Sunday, August 04, 2013

There's Nothing New in Reza Aslan's "Historical" Book on Jesus

Linda and I in Chicago

When Dan Brown's book "The DaVinci Code" came out I felt that I had to buy it and read it, though it was a wasteland of Christology (= no genuine scholarship was contained therein). But people were supposedly reading it, so I did too, in order to respond. I read it in two nights while in Istanbul, Turkey, suffering from jet lag in the middle of the night. A few weeks after returning from Istanbul NBC TV in Toledo did a half hour in prime time, interviewing me about Brown's book. I was ready to respond.

Now we have Reza Aslan's Jesus book Zealot, which is #1 on Which means people are buying it. And probably some who buy it are also reading it (remember that "buying a book" does not equal "reading a book"). Since I am concerned with the Real Jesus I am now hanging my head because I may have to spend 12 bucks to buy it, and read it. I am certain it will contain nothing I have already read on Jesus over the past 40 years (which includes doctoral studies in ancient Christology and ongoing, incessant historical Jesus studies).

So for now I'm reading reviews. The Chronicle of Higher Education has one - "Attack on Religion Scholar Puts His Book on Jesus in the Spotlight." Here are some quotes from this essay.

  • Mr. Aslan writes in the book that he wishes to present "the most accurate and reasonable argument, based on my two decades of scholarly research into the New Testament and early Christian history."
  • Which is... what? For Aslan, Jesus is an itinerant wandering preacher. But there's nothing new in that claim, as anyone who has read John Dominic Crossan et. al. over the years. So what else? Aslan says Jesus was a profoundly political figure. OK, if that means Jesus really ticked off kings and governments. 
  • As many are noting, Aslan's "conclusions are not particularly new." Therefore I don't know if I should spend a few bucks and a even a little time reading it.
  • But among the Jewish political groups, is it really accurate to label Jesus as a "Zealot?" Probably not. Craig Evans, a real New Testament scholar (and one of my favorites), "professor of New Testament at Acadia Divinity College, in Nova Scotia, says he suspects Mr. Aslan took too literally the metaphors and even hyperbole intended by Gospel writers who had Jesus say he came with sword, not peace. Much of the force of Mr. Aslan's account lies in his rich prose—he startlingly evokes, for example, the putrid smell from constant animal sacrifices in the Temple of Jerusalem. Mr. Evans sees Zealot less as a contribution to scholarship, however, than as a "personal interpretation" informed by "some of the scholarly literature.""
Today's nytimes has Ross Douthat's "Return of the Jesus Wars." [I like Douthat a lot, and much enjoyed his recent book Bad Religion.] I, for one, am glad for this, because the one I believe to be God-come-to-humanity is again and as usual on center stage. There simply is no more historically interesting and relevant individual than Jesus of Nazareth. Hence - another book on Jesus rises to #1. 

There's nothing new that Aslan gives us. Douthat writes: "Aslan’s book offers a more engaging version of the argument Reimarus made 250 years ago. His Jesus is an essentially political figure, a revolutionary killed because he challenged Roman rule, who was then mysticized by his disciples and divinized by Paul of Tarsus."

(Douthat refers to the now-notorious (and to some scandalous) Fox News interview with Aslan. See the transcript here.)

William Lane Craig has responded to Aslan's book here. Bill says:
  • “Aslan has offered nothing new under the sun when it comes to offering a critique of the historical Jesus,” Craig said in response to Aslan’s book. “In fact, he is attempting to revert scholarship back to the early 1900s by echoing Albert Schweitzer’s book, The Quest for the Historical Jesus. Like Schweitzer, Aslan claims that Jesus is historically unknowable and we can never get back to the real Jesus.”
  • “Additionally, Aslan makes an illicit, anachronistic allusion to Jesus and the Zealot party of the Jewish people. During Jesus’ lifetime, the designation of zealot merely referred to a person who was politically a nationalist and 'zealous' for Jewish independence. According to many scholars, it would be stretching it to claim that Jesus, or any of the zealots of Jesus’ time, were members of the official Zealot nationalist party, which wasn’t organized until A.D. 67/68.”

In general it's not cool to criticize a book until you have read it. Yet after reading Aslan's own statements about his book, and several reviews of it, the question for me is: to read or not to read? Surely I would never read it to learn anything new or different or illuminating about the historical Jesus. If, in the fall, many of my philosophy students are reading it [which will not be the case], then I may pick it up. So right now the answer is: no.