Jesus and the Gospels

Course No. 6240
Professor Luke Timothy Johnson, Ph.D.
Emory University
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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
 |  Average 30 minutes each
  • 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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Reviews

Jesus and the Gospels is rated 4.4 out of 5 by 76.
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Jesus and the Gospels is a must read for anyone looking for reconstructions of the figure of Jesus. I found these lectures to be both persuasive and succinct. Christians from all backgrounds will profit from reading this work.
Date published: 2018-04-11
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Grand Insight The presenter comes with great energy and a deep command of the material. One finds that you are compelled to move through the course. Came away with a far better understanding of the Gospels. Outstanding course.
Date published: 2018-02-20
Rated 5 out of 5 by from So informative! Informative and informed. The professor sets straight at the outset, we can't find the real, historic Jesus in the Gospels--but what we can learn is how he was perceived and presented, for whom and why. Truly educational.
Date published: 2018-01-10
Rated 5 out of 5 by from So many topics so little time Have been using these to expand my knowledge for many years Rarely disappointed Often delighted
Date published: 2017-08-24
Rated 1 out of 5 by from Unscholarly apology for faith Three hours I'll never get back. I had expected more from the Great Courses.
Date published: 2017-07-27
Rated 5 out of 5 by from This course was a wonderful tribute to New Testame This course was a wonderful tribute to New Testament story of Jesus's life. I recommend it to all who have an interest in this story.
Date published: 2017-06-13
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Jesus and the Gospels This course provides a thorough and fascinating look from a literary perspective of Jesus and the Gospels. The lecturer, Dr.Timothy Luke Johnson, knows his subject very well and presents his ideas in a clear, concise manner. He presents other viewpoints as well as his own. I've gained a new appreciation for the way in which the gospel traditions came together in written form. In addition to the canonical Gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John), Johnson also discusses the Gnostic and other gospels and makes comparisons. Highly recommended.
Date published: 2017-02-19
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Dr. Johnson's best I have two other courses by Dr. Johnson and although they are well presented and very helpful, I think this course is his best. Not only is this course packed with interesting and well-supported material but it is organized into a somewhat novel approach (at least to me) and is presented with power and conviction. It is apparent that he has processed this information not only with his brain but with his heart as well. This makes his material not only more convincing but it is more memorable and convincing..
Date published: 2016-12-05
Rated 4 out of 5 by from Great material--not visually stimulating I would not spend the extra money for the video. This can be done with audio only. Professor Johnson is a treasure trove of information, but the video is 99% him standing there talking. I think it could have been more heavily illustrated. Audio would be an excellent buy.
Date published: 2016-11-14
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Very interesting and valuable Learning about the Gospels as pieces of literature on their own terms is a thoroughly valuable and interesting exercise and very different to how I learnt about them at Catholic school and Church all those years ago. It is also an interesting contrast to the historical approach. Understanding the literary motivations of the authors aids in understanding what is being said and why and makes clear the value of the writings for the modern person free from ideology. Professor Johnson is an engaging and sympathetic presenter and I thoroughly recommend this course.
Date published: 2016-09-12
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Jesus and the Gospels He likes this subject and goes into great detail about how he is going to present it. I enjoyed the way he goes after the subject. I can't say I agree with everything but it is still interesting to listen to him.
Date published: 2016-09-05
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Erudition ... With Feeling I’ve always thought it a treat to watch/listen to Dr Luke Timothy Johnson as he “teaches … not preaches” his religious courses. This course packs a lot of information that will satisfy the intellectual curiosity of the non-believer as well as the believer. There are many great and thoughtful reviews here already, and I need not offer further detail. (See the review of “Challenger,” who has penned many outstanding reviews for different courses herein.) If I may offer a suggestion regarding “Essential Reading” that really is crucial for one's understanding of the related lectures (after the lectures on canonical Gospels): Some of the texts indicated can be easily found online via search engine. Those that I was unable to find online, I found in a 2014 book by TGC’s Prof Bart D. Ehrman (and Zlatko Plese), “The Other Gospels,” (Amazon, available in Kindle with active Table Of Contents, as well as hard copy) – Each work is accompanied by an introduction. I highly recommend this book to you as an adjunct to this course, as well as for its additional texts. All in all, this course has been, for me, a great learning experience.
