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Luke Timothy Johnson

L.T.J. is Robert W. Woodruff, Professor of New Testament at Emory University’s Candler School of Theology.

Living Jesus: Learning the Heart of the Gospel

Being Christian (necessity of the resurrection)—

"The most important question concerning Jesus, then, is simply this: Do we think he is dead or alive?"[Johnson, Luke Timothy, Living Jesus: Learning the Heart of the Gospel (San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 1998), p. 4]

"To be a Christian, then, means confessing that Jesus is alive in the sense of that ancient declaration, ‘Jesus is Lord’ (1 Cor. 12:3; Rom. 10:9; Phil. 2:11)." [Johnson, Luke Timothy, Living Jesus: Learning the Heart of the Gospel (San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 1998), p. 5]

"To be a Christian means to assert that Jesus is alive, is indeed life-giving Spirit (1Cor. 15:45). To consider Jesus simply as a figure of the past means to consider Jesus not from the perspective of a Christian but from that of one who stands outside the Christian conviction. The Christian prays, ‘Come, Lord Jesus’ (Rev. 22:20; see 1 Cor. 16:22), intending thereby to address a real and living person capable of manifesting his presence still more palpably…It is either make-believe or necromancy to summon from a grave one who died two thousand years ago."[Johnson, Luke Timothy, Living Jesus: Learning the Heart of the Gospel (San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 1998), p. 5]

"For if Jesus is alive, then he is alive not simply as a continuation of his former existence (as a wraith or poltergeist might be) but as the one who has entered into God’s own life and who rules creation as its Lord." [Johnson, Luke Timothy, Living Jesus: Learning the Heart of the Gospel (San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 1998), p. 5]

"First, the resurrection is the grounding for the entire Christian life; if Jesus be not raised, as Paul tells the Corinthians, then our faith is in vain (1 Cor. 15:14)"[ Johnson, Luke Timothy, Living Jesus: Learning the Heart of the Gospel (San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 1998), p. 11]

Jesus as Lord—

"When the Paul who was tormenting the messianic community is confronted by a living power that asks, ‘Saul, why are you persecuting me?’ he ask; ‘Who are you, Lord?’ knowing in the power of the experience itself that he is face to face with a personal transcendent power. The voice answers, ‘I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting’ (Acts 9:4-5). Thus the resurrection is not a continuation of Jesus’ former life, but is his entry into a new mode of existence that is more powerful, more ‘alive,’ then before. It is, indeed, Jesus’ entry into the life of God, his ‘enthronement at the right hand of God,’ his establishment as ‘Lord’ (see Acts 2:32-36)." [Johnson, Luke Timothy, Living Jesus: Learning the Heart of the Gospel (San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 1998), p. 15]

Jesus’ Resurrection Body--

"On the one hand, some of the appearance accounts stress the reality of Jesus’ physicality in order to show that it really is Jesus and none other who the disciples encounter (John 20:26-28 and especially Luke 24:39-43).

"On the other hand, Jesus’ body is not by any means the same as it was before his death: the resurrected Jesus can appear to the disciples in the guise of a stranger on the road (Luke 24:13-32), for example, or be mistaken for a gardener (John 20:15-16); he can appear suddenly at a meal (Mark 16:14; Luke 24:36-43; John 21:9-14); he can pass through locked doors (John 20:19); and he can ascend skyward (Mark 16:19; Luke 24:53; Acts 1:9-11)." [ Johnson, Luke Timothy, Living Jesus: Learning the Heart of the Gospel (San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 1998), p. 20]

Canon Formation and Nag Hammadi—

"By rejecting Marcion and Tatian, the church asserted that it was comfortable with multiple witnesses and interpretations of Jesus. By rejecting the Gnostic writings, it asserted that there were limits to its tolerance for diversity and that it recognized within the variety of New Testament images of Jesus a unity that it could not discern in those other writings.

