[NOTE TO READERS: This blog attempts to make lemonade out of a lemon, or what appeared to be one. I had not intended to read Reza Aslan’s “Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth.” Because of my membership and participation in the now-defunct Jesus Seminar, a certain local Ph.D. invited me to attend a discussion group on this controversial book. I read it twice in preparation. I could not attend the group’s meeting, decided to put my views in writing so as not to have wasted my effort, then could attend the group’s next meeting. The material result of my intervening effort is this long blog, part review of Aslan’s book, part exposition of my views on the subject and its status in current Christian thinking and behavior. I cannot imagine that many readers will agree with my agnostic and often amphoteric views, but then I do not write to secure agreement so much as to prompt thinking or re-thinking about serious issues.
This occasion seems an appropriate one to confess my faith, such as it is, though it is and should be irrelevant to a judgment of my views. (Lest I seem naive, I hasten to add that I do understand that the undisciplined cannot distinguish ideas from the individual holding them--no “devil’s advocate” for them. A small part of my blog addresses this point.) I am neither affiliated nor observant, but I am religious according to my lights as a classical (i.e., 1885 Pittsburg Platform) Reform Jew. I was raised in an extended family of intermarriages and married a second Episcopalian after divorcing the first, who was both a second and a third cousin. So I am good with Jesus—I particularly respect the devotion of my wife and her three church-going children, one preparing for the priesthood (she is my “priest,” and I am her “rabbi”)—and have twice presented talks to Reform Jews with the deliberately provocative title “Jesus for Jews” (not to be confused with the deliberately deceptive label of Christians proselytizing the unwary in the name of “Jews for Jesus”). Why not? I am happy to embrace him as he was: a Jew.]
Reza Aslan’s book Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth is controversial. Of the common criticisms, two address the author, and one addresses his thesis, necessarily about Jesus, Christ, and Paul. These three not particularly relevant criticisms are: the author is not a Christian—Muslim as a child, fundamentalist Christian as a teenager, and Muslim again as an adult—; he is not a scholar trained in religious history; and he advances a militant, not a He-is-meek-He-is-mild-He-was-born-a-little-child, view of Jesus.
Partisan Christians opine that a Muslim cannot or should not write about anything Christian. This response is an instance of what I call “Christian exemptionalism,” by which I mean a philosophy of two tenets. One, Christians and their beliefs are entirely excused from scrutiny and judgment by non-Christians. Two, Christians are exclusively entitled to scrutinize and judge non-Christians and their beliefs.
Pretentious scholars and reviewers question his qualifications. Aslan has a varied academic background, with a degree in creative writing, two degrees in religion, and a PhD in sociology focused on the history of religion—all from quite reputable schools. He may not be the expert which academics in schools of theology may be, but he has the intelligence, background, and training to work outside the boundaries of his degrees.
Fundamentalist Christians complain that his book, like others, on the “historical Jesus” departs from the inerrant, literal truth about the life and times of Jesus which appears in the Gospels of Mark, Matthew, Luke, and John. This response makes their beliefs facts and takes differing facts as (mere) opinions, that is, verbal nothings. Fundamentalist Christians strongly disagree with, and dismiss, differing views but are unable to address them according to the ordinary rules of reasonable discussion.
An example comes from the “Articles of Faith” stated by Pensacola Christian College (http://www.pcci.edu/spirituallife/articlesoffaith.html). “We . . . believe the earth is 6,000 years old.” I do not know when this article was adopted, but I read it last year and re-read it this year. If the world was 6000 years old in 2012, it is now 6001 years old in 2013. I wrote PCC about this problem, did not hear back, and have seen no change. To such believers, even a fact about the passage of time without doctrinal implication for an article of faith about time is irrelevant: 6000 years it is, and 6000 years it will always be, however long PCC exists. Clearly, Biblical literalism gives pride of place to a faith which has little or no regard or respect for fact and logic.
These reasons for controversy about Aslan’s book are not criticisms of it. Any fair criticism must recognize it for what it is—a mixed bag. Despite some interesting insights and a solid bibliography, his book is not a work of scholarship. Aslan biases his selection of data as evidence; he includes what supports his thesis and dismisses or excludes what does not. Like fundamentalists, he knows only what he wants to know. His book vividly popularizes his view of the man and the times before, during, and after his life. It is unusual in the attention and approval, which it gives to James, known as “the Just,” brother of Jesus; it shows him as an attractive, plausible alternative to Paul. Though Aslan is not extravagant in his claims, he often exaggerates or unduly elaborates events, as in his vivid account of the ruckus at the Temple.
