You may have heard recently of a new book that calls into question the historic Christian understanding of Jesus. It makes the claim that Jesus wasn’t really God; that, despite what his disciples claimed, Jesus himself never believed he was the Messiah, much less God incarnate; that he was a merely a Jewish revolutionary that was crucified by the Roman Empire and later made God by people who really didn’t know him.
The author is not a trained New Testament scholar and what he is saying in his book is nothing remotely new; he is a creative writing professor writing a creative opinion-piece that popularizes long-argued positions going back two centuries.
Writing for The American Conservative, Alan Jacobs provides an apt summary: ”Reza Aslan’s book is an educated amateur’s summary and synthesis of a particularly skeptical but quite long-established line of New Testament scholarship, presented to us as simple fact.”
Let’s see how.
Aslan Is Not A New Testament Scholar
As Jacobs explains, ”Reza Aslan is not a New Testament scholar. In Zealot, he is writing well outside his own academic training. This does not mean that his book is a bad one, or that he shouldn’t have written it, only that it is primarily a sifting and re-presenting of the work of actual NT scholars.”
In fact, while he has a PhD in sociology of religion (the study of the beliefs, practices and organizational forms of religion using the tools and methods of the discipline of sociology) as well as a Master of Theological Studies (a general, entry-level graduate degree) Aslan is a professor of creative writing—not even his profession touches within a football field of the New Testament, not even Christianity or even religion, for that matter.
Joe Carter from GetReligion reminds us of this glaring lack of credentialing, and then also (rightly) goes after NPR’s Terry Gross for glossing over this reality and making him appear more than he is. He quotes Terry Gross, then responds:
Writer and scholar Reza Aslan was 15 years old when he found Jesus. His secular Muslim family had fled to the U.S. from Iran, and Aslan’s conversion was, in a sense, an adolescent’s attempt to fit into American life and culture. “My parents were certainly surprised,” Aslan tells Fresh Air‘s Terry Gross.
As Aslan got older, he began his studies in the history of Christianity, and he started to lose faith. He came to the realization that Jesus of Nazareth was quite different from the Messiah he’d been introduced to at church. “I became very angry,” he says. “I became resentful. I turned away from Christianity. I began to really reject the concept of Christ.”
But Aslan continued his Christian scholarship, and he found that he was increasingly interested in Jesus as a historical figure. The result is his new book, Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth — a historical look at Jesus in the context of his time and Jewish religion, and against the backdrop of the Roman Empire.
From that introduction you might get the impression that Aslan is a historian and an unbeliever, probably an agnostic or atheist. So you might be surprised to hear that Aslan is a devout Muslim and a professor of creative writing at University of California at Riverside. While Aslan has a PhD in sociology of religions, he is not a trained historian. Rather than a work of “Christian scholarship” the book is merely one Muslim’s opinion about the historical figure of Jesus.
There’s nothing wrong, of course, with a Muslim, a sociologist, or a creative writing instructor, producing a book on Jesus. But there is something wrong with media outlets presenting an author as if he were some an objective expert on a subject when they clearly are not.
As one person notes, Aslan’s complete lack of awareness of Second Temple Judaism, 1st century politics, lazy and simplistic categories, and failure to interact with the latest historical Jesus scholarship, and more all betray his supposed credentials.
Aslan Is Writing as a Muslim
But not only has he and others glossed over such qualifications, they have also glossed over (I’ll say glossed rather than hid, here) the fact that Aslan is writing as a practicing Muslim.
John Dickerson writes that, “Media reports have introduced Aslan as a ‘religion scholar’ but have failed to mention that he is a devout Muslim. His book is not a historian’s report on Jesus. It is an educated Muslim’s opinion about Jesus — yet the book is being peddled as objective history on national TV and radio.”
Dickerson makes it clear that this devout Muslim has every right to his own opinion about Jesus, and also express that opinion. But he goes on, recognizing how Aslan’s Muslim association is an important, if unannounced, factor in his new screed:
Zealot is a fast-paced demolition of the core beliefs that Christianity has taught about Jesus for 2,000 years. Its conclusions are long-held Islamic claims—namely, that Jesus was a zealous prophet type who didn’t claim to be God, that Christians have misunderstood him, and that the Christian Gospels are not the actual words or life of Jesus but ‘myth.’ These claims are not new or unique. They are hundreds of years old among Muslims. Sadly, readers who have listened to interviews on NPR, “The Daily Show,” Huffington Post or MSNBC may pick up the book expecting an unbiased and historic report on Jesus and first century Jewish culture.
