Over the last few days, I’ve read the new Jesus was a violent revolutionary book du jour, Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth. In part, I picked it up because as a pastor I’m committed to reading Christian exposés that blip huge on the cultural radar and in part, because the botched Fox News interview between the author, Reza Aslan, and Fox interviewer, Lauren Green, was to good to be true…I had to read it. While impossible to imagine, this interview has been called the “Most embarrassing interview Fox has ever done.” You can judge for yourself.
Most embarrassing or no, the interview pushed sales of the book to number one on Amazon, dethroning the (JK Rowling) hardboil The Cuckoo’s Calling. Interestingly, both parties kind of blow it here. Green, because she apparently lacks some interviewing fundamentals and Aslan, because he backs himself intoma corner defending his right to write. Well, there’s no such thing as bad publicity, huh?
So far, quite a bit has been written on this book. CNN Belief Blog lists seven points that Aslan makes that stir the waters of faith, but really don’t make a new point. To this, Anthony Le Dunne reviews the book pointing out that the real weakness lies (not in Aslan’s absent theology), but in his unequipped Second Temple history (which, truthfully, I thought was the real value of the book). Of course, I have no way of knowing good Second Temple scholarship, because I’m no Second Temple Scholar. However, Le Dunne says that Simon Joseph is. The Christian Post offers a variety of commentary. And Stephen Prothero reviews the book for the Washington Post, quoted below.
In the end, “Zealot” offers readers not the historical Jesus but a Jesus for our place and time — an American Jesus for the 21st century, and more specifically for a post-Sept ’11 society struggling to make sense of Christianity’s ongoing rivalry with Islam.
Before I chime in, it’s worthy of note that in the FOX interview, Aslan might have overstated his qualifications a bit. This post is ridiculously long and not even a review of the book. I’m addressing some of the attacks on Scripture that this kind of writing usually delivers, Zealot notwithstanding.
I feel very defensive of the Biblical Jesus. I’m not going to lie. It’s not that I feel I have to defend him by any stretch. He’s God! He can do a fine job of that on his own. However, when an author tries to take him out of the pages of Scripture and drop him into the annuls of history-belongs-to-the-victor History, I want to step in and make a comment or two. Aslan’s book is fodder for that. Early on in his book, when he referred to the “brilliant Bertrand Russell” I knew we were in for a ride, and one that we’ve been on before. The Journey to find the Historical Jesus in 2013 is going to be a retread regardless who writes it. Russell may have been brilliant, but he was no Christian theologian.
At the root of “Zealot, the Life and Times…” lies distinction between those who read divinity in Jesus and those who read divinity into Jesus. Aslan is in pursuit of the “historical Jesus,” the Jesus that is completely separate from the Bible, into whom divinity must be read. His thesis is, like so many others, that Jesus’ God-hood is a later addition to the narrative of a Galilean wonder-working militant. I’ll address this below.
As a Muslim scholar, Reza Aslan is not going to believe in Jesus’ divinity.
There is no mystery about his perspective and it is to be commended academically. You can’t produce scholarship that is genuinely unbiased unless you examine your subject from all sides. You can even focus on one aspect and publish. However, you have to be honest about your delimitations. To a Muslim, Jesus is nothing more than a prophet. The second place prophet, but he is certainly not the Son of God. That’s why Green asks the repetitive question, “As a Muslim, why would you write a book about Jesu?”. It’s a good one, and one you have to keep in mind as you read this book. Within Christianity, Jesus is God. If he’s not, it’s not Christianity. You can’t have a Christian that believes Christ was human and not God.
Has to be made.
Humanism never builds lasting movements
If Jesus is not God, then he was a humanist leader, albeit a Jewish one. Humanism requires societies to improve based upon the goodness inherent in evolving human nature.
The more we learn and improve, the better the world gets. While I accept this in its ideal, I fail to see that it has actually made anything better. Aslan’s Christianity is nothing more, nothing less than humanism. The problem is that the Jesus movement has lasted 2,000 years. Goodness is relative, God-ness is not. The Kantian-Hegelian worldview has not produced the fruit of righteousness that humanism promises to deliver. While we have been witness to atrocity, the is no comparison to Jesus’ positive impact on both the world and it’s history. To catch the lasting goodness of what Jesus began read John Ortberg’s Who Is This Man?: The Unpredictable Impact of the Inescapable Jesus. Nothing in history is comparable to the movement Jesus began.
What to do with Mark & Miracles
In order for Aslan (which feels ironic by this point thinking of the great feline Jesus in the Narnia stories) to have a book, you have to buy into a late date for the authorship of Mark, which is a necessity for a “militant human Jesus” perspective. Dating the Gospels is difficult and they are all up for grabs where this is concerned. In all likelihood, they weren’t written in one sitting. It took time. Almost like…writing a book about Jesus. Mark has adherents to an early 39-40CE date. There also exists the realistic possibility of a mid 60’s date. And then, the later date, which Historic Jesus scholars have to go with, is also an option and it hinges upon verse 13:2, “Jesus responded, ‘Do you see these enormous buildings? Not even one stone will be left upon another. All will be demolished.'”
What this verse suggests is that Jesus is taking a prophetic glance at the future. For the believer, there is no problem here. It’s miraculous, which has no place what so ever in the pantheon of humanism. There is no supernature attributable to a human zealot Jesus, remember? So, the “logical” explanation is that Mark put these words into Jesus’ mouth after the final destruction of the Temple in 70CE at the hand of Romans. The other dates are certainly possible and would definitely explain how Matthew and Luke could get a hold of the Gospel of Mark, if you are able to maintain that Jesus was God and had insight into future events, which Historic Jesus adherents do not.
