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Tillabooks: Will's Book Blog

Sunday, July 13, 2008

Who on Earth Was Jesus? by David Boulton

Who on Earth Was Jesus? The Modern Quest for the Jesus of History by David Boulton. Winchester, UK ; Washington, USA: O Books, 2008. ISBN: 978-1-84694-018-7

This book does a superb job of tracking the latest historical research on who Jesus may or may not have been, what he may or may not have said, and what he may or may not have done during his life on earth, if indeed, he was a real, historical person. That, in fact, is but one of the fascinating questions this book attempts to answer, as best it can.

The author is an investigative journalist, not a theologian or a historian. And the experts whose writings and work he reviews are all historians first, not theologians. As he makes clear from the outset, his search is a search for the historical Jesus, not the supernatural, theological, mystical or mythical Jesus. To quote the author:

That, then, is what this book is for: not to offer yet another lay-person's view of Jesus, since we have such books without number, some pious, some polemical, some illuminating, some shamelessly commercial and some plain silly. Instead, I hope to offer the reader a fair account of where some of the best of Jesus scholarship stands in the first decade of the twenty first century.

This is, for me, at least, a fascinating and extremely valuable endeavor. Boulton has done a lot of the heavy lifting for me. He's gone through and explained and summarized the thoughts and findings of many scholars who (like all scholars) frequently disagree, and rarely come to exactly the same conclusions, despite examining and studying essentially the same evidence. So for the layperson such as myself, reading this book is a shortcut, which prevents me from needing to read the many published writings of the many scholars who have considered this question, both in the past, and those currently studying it.

In doing so, he takes us on a truly fascinating journey. It's not a journey that is likely to be enjoyed by the true believer, especially anyone who adheres to a fundamentalist kind of faith. But for anyone with more questions than answers, this is a journey worth taking.

Boulton begins by summarizing the historical search for the historical Jesus, which has its roots as early as the mid-second century scholar Tatian, who produced the first known “harmony of the gospels,” in which he tried to combine the four gospels into a single coherent story. Unfortunately, his work was declared heretical and was suppressed in the fifth century, and has not survived.

The scholarly study of ancient Biblical texts didn't start up again until the late Middle Ages. This type of work naturally expanded greatly during the 18th century Enlightenment. These efforts led into the 19th century, and the birth of textual criticism as a discipline which was applied to ancient texts such as the Bible. The discovery, in the middle of that century, of the Codex Sinaiticus, containing the entire New Testament and other books, dating back to the fourth century, provided even more grist for the text criticism mill, since some passages differed significantly from previously known versions.

What Albert Schweitzer's The Quest of the Historical Jesus, published in 1906, did for the 19th century, Boulton has attempted to do for us today, almost exactly 100 years later. Since Schweitzer's groundbreaking work, the Dead Sea Scrolls and the Nag Hammadi codices have been found, published, and studied. And a new generation of scholars, using the best of modern techniques, have revisited the texts yet again, and again.

He begins by analyzing the sources of information. First, the writings of Paul, which were the earliest written record of Christianity. Then the gospels, both orthodox and “apocryphal,” although that is not a term that Boulton himself uses uncritically. And any other writings that are available and possibly relevant, such as the Dead Sea Scrolls, early Jewish references to Jesus, the writings of Josephus, and the earliest Roman and other secular references. Once Boulton has analyzed the source material, he turns to the interpretations and interpreters.

A significant portion of Boulton's book deals with the work of The Jesus Seminar, in which a group of scholars, beginning in the 1980's, began to meet and attempt to arrive at a consensus about the sayings and acts of Jesus, as recorded in the available sources. Beginning with 30 scholars, as many as 200 different people have participated in the Jesus Seminar over the years.

Admission to the group was open to “critical scholars,” defined as those who “make empirical, factual evidence the controlling factor in historical judgments . . . adopt the principle of methodological skepticism: accept only what passes the rigorous tests of the rules of evidence working from the original texts in their original languages . . . practic[ing] their craft by submitting their work to the judgment of peers.” In other words, “those who put dogmatic considerations first and insist that the factual evidence confirm theological premises” need not apply.