Beyond these two important points of consideration—his lack of credentialing and his bias—it is crucial to realize one more thing.
Zealot is Not New and Adds Nothing to the Historical Jesus Discussion
This is the most important point, because from the recent surge in sales and media hubbub you’d think Aslan struck oil in the middle of the Florida everglades—discovering something new that wasn’t there before.
Except he hasn’t.
He is recycling old arguments about the faith/fact of Jesus divide that go all the way back to 19th and 20th century German New Testament scholars who pitted the Jesus of the Gospels against the Jesus of history. More recent “scholars” have tapped the same, tired routine—including John Dominic Crossan and Bart Erhman.
If you’re unfamiliar, the “quest for the historic Jesus” (as it’s been called) has been an on-going scholarly debate among New Testament scholars and historians stretching back to the 18th century. In short, scholars attempt to peal away the layers of the so-called “Christianized” Jesus from the socio-political and cultural milieu of his time in order to get at the man Jesus of Nazareth.
In other words, they want to get at the real Jesus of history beneath the made up Jesus of faith. And Aslan’s book attempts to do the same, though with a decidedly political bent.
The UK editor handling the UK edition puts it this way: ”It addresses not Jesus Christ but Jesus of Nazareth, a historical figure, asking who was this man and what were the dynamics of first-century Palestine that gave rise to the sort of zealotry from which he arose? It’s also about how religion is inseparable from politics, and how the Church has made use of his life.”
Returning back to Alan Jacobs, we see in an important example, however, that Aslan makes no new discoveries, and makes no arguments that haven’t already been made:
Let’s look at just one issue that tells us something about how Aslan handles his business. In Chapter 4 he writes,
Whatever languages Jesus may have spoken, there is no reason to believe that he could read or write in any of them, not even Aramaic. Luke’s account[s of Jesus’s literacy] … are both fabulous concoctions of the evangelist’s own devising. Jesus would not have had access to the kind of formal education necessary to make Luke’s account even remotely credible.
This an exceptionally definitive statement in two noteworthy ways.
First, Aslan asserts that Luke was a conscious fabulist. Yet even if Luke were wrong about Jesus’s literacy — or about anything else — there is more than one way to explain those errors. For instance, Richard Bauckham’s important and much-celebrated book Jesus and the Eyewitnesses — which Aslan appears not to know — makes a strong case that Luke’s Gospel, like the others, is based on the testimony of those who claimed to be eyewitnesses. Especially since Luke places such emphasis on his attempt to gather reliable witnesses to the life of Jesus, wouldn’t it make sense to attribute his errors (if they exist) to his interviewees’ lively imaginations or poor memories, and to his own credulousness, rather than to intentional deception? Yet Aslan never considers any other possible explanation than the one he blandly asserts without argument.
But, second, can we be so sure that Luke was wrong about Jesus being literate? Aslan again just states that Jesus could neither read nor write, but if we look at the bibliographical essays at the end of Zealot we discover that he knows perfectly well that the situation is far more complicated than that. One of the chief sources he cites is John P. Meier’s Jesus: A Marginal Jew, and, as Aslan must acknowledge, “Meier actually believes that Jesus was not illiterate and that he even may have had some kind of formal education, though he provides an enlightening account of the debate on both sides of the argument” (230n). So there’s an argument on this point? One wouldn’t learn that from reading the actual text of Zealot, only from burrowing deep into the apparatus.
What Jacobs wants to make clear is that “in claiming that Jesus was illiterate Aslan is (a) asserting flatly a point that is seriously disputed among New Testament scholars and (b) making no new claim.” This particular claim goes back at least to Adolf Deissmann in 1908. Other claims in Zealot go back to Rudolf Bultmann, Albert Schweitzer, and even further to Adolf Von Harnack.
Again, the point is that Aslan’s book is regurgitated tired arguments that exists to do one thing: Paint a portrait of Jesus that transcends the one painted by the Gospels, which in the end contradicts the Gospels because it rejects them as unreliable testimony.
Which is ironic because as Craig Keener has said about such “scholars” in his The Historical Jesus of the Gospels, “these skeptical scholars have often uncritically accepted sources or hypotheses on far less evidence than the reports available in our traditional Gospels.” (xxxi) In other words, they deny “our most complete sources” of Jesus’ portrait (i.e. “the traditional ones,” the Gospels) in favor of pure conjecture and hypotheticals.
Which is exactly what Aslan, an untrained NT scholar and historian, has done with his book.
For an incredibly helpful review, see A Usually Happy Fellow Reviews Aslan’s Zealot (HT: Jason Myers).