Date published: 2016-03-09
Rated 5 out of 5 by from 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.
Date published: 2015-08-13
Rated 5 out of 5 by from 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!
Date published: 2015-03-28
Rated 5 out of 5 by from 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!
Date published: 2015-03-09
Rated 4 out of 5 by from Only 4? I was amazed that so much could be said about just four gospels. But the prof. brings in apocryphal works for comparison. I admit that 36 lectures seemed very long and I zoned out at times. The strongest point was in the approach taken by the prof. which was to treat the gospels as literary works. He explains this in the beginning. In doing so he avoided the historical approach, thankfully, and he avoided religious exegesis. It was a safe position and fortuitous since the point of view revealed much that might have been skimmed over.. In the end, I admit I felt greater awareness of the content of the gospels and a renewed appreciation and gratitude for them, gratitude that those particular four survived and took presidence over other options. I also commend the prof. for two excellent summation lectures for a very satisfying closure.
Date published: 2015-02-13
Rated 5 out of 5 by from An Excellent Literary Reading of the Gospels This is my second course taken with Professor Johnson (I had taken an earlier, audio course on Paul about 10 years ago) and I had almost forgotten what a marvelous speaker and teacher he is which was again confirmed in "Jesus and the Gospels."The course discusses the New Testament Gospels, as well as some Apocryphal and Gnostic Gospels, from the perspective of literary composition; a historical treatment of these Gospels can be obtained from Professor Bart Ehrman's courses in The Great Courses. Johnson's focus on literary composition is reflected in his quote: "our search......is not on the figure behind the Gospels, but for the even more fascinating figure in them." But history is not ignored as the various Gospels are placed in the context of the development of Christianity. For that matter, Professor Johnson's initial 7-8 lectures cover the historical and cultural context in which the Gospel events took place as well as when the Gospels were written. He follows with four lectures each on the compositions of Mark, Matthew, Luke and John, and concludes with 10-12 lectures on Apocrypha and Gnostic Gospels. As always, his teaching is literate, even erudite, his presentation style amiable, and his assertions and conclusions balanced and nuanced. While Johnson was a Benedictine monk in his youth for nine years and currently teaches at the Methodist-founded Emory University in Atlanta, I detected no hidden or overt sectarianism -- always a sensitive issue with Religion courses -- in his lectures, and am unable to understand how some critics of this course have branded him a non-Christian. Professor Johnson approaches the Gospels in this course predominantly from a schoiar's perspective, but also, if I may surmise, from a believer's perspective as well. While Johnson makes a plausible case for why the early Church included the Canonical Gospels and excluded the others, I remain somewhat agnostic on the Gnostic Gospels -- I'm not so sure early cultural biases in the church served to exclude them -- but nonetheless, Johnson gave them 3-4 lectures although he seemed critical of their renunciation of the material world and their "elitism."
Date published: 2014-11-07
Rated 5 out of 5 by from 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.
Date published: 2014-08-03
Rated 4 out of 5 by from Insightful Contrast to Historical Approach I have had the privilege of completing a number of courses with Professor Luke Timothy Johnson and this is a highly recommended one. My objective was to learn about an "insiders" perspective about the Gospels and the Professor being Roman Catholic he offers a thought provoking challenge to those scholars insisting on an exclusivist reliance on modern historical methods to understand the Gospels and the meaning of the life of Jesus. The opening parts of the course are an excellent overview of the way the life of Jesus has been approached and also cover the "matrix" of his life ie that Jesus was a Jewish Messiah living in the Middle East under the rule of Rome and whose Life(within the Bible) is written in Greek! The course analyses apocryphal Gospels too and has several fascinating lectures about the Gnostic phenomena within early Christianity. These are particularly helpful and actually are critiqued and described in a largely balanced manner albeit the use of a pejorative phrase like "oogie-woogie" to describe parts of the Coptic Gospel of Thomas is unfortunate. As an aside I would welcome a 12 or 24 lecture course devoted to the Patristic Period that also covers in more depth the whole Gnostic "movement"(it was of course very varied) within that period. I look forward to engaging with this Professor in more of his courses.