"Since the discovery of the Gnostic Library at Nag Hammadi in 1945, some scholars have agitated for a reopening of the canon. It has become popular to characterize canonizers in unflattering terms, as though their debates were a matter only of narrow political or ideological concern and not the very essence of Christian identity based in the truth about Jesus. Yet the present writings were canonized in large part because they were thought to be the earliest and best witnesses to Jesus and the early church, and nothing in recent discoveries has proven otherwise. Not even the champions of the Coptic Gospel of Thomas will argue that as a whole it is earlier than the canonical Gospels."[Johnson, Luke Timothy, Living Jesus: Learning the Heart of the Gospel (San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 1998), p. 30-31]

Jesus as Flesh and Blood Savior—

"Birth of a specific woman and death at the decree of a certain identifiable Roman official of the first century are details that distinguish Jesus from any cosmic myth as well as from any other human ever born." [Johnson, Luke Timothy, Living Jesus: Learning the Heart of the Gospel (San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 1998), p. 36]

1 Peter—

"The author of this remarkable letter identifies himself as an "apostle of Jesus Christ" (1:1) and as a "witness to the sufferings of Christ" (5:1). There is no compelling reason to deny the possibility that Peter the disciple of Jesus was that author, even as there is no decisive way to demonstrate that he was. Authorship, in any case, is of little importance except as it pertains to the question of diversity and unity in the early church. Many scholars have remarked on the striking similarity in outlook between 1 Peter and many of the Pauline letters. This similarity is less likely to be due to a later Paulinist writing in the name of Peter than it is to be due to a certain range of shared convictions even within the diversity of expressions in early Christianity." [Johnson, Luke Timothy, Living Jesus: Learning the Heart of the Gospel (San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 1998), p. 91]



Pauline authorship of the Epistles—

"The letters attributed to the Apostle Paul would seem to have obvious importance for learning Jesus. Paul’s importance as a missionary in the first generation after the death of Jesus is confirmed by the narrative role assigned him by the Acts of the Apostles. His letters are the earliest datable witnesses to the meaning of Jesus for Christians in that first generation.

"Yet for many, Paul’s witness is uncertain and suspect. Uncertain because of the opinion that not all the letters attributed to Paul in the canon actually came from him. Many scholars accept only seven letters as authentic (Romans, 1 and 2 Corinthians, 1 Thessalonians, Galatians, Philemon, and Philippians). This means that the other six letters (2 Thessalonians, Colossians, Ephesians, 1 Timothy, 2 Timothy, and Titus) might have been written by other writers associating themselves with Paul’s authority after his death. Suspect because of the opinion that Paul had little interest in Jesus as such and was indeed primarily responsible for transforming the ‘Jesus movement’ into the ‘Christ cult’—and by so doing began the process by which the ‘real Jesus’ was suppressed by the tyranny of creed.

"The reasons for thinking Paul did not write all the letters attributed to him are not particularly convincing: given the manifest variety even within the undisputed letters, the degree of variation demonstrated by each of the disputed compositions is not so severe as to demand a conclusion of nonauthenticity. No one, in any case, disputes that the thirteen letters attributed to Paul in the canon represent (each in its own fashion) a distinctively Pauline perspective."[Johnson, Luke Timothy, Living Jesus: Learning the Heart of the Gospel (San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 1998), p. 99]

Paul’s Conversion—

"Paul was a persecutor of Christians not because of personal acquaintance with Jesus but because, as one zealous for Torah (Gal. 1:13-14), he regarded the Christian claim that Jesus was a resurrected Messiah to be blasphemous. Paul had no doubt that Jesus could not be the Holy One because, according to Torah, his manner of death was as one cursed by God: ‘Cursed be every one who hangs upon a tree’ (Deut. 21:23; see Gal. 3:13). But then Paul encountered the risen Jesus and was called by him to be an apostle: ‘Last of all he appeared to me also’ (1 Cor. 15:8). Paul connects his role as an apostle precisely to this experience: ‘Am I not free? Am I not an apostle? Have I not seen Jesus our Lord?’ (1 Cor. 9:1, RSV). Paul’s perspective is now radically altered…"

