Reviewing Reza Aslan’s Jesus

My friend and fellow Sydneysider, historian John Dickson (Centre for Public Christianity), has written a review of Reza Aslan’s controversial recent book, Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth (New York: Random House, 2013). In short, John isn’t a fan of Aslan’s method, content, or conclusions. Here’s a sprinkling of comments from John’s review:

John Dickson

The mismatch between Aslan’s grandiose claims and his limited credentials in history is glaring on almost every page.

In order to move from the bleeding obvious (that some Jews were freedom-fighters) to the utterly implausible (that Jesus was one of them), Aslan takes several false steps, all of which involve as much creativity as history.

…there is the exaggerated depiction of Jesus’s homeland as a place brimming with insurrection and crazed prophets of doom. Scholarship over the last four decades, ever since Martin Hengel’s seminal work, has concluded that “zealotry” in Palestine was a limited, if contiguous, set of movements through the first half of the first century.

…countless scholars from within the relevant disciplines are amply satisfied that there are straightforward explanations of the fact that Jesus of Nazareth ended up on a Roman cross. And none of them involves trampling on the range of evidence in our possession that Jesus eschewed violence on behalf of the kingdom of God.

Finally, the list of exaggerations and plain errors in Zealot bear testimony to Aslan’s carelessness with concrete history.

The review was published by the ABC, and can be accessed HERE.

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3 thoughts on “Reviewing Reza Aslan’s Jesus

  1. I came across Reza Aslan’s book, and Dickson’s critique of it, only recently – hence this delayed reaction. Let me say, first off, that I am amazed at the superciliousness, with which, from the height of his Macquarie Ph.D. in ancient history, Dickson comments on Aslan’s qualifications. Oh he has just got a Ph.D. in the sociology of religion has he? Quite apart from the fact that sociology and history overlap to a far greater extent than Dickson seems to be aware of he remains mute about Aslan’s earlier qualifications: a B.A. in religious studies from Santa Clara University and an M.A. in Theological Studies from the Harvard Divinity School – qualifications that, to my mind, compare rather favourably with what Dickson has to offer on this point. Aslan also claims to be fluent in biblical Greek – can Dickson make a similar claim? Just asking.
    There is another point to be made here. Is an academic’s scholarly persona forever defined by his Ph.D. work, an affair of, on average, some three years? Aslan claims to have worked on this subject for twenty years!
    Finally, to attack an author and his work by referring to his formal academic qualifications is, of course, a form of the “genetic fallacy”.
    So let us drop this silly topic and focus on Dickson’s actual critique. I find that it has been unduly praised, particularly by people who noted, with obvious relief, that an unwelcome heterodox view had apparently been knocked out of the field by one of their own. A genuine expert in the field, Greg Cary, Professor of New Testament Studie at Lancaster Theological College, has reacted far more generously to the book than Dickson could bring himself to. He wrote:”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.

    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.”
    Of course Cary finds things to criticise as well but not in the niggling fashion of Dickson.
    Nobody seems to have taken the trouble to submit Dickson’s critique to critical scrutiny. I propose to do so in what follows. His remarks are preceded by a D., mine by a B.

    D. Exaggerating the historical context

    And what of these crazy prophets of doom we hear about? Were they popping up behind every fig tree and olive grove? As evidence, Aslan cites the ancient Greek intellectual Celsus who tells us of untold numbers of holy men in Jesus’s day declaring:
    “I am God, or the servant of God, or a divine spirit. But I am coming, for the world is already in the throes of destruction. And you will soon see me coming with the power of heaven.”
    This quotation appears on the first page of his book and has been quoted in at least two of Aslan’s media appearances that I have seen. It seems to be important. As history, it is a crock.
    For starters, Celsus is almost certainly exaggerating and very probably lying. No one thinks a Jewish prophet of this period (or any period) would declare “I am God” or “I am a divine spirit” – not even Jesus is quoted as saying that! But even if we imagined that Celsus spoke sincerely and accurately, his tract against the Christians, from which this quotation comes, was written around AD 180, one hundred and fifty years after Jesus.
    How can this be trusted? Aslan invites suspicion about the Gospels, written 40-70 years after Jesus, and about Paul’s letters, written 20-30 years after him. Here, he expects us to take seriously a piece of anti-Christian apologetic written outside of Palestine a century-and-a-half after the fact. Coming as it does on the first page, this quotation does not inspire confidence.