Date published: 2014-06-09
Rated 1 out of 5 by from Pedantic Presentation of Good Material Prof. Johnson is obviously very knowledgeable about this topic. I gave the course one star overall for two reasons. First, his presentation style is pedantic and haughty to the point that it's distracting. Most students of this topic know the $10 words, but we're taking the course because we want somebody who can reduce it to $2 words and deliver them in a style that we can identify with. (I ended the sentence in a preposition intentionally to make that point.) There's no need to use an imperious pronunciation of common words, or to give us Greek phrases to repeat English phrases you just used. If we needed the Greek phrases, we'd be taking a different course (for me, Greek, because I don't speak or read it, and in most instances it's entirely superfluous). Still, I probably would either have given this three stars or omitted a review altogether were it not for the treatment of the non-canonical materials. For me, those sources are highly interesting, and in fact they're the reason I wanted to take this course. They're a significant part of the source material for Roman Catholic Tradition, and they tell us (at least in a literary style) what texts and theology may have influenced the early Church Fathers. The Infancy Narrative of James, for example, is an ancient text that's purely literary and illustrative; however, it depicts the young Jesus as he may have been commonly viewed in the second century. Some are obviously inaccurate from a historical perspective, but they still have lots to offer in terms of the impacts upon Church doctrine (such as providing a basis for various Traditions concerning the Holy Family). For Prof. Johnson, however, those documents are objects of derision. He often guffaws over parts of those documents, and he takes his generally uppity disposition to a level of arrogance one rarely encounters in even the most pretentious of settings. The students are generally aware that there's a reason the non-canonical gospels are not in the canon, and some of us (not me) even have a pretty good idea why. We don't need to be persuaded that they're often highly fictionalized or exaggerated; what we (or at least, I) am seeking to learn from a course like this is how they relate to modern Church doctrine. And certainly there's lots of relationship, and on rare occasion Prof. Johnson even lets that information slip through. He does that, however, by happenstance; it appears that he prefers snide and disrespectful commentary to an appropriate academic treatment of the literary and traditional value of these sources.
Date published: 2014-05-05
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Offers Real Insights into the Canonical Gospels The canonical Gospels are multilayered literary compositions that require a lot of background information in order to understand the different levels of meaning contained in them. Mr. Johnson is the first teacher who has been able to explain them in a way that gives me a way to approach reading them. This he does in 18 of the 36 lectures. Indeed, these particular lectures are so rich that they can easily be revisited and gleaned for greater understanding. The lectures on the non-canonical Gospels were also interesting, but I was put off at one point when he condescendingly referred to a spiritual teaching in one of the Gnostic gospels as “oogie boogie”. At other times I felt like he was trying to restrain his real opinion about some things that his own religion (Roman Catholicism), or he himself, does not like, but I am not sure, as overall he strikes me as a careful and respectful scholar. That aside, Mr. Johnson is a very knowledgeable and engaging presenter.
Date published: 2014-02-12
Rated 3 out of 5 by from Mixed Feelings! I n this series of lectures, Professor Luke Timothy Johnson endeavours to present not the ‘real’ historical Jesus but rather the Jesus perceived by various early Christian communities. The idea is that, no matter whom the ‘real’ Jesus was, the perception of his person and his message is what really counted for each of these groups of believers. This is done by examining in some depth the four canonical Gospels and the context of their writing. Also, many of the surprisingly large number of apocryphal Gospels are discussed. The result is an astonishingly rich and complex portrait of Jesus that may impress the reader but also leave him or her a bit dismayed. Indeed, Professor Johnson himself is at times openly critical of certain writings he presents, the apocryphal infancy Gospels in particular. To make it more easily comprehensible, it perhaps would have been better to make this course longer, although it already includes 36 lectures, or simply to leave out some of the material.