"How does Paul perceive Jesus? After his encounter with him, Paul certainly thinks of Jesus as the Jewish Messiah, despite his earlier conviction to the contrary. This is so much the case that in his letters the title ‘Messiah’ (Christos) is often used as if it were part of Jesus’ name. And in other places, the title ‘Messiah’ appears by itself even without Jesus’ personal name (see especially Rom. 9-11). But in Paul’s eyes, Jesus is also much more than a divinely anointed figure within Judaism. If Jesus were simply the foretold Messiah, his relevance might well be limited to the Jewish people; yet Paul calls the early church to proclaim Jesus to all nations, showing that he perceives Jesus as having significance beyond Israel."[Johnson, Luke Timothy, Living Jesus: Learning the Heart of the Gospel (San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 1998), p. 100-101]

Paul’s Witness of the Resurrection—

"The resurrection of Jesus as it is understood in the writings of the New Testament is not only something that occurred to Jesus in the past; it is also something that continues to occur to others in the present. For example, Jesus appears to Paul years after his death: ‘Last of all, as to one born out of season, he appeared also to me’ (1 Cor. 15:8). Paul claims to be a firsthand witness to the resurrection: ‘Am I not free, am I not an apostle, have I not seen our Lord Jesus?’ (1 Cor. 9:1). Note that Paul calls him ‘Lord Jesus.’ The title ‘Lord’ is for Paul precisely the designation of Jesus’ present status in power."[Johnson, Luke Timothy, Living Jesus: Learning the Heart of the Gospel (San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 1998), p. 14]

Paul's Jesus is not Mythic-He DOES know of the Historical Jesus--

"Paul's Jesus is by no means simply a 'mythic figure.' Jesus is not an otherworldly visitor, or a phantom divine presence masquerading as human. In Paul's letters, the humanity of Jesus is real and specific…

"These letters contain a surprising amount of factual information about Jesus--surprising because of the emphasis Paul places on the present and future significance of Jesus as Lord. Paul does not retell stories about Jesus, and thus his factual references are scattered and out of sequence. If we did not have the Gospel narratives, we probably would not know in what order those references should be placed. Yet the same sentence begins with one of Paul's most 'mythic' statements--namely, 'In the fullness of time God sent his son'--continues, 'born of a woman, born under the law' (Gal. 4:4). For Paul, Jesus was human, and he was Jewish. Furthermore, he came 'to redeem those who were under the law' (Gal. 4:5); in other words, his human mission was first of all to his fellow Jews. Similarly, Paul states in Romans 15:17 that 'Christ became a minister of circumcision to show God's truthfulness.' Jesus was not only Jewish; he had a specific Jewish heritage--"descended from David according to the flesh' (Rom. 1:3; see also 2 Tim. 2:8, 'descended from David according to my gospel')--and ministry.

"Paul knows that Jesus taught, for he refers to 'the word of the Lord' (1 Tess. 4:15) and 'a charge of the Lord' (1 Cor. 7:10) and 'the command of the Lord'(1 Cor. 9:14). Because of the way he connects adoption as sons of God to the Aramaic cry of 'Abba, Father' (Gal. 4:6; see Rom. 8:15), it is likely that he was familiar with a tradition holding that this was Jesus' distinctive way of addressing God (see Mark 14:36). Paul knows that Jesus shared a meal 'on the night he was betrayed [or arrested]" (1 Cor. 11:23), and he connects the death of Jesus to the Passover (1 Cor. 5:7).