If Jesus was a human, there are no miracles. Late Mark = No Miracles. Maybe.
The Resurrection and The Witnesses
Since Resurrection is out of the question for Aslan, he spends little time or scholarship on it and instead moves onto Paul and his construction of a post-Jesus religion. As a result, I will spend little time here. We have to step out from behind out computer desks and recognize that there were witnesses to the Resurrection. To have any of this written down and having your name attached; someone at some point would have called “BS.” Right? If none of it were true, why attach your name to it and then stick with the story for the rest of your life? Even if it were going to be cut short by the blade of a saw. There are Julien Assange’s in every era. Christianity, especially in the first two centuries of the Church, cries out for scores of them. When the going got violent, the truth would have been spilled.
The Bible As A Source Document
Interlude. I always find it funny that Scripture is never handled as a source document. It’s always on trial as though nothing in it was factual, representative of fact, historical or representative of history. Jesus, the God-Man, doesn’t seem to bear out. I know, I know, I can hear the chorus of “well, the burden of proof is on him,” but hasn’t the historical timeline born that burden? How long can something remain so consistent and so doubted? Yes, there are written inconsistencies, but nothing that changes the 99% represented truth. Held up against documents of which we possess fewer and were written a thousand years after the fact, the bible holds up pretty well:
There would have been no martyrs
I realize that much has been written about the cult of martyrdom that surrounded Jesus. I’m not so versed in that subject that I feel qualified or organized around how many people actually gave up their lives for the sake of Jesus. However, it happened. My contention is that if Jesus were merely a historical zealot, as it appeared he was in the post-crucifixion Gospel narratives, then the whole house of cards would have just crumbled. The Disciples gathered in real fear, fear that what had happened to every other zealot crusader while Rome had been top dog would happen to them. They were waiting to face the same horror that Jesus had.
To his credit, Aslan does a great job chronicling the failed ‘messiah’ figures, then he points to Richard Horsely as his muse. Read Horsely. I’ve read him a ton and find him fabulously interesting, even if he’s not a raging evangelical.
Can you imagine dying a gruesome death, say…being eaten by lions, for a lie? Would you allow yourself to be burnt alive for a name that passed by like so many others before? A name that wasn’t above all names afterall? The Disciples weren’t theologians, but they weren’t ignorant cattle either. Which brings me to my next point.
The People That Were There Were Actually There
Historians that cow tow to this historical Jesus tend to treat the first century people a bit like they weren’t there, like they weren’t aware of the things that are so clear now thanks to modern scholarship. Aslan doesn’t end the book with Jesus, really. He winds up highlighting a very possible power struggle between Paul and James. In doing so, he sets up this dual church system: That of James the Just and that of Paul The Rogue. As if no one would have been aware had there been two Churches, Alsan assets that Paul could not overcome James and yet went around his back all over the Mediterranean world. My question is, since the people who began to canonize the scriptures early, being unofficially codified as early as the end of the second century, why would James and Paul have ended up in the same canon? Why didn’t two separate Scriptures develop, even beyond the Council of Rome in 382? If Paul was so outside the true faith, why didn’t he end up top man on his own campus?
Aslan is fitting pieces together that will always stand as kind of conjectural. It’s cool how he interlaces the two men’s passion and fury, but depending on the extant 4th century Pseudo-Clementines for his dominant narrative. That would be like arguing against the Synoptics based upon the Gospel of Judas. And just for fun, Aslan uses Josephus as a source, however uncritically. Josephus stands up to no scrutiny from the author.
The men and women surrounding the Jesus event, the Paul event and the early church were actually there. They would have noted a similarly violent tradition between the Bishop of all Bishops and Paul. So Why didn’t they?
Because Christianity survives as a result of Conspiracy
Makes sense, doesn’t it? If Aslan is correct and there is no historicity to the NT, then it’s only cleverly manicured narrative woven into the tapestry of history by the hyperactive scribes of the Christian conspiracy. Each detail would have to have been redacted throughout the ages to maintain a certain status quo, which would inevitably have to evolve. But not worry, the “scribes” could alter every existing document as necessary – they would have to. One thing we don’t tend to lend credence to is that “there are presently 5,686 Greek manuscripts in existence today for the New Testament. If we were to compare the number of New Testament manuscripts to other ancient writings, we find that the New Testament manuscripts far outweigh the others in quantity.” via
That’s ALOT of white out.
I know that Aslan would roll his eyes at this, but at a certain point, the Bible has to stand up for itself. No one is as stupid as the historical Jesus argument lays claim they would have to be. Are there difficulties with the Bible? Yes. Are there parts that are hard to reconcile? Absolutely. Does this mean, then that it’s claims are false, wholesale? Definitely not.
Perhaps, one day I’ll actually review the book instead of just mouth off against the rhetorical approach that a book of this type relies on. But for now that is all.
In Islam, the historical Jesus truly is a Jesus worth believing in, as Aslan concludes. However in Christianity, Aslan’s words go down like alcohol and gluten free beer. Instead we have to turn to a voice like C.S. Lewis, “A man who was merely a man and said the sort of things Jesus said would not be a great moral teacher. He would either be a lunatic–on the level with a man who says he is a poached egg–or he would be the devil of hell. You must take your choice. Either this was, and is, the Son of God, or else a madman or something worse. You can shut him up for a fool or you can fall at his feet and call him Lord and God. But let us not come with any patronizing nonsense about his being a great human teacher. He has not left that open to us.” Mere Christianity
Have you read anything about Reza Aslan and his new book? What are your thoughts?