    B. This is somewhat disingenuous. Aslan is not citing Celsus as direct “evidence” . He refers to this particular passage as a “caricature” and “farcical” (p.XXIII). Elsewhere he refers, in a different context, to Celsus’ writing as “ so clearly polemical that it cannot be taken seriously”(A. p.36). But most caricatures contain a kernel of truth.

    D. Reza Aslan agrees that the Temple incident precipitated Jesus’s arrest, but he interprets it in an almost Sunday school fashion, as an act of violence and a direct challenge to Rome. But a clear consensus of scholarship reads the temple incident not as an act of violence or an attack on Rome (or even the Temple) but as an “enacted parable” or “prophetic sign” in the tradition of Jewish prophets centuries before Jesus.

    B. Even if Dickson is right here the point is not how Jesus or his Jewish environment saw it but how the Romans regarded it. There was an attack on the authority of the temple priests here and thus, indirectly, also an attack on the Romans’ authority. The Jewish historian Paul Winter has argued that the Sanhedrin was the executive organ of the Roman occupation as far as the maintenance of public order was concerned. Aslan refers here (p.245) to Craig Evans who has argued that the temple cleansing could not have been understood in any other way than as an act “of profound political significance” (in Evans, Jesus and his contemporaries, Brill, Leiden 1995). Moreover the temple cleansing had been preceded by Jesus triumphal entry into Jerusalem on a donkey. Aslan notes (p.243) that Solomon, Absalom and David also did so in connection with their kingly aspirations. He refers here to David Catchpole’s chapter entitled “The “Triumphal” Entry” in Bammel and Moule (eds.) Jesus and the Politics of His Day Cambridge UP 1984. Aslan finally refers (p.247) to the “titulus” above Jesus’ head as the indication of the crime he was suspected of. Dickson’s trouble here seems to me one more instance of “a classic case of scholars refusing to accept an obvious reality that does not fit into their preconceived Christological conceptions …” (Aslan p.245)

    D.Evidence and conspiracy theories

    Evidence and conspiracy theories
    A third problem with Aslan’s revival of Reimarus’s thesis is that no one seems to have remembered it. There is not a scrap of real evidence that any Christian traditions – any traditions at all – recalled Jesus urging rebellion toward Rome. Where are the stray sayings of Jesus that imply insurrection? Where are the hints in Josephus or Tacitus? There is simply nothing.
    Aslan thinks he finds a hint in Matthew 10:34, the opening quotation of the book: “Do not suppose that I have come to bring peace to the earth. I did not come to bring peace, but a sword.” Quoted on its own and put on the lips of some other first-century figure, this might read like a call to arms. But I would wager my annual book allowance that 99.9% of specialists in the field would echo Ulrich Luz, perhaps the leading authority on the Gospel of Matthew today, that “our saying does not reveal a revolutionary Jesus. The immediate context, vv. 35-36, makes this interpretation impossible.” In this passage, Jesus is speaking in classic Jewish imagery of the dividing lines his message will bring among families. This is exactly what the following verses go on to say. But by ignoring evidence that doesn’t fit and stretching evidence so that it appears to fit, Aslan is able to make the “impossible” a reality: the sword statement, he assures us, is a relic of an earlier revolutionary Jesus.

    B. Well, Dickson’s book allowance would certainly reach to buy one of those modest Pelican Gospel Commentaries, for instance that by Fenton on Matthew. Fenton notes that the word “sword” “had been used metaphorically in the Old Testament of war and death”. Aslan makes the rather obvious point that the beatitudes, like other millenarian promises, have their reverse side. “But that also means that when the Kingdom of God is established on earth, the rich will be made poor, the strong will become weak, and the powerful will be displaced by the powerless” (A. p.119). How was a reversal of the prevailing order going to be brought about? That sword looks in this context rather ominous.

