The Gospel Coalition

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.

False Dilemmas


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.

Cosmic Flattening


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.


Comments:

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[...] Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth by Reza Aslan. Whenever a book on the life of Christ becomes #1 on the New York Times bestseller list it is important to find out what it claims. To say I was disappointed would be an understatement. The book goes to great lengths to undermine Jesus’ divinity and turns him into a frustrated zealot whose warlike desires were ultimately thwarted. The author’s selective exegesis is truly astounding in its scope, picking only parts of the gospels that support his position and ignoring those that don’t. I do not recommend this book. For a couple of excellent critiques read John Dickson and Darrell Bock. [...]

[...] of the three decades long debate, defense and resurgence of doctrine of the cross in the SBC. ) Evaluating Reza Aslan’s Portrayal of Jesus: Can it Be Trusted (Darrell Bock—-good review of a “very old” new book with little historical value [...]

Credo Magazine » Credo’s Cache

August 16, 2013 at 02:02 AM

[...] When Scholarly Skepticism Encounters Jesus Christ: By Darrell Bock – This is the best review that I have read so far on Reza Aslan’s controversial book, Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth.  Bock points out that: “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.” [...]

Joseph

August 14, 2013 at 10:47 AM

Just like the DaVinci Code and other works, Zealot will probably be taken by the secular world as fact and truth. Nothing new, just merely a new spin on an old story. There is no faith or Holy Spirit at work here. Aslan has some historical facts correct but aside from that, where does his insight and authority come from in his opinion of Jesus. The Bible and God' s word has been around for thousands of years despite the best intentions of some men to destroy it. Where will Aslan's book be in a year or two? Great article. identityfulfilled.com
PS. Good comment Johnny. He will not be writing about Mohammad if he wants to keep his head on his shoulders.

Michael Snow

August 13, 2013 at 10:00 AM

It should also be noted that Aslan is not an historian but "an Associate Professor of Creative Writing."

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August 13, 2013 at 04:03 AM

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Joe Carter

August 13, 2013 at 02:20 PM

***Pointing out that he teaches Creative Writing is a Fox-News-level red herring with regards to his credentials.***

But that is his most relevant credential. Aslan does not have a PhD that focuses on the "history of religion." He has a PhD that focuses on the "sociology of religion" (his dissertation was on global jihadism). A number of scholars -- most on the academic left -- have pointed out that he often misrepresents his credentials. For example:

http://www.thenation.com/article/175688/reza-aslan-historian#

http://jewishreviewofbooks.com/articles/449/reza-aslan-what-jesus-wasnt/

http://www.abc.net.au/religion/articles/2013/08/09/3822264.htm

John

August 13, 2013 at 01:52 PM

I obviously disagree with Dr. Aslan's treatment of Jesus Christ, because I belief Jesus to be the son of God portrayed in the Bible. However, disagreement doesn't justify misrepresenting people. Speaking to the comment above by Michael Snow, it should be noted that while Reza Aslan is indeed an Associate Professor of Creative Writing, he has a BA in religions, a Master of Theological Studies degree, an MFA in fiction, and PhD in Sociology, focusing on the history of religion. Pointing out that he teaches Creative Writing is a Fox-News-level red herring with regards to his credentials.

It should come as no surprise that non-Christian historians don't affirm Jesus as the Bible presents Him, especially those who don't believe in God. The task of the historian is to present what most likely happened, and to most historians miracles are, by definition, the opposite of likely. Hence why so much about Jesus' life--His miraculous works, His divinity--are brushed away by many historians.

Michael Snow

August 12, 2013 at 11:17 AM

Most Christians will probably not be familiar with John The-Dogs-Ate-the-Bones Crossan, but we ought to be more familiar with the context of Paul's teaching in which Paul, following Jesus' teaching, rejects the way of the Zealots.
http://textsincontext.wordpress.com/2012/05/31/romans-13-in-context-sword-pacifism/

Ken Abbott

August 12, 2013 at 10:11 AM

Perhaps I'm being Captain Obvious, but the recurrent theme I see as I've read various accounts of Aslan's work and the apologetics of some of his supporters/defenders is simple unbelief. Unbelief in the historical reliability of the gospel accounts, unbelief in the inspiration of the New Testament, and, at basis, unbelief in the person and work of Jesus Christ as revealed in the Scriptures and realized in the lives of all those who put their trust in him.

Johnny Appleton

August 12, 2013 at 08:32 AM

Wonder why we never see a flood of a books about the historical Mohammad or the historical Buddha....?

[…] Response form Dr. Darrell Bock, research prof. of New Testament at Dallas Seminary […]