Who on Earth was Jesus?

Henry Wansbrough reviews Who on Earth was Jesus? by David Boulton O Books (Winchester). 2008. 420 pages. ISBN: 978-1-84694-018-7. £14.95.

An enthusiastic foreword by Richard Holloway (retired/resigned Bishop of Edinburgh and fierce critic of the conventional church). American-style paperback. Cheerfully irreverent style — 'Jesus as celestial policeman', 'a magical Jesus “beyond the bright blue sky”. It all looks like one more of those clever, debunking popular rants produced in newspapers at Christmas and Easter by journalists who are slightly out of their depths. In any case, a book of this kind is difficult to review, the larger part of a reviewer's task being to introduce a book and its contents, only the smaller part being to assess and criticise it. Boulton sets out to summarise a long-standing debate in which a range of opinions needs to be presented, and summaries of summaries make tedious and indigestible reading. The debate about the possibility of discovering the historical Jesus began between the pagan Celsus and the Christian Justin Martyr barely a century after the death of Jesus, brandishing many of the arguments used in the revival of the debate a millennium-and-a-half later. It cuts at the heart of traditional Christianity, for no serious reader of Paul and of the gospels can deny that the New Testament and other contemporary writers present their stories about Jesus in a way widely different from that of modern historians. Yet, if we cannot establish some historical truth about Jesus, if the stories of his teachings, miracles, death and resurrection are pure myths, then Christianity dissolves into dust.

First of all it must be said that respect for the author and his competence as an investigative journalist grow steadily as he works tenaciously through the involved and complicated debates. At no level, popular, student or specialist, have I encountered so comprehensive and comprehensible a presentation of the issues involved. The persevering reader ends with a grasp of the questions that need to be asked and of the answers that have been given. Whether these answers are right or wrong is another matter. The reader is left to make a personal choice of weapons, techniques and coaches in the duel, for it is a book which should not merely be read, but fought over until it is dog-eared and tattered (then in the second edition perhaps some of the schoolboy spelling-howlers might be corrected!).

The personalities are well presented, with an adequate account of their position and credentials. The range is comprehensive and up-to-date, including even the Pope's book, which he handed to me on publication day in April 2007. The views are well summarised, with lengthy and carefully-chosen quotations presenting the nub of their arguments. The great purple passages from Albert Schweitzer, Sanders and Vermes are there to inspire the reader, though the author's own final purple passage (p. 404-7) falls rather flat. Ever and again there occur refreshing little details which I found enlightening: the synoptic gospels are so called not because (an awkward derivation) they can be 'seen together', but simply because they are included in Griesbach's Synopsis, and it was a delight to learn that Strauss' great work was translated into English by George Eliot. Above all, the assessments of the positions held by scholars are judicious and well explained. Boulton goes out of his way to be fair and even-handed. Every now and then the reader is offered a little light entertainment, such as the neat and fair presentation of Secret Gospel of Mark, with its homoerotic suggestions about Jesus, 'discovered' in the 1950s (p. 58) or the uncompromising sermon of Fr Cantalamessa to the papal household (p. 192). There is even a bit of the thrill of the detective novel: in a good whodunnit all the clues point increasingly to the wrong suspect until the final dénouement reveals the real killer. In this book one candidate seems to be scoring all the points — only to be left at the end hanging limply on the ropes.

Outstanding is the discussion of the Jesus Seminar, which has so often been mocked and caricatured. Here its principals and principles are sympathetically presented, together with the valuable related work on non-canonical gospels and other texts on which it is founded. One Christian reader may fear that the Jesus Seminar has won the day, as it doggedly strips the wallpaper, piece by piece, off the cosy traditional Christian home; another may reckon to glimpse comforting light through holes in the argument. Then comes the counterpoint in the varied interpretations put on these data by distinguished scholars who continue to find in the historical Jesus enough basis to support their religious commitment. Is there a deliberate crescendo in the order Marcus Borg, Ed Sanders, John Meier, Tom Wright and Josef Ratzinger? All these are presented with masterly courtesy and clarity, with only a gentle hint of mockery at the papal attribution of John's Gospel to the son of Zebedee, 'following (or swallowing) a somewhat tortuous argument elaborated by Martin Hengel' (p. 294).

Intriguing is the thread running through the book, Jesus' teaching on the coming end of the world. Both John the Baptist (the predecessor and possibly mentor of Jesus) and Paul (the earliest follower of Jesus whose writings we possess) are dominated by a conviction of an approaching 'end of the world'. Was not Jesus similarly dominated and was he not simply wrong? Did he not simply 'goof it up' on this point? Did he really teach that the stars would fall from heaven and how soon? This becomes almost a test-case. Some gospel texts indicate a speedy end, others substitute a kingdom-within. What did Jesus teach? If he was wrong on such an important point, he can hardly be a reliable leader, let alone 'son of God' (in whatever sense this is meant) or divine. The constant return to this point is justified, but the failure to appreciate the context and genre of Jesus' sayings is the one serious fault of the book. Seen against the background of first-century Jewish literature, the eschatological sayings (and especially the 'apocalyptic' ones) of Jesus must be heard as images and ciphers of the decisive action of God which Christians see effective in the Resurrection of Christ. Christians do believe that the world was changed for ever by these events.

Any number of questions remain, principal among them — to my mind — being the evaluation of the factuality of the story of Jesus' passion, death and resurrection. These (or at least the acceptance of them) are, after all, the facts earliest and most crisply attested by both Christian and non-Christian witnesses. Perhaps these will serve for another book, but David Boulton has already performed an important service to gospel studies which will be appreciated and argued over by Christians and non-Christians alike.

Dom Henry Wansbrough is a monk of Ampleforth. He is General Editor of the New Jerusalem Bible and for a dozen years was on the Pope's Biblical Commission. He has been Chairman of the Oxford Faculty of Theology and from 1990-2004 was Master of St Benet's Hall.

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