Tuesday, July 30, 2013

Aslan vs. the Lion of Judah

I received a hot new bestseller in the mail from Amazon yesterday afternoon, Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth, by Reza Aslan.  This book, which is ranked near the top on Amazon, attacks the credibility of the Christian story.  This puts me in happy warrior mode. ("I love the smell of napalm in the afternoon.")  Having read 30 pages of Aslan's expose so far, let's blog through it, like General Sherman through Georgia. 

The book's introduction is quite different from its prologue and first two chapters.  In the introduction, Aslan makes a series of dogmatic claims that are either assumptions, conclusions, or some combination of the two.  (It is not clear yet which of them he will provide an argument for.)  After that, Aslan settles down to describe the geo-political scenery of ancient Israel in the Roman Empire and tell his imaginatively reconstructed story, beginning with an assassination at the temple in Jerusalem in 56 AD. 

Aslan's introduction is so full of what seem to me daft claims -- less densely packed in the rest of the book, apparently -- that scrutinizing those claims will occupy us for the rest of this post. 

* In an Author's Note to begin the book -- that's three prefaces, total -- Aslan tells his own story of fleeing Iran after the Iranian Revolution, accepting Jesus at a camp in northern California, then losing his Christian faith under the pressure of scholarly study.  Rather than "burden" the reader with arguments on both sides, Aslan promises to feed his little chickadees, I mean offer his readers, only "what I believe to be the most accurate and reasonable argument, based on my two decades of scholarly research into the New Testament and early Christian history."

So we are asked to trust Aslan's authority about what is accurate and reasonable in New Testament scholarship.  But what is that authority?  It turns out that while Aslan has read some scholarly books on the subject, this alleged "two decades of scholarly research" rather exaggerates his credentials.  And of course, even people with four decades of scholar research AND publications -- which Aslan does not have, having written very little on the subject previously -- often offer crackpot theories, with which those who follow the field are painfully familiar.  So on what basis does Aslan ask his readers to just trust him?  Why should we?

In fact, Aslan offers attentive readers many reasons not to trust him, in this introduction. 

* It is almost unanimously agreed that, with the possible exception of Luke-Acts, the gospels were not written by the people for whom they are named . . .

This underlines the probable limits of Aslan's scholarship.  Many scholars in fact argue that the Gospel of John probably was written by a disciple named John, with the aid of a secretary or student.  Quite a few scholars also believe that Mark was written by a disciple of Peter's named Mark.  So apparently Aslan has mostly been reading scholars who agree with his orientation.  Indeed, the bibliography at the back of the book cites more than one book by sixteen scholars: Rudolf Bultmann, Delbert Burkett, James Charlesworth, Bruce Chilton, John Crossan, Oscar Cullman, Leon Festinger, Martin Goodman, Adolf Harnack, Martin Hengel, Richard Horsey, Werner Kelber, Gerd Ludemann, Norman Perrin, Stanley Porter, and Geza Vermes.   These are mostly respectable scholars (I have my doubts about Chilton -- his Rabbi Jesus was ghastly).  But they lean strongly in the skeptical direction.  None seem to argue strongly for an orthodox interpretation of the gospel data, as do eminent scholars whose work Aslan does not seem to read, or whose work he apparently reads much less (like Craig Evans or N. T. Wright).

So one should probably put an asterisk besides any claim Aslan makes about "scholarly consensus." 

* The itinerant preacher wandering from village to village clamoring about the end of the world, a band of ragged followers trailing behind, was a common sight in Jesus' time. 

In support of this claim, Aslan cites Celsus, who is in turn quoted by the Christian father Origen in chapters  9-11 of his Contra Celsus.   But as Origen points out, Celsus does not name the person or persons who allegedly said these things -- Origen believes Celsus is making the story up, and imagining what the ancient prophets sounded like.  Maybe so, maybe not.  In any case, can any sensible person read the gospels, and find Celsus' description a fair parallel to Jesus?

