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‘this magical mystery tour of historical investigation...’

Extracts from  Who on Earth was Jesus?

From the Preface:

... If John Lennon could claim that the Beatles were bigger than Jesus, inventive writers and pseudo-scholars were soon on hand to prove him wrong and demonstrate that at the name of Jesus the tills in the great chain of bookstores can still be made to ring out a joyful sound. All it takes is a generous dose of conspiracy theory, a tabloid distaste for inconvenient evidence, Dan Brown’s genius for blurring fact and fiction and Lord Archer’s combination of chutzpah and snake-oil salesmanship to extract big advances from co-conspiratorial publishers and big bucks from a gullible reading public...  And in this welter of sensationalism, this cacophony of corrupt claims and cynical salesmanship, where does the general reader turn for knowledgeable guidance on what could be fact and what is likely to be fiction in the old, old story?

            Where do we go if we want to ask, intelligently: Who on Earth was Jesus?         Where else but to the body of scholarship dedicated to the tough task of filtering history from mystery, evidence from conjecture, and critical from wishful thinking? So where to find them? How to trust them?

            To begin with, we must distinguish the serious scholar from the charlatan. The serious scholar will have taken the trouble to equip himself or herself with the tools of the historian’s trade: a good working knowledge of the languages, cultures, literary genres, oral traditions, power politics, religious controversies and social mores of first-century Galilee in particular and the Greco-Roman world in general. Second, the serious scholar will respect the evidence and follow where it leads, even (or especially) when it leads where he doesn’t want to go. We must not expect even the most scholarly scholar to be free of presumptions, opinions, prejudices, personal ambition or the cultural baggage we all lug around with us. Scholars and charlatans alike are only human (and according to Matthew 23:13-33 in the Jesus Seminar’s “Scholars’ Version”, Jesus didn’t have too high an opinion of them: “You scholars and Pharisees, you impostors! Damn you...You spawn of Satan! How are you going to escape Hell’s judgment?”).

            What we must demand of our guides is evidence of intellectual integrity, respect for truth, and due humility in face of the complexity of the quest on which they have embarked. Where do we find these virtues? There are whole armies of specialists in this field. Some spend their entire working lives in the academy, the fruit of their researches hidden in the pages of specialist journals invisible to the general reader. Others have broken free from the academic closet to achieve fame, even fortune, as best-selling authors: Crossan, Borg, Vermes, Wright, and others we shall meet in these pages. What Jesus have they been looking for? What Jesus have they found?

            Readers embarking on this magical mystery tour of historical investigation will soon encounter an awkward fact. Historians do not always agree. Decades of painstaking historical Jesus research have not produced a scholarly consensus on who this man Jesus was. What I aim to do with this book is provide a rough guide to the main schools of historical Jesus scholarship a century after the publication of Albert Schweitzer’s pioneering Quest of the Historical Jesus. Schweitzer summarized the conclusions of nineteenth century scholars who knew nothing of the Nag Hammadi codices and Dead Sea scrolls lying undisturbed under the lone and level sands of Egypt. I give the best account I can of the work of modern historians and Jesus detectives whose expanded database of evidence and sharper technological toolkit has revolutionized the contemporary quest and, for those with eyes to see and ears to hear, transformed our understanding of an Iron Age visionary who unwittingly shaped the religious, social and cultural history of the next two thousand years.

(From pages xvii – xviii)

From the cameo The invention of the narrative gospel:

We are now so familiar with the narrative gospels in the Bible that it rarely occurs to us to ask where this kind of writing came from. Did the author or compiler of Mark invent the form, rather as Defoe is said to have invented the novel and Petrarch the sonnet? Or was there already a literary form at hand, which he simply borrowed?

Whatever genre the narrative gospel belongs to, scholars are virtually unanimous in their view that it has little connection with that of modern biography. The authors of Mark, Matthew, Luke and John were not objective historians who reconstructed events by researching in libraries and interviewing surviving friends and relations of Jesus. Biographers and biographies did not exist as the genres and disciplines we know today. The gospel writers were primarily preachers. They had “good news” to proclaim, and the narrative gospel was the literary framework within which they proclaimed it.

The word “gospel” is a translation of the Latin word “evangelium”, which in turn is derived from Greek. According to Helmut Koester in Ancient Christian Gospels, it was first used by Aristophanes (c450 - c388 BCE) to mean “bringing good news”, such as victory in battle. As a noun, in classical Greek usage it came to mean the reward for bringing good news, or a thank-offering for it. By imperial Roman times it was often used to mean news itself: the content of news, whether good, bad or indifferent. Koester sees the term as elevated to a new dignity in imperial inscriptions such as that from Priene (9 BCE) to “the god” and “savior” Augustus, whose birth was “the beginning of his good messages [or gospels]”.

Within Hebrew tradition, the word appears in the Septuagint (Greek) version of the Jewish scriptures or “Old Testament”, where it can mean any kind of news or message, until Isaiah, where it takes on the particular meaning of the good news of the beginning of the rule of Yahweh, the “proclamation to the poor”. Taken up by the early Jesus movement, the noun was used as a synonym of “the message” or “the preaching”, and the verb meant “to bring the message” or “to preach”. Koester counts 48 usages in Paul’s genuine letters (which of course precede the narrative gospels). Since the message that was preached was, to the early Christian community, indeed “good news”, the word was re-invested with its older Greek sense of positive or joyful content, and those who preached the good news, the evangelium, were called evangelists, or gospel-makers. For Christians, there was no good news other than the good news proclaimed by Jesus:  the gospel.

But it is by no means clear that the writers of the four biblical books we now call gospels thought of their work as a new kind of literary genre to which they attached the name. Mark’s opening sentence introduces “The beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ...”, but “the gospel” here is the message, not the book. Luke refers to his own and other similar books as “accounts” or “narratives”, not as gospels. Neither Matthew nor John use the term as a literary description: the titles “Gospel according to...” were all added later.

