When Scholarly Skepticism Encounters Jesus Christ
I've been reading and writing about historical Jesus books for more than 30 years. Every now and then a volume or project comes along that catches the imagination of the public, sells well, and generates much discussion. Think of the Jesus Seminar or The DaVinci Code. Works like these have the same features: they present a "fresh" take on Jesus, tell you the Gospels cannot be trusted, appeal to what certain scholars say about the Gospels, pick and choose from the data they contain, and then tell us the Jesus of history was either a prophet (a dime a dozen), a miracle worker (a dime a dozen in the ancient world), someone whose goal was to overturn Rome (a goal that failed), or some combination. The disciples, faced with the dilemma of failed hope, went cosmic and created a resurrected Jesus (an idea with no precedent). Then they convinced the world it was so with the now-created Christ Jesus.
Reza Aslan and those like him claim the Christ of the church is a very different figure than the Jesus of history. The really creative theological work came later from his disciples, they say. These creative disciples were even willing to die for the fabricated rescuing of this lost hope. It's a great storyline for a culture that often doesn't want to hear about unique religious claims, but it's hardly a credible story to explain the origins of the Christian faith and the history tied to Jesus.
Into this genre fits Aslan's Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth. Though a well-written narrative with relevant first-century background to the Jesus history, the book rejects the Gospels and relies on one side of the scholarly conversation. So what Aslan presents as likely history is really but one debated reconstruction of who Jesus was and is. It's just one picture of how Jesus of Nazareth got to be the Christ of God.
When I read these popular works, I don't see a new portrait of Jesus, but one using old theories to argue the Jesus of history is different from the Christ of the Gospels. In Aslan's case, I see a mix of John Dominic Crossan and S. F. G. Brandon's works on Jesus—putting the carpenter from Nazareth far more in a social and political realm than in one focused on spiritual needs as well. What seems new and revealing, then, is really one presentation among many. Such presentations have been out there for some time—and on some points for a few centuries. The excitement about a fresh take on Jesus is more hype than substance.
To reach his portrait, Aslan assumes the Gospels are more about constructive theology than history. Note the common skeptical "either/or" wrapped up in this construct. We cannot entertain the possibility that theology and history go together. We cannot understand that what motivated the disciples to face death was a set of unique claims. Perhaps what Jesus taught motivated them to proclaim the good news about Jesus to a skeptical and often hostile audience. Why else would this Jesus movement that theoretically works with common themes from the ancient world go to a place none of those other religious or political movements ever went?
Aslan sees Jesus' miracle-working as a common feature of the period. On this topic he correctly acknowledges that everyone at the time saw Jesus in this light. Everyone agreed Jesus was performing startling deeds. Even Jesus' opponents noted his reputation as a wonder-worker, and the Jews who rejected him claimed his power was malevolent but real. But Aslan leaves out key details of the debate over how to interpret these works. Aslan's appeal to Apollonius of Tyana ignores the fact that sources for his work come from more than a century later and that some of his miracles are described in ways that make his actions less than miraculous. For example, when Apollonius is said to raise someone from the dead, his biographer suggests he actually recognized the person wasn't yet dead.
Aslan also fails to note a key distinction in the portrayal of how Jesus heals versus other miracle workers of the period. Rather than using some formula of special words or prayer to invoke God or the gods to heal, Jesus in most miracles acts directly, showing himself to be what sociologists have described as a "bearer of numinous power" rather than a mere mediator of or petitioner for it. Though such discussions about the uniqueness of Jesus' miracles exist in scholarly literature, you would never know it based on Aslan's one-sided presentation.
Aslan further misreads eschatology on the kingdom of God as well as Jesus' kingdom teaching, arguing Jesus merely taught about God's rule what other prophets had already said. Actually, Jesus taught about a new reality—the long-promised and hoped-for Messiah appearing in fulfillment of promises to carry out God's program. Aslan correctly notes Jesus hardly used the term "Messiah" in his public teaching, but that was due to misconceptions around the term—especially given his messianic path involved suffering. Jesus revealed his credentials through his actions, as his response to John the Baptist's query shows (Luke 7:18-23). "To see who I am," Jesus essentially replied, "look at what I am doing."
Aslan represents the typical mistake of stepping away from or rejecting things in the Gospels' portrait of Jesus that made and still make him unique. Is his preaching of the kingdom a revolution to replace Rome? Hardly. Jesus doesn't seek to form an army of any sort against Rome; he has a different, cosmic opponent in view. To be sure, there's an earthly kingdom aspect to Jesus' teaching, and on that point Aslan is correct. However, a text Aslan cites makes the very point he's trying to avoid: "If I cast out demons by the finger of God, then the kingdom of God has come upon you" (Luke 11:20). Jesus' words here are in the context of exorcism. His battle is aimed at more transcendent foes. He primarily has in view not Rome, but Satan.
Litany of Problems
Aslan claims the original command to love neighbor was only internal and about fellow Jews, but this argument ignores Jesus' exposition using a Samaritan as the example of love (Luke 10:25-37). Moreover, Aslan claims sonship and the Jewishness of Jesus don't go side by side, but this is an "either/or" that's really a "both/and." It ignores what interpreters of Jesus—both skeptical and conservative—have said: Jesus presented himself as the center of hope and of promise to Israel with a uniquely Jewish sense of God as his personal Father.
The violence Aslan sees Jesus advocating isn't about a war he hopes to generate with Rome but about a judgment that will come for rejecting God. Jesus never gives evidence of raising an army for the political battle Aslan describes. So why suggest this was his intent?
Additionally, Aslan contends the use of "Son of Man" is unique to Jesus. However, as James Charlesworth of Princeton and I (along with others) have demonstrated, 1 Enoch was available and circulating at the time of Jesus' ministry. Once again, Aslan fails to even acknowledge scholars on the other side of his argument. He also errs in claiming Jesus didn't establish the kingdom he proclaimed. This misses the point of Jesus' explanation about how the kingdom comes—with him vindicated at God's right hand (Mark 14:60-65). The rule Jesus has in mind has cosmic roots. This is a scene I've defended elsewhere in a detailed monograph.
Further, Aslan claims New Testament Christology is a late first-century development, but this ignores the Christology of Paul—which predates by decades Aslan's dating of the Jewish war with Rome and relevant Jewish texts. Pauline Christology begins in the 30s with Paul's conversion to an exalted Christ, not in the 70s to 90s.
Truth and Zeal
Suffice it to say, Zealot is yet another modern reconstruction of Jesus. It is not fresh and new, as it claims to be, but reflects longstanding debate. That debate is between those skeptical about the Gospels' portraits of Jesus and those who see them as complementary pictures of Jesus as he was and is. Our culture is attracted to cases against the Gospels' credibility, which explains the popularity of Aslan's book and others like it. It's not at all clear, however, that Aslan understands the history of Jesus better than the Gospel writers did. It's not even clear that the scholarly consensus he claims to represent stacks up on his side of the debate.
There are good reasons to suspect the Jesus of history was directly responsible for being confessed as Christ. It was zeal for Jesus' person that drove the earliest disciples to preach him as unique. This is something the disciples not only thought about but also experienced—even to the point of being willing to die for what they knew to be true. Zeal for Jesus arose from his own claims about what God was accomplishing through him.