To these grand promises are added strange, fanatical, and quite unintelligible words, of which no rational person can find the meaning; for so dark are they as to have no meaning at all; but they give occasion to every fool or imposter to apply them so as to suit his own purposes.

The gospels, by contrast, are filled with unique and beautiful sayings, laden with sense, intelligence, meaning and reason that astound even humanists like Jefferson, Tolstoy, Renan, and Lin Yutang.  Are we supposed to believe that later disciples just invented the Sermon on the Mount, and other great sayings, just to disguise the fanaticism of some tin hat wandering Unabomber?  That seems to be the direction Aslan is heading. 

(Jesus) was a man of profound contradictions . . . sometimes calling for unconditional peace ("Blessed are the peacemakers for they shall be called the sons of God": Matthew 5:9), sometimes promoting violence and conflict ("If you do not have a sword, go sell your cloak and buy one;" Luke 22:36)

A book's introduction is where its author warns his readers what is to come.  These comments do indeed tip the cautious reader off to the kinds of exegetical games we might expect further on. 

Why does Aslan add the adjective "unconditional" before "peace," here?  Jesus did not say, "Blessed are those who make peace regardless of all conditions or states of affairs," which would warrant that adjective.  Neither, of course, does one "promote violence and conflict" by telling people to buy a sword: as most people understand, weapons are often used to PREVENT violence.  This is why the ancient Chinese sage Mozi, who was known for his teaching on love because God is love, was also known (as a military strategist) for arming towns against invaders. 

So Aslan is enlarging mere paradox into contradiction, here.  He seems to want his readers to think the gospels are confused about the character of Jesus, or perhaps suggest that it is arbitrary (so far as gospel texts go) whether we see Jesus as a violent revolutionary or a prophet of love.  We have dealt with those kinds of games from Hector Avalos, before.  ("Jesus Commands Hate!")  The short answer is, one should beware of exegetes who can't see a redwood forest for a single rolling tumbleweed.

The trouble with Paul, however, is that he displays an extraordinary lack of interest in the historical Jesus.

This is unwarranted.  Paul wrote letters of advice about how to live, and about church governance, to young churches.  He did not mention many facts about Jesus' life in those letters, but what is extraordinary about that?  If all we had to go on from Paul's companion, Luke, was his Acts of the Apostles, we might say the same thing about him -- Luke had an extraordinary disinterest in the life of Jesus.  John's letters and Revelations also yield precious little in terms of Jesus' baby pictures or literary reminiscences of Jesus' fishing trips with friends on the Sea of Galilee.  Yet both men also wrote gospels elsewhere, in which they do tell Jesus' life story.  The fact that an author is capable of sticking to a subject, cannot reasonably be taken as evidence that he is disinterested in other subjects.  Besides which, Paul does seem to echo Jesus' ethical teachings, along with reflecting on the account of the Last Supper, Crucifixion and Resurrection. 

With the possible exception of the gospel of Luke, none of the gospels we have were written by the person after whom they are named.

Again, to this point at least, Aslan simply asks us to believe his dogmatic statement.  Early Christians, who were closer to the facts than we are, ought I think to know better.  I check Aslan's bibliography, and find no mention of Richard Bauckham's ground-breaking Jesus and the Eyewitnesses.  Until he interacts with the arguments in that book, I frankly don't think his opinion on the subject is worth a whole lot. 

The gospels are not, nor were they ever meant to be, a historical documentation of Jesus' life.

Both statements are flatly and palpably untrue.  On the latter, consider for instance Luke's prologue:

Many have undertaken to draw up an account of the things that have been fulfilled among us, just as they were handed down to us by those who from the first were eyewitnesses and servants of the word.  Therefore, since I myself have carefully investigated everything from the beginning, it seemed good also to me to write an orderly account for you, most excellent Theophilus, so that you may know the certainty of the things you have been taught.

What would Luke have to say to make it any plainer that he intends to offer an historical account of Jesus' life?  (And John makes a similar statement.) 