    D.Litany of errors
    Finally, the list of exaggerations and plain errors in Zealot bear testimony to Aslan’s carelessness with concrete history. If this were presented as a work of fiction, there would be no shame in such oversights. But if this were handed in as an essay in an Ancient History Department, it would most likely fail, not just because of the numerous inaccuracies, but because of the disturbing confidence with which they are habitually stated.
    Aslan repeatedly calls revolutionary leaders of the first century “claimed messiahs,” when this crucial term hardly ever appears in our sources and certainly not in the contexts he is claiming.

    B.Which sources? His historical sources or other scholarly writings? As far as the former are concerned: does a scholar have to gear his vocabulary to what he finds there? Isn’t he supposed to dwell on a level above that? As far as sources in the sense of other historical writings are concerned: Aslan refers here to contributions by Horsley and by Horsley and Hanson. The term “ claimed messiahs” or “false messiahs” is unlikely to be so unknown there as Dickson suggests. Wikipedia even has an entry “messiah claimants”.

    D. Aslan pontificates on questions such as Jesus’s literacy (or illiteracy, in his judgment) with a cavalier style that does not represent the complexities involved.

    B. He is not merely “pontificating”. He has got reasons and references and if Dickson had bothered to read the end notes (has he?) he would have found them. A.says that “No inscriptions have been found in Nazareth to indicate that the population was particularly literate. Scholars estimate that between 95 and 97 percent of the Jewish peasantry at the time of Jesus could neither read nor write. On that point see Crossan, Historical Jesus, pp.24-26” (Aslan, p.227). Aslan also notes that there are scholars who hold the opposite view, for instance Meier (a scholar whom he otherwise holds in high regard) who believes that Jesus was not illiterate but also provides an account of the debate on both sides of the argument (Aslan, p.233).

    D. He rushes to dismiss some Gospel passages as “fabulous concoctions” while accepting others as “beyond dispute” – and the only rhyme or reason I can detect is whether a passage fits with the story he wishes to tell.

    B. If one accuses a scholar of “errors”, or even a “litany of errors” no less, then one should at least provide clear examples.

    D.He informs us that Mark’s Gospel says “nothing at all about Jesus’s resurrection,” overlooking the plain narrative signals of Mark 14:28 and 16:7.

    B.I have been unable to find the quote as Dickson gives it. What Aslan does say on this point about Mark is that “There are no resurrection appearances” (p.XXVII) and “there is no resurrection appearance … in the gospel of Mark” (p175). These statements are of course quite compatible with Mark 14:28 and 16:7.

    D.He declares that Mark’s portrayal of Pilate’s prevarication over the execution of Jesus was “concocted” and “patently fictitious.” We are told that this Roman governor never baulked at dispatching Jewish rabble-rousers. This overlooks the widely-discussed evidence that Pilate did precisely this just a few years earlier with some Jewish leaders from Jerusalem.

    B. What seems to be the case is that during Pilate’s ten years as Roman governor he frequently sent his soldiers into the street to slaughter those accused of riotous behaviour, that he sent thousands of Jews to be crucified without trial, in Agrippa I’s letter to the Emperor, quoted by Philo, there is furthermore talk of ruthless harshness, cruelty, corruption, greed etc. He was ultimately sent back to Rome by Vitellius, the praetor of Syria, to be called to account there. It would have been helpful if Dickson had provided some more specific information on the “considerate” Pilate. I suspect that the term “widely discussed” means that he read it somewhere.

    D. Weirdly, Aslan says in passing that the letters of Paul make up “the bulk of the New Testament.” In fact, they represent only a quarter.

    B. Talking about petty criticism, anyway the more precise figure is 38 % including Hebrews (source: Daily Study Bible); so Dickson is about as far from that on the low end as Aslan is on the high end.