So while we can analyse the changing meanings of the word “gospel”, this does not tell us where the genre of a narrative gospel came from. Scholars have pointed out that, while the gospel-writers were clearly influenced by literary forms developed over centuries of Jewish writing, there was nothing like a gospel narrative in the Hebrew scriptures. The lives of Moses, Samuel and David were well represented in the literature, but no-one had thought to pull their stories into a narrative proto-biography. The form of a narrative gospel, as distinct from the word “gospel” meaning message, was unknown in Jewish tradition. The gospel writers must have taken it from somewhere else, unless Mark invented the form from scratch.

Since first-century Christianity had its roots in both Judaism and the overarching Hellenistic culture (that is, the culture of the Greco-Roman empire), it is not surprising to discover that the form of the four narrative gospels appears to be patterned on a genre of “life” stories or proto-biographies already fully developed within Greek literature. Since Herodotus in the fifth century BCE, Greek story-tellers had put together improving and inspirational tales about their “heroes”. A hero was generally someone who had died a noble death, as martyr to a cause. But the Greeks believed that those who died nobly had been destined to do so by Fate. They had literally been born to die their noble death. Moreover, Fate had often signalled the noble end by preliminary signs and wonders, such as a miraculous birth, a supernatural infancy event, and the occasional miracle in adulthood. So the Hellenistic life-narrative of, say, an heroic king or warrior, tended to consist of the following components:

1. Origins, often supernatural.

2. Youth - one or more infancy stories, prefiguring the wisdom or nobility that was to come.

3. Adulthood - great deeds, often miraculous.

4. Martydom or heroic death, leading to cult status thereafter.

After the death of Socrates, who was neither a king nor a warrior but no less a hero, a fifth component came to be added between 2 and 3, or 3 and 4:

5. A summary of the great man’s teachings.

Lane C McGaughy offers an example:“The brief biography of Theagenes, as recorded in Pausanias’ Description of Greece, illustrates well the structure and function of the various parts of a hellenistic biography; (1) Theagenes was conceived as the result of a union between the immortal Heracles (disguised as his father Timosthenes) and his human mother [a sign that he was fated for future greatness]; (2) at age nine Theagenes lugs home a bronze statue (presumably weighing hundreds of pounds) from the town square [a signal that he will become the world’s greatest athlete]; (3) a summary of his heroic achievements as an adult: sure enough, he won 1,400 crowns (= gold medals) at various Olympiads and other games and thus fulfilled his preordained destiny; (4) the establishment of a cult to the divinized Theagenes after his death” (Forum, NS 2/1, Spring 1999).

McGaughy argues that Matthew, Mark, Luke and John used the Hellenistic formula “to provide the framework for the independent units of Jesus tradition that they received from various oral and written sources”. Mark omits a miraculous birth story, and John loftily presents his hero as existing before his human birth, but Matthew and Luke follow the template closely. The four gospels are highly original in theological content, but their literary form is clearly derived from well-established Greek-gentile literary conventions.

(From pages 50 – 53)


FROM ‘The utopia that sets history in motion’, in Chapter 12

To search for the Jesus of history is to search for the Jesus who lived in a late Iron Age village in a remote corner of the Roman Empire. The framework within which he taught was the framework of his own time and place. That he could and did stretch that framework is evidenced by his unique and lasting influence, but no historical human being can step outside his specific historical circumstance. We are creatures of our time and place, our culture, our little stories and grand narratives. The historical Jesus was a first-century Jew in a Hellenized Roman empire, immersed in a monotheistic Judaism which had absorbed Persian, Babylonian, Greek and Roman influences but triumphantly retained its own distinctiveness. The kingdom he preached and promised was a kingdom conceived within that particular, distinctive religious and social culture, expressed (and subtly modified) in the language of that culture. His glimpse of an alternative reality, his envisioned paradise regained, was a kingdom; the king was God. There was no other language available to a Galilean peasant-artisan unacquainted with Philo and Plato, let alone with Hume’s reason  and Blake’s imagination.

Two thousand years later we live in a different world... So for the kingdom of God read the republic of heaven. This is not the language of Jesus, because his language is not ours. But the enabling dream transcends the language in which it was first expressed in those uniquely expressive parables and aphorisms, mangled as they were by zealous evangelists and their editors, spirit-filled prophets and power-conscious priests bent on creating new hierarchies. After two thousand years of white noise, those who have ears to hear may still pick up the authentic voice of a man of his own age who somehow contrives to speak to ours. We should know, because the world seems hell-bent on a new apocalyptic. Accelerating human-made climate change threatens to engulf us within a century; a continuing nuclear arms race looks like giving us the opportunity to end the world as it began, with another Big Bang; and apocalyptic Christianity squares up to apocalyptic Islam. John’s most terrible Jesus [in Revelation], his eyes aflame, his sword proceeding from his mouth, rides in on a white charger and scatters his enemies on the hill of Megiddo. That was John’s dream. But the historical Jesus had a different experience: “My God, my God! Why hast thou forsaken me?”  Perhaps in his death he experienced the truth of his life: that in the dreamed-of coming kingdom, the kingdom already in the making, it was the poor, the oppressed and persecuted, the peace-makers, the God-forsaken, who would lay the foundations of his visionary kingdom, our republic of heaven, “where the voice of weeping shall be no more heard, nor the voice of crying”.

(From pages 405 -406)


‘Did Jesus eagerly look forward to the day when God would arrive on earth to exalt his true believers and damn the rest of us to eternal torment... Does he come in peace, or with an axe in his hand?’



© David Boulton