What if Jesus looked like this?
Reza Aslan’s Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth has taken off as a cultural phenomenon. Just two weeks after Aslan’s interview on NPR’s “Fresh Air,” his interpretation of Jesus’ life and intentions has attained number one status on bestseller lists. A ridiculously hostile FOXNews interview has certainly helped. But it’s been two weeks — and as yet I cannot find a serious review by a practicing biblical scholar. This brief review amounts to my attempt to respond to the questions I’m receiving about the book from every corner.
Aslan gained wide popularity for his introduction to Islam, No god but God. I very much enjoyed my copy and still consult it. Aslan holds a PhD in sociology, but his primary scholarly emphasis involves contemporary religion. Aslan has also worked in New Testament studies, and Zealot contains references to a vast amount of literature, yet the book also betrays that he is not immersed in the literature of that field. Aslan is a spectacular writer, and his portrait of Jesus is spiritually if not intellectually compelling.
Allow me to address the common complaint that as a Muslim Aslan has no business writing a Jesus book. Aslan clearly respects and admires Jesus. That some Christians might find his claims unsettling is, well, tough, because Aslan is doing serious intellectual work. The complaints have no place in responsible public discourse.
First, Zealot has formidable strengths. Aslan has done a great deal of homework, offering material that will instruct many specialists from time to time. The most important thing Aslan accomplishes involves setting Jesus in a plausible historical and cultural context. Indeed, more of the book may involve Jesus’ contexts than direct discussion of the man himself. Someone very like Jesus could easily have existed in Roman Galilee. Aslan’s Jesus is thoroughly Jewish, passionately committed to Israel’s welfare and restoration. Aslan appreciates how Jesus’ activities amounted to resistance against Roman domination — as well as against collaboration on the part of Jewish elites. Many scholars would agree.
Any respectable portrait of Jesus must take serious account of how Jesus died, as Aslan’s does. Jesus dies as a convicted seditionist, a would-be king who finally got caught. This is a serious interpretation of Jesus’ crucifixion. Perhaps Aslan most deserves credit for his openness to the possibility that Jesus really did see himself as Israel’s messiah, or king. Far too many historians dismiss this possibility out of hand.
Many traditionalist Christians will struggle with Aslan’s handling of the Gospel stories. Maybe they don’t teach this in some churches, but Christian thought developed a great deal in the decades following Jesus’ death, a fact Aslan recognizes. I do wish he were more careful in spelling out why he finds certain Gospel traditions more historically plausible than others, but again any credible account of Jesus’ life must recognize that the Gospels do not provide direct windows into Jesus’ activities.
I would add that Aslan provides some of the most helpful discussions I have yet encountered regarding the accounts of Jesus’ healing ministry and of his resurrection. These stories represent minefields for any historical investigator. Aslan handles them with sympathy, imagination, and critical judgment.
At the same time, I have some serious reservations about Aslan’s portrait of Jesus, and I suspect that most professional biblical scholars will share some of them. First, the book contains some outright glitches, things a professional scholar would be unlikely to say. Aslan suggests there were “countless” revolutionary prophets and would-be messiahs in Jesus’ day. Several did appear, but “countless” is a bit much. Aslan assumes near-universal illiteracy in Jesus’ society, an issue that remains unsettled and hotly contested among specialists. At one point Aslan says it would seem “unthinkable” for an adult Jewish man not to marry. He does mention celibate Jews like the Essenes, but he seems unaware that women were simply scarce in the ancient world. Lots of low-status men lacked the opportunity to marry. Aslan assumes Jesus lived and worked in Sepphoris, a significant city near Nazareth. This is possible, but we lack evidence to confirm it.
Two of Aslan’s glitches, however, bear directly upon his argument. Readers of the Gospels know that Jesus often silences those who would proclaim his messianic identity. We call this phenomenon the “messianic secret.” Aslan claims that Jesus himself veiled his messianic identity in order to avoid detection by the authorities. He also claims that Jesus used coded language to promote his vision of the Kingdom of God for similar reasons. Most scholars will find these claims just silly. For example, Aslan notes that many interpreters credit the author of Mark with inventing the messianic secret as a literary device. Aslan rejects that view on the grounds that Mark’s author lacked literary skill. Mark certainly features rough Greek, but appreciation for Mark’s remarkable literary artistry stands as one of the most important scholarly findings of the past few decades. After all, how many spellbinding storytellers lack proper grammar? The misguided idea of a secretive Jesus figures importantly in Aslan’s overall argument.