Anyone interested in the Jesus of history as opposed to the Christ of faith encounters many complex questions, of which I think one question paramount. What can we know? The answer is very little. First, we have no physical evidence: no bones, no grave, no nothing. Second, we have only documentary data which become “evidence” only when they are adduced and interpreted to support an explanation. The letters and Gospels in the New Testament are less help than many believe. Paul’s letters contain almost no biographical information about Jesus, probably because Paul did not know Jesus and was less interested in the historical Jesus and his ministry than in his own message about a risen Christ.
The Gospels, a word derived from the Greek for “good news,” are, the word suggests, not biographies or histories, but editorials. Although their statements purport to mirror Jesus’ words and deeds, we cannot be certain, for none of the Gospel writers knew Jesus or witnessed any part of his life and ministry. (Some believers think that the Apostles Matthew, the tax collector, and John, the beloved of Jesus, wrote the Gospels with those names. But the Gospel of Matthew dates from about 90 CE, and the Gospel of John dates from about 110 CE.) Different Apostles preaching to different populations during and after Jesus’ life included, excluded, modified, or emphasized different words and deeds attributed to Jesus. Different preachings, some probably altered more than others in repeated deliveries, led to different oral traditions. Recited and probably revised for four decades before the earliest Gospel written shortly after 70 CE, these oral traditions are the sources of the Gospels in the New Testament and of the “gospels” left out of it.
Nor could the Gospel writers escape the influences of circumstance and conviction. All lived outside Jewish Palestine, in the Roman Empire of the Mediterranean world; had greater knowledge and understanding of Hellenic than of Hebraic culture and religion; and had personal interests in, and opinions on, doctrinal and ecclesiastical issues. According to these influences, they refashioned and refurbished oral traditions (and earlier Gospels), and maybe contributed inventions of their own to serve their purposes. This medley of influences on these editorials makes it impossible to ascertain with much confidence the fidelity of quotations to Jesus’ actual words or the truth or falsity of statements about his deeds or events.
The similarities and differences among the Gospels challenge scholars to develop a cogent reconstruction of the life and times of Jesus. It may well be—I think it is—an impossibility, for one of two reasons. One, an assessment of a statement in the Gospels rests on an assessment of one or more other statements in the Gospels, in a circularity of assessments of statements, none of which is liable to confirmation independent of the Gospels. Indeed, even when a statement should be liable to such confirmation, it is conspicuously lacking. For example, the star of Bethlehem said to guide the Magi (Matthew) or shepherds (Luke) to the manger—whom did the star guide?—and the darkening of day said to occur as Jesus breathes his last on the cross—astronomical events marking his birth and death—go unrecorded anywhere else in the world, Roman or otherwise. Or, two, an assessment of any statement or story rests on one or more culture-bound assumptions about what is plausible or not, or on a holistic impression, a grandiose way to describe a guess to one’s liking. Thus, those who quest to discover the “historical” Jesus often discover him to be like themselves. Aslan’s biography is the latest, whether by scholars or popularizers, to satisfy his instincts or his interests.
Because of the difficulties of answering this paramount question, I remain largely agnostic. I disbelieve much, believe little, but believe the following: Jesus was a Jew by birth, in life, and at death. Theories about what kind of Jew he was often forget the basic fact that he was a Jew. He believed what most Jews of his day believed. He understood the Torah and other Jewish texts as did many Jewish priests and rabbis. However, he was unique in extending “the fence around the Torah” from conduct to thoughts or emotions. The Torah proscribes adultery; Jesus proscribes lascivious thoughts or lustful feelings. It proscribes murder; he proscribes anger. He might better have prescribed something a person can do, like taking a cold shower.
Throughout his ministry, Jesus placed a higher value on righteous living than on ritualistic observance. Whether the words are actually and precisely his, Jesus’ remark that “the Sabbath was made for man, and not man for the Sabbath” (Mark 2:27) reflects these priorities. Like many other Jews, he resented not only the Roman occupation, but also the Temple extortion. Although his ministry addressed mostly Jews, he accepted and emphasized the Jewish injunction to welcome and respect the “stranger,” that is, non-Jew as well as Jew. On this point, Aslan wrongly and perhaps deliberately represents Jews according to an old canard: a fanatically exclusionary cult.