"Paul places the death of Jesus in Judea (1 Thess. 2:14) and blames it on the Jews…(1 Thess. 4:15)…But he also blames earthly rulers…(1 Cor. 2:8). In 1Timothy 6:13, he is more precise: 'Christ Jesus…in his testimony before Pontius Pilate made the good confession.' Paul obviously knows that Jesus was crucified (1 Cor. 22; Gal. 3:1; Phil. 2:8), and he knows the tradition of Jesus' burial (1 Cor. 15:4) and of appearances after his death to Cephas, James, the Twelve, five hundred at one time, and James, before he also appeared to Paul himself (1 Cor. 15:7).

"This is no small fund of information about the life and death of Jesus. Paul's letters, in fact, are the most comprehensive and reliable source of factual information--apart from the Gospels themselves--about the human Jesus.

"Paul also adds to our knowledge about the sayings of Jesus. Although he does not refer to these sayings often, when he does he treats them as authoritative. In 1 Thessalonians 4:15, he does not directly cite Jesus when he refers to a 'word of the Lord,' but the content of his subsequent assertion concerning the 'coming of the Lord' makes it likely that he is referring to an eschatological saying of Jesus such as is found in Matthew 24:30-31 and Mark 13:26-27. Similarly, in 1 Corinthians 9:14, he says, 'In the same ay the Lord commanded that those who proclaim the gospel should get their living from the gospel,' an apparent allusion to a saying that is now found in Luke 10:7. And in 1 Timothy 5:18 that saying is quoted directly: 'The laborer deserves his wages.' When Paul says in 1 Corinthians 7:10-11, 'To the married I give charge, not I but the Lord, that the wife should not separate from the husband (but if she does let her remain single or else be reconciled to her husband)--and that he husband should not divorce his wife,' he is clearly referring to the saying of Jesus as found in Mark 10:2-9.

"The clearest and longest citation from the words of Jesus is found in a narrative fragment cited by Paul in 1 Corinthians 11:23-25 (see also Matt. 26:26-29; Mark 14:22-25; Luke 22:14-20):

[T]he Lord Jesus on the night he was betrayed too bread, and when he had given thanks he broke it, and said, 'This is my body which is for you. Do this in remembrance of me.' In the same way also the cup, after supper, saying, 'This cup is the new covenant in my blood. Do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me.'

"On the basis of these words, Paul rebukes the Corinthians for their misbehavior at the Lord's Supper (1 Cor. 11:26-32, RSV).

Why does Paul not make use of Mark 7:15 in 1 Corinthians 8-10? (dietary laws)

"Perhaps Paul did not have this memory of Jesus, which would not be surprising in the period of oral tradition during which Paul was writing his letters. It would be highly unlikely, in fact, for all of Jesus' sayings to be in the possession of every community or every teacher. What is obvious is that when Paul does quote Jesus, he quotes him as 'Lord'--that is, as present and living authority whose words direct behavior.[Ibid. p. 106-108 (all of the above)]

Why didn't Paul mention more of Jesus' life?

"Paul did not have to tell the story about Jesus to his readers, for they already knew it, even in churches that had not been founded by Paul (the church at Rome, for example). We are most certain that some account of Jesus' passion circulated early--in sketchy form perhaps already in the first days of the movement, but progressively gaining more in richness as the full implications of reading Jesus' death through the words of the prophets were realized. Thus Paul can chide the Galatians 'before whose eyes Christ was displayed as crucified' (Gal. 3:1), and for the Romans can apply to the suffering of Jesus verses of the same Psalm 68 that was also used in shaping the passion accounts (Rom. 15:3)."[Ibid. p. 130]


Mark's Gospel--

[continued from the quote directly above]

"That this loose framework was in place shortly after Jesus' death tells us that the evangelists composed his account against the backdrop of an implied story about Jesus, and that his readers read his version against the backdrop of a story already in their possession. The best evidence for this within Mark's narrative itself is the way in which he introduces characters and places without any explanation. This practice makes sense only if we assume that readers already know such information. In his opening lines (1:1-9), for example, Mark speaks of John and Jordan and Isaiah and Jesus and Galilee, without any introductory or explanatory remarks enabling his readers to place those figures and places. Present-day readers are not jolted by the technique precisely because--like Mark's first readers--they have other stories with which to fill the gaps in Mark. Where they do not have such information--as when Mark in 3:6 mentions the Herodians (about whom we otherwise know nothing) or in 15:21 alludes to the relatives of Simon of Cyrene as though they should be recognized--present-day readers appreciate how allusive and dependent on a larger story Mark's narrative really is."[Ibid. p. 130-131]