Date published: 2013-12-22
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Amazing and Profound The final two lectures were a superb capstone to a great course! Professor Johnson's summary of the characteristics of the canonical gospels was deep and insightful, especially the implications of commitment to narrativity. The last lecture on the continuing production of Apocrypha even into the present broadened my understanding of what was going on in the first centuries of Christian beginnings and why. The continuing struggle throughout 2000 years to encounter Jesus reveals the enduring fascination with the person of Jesus. Having studied the Canonical Gospels many times in the past I bought this course to learn more about the Apocryphal Gospels. But I am glad I didn't skip the 16 lectures on the 4 canonicals which was more satisfying than most other presentations I have seen/heard. The sections on the Apocrypha were great but left me wanting to know more; but even with recent discoveries it seems that we have so little. I enjoyed watching Professor Johnson as he was deeply engaged with the material without loosing contact with the audience. It was no performance; it was a man sharing his insights and enthusiasm. I was especially impressed by his comment toward the end of the course about how even the teaching of this course has deepened his appreciation of the subject. I like a master-professor who is still growing in his subject!
Date published: 2013-10-25
Rated 5 out of 5 by from A Masterful Approach I was highly impressed by this course. Professor Johnson is a true power-house of knowledge. Along with incredible detail showed to the subject matter, the Professor also brought exuberance in his presentation skills. His approach of the gospels as literary woks rather than historical allowed for greater depth and revelation for the student. If the course was lacking in any area, perhaps somewhat to the paralles of other god/man figures of the Mediterranean region prior to Jesus. Some coverage of the Pagan Mysteries (Attis, Mithra, Dionysus, and Osiris), along with thier initiates, could have shed light on the stories within the gospels in my opinion. All in all, I found the course to be fantastic and the Professor to be a true authority.
Date published: 2013-07-14
Rated 2 out of 5 by from Jesus and the Gospels Wish I knew LTJ was the professor before I ordered this course. All he gives you is the churches view and nothing else. This course was a waste of my money and time.
Date published: 2013-04-24
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Must Have Course LTJ has produced a comprehensive and detailed course on the ancient works chronicling the life of Jesus. He starts by reviewing the failure of certain efforts to find the historical Jesus, in particular the Jesus Seminar and similar efforts. Not the scientific enterprises they claim to be, they are only looking for a Jesus that fits their personal beliefs. Instead of rewriting scriptures and other ancient works, and picking the parts that one likes, LTJ takes the approach of studying what these works say, who wrote them and why. This is what he calls the literary approach. For the most part this works, but this approach can be taken too far as well. LTJ only leaves sound scholarship a few times, like when he says Acts might include some fictionalizations just because it uses certain literary devices. Or when Mathew must have just conjured up Jesus' genealogy out of nothing. After extensive study of the canonical gospels, LTJ reviews what the noncanonical writings have to say about Jesus. He first establishes that, despite current fad claims, these works weren't suppressed in some grand conspiracy. Most were never considered canonical and many not even heretical. Some served as sources of tradition and even theology. Their very different content and much later appearance caused their exclusion from the Bible on their own. In particular, gnostic writings, collapsed under their own new-agish, cult-like teachings. Even though often considered heretical, these too failed largely on their own. Those looking for some “alternate” gospel are often looking to support their personal vision of God, religion or Christianity. Overall, LTJ's course is gives much to think about and study and great depth to serious students of religion, Christianity and ancient documents. Solid scholarship other than a few fliers (like "Jesus thought the end of the world was coming soon"). Only other caveat is I wish he would have shown how many scholars have reconciled the canonical gospels. LTJ, rather, minimizes such efforts. He does admit that there is agreement on the important points of Jesus, however, claimed “differences” or “contradictions” between the gospels are easily reconciled with a little study. See also LTJ's course on Apostle Paul as a companion to this course.
