fascinating series! Although I have devoured hundreds of books and articles about Jesus, and our evolving understandings of who he was (or might have been), I found this course on the Gospels both innovative and highly revelatory. This is not a course devoted to teaching doctrine, nor is it presented from any particular denominational perspective. Neither is it an attempt to discover an "historical Jesus." (In fact, Professor Johnson expresses serious reservations about whether or not any such investigation can, in fact, be separated from the views and hopes of the investigators.) Rather, it is a scholarly look at the Gospels (both the four canonical works as well as many of those not part of the canon) as literature: what types of sources did they use, what is the thrust of the story each tells (as to both how Jesus is portrayed and the character of discipleship), what are their similarities as well as their dissimilarities. Further, what do these variations suggest about their likely audiences and the circumstances of the times in which they were composed? Accordingly, one learns quite a bit of history from this course, including the sufferings of both the Jewish people and the early Christian communities following the Jewish rebellion against Rome in the 60s and the subsequent crushing of the revolt -- and destruction of Jerusalem -- in the 70s. It was these very events, coupled with the seeming impossibility of the Jesus crucified by Rome possibly also being the Jewish messiah, that led to the writing of the Gospels, and to the narrative thrust of their accounts. For these reasons, I believe the course is likely to be of interest even to those who are not Christian, but who, nonetheless, are curious about learning more about the Gospels' nature and the fascinating, contentious times within which they were composed. I especially appreciated the first several lectures where Professor Johnson developed the context of oral tradition and literary types extant in the early first century. This was a very useful introduction to his more focused discussion on each of the Gospels that followed. I must also note Professor Johnson's superb lecture style: dynamic, engaging, spirited, and full of wisdom, respect, and good humor. Because of the way he spoke to each segment of the room, often moving energetically from behind the podium to make an extended point, I felt as if I were actually in a roomful of fellow students. Masterful! This is both scholarship and teaching delivery of the highest quality, a simply marvelous course. Thank you! March 9, 2015
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