As for whether those accounts actually ARE historical, I imagine Aslan is going to try to debunk that notion later in the book.  Well, fine.  That is an anvil that has worn out many hammers, as the saying goes.  I've had my say, in Why the Jesus Seminar can't find Jesus, and Grandma Marshall Could.  I see Aslan cites a few of our old friends from that book, like Marcus Borg and John Crossan. 

They are testimonies of faith composed by communities of faith and written many years after the events they describe.  Simply put, the gospels tell us about Jesus the Christ, not Jesus the man.

Another dogma Aslan is apparently going to try to defend.  (Or will he?  Or is this another fact for which he asks us to simply trust him?)  This is going to be a tough one, though.  We are going to have to forget the palpable, unforgettable humanity of the man we have encountered in the gospels, so vivid and real that even great humanists, Muslims, Hindus and Buddhists cannot help but be amazed and deeply affected.  Making us fail to see Jesus the man is going to take some powerful, bewitching magic. 

The most widely accepted theory on the formation of the gospels, the "Two-Source Theory," holds that Mark's account was written first sometime after 70 C. E. . . .

Depends on whom you let yourself read.  Many would place Mark much, much earlier. 

Mark had at his disposal a collection of oral and perhaps a handful of written traditions that had been passed around by Jesus' earliest followers for years.

The word "tradition" here always sticks in my throat.  Even if Mark wrote in 75 BC, if the disciples were younger than Jesus -- as most of them probably would have been, that's the nature of revolutionary movements -- many would still be only in their early 60s by this time.  Does one call the testimony of someone that age a "tradition," or a "report?"  The word "tradition," while "traditional" in scholarly circles, seems designed to fool readers into assuming the gap in reporting time was wider than it really was. 

Two decades after Mark, between 90 and 100 CE, the authors of Matthew and Luke, working independently of each other . . . 

That late?  Maybe Aslan is following Crossan's chronology in The Historical Jesus.  We'll see if he attempts to back up "working independently."  (Also for Aslan's casual acceptance of Q, that comes in the same paragraph.)  He does not do so in the notes to his introduction, at the end of the book.

The Synoptics . . . greatly at odds with the fourth gospel, John, which was likely written soon after the close of the first century, between 100 and 120 CE.

Again, Aslan appears to follow Crossan in this extraordinarily late dating.  But the first extant copy of a portion of John, the Rylands Library Papyrus P52, comes to us probably from just a few years past this end date.  And John is cited by Christians and Gnostics already early in the 2nd Century, at the latest.  Ignatius of Antioch, who died in 107, appears to draw from the Gospel of John.  There is even better evidence that Justin Martyr cited the Gospel of John.  Are we to imagine early Christians finding a brand new text, with the smell of fresh papyrus still on it, and saying, "Hello!  Didn't see this before!  John wrote a book?  Wonderful, let's make it the heart of the self-expression of our Christianity!" 

Greatly at odds?  Well, certainly Jesus' language is often quite different in John than in the Synoptics.  But his personality, teachings, miracles, death and resurrection are the same.  In fact, I found that John shares almost all 50 characteristics that define the canonical gospels.   Many of those traits would not have been purposely designed, but are like fingerprints or DNA left at a crime scene, showing that a unique person had been there.  (See "The Fingerprints of Jesus" in Faith Seeking Understanding.)

These, then, are the canonical gospels.  But they are not the only gospels.

Yes, they are, as I show in The Truth About Jesus and the 'Lost Gospels.'  The word "gospel" is attached to certain Gnostic texts not for descriptive purposes, but to fool people by making radically different texts sound as if they were the same kinds of thing.

I compared the "Gospel of Thomas," which is supposed to be the closest such parallel in the Gnostic canon, to the four gospels across those 50 characteristics.  Thomas shares five to seven of their traits.  I found that Thomas shared LESS in common with the gospels than even such works as China's Journey to the West or Tacitus' Agricola -- in ways relevant to the etymological meaning of the word "gospel."  Thomas is no gospel (it does not even contain "news," still less "good news"), even less are any other works in the Nag Hammadi corpus.  One might say that ship has sailed, but actually, it has been underwater for 2000 years. 