"Mark's understanding of Jesus as the Son of God certainly owes something to his postresurrection perspective. Some readers have concluded from Mark's failure to relate any explicit appearance accounts that he did not consider Jesus to be the resurrected one. The fallacy of reaching conclusions from silence has never been more obvious. Mark does not relate appearance accounts, it is true, and no doubt has his reasons for that choice. But can any careful reader really think that Mark did not consider Jesus to have been raised and to have appeared to his followers? In each of his three passion predictions, as reported in Mark, Jesus concludes with the explicit statement that the Son of man 'will be raised up after three days' (8:31; 9:32; 10:34). In response to John and James's request for a place on his right hand or his left 'when he entered into his glory' (10:37), Jesus does not deny that he will enter into glory, only that it is not his to bestow positions at the right hand or the left (10:40). At the last meal, Jesus tells his disciples, 'After I am raised up, I will go before you to Galilee' (14:27), and the messenger at the tomb tells the women, 'He is going before you to Galilee. You will see him there.' (16:7). Finally, after the transfiguration, Jesus instructs his disciples to tell no one about what they had experienced, 'until the Son of man is raised from the dead' (9:9). Is it conceivable that Mark--who had control over these very materials--should have created such anticipation, generated precisely by the most reliable voice in the narrative, and then want the reader to conclude that it did not happen? The exact opposite is, I think, the case: it is because it was so well known to Mark's readers that Jesus did rise and appear to his followers after his glorification that Mark is able to make a literary and religious point by withholding descriptions of explicit appearances. In my judgement, Mark wants his readers to understand Jesus' resurrection not simply as an event of the past but also and precisely as a dimension of the present: Jesus can still be encountered by Gospel readers."[Ibid. p. 134-135]


John's Gospel--

"The Fourth Gospel ultimately derives from an eyewitness designated as 'the disciple whom Jesus loved' (John 13:23; 18:15-16; 19:26, 35; 20:2-10; 21:7, 20-23), but it also shows how that witness passed through a period of reflection in light of the church's postresurrection experience."[Ibid. p. 177]

John's Human Jesus--

"In fact, however, John's Jesus is in some ways even more fully rounded in his humanity than the Jesus portrayed by the Synoptics. Jesus is shown experiencing fatigue (4:6) as well as anguish (12:27; 13:21). His whole being is convulsed when he contemplates the death of his friend Lazarus, and he weeps (11:33-35). On one occasion he changes his mind (7:1-10). He converses with real people in real and identifiable places. His conversation with the Samaritan woman, for example, is distinctive, not exchangeable with any other (4:7-26). Rather than issuing punchy one-liners, he enters into conversational exchanges with Nicodemus (3:1-13), the paralytic (5:2-9), the man born blind (9:35-38), his friends Martha and Mary (11:17-37), and his disciples (1:38-51; 4:31-38; 6:66-71; 9:1-5; 11:1-16; 13:31-14:31). His controversies with opponents do not end quickly but demand his continued engagement (6:41-65; 7:14-36; 8:12-58; 10:22-39). This Jesus performs a miracle simply for the pleasure of giving pleasure (2:1-11). He shows irritation (2:4; 6:26; 7:6-8; 8:25) and suspicion (2:24-25). He asks for a positive human response (6:66-71). Jesus has real friends and is involved in their lives (11:1-12:9). He has one disciple whom he loves more than the others (13:23; 19:26; 20:2; 21:20). He cares about his mother (2:1-11) and seeks her welfare before he dies (19:26-27). He asks Simon three times, 'Do you love me more than these?' (21:15-17). And he designates his followers simply as 'friends' (15:13-15). This is a thoroughly human Jesus…"[Ibid. p. 183]