A word on the resurrected Christ—always a treacherous subject from the perspective of history. The only data of His resurrection and bodily reappearances on earth after his death are reports by his Apostles or a few followers. Like the data about astronomical phenomena nowhere else reported, the data are inconsistent and evident to no others.
The difference between the Jesus of history and the Christ of theology presents both a theoretical and a practical problem. The theoretical problem arises if the mortal Jesus is irrelevant to the risen Christ. If so, no basis for distinguishing Jesus from the many other Jewish charismatic preachers, miracle workers, or would-be messiahs whom the Romans crucified exists. Recognizing Jesus as Christ and understanding his messianic intention—to die for our sins—are problematic. The practical problem arises if the moral message of Jesus’ ministry manifest in the totality of his words and deeds are supplanted by a faith which does not regard moral works as essential and necessary to salvation (sufficiency comes only with God’s grace).
What matters is the difference between the Jesus of the works of Jewish law and the Christ of faith of post-Pauline ideology. Paul repudiates Hebraic law, its works, and its claim to be a—not the—way to salvation. He replaces it with a Hellenic myth of a dying-rising man-god and a faith in Christ, His love, forgiveness of sin, and personal salvation. Paul’s Christ’s message no longer represents Jesus’ ministry, for Paul preaches a vague injunction to love God and one another, not a detailed ethics of individual conduct in a culturally and socially defined context. Freed by Paul from the specific ethical and ritualistic commandments of Judaism, Christianity easily spread to many countries and peoples. In rejecting the Hebraic law, Paul rejected its inextricable blend of burden and blessing in living righteously; and, in sparing people from specific requirements for moral conduct as well as religious ritual, Paul made faith an easy and accessible matter of credal acceptance.
Final words. The Puritans who settled America took much of their religious inspiration from the Hebrew Scriptures. Their descendants, fundamentalist Christians, still do. Protestants in this strand of Christianity express an especially high regard for the Ten Commandments—which is not to say that they are any better at obeying them than others are. I imagine that such Protestants find comfort in the idea of, if they do not always act in compliance with, these commandments as rocks of certainty and stability.
Aslan’s thesis depends on the zeal of many, if not most, Jews and most, but not all, Jewish leaders at the time. Except for the Sadducees, most priests, rabbis, preachers, miracle workers, or would-be messiahs were zealous in urging a return to the law and compliance with it. For many, righteous practice mattered less than ritual purity; for Jesus, the reverse. Today, the divide is between moral conduct and a religious creed. For all their insistence on the inerrancy of the Bible, fundamentalists have little regard for Jesus’ zealous message of care for the hungry, the sick, and the poor. Without an ethical code of conduct, as it were, many fundamentalists seem more callous than caring. Some fill the ethical void by accepting perverse preachings that Jesus wants believers happy and rich rather than charitable to the unfortunate. Others fill it by channeling their religious energies into socio-political causes like abortion, same-sex marriage, and school prayer having little, if any, connection to Christianity. At their worst, they even resist government programs to help the disadvantaged, like programs to make health care available, accessible, and affordable. The irony is that the federal government is more Christian than they, their churches, and their “Christian nation” are, and that state governments are less Christian where Christian fundamentalists are politically powerful.
More recently, mainline Christian denominations and liberal theologians, including many members of the now-defunct Jesus Seminar, have increasingly emphasized the Jewishness of Jesus. Of course, I do not disagree, but I am puzzled by the implications. The more they make Jesus out to be a Jew, the more I wonder what remains of him to be available to someone to be Christian? Perhaps they must finally disregard the historical Jewish Jesus and, like Paul, repudiate, or, like Christian fundamentalists, ignore, his Jewish teachings—an ironic twist to a modern movement which began as a repudiation of the Christian anti-Semitism which made the Holocaust possible. Perhaps the way out is for Christians to re-consider as a viable option the position of James the Just, leader of the early Jerusalem Church, which maintained both fidelity to Jewish law and faith in Jesus as the resurrected Christ.