I would like to conclude with a few critical but constructive observations.
First, Aslan seems to assume that Jesus’ crucifixion demonstrates that Jesus himself fomented violent sedition. That conclusion is far less obvious than Aslan admits. Crucifixion shows that the Romans regarded Jesus as a threat to public order — and they did. (See the two chapters on Jesus’ crucifixion in my Sinners: Jesus and His Earliest Followers.) However, one did not have to practice violence in order to experience Roman wrath. The Qumran community may have anticipated a holy war, but we have no evidence they ever marched out to battle. We have firm archaeological evidence that the Romans destroyed their community in 68 C.E. In other words, Jesus need not have promoted violence for the Romans to see him as dangerous.
Second, Jesus’ resistance to Rome need not have promoted violence. Aslan does a wonderful job in showing how Jesus’ “triumphal entry” amounted to a public demonstration. He demonstrates that “Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s” promotes not good citizenship but outright resistance (Mark 12:17). (I’ve written on these topics as well.) Aslan is aware of how deeply Jesus draws upon the book of Daniel — but he does not acknowledge Daniel’s main message. Daniel called forth a community of the wise who would resist their wicked rulers without employing violence. Just as the Judaism of Jesus’ day included rebels, it also featured streams of nonviolent resistance. That is where most scholars locate Jesus.
Third, Aslan is almost surely correct that Jesus was a faithful Jew who observed the law of Moses. (This may surprise many Christians, but almost all scholars agree.) Perhaps Jesus was “zealous” in this sense. Yet it’s difficult to square one feature of Jesus’ ministry with the portrait of Jesus as a zealous revolutionary: the Gospels’ remarkable insistence that Jesus enjoyed the company of sinners. Matthew’s Jesus acknowledges how his circle of friends led to accusations that he was a drunkard himself (11:19), while Luke posits that sinners and tax collectors (collaborators!) actually enjoyed Jesus’ company (15:1-2). Hard to see a zealot acting like that.
Finally, Aslan seems to have bought into an outdated model of Christian development. According to that model, Jesus was a mighty prophet, but it took decades for the idea of Jesus’ divinity to take shape. Aslan imagines a Jewish Jesus tradition that developed without the trappings of a divine Jesus. It took the Hellenized Paul and his circle of Gentile converts to start the church on the path to Nicea. Paul, Aslan asserts, “created” the figure of Jesus as “Christ.”
Contemporary scholarship is undermining that familiar model. For one thing, Paul was not nearly so removed from the teachings of Jesus as Aslan assert. Paul’s connection to the Jesus movement goes back to within a couple of years of Jesus’ death, and Paul’s teachings resonate with some of Jesus’ most characteristic emphases. Moreover, we find “high christologies” — assertions of Jesus’ divinity — from the earliest stages and from beyond Paul. Daniel Boyarin, a leading Jewish biblical scholar no less, believes that Jesus saw himself as divine. (I mention Boyarin not because I agree with him but because he represents a non-Christian take on these developments.) Matthew’s Gospel, the most obviously Jewish of the four Gospels, emphasizes people worshiping Jesus. The old model that Paul “invented” devotion to Jesus the Christ, particularly devotion to a divine Jesus, simply does not hold.
Many of us who came of age during the birth of New Media are reflexively defensive about the medium’s journalistic credibility. We defy the outdated notion that real journalism is printed on paper or broadcast on TV screen. Quality journalism is as likely to be found on a blog as in a newspaper or in a web video as on a cable news channel.
At least that’s the theory.
The reality is that much of what passes for journalism on the Internet is substandard. A prime example can be found in both an interview on FoxNews.com online show Spirited Debate and the New Media responses to it.
Before we get to a clip of the show, let’s look at some of the reactions. The Atlantic Wire says the “whole ordeal was embarrassing for Fox News” while Buzzfeed called it “The Most Embarrassing Interview Fox News Has Ever Done.” “This Fox interview with Reza Aslan is absolutely demented (& he handled it with remarkable calm)” said The New Yorker’s Emily Nussbaum on Twitter. Wired’’s Steve Silberman called the interview “embarrassing” and Digg editorial director David Weiner said, “Please, please watch this if you haven’t yet. It’s amazing.”
These critics are right about the interview — it is a mess. But while these New Media journalists were snickering at FoxNews.com, they failed to notice that the person being interviewed was pulling one over on them by getting away with misrepresenting his credentials.
