Monday, February 3, 2014

A quick and dirty review of Reza Aslan's "Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth"

(This is a fairly brief review; for more detail, try           
     If this is your first foray into historical Jesus studies, welcome to the Wild West which is the historical quest for Jesus!  Reza Aslan’s Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth (Random House, 2013) is one of a series of popular-level books meant to reveal the “real Jesus”, stripped of later churchly embellishments and editorial agendas.  Right of the bat, you can probably see one issue:  the assumption that the Jesus we get in the Bible, and certainly the Jesus we get in the church, is automatically distanced from the actual Jesus.  There is, in other words, a distinction between the Jesus of history and the Christ of faith.                  But we’re starting on the wrong foot. First, the good: Aslan is a reasonably careful scholar and a lucid and entertaining writer.  His digressions into historical fiction are occasionally a bit melodramatic and contain their own share of inaccuracies, but when it comes to portraying the lives and times of typical peasant Jews in 1st century Palestine, he gets it mostly right and does so in an entertaining and accessible fashion.  Unusual for a popular-level book, he has some loose notes about each chapter (at the end of the book) that can guide readers to deeper reading, and the Jesus he portrays is appropriately down-to-earth.  The Jesus of much popular piety, especially among people who have never stepped foot outside a small-group Bible study or some light pastoral preaching, often seems to never touch the ground.  He may have touched lepers and shared meals with his disciples, but he was never really quite human, and always spoke with some combination of detachment and inscrutable wisdom, never a hair out of place, even while being artfully crucified. He certainly was not involved in local politics, he didn’t have any tooth decay or smelly feet, and his entire ministry could be summed up with “my kingdom is not of this world.”  Aslan does his best to eliminate this sort of Jesus early on, providing an excellent summary of the political, economic and social climate in which Jesus grew up and which was inescapable context for all his teachings and for the early church.  If you’re just looking for some historical background or a basic primer on what 1st century Palestine was like, Aslan’s book is actually not a bad place to start (though I would recommend others with less ideological baggage, such as NT Wright's Simply Jesus or Theissen’s The Shadow of the Galilean).

Aslan’s final line in Zealot is meant, I assume, to be positive and encouraging (216): “Jesus is, in short, someone worth believing in.”  It’s unclear what he could mean, however, since the final Jesus Aslan winds up with is very different than that of any historically orthodox Christian church or seminary.  His Jesus was “crucified under Pontius Pilate”, but was not “born of the virgin Mary” and certainly is not the “very God of very God” of the creed.  This is not surprising, however, since as careful a thinker as Aslan is, he starts in a very different place than anyone of a more conservative bent.  The foundational problem is not Aslan’s methodology, but the assumptions he brings to the text.  There are a number of crucial ideas that Aslan clearly believes that feed into his thesis.  They are:

  •           A distinction between the “Jesus of history” and the “Christ of faith.”  Behind this is the simple assumption that God cannot act in history.  There can be a grubby 1st century Jewish peasant being crucified, or the dying Son of God, lifted up for the salvation of the world, but you can’t have both.  Aslan is not the first to be offended by the combination of the two, but he is insistent from the beginning that they cannot in the same person.
  •          Aslan nowhere lays out a theory of history, but some things rise to the surface.  Consistent with the point above, something cannot be simultaneously meaningful and historical.  He does not, apparently, agree with the contention that all history requires some interpretation (if nothing else, in the events that are chosen to be recorded).  Rather, when an event has theological import (i.e. that Jesus calmed the storm or fed the 5000), it is illegitimate; when it has a naturalist or anti-supernatural import (that Jesus was merely a 1st century peasant Jew), it is to be assumed reliable. 
  •         Consistent with this is a persistent anti-supernaturalism.  It is one thing to adopt a methodological naturalism for the purpose of doing history: miracles are not routinely regarded as the cause of historical events.  It is a different matter, however, to say that God does not or cannot intervene in history when it suits his purposes.  Aslan seems to simply assume that miracles are impossible, though he nowhere explicitly argues this.  The resurrection, the conversion of Paul and the attribution of assorted miracles of Jesus (admitted even by his opponents, e.g. Mt 12:24, Mk 3:22) tend to be glossed over, ignored, or simply listed as mysteries we’ll never unravel.  How this approach is helpful in understanding the Christian faith or its origins, both of which are claimed by believers to be thoroughly supernatural, is not clear.
  •         Since predictive prophecy is impossible (since it is miraculous) and since Jesus is recorded as predicting the fall of Jerusalem, the gospels cannot be earlier than 70 CE.  Prior to this, according to Aslan, there were two competing schools of Christianity, a Jewish, Torah-observant, somewhat radicalized wing, and another group, mostly Gentile and headed by Paul, which was much more pacifist and other-worldly.  Anything which disagrees with this thesis is probably unreliable, if not outright propaganda according to Aslan’s method. 
  •         There tends to be a persistent assumption of intellectual and cultural superiority, what CS Lewis referred to as “chronological snobbery.”  Traditional interpretations of any event in Jesus’ life or times are to be discarded in favor of more recent re-workings.  Since occasionally these re-workings actually do make better sense of the text (e.g. that Jesus was, in fact, primarily crucified for sedition), any other re-imaginings are equally valid, not because they are supported by evidence, but because they are modern.

 All these assumptions result in a fairly consistent picture of Jesus, but are rarely supported, and tend to cause as many problems as they solve.  Indications that the “Christ of faith” was fully in play within 20 years of his death tend to be largely ignored.  Paul is dealt with by assuming that he really didn’t know anything about Jesus and had turned from a thoroughly conventional devout Judaism to found a Gentile church.  Why or how he did this is largely left unexplored.  The high Christology of his letters (which Aslan admits were written to established churches no later than the mid- 50’s) is, apparently, just an idiosyncrasy of Paul that was grasped by later Christians who sympathized with him.  The letter to the Hebrews, which both speaks of the temple in the present tense (i.e. was obviously written before 70) and talks about a divine Jesus who dies for sins, is ignored. It could be admitted, for the sake of argument, that the relationship between Peter, James and the other apostles and Paul was a bit rocky but that these two groups were founding churches with radically differing views of their founder is largely unsupported, both by evidence and by Aslan’s argument.  He simply seems to assume that Jesus could not have been extraordinary in any sense, and so the extraordinary Jesus that arose out of Paul and the post-70 church must have been the fabricated one.  As support for this, he mentions several early church fathers that wrote favorably of James and Peter, despite Paul’s split with them.  What he does not mention is that these citations are vastly outnumbered by positive views of Paul by these same authors (and high views of Jesus), but why let facts stand in the way of a good theory. 
       In the end, Jesus is a mystery.  The Jesus of history is supremely ordinary, one of a score of wannabe messiahs who gathered a following and were crucified; his followers soldiered on, apparently out of belief in his program if not his person.  The Christ of faith arose in the Gentile church, being founded by Gentile-loving Pharisee who, for reasons unknown, abandoned his heritage to found a religion.  Documents which tend to oppose this thesis are merely the result of later propagandists, while the documents (even the same documents) which argue for a radicalized rabbi Jesus support Aslan’s reading. Overall, Aslan’s view of Jesus is internally consistent.  Unfortunately, it doesn’t actually explain the available evidence, and the reader is left wondering what questions Aslan has actually answered.  

A couple other good reviews:
By NT professor Craig Evans
By historian John Dickson

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