    D. He dates the destruction of Sepphoris near Nazareth to the period of the tax rebellion of AD 6, when in fact this city was destroyed by Varus a decade earlier in the troubles following Herod’s death in 4BC.

    B. I don’t know where Dickson got this from. Aslan mentions two dates: 4 B.C.(p.39) and 6 B.C. (p.235)

    D. He says that the traditions of John the Baptist were passed around in writing in Hebrew and Aramaic throughout the villages of Judea and Galilee. This is baseless.

    B. In spite of a most intensive search I have been unable to find this. Dickson should have backed up his accusations with specific page references, talking about carelessness …

    D. He claims that Stephen, the first Christian martyr, was from the Hellenistic diaspora (and was therefore liable to fall for the un-Jewish perversion of Jesus’s message he heard in Jerusalem). This is pure invention, and overlooks the fact that many Greek-speaking Jews like Stephen lived in Jerusalem for generations. They even had their own Greek-speaking synagogues.

    B. Aslan bases himself here on Acts 6 where Stephen is mentioned as the leader of the group of seven “Hellenists” appointed by the apostles after the conflict between “Hebrews” and “Hellenists”. Since the conflict was apparently about the distribution of food it seems plausible that diaspora Hellenized Jews, and not the long settled ones, were those with the complaints and that one of them, Stephen, was put at the head of the relevant committee. Aslan refers here to Marie-Eloise Rosenblatt, Paul the Accused, Liturgical Press 1995 (A.p.271), Martin Hengel, Between Jesus and Paul , Eugene, 1983, and Marcel Simon, Stephen and the Hellenists in the Primitive Church, New York 1958 Aslan p.277). I don’t see why Dickson’s assumption that Stephen belonged to a group that had since long settled there is any less of a “pure invention” than Aslan’s contrary view – probably more so.

    D. Aslan’s claim that “the disciples were themselves fugitives in Jerusalem, complicit in the sedition that led to Jesus’s execution” is disproven by the complete absence of evidence for any Roman attempt to arrest the followers of Jesus. Indeed, this is one of the reasons specialists remain confident Jesus was never viewed as the leader of a rebel movement.

    B. Well, the two James’s came to a violent end in Jerusalem and the missionary zeal of the others, who all came to a violent end elsewhere, might also have had something to do with their threatened position in Jerusalem.

    D. Aslan avers that even Luke, a Pauline “sycophant,” avoids calling Paul an “apostle” since only the twelve bear the title that Paul so desperately tried to claim for himself. In fact, Luke happily calls Paul and his colleague Barnabas “apostles” (Acts 14:14).

    B. Dickson knows perfectly well that there are good reasons for Aslan’s statement but such is his eagerness to find fault that he had to bring this up. For the good reasons see, inter alia, Sheila E.McGinn: “If Luke wanted to show that Paul and Barnabas were apostles, why would he repeat the criteria for apostleship at the beginning of his work (1:21f) when he knew that they could not meet those criteria? Or, why would he not explain to us that they could meet the criteria, rather than relating a story which proves that they cannot (ch. 8-9)? A compunction for relating historical facts is certainly not common enough throughout Luke-Acts to be the case here. There must be a reason why Paul and Barnabas are called apostles at those two, and only those two, times in the work. There are no other instances where Luke-Acts ascribes the title “apostle” to anyone outside of the Twelve.”

    D. Almost everything Aslan says about Paul and his place in ancient Judaism and Christianity is either wildly exaggerated or plainly false.

    B. Well, if Dickson’s prime exhibit of that was just provided here one can’t have great expectations of the rest.

    D I could go on, but it would begin to look impolite.

    B. Not impolite, even more petty.

    D.Damaging history
    The most disappointing thing about the fanfare accorded to a book like Zealot is not that it will undermine the Christian faith (it will not); even less that it poses a challenge to the consensus of working scholars (it certainly does not). It is that it chips away at the public’s confidence in history per se.

    B.This is really a “chutzpah”. It is crystal clear that Dickson himself is too much shackled by the preconceptions about who Jesus was and what he did to inspire confidence in any one except in those who are similarly shackled.

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