Boulton, David - Who On Earth Was Jesus?

  (02 June 09)

David Boulton Who On Earth Was Jesus? The modern
quest for the Jesus of History
(O Books, 2008)





Reviewed by Rodney Eivers



(Reviewed March 2009)



The quest for the historical Jesus goes on. A recent contribution to this search, published in 2008, comes from former BBC journalist, of Quaker background, David Boulton. He continues the tradition going back to David Strauss and brought to public attention by Albert Schweitzer. They sought to discover the historical person behind the layer upon layer of devotional ardour which has in later centuries turned the itinerant Jewish sage of Galilee of the early first century into the divine King of Kings, Redemptive Saviour and supernatural monitor of everything we do or say.


With this one person having so much influence on the course of human history it is not surprising that there should be intense interest in finding out what Jesus was really like.


It is a difficult and potentially frustrating task. Despite all that has been written about Jesus of Nazareth there is remarkably little of substance that can be regarded as truly historical. Indeed there are some who would argue that this man never existed at all.


My own inclination is to think that if Jesus never existed it is remarkable that so many apparent recollections of him were passed on and maintained for so long and so widely. There were nothing like the communication and recording media that we have today. The general consensus of scholars does seem to be that he did exist.


David Boulton however, makes the point, as did Albert Schweitzer, that the Jesus which does emerge from the scholarly studies has a strong tendency to match the personality or the ideals of the particularly scholar doing the research.


An important segment of Who on Earth Was Jesus? describes the various portraits of Jesus that the various investigators have come up with. There is even one from the current Pope.


The Jesus Seminar, working as a group, gets a substantial mention in the book as having sought to get away from individual interpretations. They take a consensus approach, to establishing the nature of the real Jesus, by consolidating the views of gatherings of academics ranging in number from 80 and more.


Although Boulton has his own views he does not allow them to unduly influence his attempts to give an objective picture of what historians have been able to establish about the life of the Galilean or the conclusions that others have come to.


The reading of analytical works such as Who on Earth Was Jesus? is essential for those who would claim in their preaching and their leadership of Bible studies, to be literate in the scriptures and to be presenting a credible message.


For example, when preachers give the Gospel of John authority in their arguments for the Christian view of the world, how many of them, let alone the people listening in the pews, are aware that the book of John was written 70 or more years after Jesus died? And, that objective biblical scholars are virtually unanimous in declaring that it is highly unlikely that any of the words (all the …”I am…sayings for example) attributed to Jesus in that book were really spoken by Him.


As would be expected from a professional journalist Boulton maintains a readable style in dealing with complex issues. I would certainly recommend this book to all those who seek to present Jesus as a man with a message for the 21st century.


Reference to volumes such as Who on Earth Was Jesus? can greatly assist in ensuring that we know what we are talking about.




David Miller comments, 20 June 2009:

Near the commencement of Rodney Eivers’ review, he informs us:

“With this one person having so much influence on the course of human history it is not surprising that there should be intense interest in finding out what Jesus was really like. “

As I have a different viewpoint on the issues involved, I will take the liberty to change Rodney’s quote above to read: ‘With this one religion, Christianity, having so much influence on the course of human history, there should be intense interest in finding out what Christianity was really like.’

In my view, the quest for the historical Jesus is not that central. What is important is the way Jesus Christ was portrayed within the umpteen varieties of Christianity that comprised the Early Church. The diversity and bizarreness of many of these portrayals, as reported by the Church Fathers, is truly amazing.

The Roman Emperors selected one variety from the umpteen on offer, and backed that choice with the armed force of the Empire. Thenceforth, within the Empire, only this one variety was known as ‘Christianity’. The rest were rejected as ‘Non-Christian’.

Why has this choice by the Roman Emperors been allowed to go unchallenged, even to this day? Is it because that whatever is dictated by the ‘authority figures’, the flock docilely follows? I am very interested in discovering the beliefs of these other varieties of Early Christianity.

Posted by David Miller

Hi David.It's been a very long time,pal, hasnt it.You,ve probably forgotten the prodigal son who is in the forbidden land of WA.
Never mind!
David.Congratualations on your "revision" of Rodney's post. You are absolutely spot on. As ever,i might add.
I tottally support your viewshere.

Robert Halsey

Posted by robert halsey

David and Robert have good points, as it is ones Christianity that matters, and not the "churchianity" developed by those from Rome and elsewhere.
I have experienced too much in my life to dismiss the personal touch of an Almighty God - as presented by Jesus Christ of the scriptures - for Jesus is said to have come to show us the Father.
I will be interested to know the sum of the scholarship.

Posted by Peter Olney

I've just ordered this book.
See also Jesus the Man: New Interpretations from the Dead Sea Scrolls is a 1993 book written by the Australian biblical scholar and theologian Barbara Thiering, Ph.D. It was rubbished by the theological professionals, but I found it helpful and very informative.

Posted by dennis tomlin

“[T]he cult of Jesus’ person has diminished him, and in the long run seems to have made him into a curiously embarrassing figure, weak, reproachful and androgynous."

That quotation from Don Cupitt is such a perfect description of the Jesus depicted on the cover of my short novel of ideas, BE DONE ON EARTH, that I feel prompted to explain how that embarrassing picture came to be on that book cover. Putting it there was an act of revenge. It came about this way:
As I did for all all my books, I created a design a cover for BE DONE ON EARTH. I simply combined a widely famiar cartoon depiction of human evolution in which a monkey-like ape on the left is followed by other anthropoid figures ending with a homo sapien sapiens figure. On the right of the homo sapien sapiens figure I added a beautiful picture of a a lone, meditative Jesus seated on a pinnacle and gazing into the future. The symbolic implication was obvious: the Jesus figure is a symbol of the highest stage of human evolution to date.

My publishers rejected my design. In place of my design they substituted in the proofs a meaningless abstract scrawl. Outraged, I fired off an email telling them "a backward child could have done better."
That made them mad.
They demanded an apology.
My opinion was sincere. So I refused to apologize.
They took revenge by putting on the cover of BE DONE ON EARTH, my novel of ideas, a "weak, reproachful and androgynous" and insipidly effeminate Jesus.
Possiibly because the narrator in BE DONE ON EARTH is a gay; he is also a victim of 9/11: his wife and five-year-old son were burned to death in the collapse of the World Trade Center.
You can see the publisher's cover on a review of BE DONE ON EARTH by Doctor Johnson at
You can see a copy of my design on my website:

Posted by Howard E. Cook

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