In the end, there are only two hard historical facts about Jesus of Nazareth upon which we can confidently rely: the first is that Jesus was a Jew who led a popular Jewish movement in Palestine at the beginning of the first century CE; the second is that Rome crucified him for doing so.

By my count, that's nine facts, not two.

By themselves these two facts cannot provide a complete portrait of the life of a man who lived two thousand years ago. But when combined with all we know about the tumultuous era in which Jesus lived . . . these two facts can help paint a picture of Jesus of Nazareth that may be more historically accurate than the one painted by the gospels.

We can infer, from the times, that
Ben Franklin was a semi-literate
religious revolutionary, and that
stories of his extraordinary deeds
are legendary. 
What do we need biographies for, when we have history?  The full life and works of Ben Franklin can be inferred from the fact that he helped lead a popular American movement in the 18th Century, that he died in Philadelphia, and from the tumultuous times in which he lived.

Warning: Imaginations-Run-Wild Crossing.   

A zealous revolutionary swept up, as all Jews of the era were, in the religious and political turmoil of first-century Palestine . . .

Hardly.  Most Jews of the era didn't even live in Palestine.  And many who did, were farmers or herders or fisherman, and lived their lives and died without being "swept up" in anything.  (And to be really precise, most Jews of the time didn't live past the age of five.)  So this is just empty chatter. 

Crucifixion was a punishment that Rome reserved almost exclusively for the crime of sedition.

Apparently not. 

Three rebels on a hill covered in crosses, each cross bearing the racked and bloodied body of a man who dared defy the will of Rome.  That image alone should cast doubt upon the gospels' portrait of Jesus as a man of unconditional peace almost wholly insulated from the political upheavals of his time.

Again, we get this false dichotomy, by which Aslan attempts to force his readers like sheep into a pen to be fleeced.  Aslan begin with language that begs the question.   Of course if Jesus really was a "rebel" who "defied the will of Rome," that truly would undermine any claim that he was "wholly insulated from political upheavals."  Just as if Mr. Aslan really were a lion, that would render any picture of him without fur or a tail suspicious.  But that is a question to be established, not begged.   

And (by such sharp contrast) do the gospels really portray Jesus as "a man of unconditional peace?"  Of course not.  Jesus told us that if someone strikes us on one cheek, we should turn the other cheek.  He told us to love our enemies, and pray for those who despitefully use us.  He did not instruct soldiers he met to go AWOL.  Aslan has himself already cited two gospel passages in which Jesus tells his disciples to buy swords, and saying that he did NOT come to bring peace.  Does Aslan imagine that that authors of the gospels left those sayings in by accident? 

As for "wholly insulated from the political upheavals," that is flaming nonsense.  30 AD is not 66 AD, and the gospel writers do not present Palestine at quite such an advanced stage of ferment.  But Jesus is shown as interacting with both radicals and collaborators, and is, in the end, crucified by Romans.  He was not a political rebel, but if Aslan had read more NT Wright, or the gospels themselves more attentively, he ought to realize how absurd it is to pretend his life is hermetically sealed from the great events occurring around him, or that he expressed no interest in them.  (What was that about a vineyard and unjust tenants, again?)   

Thus began the long process of transforming Jesus from a revolutionary Jewish nationalist into a peaceful spiritual leader with no interest in any earthly matter.

Again, notice that Aslan gives us only two diametrically opposed options, one of which is plainly, palpably absurd, so as to force us into the other. 

Jesus was peaceful, yes.  But only a blind man (of whom Jesus cured several, though Aslan is still waiting) could claim that Jesus therefore had "no interest in any earthly matter."  I don't need to beat this dead horse, since anyone can read the gospels for themselves and see that Jesus talked a lot about money, for instance.   

