Getting to know the human Jesus

By  Fr. Murray Watson, Catholic Register Special
  • February 13, 2009
{mosimage}Who on Earth was Jesus? The Modern Quest for the Jesus of History by David Boulton (O Books, softcover,  417 pages, $29.95).

There is perhaps no area of modern theology as controversial and polarized as the study of the historical Jesus — what can be known about Jesus using standard historical research. There are those for whom the Gospels are essentially biographies of Jesus and historically beyond questioning. There are others who emphasize the editorial history of the Gospels and the apparent inconsistencies and errors of fact within them. These latter scholars often conclude the Gospels hold little, if any, real historical value. Of course there is an entire spectrum of opinions in between.

The shelves of theological libraries groan under the weight of the thousands of books that have been published to address these questions. Although historical Jesus research has taken on a new energy in the last three decades, it is a quest that goes back well into the 1700s, from the time when scholars first began to critically examine and dissect the Bible using scientific methods. To get an accurate sense of the sweep of that scholarship would require one to read hundreds of books.

Or one could simply pick up David Boulton’s new book — a Coles Notes version, providing an extremely helpful reader’s guide to the key trends and authors in the field. Boulton has done an immense service to the reading public by tracing the various scholarly theories and schools of thought in this highly complex (and often confusing) area of study.

{sa 1846940184}His book, however, is more than just a “who’s who” of Jesus scholarship. It also provides an excellent overview of modern New Testament study in general, explaining sources and methods, terminology and major manuscript discoveries. He helps us understand important but lesser-known materials such as the Nag Hammadi texts, the writings of Pliny the Elder and the alleged references to Jesus in later Jewish tradition. These alone would make Boulton’s text a useful guide for any New Testament student to keep close at hand. His various sidebars, or cameos, also provide valuable discussions of important topics — and controversial ones, such as “Did Jesus have a love life?”

The genius of this book, however, lies in its ability to accurately and concisely present the ideas of more than 20 prominent scholars whose work is representative of main currents of thought. From the more familiar (Robert Funk, John Dominic Crossan, E.P. Sanders, N.T. Wright, Geza Vermes and Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, now Pope Benedict XVI) to names better known to specialists (Kathleen Corley, Gerd Lüdemann, Hyam Maccoby, Alvar Ellegard), Boulton presents us with a précis of each scholar’s key insights and conclusions in a way that is remarkably even-handed and fair.

Such a Reader’s Digest approach always risks oversimplification of complex ideas. But Boulton has a remarkably good grasp of the material and his abbreviated versions certainly invite people to explore the author’s original work. I suspect that many of his readers will discover a wealth of thought-provoking and intriguing ideas they will want to pursue further.

How should we understand Jesus? Is He a revolutionary mystic, a Jewish sage, an apocalyptic prophet, a poet, a Pharisee, the Son of God? The challenge of modern Jesus studies is that no single category seems adequate to understand Him fully — and yet each of these categories can offer us considerable enlightenment about Jesus’ social, religious, political and personal life, yielding a richer and more three-dimensional picture of the one Christians worship.

Although historical Jesus research cannot address questions of Jesus’ divinity, nevertheless the knowledge we have gained about the Roman Empire, the ancient Mediterranean world and rural societies provides us with a rich background against which to understand Jesus in His humanity. Particularly pertinent are the insights into first-century Palestinian Judaism, which challenge how we as Christians think and speak about Jesus’ contemporaries — and how we understand the relationship of Christianity, and of Jesus, to the Jewish people today.

If there is any shortcoming, it is a tendency to embrace somewhat more skeptical or reductionistic viewpoints and sometimes to parody or stereotype Christianity in ways that are less than accurate or helpful. He aims “to rescue a wholly human Jesus from the clutches of the superstitious, the credulous, the humourless, the unscrupulous and the dangerously fanatical.” He exaggerates the discontinuity between the historical Jesus and the Jesus presented by the Gospels, suggesting a radical break between them that, while supported by some scholars, is by no means universally held. His views on the non-reliability of oral tradition are unfortunately based on modern analogies (“Chinese whispers”), rather than exploring the wealth of material on how oral tradition functioned in cultures before printing and modern technology — and how it can demonstrably pass on information with surprising fidelity for long periods.

Some of this, I believe, can be attributed to Boulton’s own personal background (as a Quaker humanist and something of an agnostic), and by his obvious admiration for scholars of the Jesus Seminar. While they are often brilliant — and wonderful communicators — many of the Jesus Seminar entirely rule out the church’s traditional understanding of Jesus as a post-Jesus fiction. While this assumption does not surface constantly in Boulton’s book, it does so often enough to be distracting to a religious reader and it detracts from the author’s stated efforts at objectivity.

These flaws, however, are relatively minor in such an excellent volume, which does an important service to readers who seek to find their way in the maze of contemporary Jesus scholarship. Boulton is, in most regards, an accurate, informed and witty guide to an important but daunting topic. His book succeeds admirably in doing what few have had the courage to attempt.

(Watson is working on his PhD thesis in Dublin, Ireland.)

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