Similarity with Synoptics--

"John's Gospel does share material concerning Jesus that is also found in the Synoptics. The sequence in which Jesus multiplies the loaves and walks on the water (John 6:1-21) is particularly close to the version found in Mark 6:34-51. The Fourth Gospel also includes John's baptism (1:25; 3:23) and arrest (3:24; see Mark 1:4, 14), Peter's confession of Jesus (6:68-69; Mark 8:29), the purification of the temple (2:14-16; Mark 11:15-18), the anointing at Bethany (12:1-8, Mark 14:3-9), and the entry into Jerusalem (12:12-15; Mark 11:9-10). Above all, John includes the passion account (18:1-19:42), which--although it has its distinctive elements, such as the role played by Pilate (18:29-19:22)--is recognizably the same as in the Synoptics, agreeing most closely with Luke's version.

"Thematic elements that the Synoptics compress into single incidents are found diffused through the Fourth Gospel. The Synoptic temptation account (Matt. 4:1-11), for example, finds an equivalent in John 6:14-15 and 7:3-4, while the agony in the Garden (Mark 14:32-42) is matched by John 12:27-29 and 18:11. It is even possible to discern the reworking of some Synoptic sayings material in passages such as John 1:42, 12:24-26, 13:12-20, and 21:22."[Ibid. p. 179-180]

Moral Failures of the Disciples--[Luke-Acts]

"They argue over who will be the greatest among them, not only during Jesus' ministry (9:46) but even at the Last Supper, after Jesus shares the bread and wine with them as symbols of his own service (22:24). They seek to husband authority to themselves (9:49-50) and punish those who do not receive them (9:54). As in Matthew and Mark, Judas betrays Jesus (22:3-5) and Peter denies him (22:54-62). Luke does not, however, note that all of the disciples flee when Jesus is arrested; and at the crucifixion, he notes, 'all his acquaintances and the women who had followed him from Galilee stood at a distance and saw these things '(23:49)."

Dating of the Other Letters--

"The majority of the compositions cannot be securely located in either time or place. We usually assume that Paul's letters are our earliest extant Christian writings, but compositions such as Hebrews, 1 Peter, James, and even Jude may well have been written as early as Paul's…the letters of John are impossible to date."[Ibid. p. 81]

So Called Questers for the "Historical Jesus"--

--Attempting to demythologize Christianity, they remythologize it

"In place of the Gospel accounts of Jesus, then, the questers supply a quasi-narrative framework. The 'authentic' Jesus materials are fitted into some ancient social category: Jesus the Sage, Jesus the Charismatic, Jesus the Revolutionary, Jesus the Peasant. Knowledge about such ancient social types is then used to fill out and frame the salvageable bits of Gospel material in order to provide a more complete profile of Jesus than the small collection of pieces enables.

"The result, called the historical Jesus, is allowed precisely the range of possibilities envisaged for the ancient social category selected: if most peasants could not read, neither could Jesus; if some sages lacked eschatology so did Jesus. Jesus must be one-dimensional and consistent precisely in the fashion that sociological categories must be one-dimensional and consistent. But this is not real history. It is a form of sociological typecasting

"History is about the ways in which people of the past managed to transcend their social settings. Socrates was not every Athenian citizen, Caesar was not every Roman aristocrat, Marcus Aurelius was not every Roman emperor, Epictetus and Spartacus were not every slave, and Jesus was not every Palestinian Jewish peasant! The reason that the questers' renderings of Jesus end up being so banal is that they are actually abstractions. Because they demand of their 'Jesus image' perfect clarity and consistency, that image lacks the specificity and complexity that are the marks of real human existence. As a result, in their effort to make Jesus more 'human' they have in fact made him more abstract than any creed could manage."[Ibid. p. 124-125]