Who on Earth was Jesus?
David Boulton Who on Earth was Jesus – The Modern Quest for the Jesus of History
(John Hunt Publishing Ltd, Ropley, Hants, UK, 2008)
417 pp, xix preface pp, approx A5 size, soft cover, UK £14.99, US $29.95.)
Reviewed by Harry Gardner
(Reviewed January 2010)
Reviewing this fascinating book by my colleague and friend, David Boulton, poses the challenge that I want to use dispassionate language, which does not inadvertently reinforce the dogmas of the Christian tradition, whilst allowing me to identify any truly humanist message within the tradition. Therefore please have patience by my longwinded phrase “Jesus-tradition”, because when claims of divinity are made the criteria of authenticity rise considerably.
In writing this book I think David has truly ventured where hypothetical angels would fear to tread. The raw data themselves are fragmentary, frequently anonymous and littered with deceit, forgery and superstition. In the event, David has produced a broad and witty summary, which, he told me during a recent visit, was not intended as Humanist ammunition. (Sorry David, but I’m tempted!)
Of the leaders, philosophers and teachers, prior to Plato (b. 469 BCE), eg, Abraham, Carvarka, Confucius, King David, Diagoras, Gautama, Laozi, Moses, Rishabhdev, Pythagoras, Socrates, Thales, and Zoraster, no writing their own hands survive. This means that we can’t visit a library or museum and feel reassured that such people ever physically existed. Of course, it doesn’t matter, because the oral traditions, in their names, have yielded ample information, and we, Humanists, are free to reject those parts, which we deem to be embellishments by enthusiastic followers.
However when claims about imagined supernatural persons are made, standards rise. Coming forward several hundred years to the beginning of the Jesus-tradition, not only is there no personal MS, but also there is no contemporary confirmation. From his comparative summary of about fifty erudite biblical scholars, David concludes that the Jesus-tradition was indeed founded by a real single man, but that his teaching has been so mythologised as to make accurate citation impossible. Nonetheless listening to David talk about his work shows him to be quite passionate about some of that teaching, and since David is a member of the British Humanist Association, and in good standing, it is reasonable to ask why?
To accredit acceptable scholars, David looked for competence in languages such as Aramaic, Greek, Hebrew, Latin, etc., together with some academic or equivalent qualifications. He avoided numerous commercial writers, whom he deemed disreputable, some even pornographers. Among the scholars cited, Albert Schweitzer (1875 – 1965) is still widely revered. Also, one of the living accredited scholars, Marcus Borg of Oregon State University, wrote a recommendation for the book, and, Richard Holloway, ex-Bishop of Edinburgh, wrote the forward.
The controversial Australian scholar, Barbara Thiering of Sydney University, is not accredited, possibly for the reason given in Wikipedia by Nicholas Thomas Wright, Bishop of Durham, and Geza Vermes, Oxford University, respectively, both of whom are accredited. The reason seems sound enough, but from the Australian point of view, Barbara’s omission is a pity, of course. Barbara was featured by the ABC in 1990 and declared a Fellow of the Jesus Seminar, USA, which ran the tests on Document Q; see below. However her version of Jesus-tradition history seems more to have inspired Dan Brown of the da Vinci code than her contemporary Fellows.
Research on Jesus-tradition, has been punctuated, at irregular intervals over the centuries, by the recovery of ancient documents in unlikely dumps, increasing in frequency in the 1900s. Some were written within the postulated period of the early Jesus-tradition, but they do not mention the movement by name. (Barbara Thiering identifies “Jesus” with the Wicked Priest in the Dead Sea scrolls.) Other documents and scrolls provide comment from twenty or so years later, the earliest being Paul, ca 50 CE, who apparently did write extensively. However Paul’s report is questionable because it is derived from the oral tradition together with imagined instructions from Paul’s imagined Damascus Road experience. Then ca 70 CE fragments of a gospel by an anonymous writer denoted “Mark”, have been identified. (One disputed fragment is the size of a postage stamp.) Subsequently the “Matthew” and “Luke” gospels were allegedly written and collated towards the end of the second century, perhaps later. This is important to our ethics manual (see http://victorianhumanist.com/ and press Ethical Education menu button), because the Jesus-tradition contains the first remark that I’ve discovered thus far among the philosophers from, say, six million years ago to the nineteenth century, which really emphasises the importance of young children.
Did an obscure carpenter first say to care for children or did later enthusiasts insert it in the collation? I’d like to know, especially in view of the way that some other ancient societies treated their children – they screwed them every which way as expendable. I think the good care of children is a terrific advance in the development of ethics, despite the problems that children give us today, both in the homes and in the streets.
Textual analysis of the contents of the “Matthew”, “Mark” and “Luke” documents suggests that the gap from ce 30 to 70 CE was filled by a common source, which was denoted variously as Beth (1801), Logia (1832) and then Quelle or simply Q, towards the end of the 1800s. This hypothetical source, together with Paul’s letters, lack personal details, but they are all that the Jesus-tradition has for its literary support in its first fifty years.
David however sheds new light on the testing of Jesus-themes by eighty biblical scholars voting in the Jesus Seminar, 1993. Voting was by a dispassionate method. The maximum number of tests was 1330 so that the maximum score from red beads = 3 points, was 3990. The actual number of points earned for authentic assignment of themes was 836! favouring themes such as “turn the other cheek”, “when sue for your coat, give your cloak too”, “blessed are the poor” (not “poor in spirit” which did poorly), “go the second mile”, and “love your enemies”, with rankings in single figures. The theme, which commends children in the above three gospels, earned pinks = 2 points each from a small number of scholars and was ranked 33. How does one assess approval from only a small number of respondents versus a large number who declined to answer?
Clearly the Jesus Seminar has a majority of truly critical scholars, which I find reassuring.
In conclusion, in my continued work on ethics I am referring increasingly to David’s book and therefore I strongly recommend it.