Date published: 2013-04-13
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Evaluation of Jesus and the Gospels This was an outstanding course. Professor Johnson's scholarship comes through even as he explains great concepts in subtly easy fashion and makes them so memorable. This was the finest presentation on Christian religious matters that I have ever experienced. I am looking forward to two more courses I have purchased from The Great Courses by Professor Johnson. He has certainly upheld The Great Courses tradition of the world's best professors. Thank you for this wonderfully special course.
Date published: 2013-03-13
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Break Glass / Read Gospel I have been a practicing Catholic for some time - I do the readings frequently at Mass. This course was magnificent. It made me see the human drama - the reality of the human experience of Christ's life as it percolated through the ages. The course did not weaken my faith in any way - it made it surprisingly stronger. Believers reacted to Christ in many ways - and they had human agendas. They spun things for an audience. The course makes that clear - clear that it was real humans with all their weaknesses reacting to Christ. it also makes it clear that they were consistently moved by a experience that had at its core a revolutionary belief in God's love for the individual. I recommend this course whole-heartedly.
Date published: 2012-11-16
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Excellent Prof. Johnson does an excellent job discussing the gospels as well as providing the historical context of the gospels. He spends a good bit of time (4 lectures each on the canonical gospels) and also spends several lectures giving us a taste of the non-canonical gospels. I have listened to several of Prof. Johnson's courses, and I have enjoyed this one the most. He choose his subjects well. He was well-organized. He provided a nice bibliography. He was almost apologetic about taking eight lectures to get to his discussion of the canonical gospels, but, I believe, these lectures were time well spent. The first eight lectures did an excellent job of reviewing the historical context of the gospels. I would say these lectures were my favorite part of the course, but I enjoyed all aspects of this course. It was nice to hear a man of faith discuss the gospels. I feel I understand the gospels and the story of Jesus much better after listening to this course. I would recommend this course to all who wish to know more about the gospels and the early Christian church -- this course was thoroughly enjoyable.
Date published: 2012-08-22
Rated 4 out of 5 by from Many Christs. Many customers. DVD review. Dr. Johnson's JESUS AND THE GOSPELS will likely attract three very different constituencies: 1. LITERATURE ENTHUSIASTS. Dr Ehrman in his HISTORICAL JESUS course went as far as we can go if we limit ourselves to documents drafted near Jesus' time that are corroborated by other sources. The resulting Jesus was an apocalyptic prophet who believed the end was near; obviously not the Christ figure who filled millions with hope centuries later. Can a literary analysis shed more light on that second, more historically significant character? 2. RELIGIOUS DWELLERS. I'm using a well-known sociological distinction. "Dwellers" are religious believers who express their beliefs primarily through a community served by an established institution (church, mosque, synagogue, etc.). Although they are portrayed as rigid and closed-minded by many agnostics, most of the world's great ethical reformers — Martin Luther King, Gandhi, etc. — belong to this group. They are primarily men and women of action who wish to achieve concrete results. Does Johnson's approach offer them anything significant? 3. SPIRITUAL SEEKERS dig out different elements from various religious traditions to craft a belief system that is just right for them. At best the "seekers" of this world open our minds to the sheer variety of human experience. At worst, they are aesthetes who treat religion as one more buffet designed to diddle their brains until something better comes along. Unless they are authors or found a "belief community" of their own, their impact on society is nil. Is there a spiritual dimension to Johnson's course? In the interest of full disclosure, I am a seeker with some interest in literature. I was raised a Catholic, but am now for all intents and purposes an agnostic who is nevertheless interested in religion because our eternal quest for meaning fascinates me. _____________ Okay, back to Johnson. He first explores the figure of Jesus through the 4 canonical gospels — in order of appearance: Mark, Matthew, Luke-Acts (2 texts by the same author) and John. Then he