The group worked by analyzing each saying and act attributed to Jesus, and then voting on how authentic it was thought to be. Votes could be red, pink, gray, or black, which informally, were described as follows:

  • Red: That's Jesus!
  • Pink: Sure sounds like Jesus!
  • Gray: Well, maybe.
  • Black: There's been some mistake.

The primary and most significant change in perception of Jesus and his teaching that came out of The Jesus Seminar, compared with the earlier scholarship as summarized by Schweitzer, is that The Jesus Seminar, for the most part, rejected the apocalyptic language attributed to Jesus as non authentic. Instead, they accepted the less frequent “kingdom now” statements as the more authentic Jesus. They think that Jesus was probably eschatological (interested in end times) but not apocalyptic (predicting horrific world upside down final events).

Once Boulton deals with the highly prominent and controversial Jesus Seminar, he goes on to summarize its detractors and critics, from both sides of the spectrum, conservative and liberal. He also spends a chapter summarizing the views of various prominent Jesus Seminar members, since, as independent scholars all, they can hardly be expected to agree with one another on many points, and many of them have written their own books presenting their own unique points of view.

Another chapter summarizes the views of those modern scholars who are not persuaded of the non apocalyptic nature of Jesus, those who think he must have been a preacher of the apocalypse. The next chapter examines what Jewish scholars have to offer in the quest for the historical Jesus, as well as studies of first-century Galilee and its culture and religion. Not to mention the development of the Mishnah and Talmud, which developed during more or less the same period as did many of the early writings about Jesus. Yet another chapter summarizes the views of several scholars who are not convinced that anything historical can be determined about Jesus from the available evidence. Or those that argue that Jesus as we know him, never really existed at all, but was made up entirely out of whole cloth, so to speak.

Finally, Boulton tries to assess the mass of scholarly opinion and evidence he's compiled, to see if we can come to any conclusions. He summarizes what seems to be the consensus of the majority of scholars, namely that the Jesus story (and thus, Christianity) most probably had its origin in a real person named Jesus who was probably born around 4 BCE. He lived in Galilee, and was with John the Baptist in the Jordan wilderness before beginning his own mission of teaching throughout the villages in the area. He preached the “kingdom of God” with memorable, powerful sayings and parables. Healings and other miracles were widely attributed to him in the traditional manner of a holy man or prophet. He attracted followers and made disciples. Around the year 30 CE he went to Jerusalem with his message, where he was executed as a trouble-maker. His followers came to believe he had been raised from the dead.

The list of agreed upon negatives is almost as long: None of the accounts of his words and deeds are considered to be contemporary eye-witness reports. All of the written sources date from a number of years after his death, by which time the various Jesus movement communities were already involved in creating their own versions of who and what Jesus was, said and did.

In his final conclusionary chapter, Boulton tries once again to unravel the apocalyptic question (was Jesus or wasn't he, apocalyptic in his teaching?), by exploring the origins of apocalyptic thought in ancient religions, tracing this idea back to Zarathustra and Zoroastrianism, the official religion of the Persian empire under Cyrus, who allowed the Jews to return from their exile in Babylon, showing how this influence began to permeate Jewish thought and religion, leading ultimately to the books of Daniel and Revelation, the apocalypses of the so-called Old and New Testaments, respectively.

It is interesting that in the end, Boulton himself seems to indulge in a bit of that ancient tradition and activity that goes back almost to the time of Jesus himself, namely, allowing himself (and by default, his readers) to choose the Jesus they wish to believe in. As cited in a previous chapter, a second-century Jewish scholar named Trypho is quoted by Justin Martyr as having charged that “Christ, if he has indeed been born and exists anywhere is unknown . . . You invent a Christ for yourself.” And this, ultimately, is what each of us is forced to do, whether that is the literal Jesus of the gospels, or some limited version of that Jesus, as extracted by such scholars as The Jesus Seminar. For anyone interested in a scholarly, unbiased, non-theological version of that process, this book will provide an invaluable and useful guide.

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