Here is a representative clip from the segment.
The first question by host Lauren Green on why a Muslim would want to write about Jesus isn’t as out of line as the Fox critics seem to think. It’s a fair question — a softball question — that allows the interviewee to explain away any apparent bias. But Green should have moved on after asking it and not made Aslan’s religious background the primary focus of the interview. More importantly, if she had been better prepared she could have called Aslan out for at least one blatant and seemingly undeniable untruth.
After being asked the first question by Green, Aslan responds:
Well, to be clear, I am a scholar of religions with four degrees, including one in the New Testament, and fluency in biblical Greek, who has been studying the origins of Christianity for two decades, who also just happens to be a Muslim. So it’s not that I’m just some Muslim writing about Jesus I am an expert with a PhD in the history of religions.” Later in the video he says it’s his job as a “professor of religion including the New Testament. That’s what I do for a living, actually.” And to make sure we get the point, he later adds, “I am a historian. I am a PhD in the history of religions.
At this point, Green should have stopped him and asked him to clarify since he appears to be misrepresenting his credentials.
For starters, he does not have a PhD in the history of religions. Aslan has four degrees: a Bachelors of Religious Studies from Santa Clara University; a Master of Theological Studies from Harvard Divinity School; a Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing from the University of Iowa; and a PhD in sociology of religions from the University of California, Santa Barbara (his dissertation was on “Global Jihadism: a transnational social movement”).
Why would Aslan claim he has a PhD in history when his degree is in sociology? Does he not understand the difference between the two fields of study?
Aslan also claims that he has a degree in the New Testament. But is this true? Santa Clara doesn’t offer a degree in the New Testament so he can’t be talking about his Bachelors. Perhaps he is referring to the Master’s of Theological Studies degree he earned from Harvard Divinity School in 1999. That school does offer an “area of focus” in “New Testament and Early Christianity.” Is Aslan claiming this was his degree’s area of focus at Harvard? (If so, this would make his claim about having a “degree in New Testament” misleading, at best.)
While this is a possibility, it raises the question of how — armed with only a Master’s degree with a focus on the New Testament — he became the first full-time professor of Islam in the history of the state of Iowa. According to his own bio, in August of 2000, Aslan was named Visiting Professor of Islamic Studies at the University of Iowa. While there he “taught courses in Introduction to Islam, Gender and Human Rights, and Religion and Politics in the Middle East, as well as supervising theses in the Israeli/Palestinian conflict, the Women’s Movement in Iran, and Gender Violence Laws in Pakistan.”
Why would Iowa hire someone with an MTS focused on the New Testament to teach only classes on Islam?
The same bio notes that in 2003, “Aslan left his post at the University of Iowa to concentrate full-time on writing.” From there he became a fellow at the University of Southern California Center on Public Diplomacy and then moved to the University of California at Riverside, where he is an associate professor of creative writing. He is also a visiting professor at Drew University, where he has taught “Religion and Politics in the New Middle East” and a course “on the art of protest in the Middle East, examining protest literature, film, art and music.”
When exactly has Aslan taught classes on the New Testament? And as a scholar, has he published peer-reviewed academic articles on Jesus?
Aslan’s book should not be dismissed because it was written by a Muslim. But in making untrue claims about his credentials he raises questions about his credibility. It also raises the question of how often so-called experts and authorities with no real expertise or authority on a subject are presented by New Media outlets as representative “scholars.”
Maybe if these journalists spent less time mocking the gaffes of their competitors and more time vetting the so-called “experts” we wouldn’t have to listen to people snicker about the credibility of online media.
Addendum: Before anyone asks, let me clarify why I think the misrepresentation is significant. Aslan is not presenting himself as an “amateur historian” like David McCullough; he is claiming to be an academic historian with a doctorate degree in history. Most academic historians as well as academic sociologists would take offense at the idea that a “sociology of religions” degree and a “history of religions” degree are interchangeable.
ELSEWHERE: Is Reza Aslan’s “Zealot” As Revolutionary As It Seems To Be?
I’m sure you’ve seen by now links to the recent Fox interview with author Reza Aslan regarding his new book about Jesus titled Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth. However, according to The American Conservative‘s Alan Jacobs, the real news should be that Aslan’s views are not nearly as new or revolutionary as they seem. Or, as Jacobs puts it, “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.”