We have not even finished the introduction, and I already find myself growing tired of this man's conceits and deceits.  Let me throw the rest in a stew and cook it in one mass, so we can move on:

The task is somewhat akin to putting together a massive puzzle with only a few of the pieces in hand; one has no choice but to fill in the rest of the puzzle based on the best, most educated guess of what the completed image should look like  . . . If we expose the claims of the gospels to the heat of historical analysis, we can purge the scriptures of their literary and theological flourishes and forge a far more accurate picture of the Jesus of history.  Indeed, if we commit to placing Jesus firmly within the social, religious, and political context of the era in which he lived . . . in some ways, his biography writes itself . . . the only Jesus that we can access by historical means.  Everything else is a matter of faith.

So apparently the proper method for writing a biography of an ancient sage consists of throwing out all the earliest historical records, reasons unspecified.  Snatch a few facts out first that relate to the times, framing the rest of the story -- the parts you threw out -- in simplistic and silly terms, so your readers won't be tempted to go back to those accounts.  Read up on ancient politics and pull out a story line that, 2000 years after the fact, you find important to your two or nine (don't bother counting carefully) chosen facts.  Use whatever tidbits of history catch your fancy, to deconstruct the ancient biographies.  (Ignoring most scholarship that supports the truth of what you have dumped.) 

Then if any readers persist in believing the early records, rather than your "reconstruction," they, not you, are incorrigible faith-heads. 

Can't say we haven't been warned. 

If the Introduction is a tornado of tendentiousness, the main body of this work builds into turpitude more slowly, but with potentially more power, like a hurricane.  So storm-watchers, let's go on to the first half of the book itself. 


Crude said...

There's something grimly amusing about the claim that the gospels must be inaccurate because they were compiled perhaps decades after the events. But hypothetical reconstructions of details 2000 years after the fact based on vague and sometimes imagined data, and which expressly eschew most of the biblical data? Reliable stuff right there.

I'm also confused as to why this book rose up to such demand. Pure hype? Is this man noteworthy for something I am unaware of?

David B Marshall said...

He's a good writer. He has that Richard Carrier TM "infinite cosmic knowledge on tap for sound bites" air of bravado. I suspect girl reporters find him cute. Those are my guesses, for what they're worth.

iceknight said...

Hi there.

You said: "Greatly at odds? Well, certainly Jesus' language is often quite different in John than in the Synoptics. But his personality, teachings, miracles, death and resurrection are the same. In fact, I found that John shares almost all 50 characteristics that define the canonical gospels."

I am not aware of these 50 criteria. Could post them or at least a link to them? Thanks!

Dan H. said...

The controversy over Aslan's FOX News interview was handled went viral, which also raised his profile significantly.

David B Marshall said...

Iceknight: Welcome. This post, analyzing one of Richard Carrier's arguments in our debate, briefly lists 26 or 27 of those characteristics:

The full list, and my description and defense of them, can be found in Why the Jesus Seminar can't find Jesus, and Grandma Marshall Could. I don't recall at the moment if they are posted anywhere else, yet.

Jason Pratt said...


Everything I've ever read cited from Martin Hengel would seem to indicate he doesn't lean all that strongly in the sceptical direction. At the very least, he's much stronger on the historical value (and authorship) of the canonical Gospels than Mr. Aslan is. (I own and have read MH's The Four Gospels and the One Gospel of Jesus Christ, and I think you'd like it a lot.)

Granted, I've never gotten around to reading more by him directly, but that book was good enough I want to someday. {g}


David B Marshall said...

Jason: Fair enough; I should read him some time. My comment was a little ambiguous: I didn't mean all sixteen were skeptics, just that the list in general leaned that way. Aslan also credits John Meier in an admirable way.

If you haven't read it yet, please see my subsequent critique of the first half of the book, or the full review on Amazon.

Jason Pratt said...

Yep, read that first. {g}