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.