complements them with "apocryphal" texts (Gnostic, Coptic, various infancy accounts, etc.). If historical influence is the reason why Ehrman's "historical Jesus" is insufficient, one might ask why Johnson spends so much time on texts such as the Nag Hammadi Library that lay underground for millennia until the 40s. Who were they influencing? In any case, his main points are: • From a literary perspective, the 4 canonical gospels are the most complete portraits of Christ as both a human and divine figure. The later apocryphal material mostly accentuate divine elements by stressing miraculous stories. • If we try to go beyond Christ (a collective image) and grasp Jesus as a human being, we hit a wall that cannot be crossed unless new texts are unearthed. The earliest detailed writings on the founder of Christianity starting with Paul's letters (51-58 B.C.E.) were drafted over 20 years after Jesus' death. By then, the "Christ movement" had become a string of little communities spread around the eastern Mediterranean. • The gospels reflected the needs and perceptions of these communities, not the realities faced by Jesus and his little band of apostles. They are therefore not "history" as we understand it today. No attempt is made by the authors (NOT the apostles by the way) to accurately portray a time now past. Instead, there is the Good News of Christ's resurrection. • Mark provided the "spine account" for Matthew and Luke. In Mark, Jesus' message is communicated through parables that are constantly misunderstood by the apostles. The passion account takes much place, but even here the apostles fail Jesus. The final scene where women find the empty tomb, is one of terror left unresolved. • As each new gospel is produced, Christ's divine attributes are expanded. His every word and deed is explained as a fulfillment of Old Testament prophecy. The apostles get smarter. Jesus appears to select friends after his death to explain what is expected from them. There is much, much more in this course. I only offer this summary to offer you a taste. "Literature enthusiasts" and "seekers" may wonder why Jesus' frequent statements that the End is near, that many around him will still be alive at that time etc., etc. are not explored by Johnson. Of course, these statements were explained away by the Church centuries later when the End failed to materialize. Still, the expected End of the World played a vital role in the vigor with which the early Christians (Paul especially) spread the word. Was that not too part of the Gospels' literary appeal at the time? This brings up another issue. Johnson explores each gospel as a separate literary entity. But he also points out that all 4 canonical gospels were expounded to the illiterate masses for millennia in a mashed-up form where bits of each text were spliced together. It follows that the 4 gospels as "separate literary entities" had limited influence compared to the bundled versions broadcasted from the pulpits every week. And what of the various "Christs" dreamed up by various social groups through history — the Christs of monks, of popes, of merchants, of Crusaders, of peasants, of this or that heretical group, etc., etc.? Would it not also make more sense to say that these versions of Christ had much more historical influence than literary interpretations of each gospel? CONCLUSION "Dwellers" will likely shake their heads. Why make Christ's message so complex? The Gospels are pretty clear. I can't speak for Johnson. But implicit in his presentation is a simple message. Christ taught for 3 years before being crucified, and yet if we string together all his words from the canonical gospels without including the bits that repeat previous gospel texts, we only get 30-40 minutes of material when read out loud. Unless you believe Jesus repeated himself like a deranged person for 3 years, you must accept the fact that the gospels are a summary of reality, an interpretation. If you had a time machine and a camcorder, in other words, you would soon realize that the gospels are not a faithful minute-by-minute portrait of the past. And as soon as you accept that reality, you understand too that the gospels were sales documents designed to communicate something. To be comprehensible and effective, they had to play with the Greco-Roman literary conventions of their time. This imposed a certain slant on reality. Long story short, LITERARY ENTHUSIASTS will like this course if they are interested in ancient western religious texts. The DWELLERS will likely be appalled. As for the SEEKERS, there is not much here unless you are convinced literary (i.e. cultural) metaphors play a huge role in the way we all make sense of our lives.
Date published: 2012-05-23
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