For those who are not familiar with Dr. Reza Aslan (like his Fox News interviewer, apparently), he is religion scholar (1) who has published several books on terrorism, Islam, and radical Islamic fundamentalism.(2) I became familiar with Aslan when he appeared twice on The Daily Show with Jon Stewart, once in 2009 to promote his book How to Win a Cosmic War and again in 2010 to promote a different book: Beyond Fundamentalism. Both books deal with religion, globalization, and terrorism.(3)
Recently, Aslan has returned to The Daily Show, this time to promote his new book on Jesus, but not Christianity.(4) At the start of the interview, John Oliver (the interviewer) says:
“Let’s be clear, this book is about Jesus the man, not so much Jesus the Christ.”
To which Aslan responds, nodding his head in the affirmative:
“It’s about the historical Jesus, not the Christ of faith.”
The tricky thing about evaluating Aslan’s take on Jesus is that so much of what he says is exactly correct. But in the fine details, Aslan makes many critical errors that are both historical and theological. In this post, I’d like to give Aslan credit for what he gets correct, while also pointing out the mistakes he makes and offering a possible reason why he’s made them.
Who is the “Real” Jesus?
In the Daily Show interview, Aslan argues firstly that to understand Jesus—whether you are a Christian or not—you must understand Jesus’s historical, cultural context: first-century Palestine.
“[Jesus] lived in a specific time and place, and that time and place kinda matters. You know, I mean, it’s like, if you really want to know who he was, you’d have to put his words and his actions in the context of the world in which he lived. The teachings have to be seen according to the social ills that he confronted, and the political forces that he confronted.”
You’ll get no counter-argument from me. This is just plain true! To understand who Jesus was, we not only need the dogmas of the Church, but we also need the history of the Jewish people, of the Roman world, and the rest of his cultural context. One of the most important things we learn about Jesus from the New Testament evangelists is that Jesus didn’t live “long ago and far far away” but lived at a particular time in history, in a particular place in the world, as a particular man. Understanding those particularities is crucial to understanding Jesus and his Good News.
Aslan goes on to argue that, at the particular time when Jesus lived in the particular place he did (Palestine), that region was experienced unprecedented turmoil and tumult.
“[It was] a time of apocalyptic fervor. A time when we’re slowly moving toward this huge Jewish revolt against the Roman empire, that ultimately resulted in the leveling of Jerusalem, the destruction of the Temple, the exile of the Jews…”
I see nothing to argue with here either. The New Testament itself seems to not only confirm this, but to underscore it.
Aslan continues by pointing out that the one historical fact everyone agrees on—whether they are Christians or not—is that Jesus of Nazareth was crucified. This, Aslan takes to be the common denominator between all historical accounts and all religious claims. Everyone agrees on this one thing. From there, Aslan argues that this form of execution was reserved for just one set of persons: revolutionaries. He argues that Rome exclusively crucified insurgents, brigands or “bandits”. (This is actually what the Greek word translated “thief” meant, says Aslan). Based on these facts, Aslan takes the next logical step to claim that Jesus was, in fact, a revolutionary leading a cultural uprising against his people’s oppressors: Rome.
Here’s where the waters begin to get muddied. Aslan is correct in one sense and incorrect in an important second sense. Aslan is correct that Jesus’s crucifixion is a historical fact on which we can hang our hats. And Aslan is correct that Jesus began a movement of people that threatened the established powers that be. But from there, he chooses to make this the sole historical fact by which he evaluates all other claims. Even more so, he makes all instances of crucifixion entirely uniform. By flattening out the cause for crucifixion, to the point that there was never any variation whatsoever, he can build an airtight historical reconstruction from the one fact that Jesus was crucified alone.
This is a clear example of historical reductionism. While it is certainly true that very few, if any, credible historians would argue that Jesus was not crucified, this is far from the only historical fact upon which a reconstruction can be built. It is clear that Aslan has drawn a line around the New Testament Gospels and placed them firmly in the realm of “religious claims,” allowing none of their narratives to enter his historical imagination. Instead, only what he deems universally accepted about Jesus, by secular and critical sources alike, can be admitted. This is a very extreme view.
To demonstrate just how extreme this view is, let’s compare this view with that of Bart Ehrman, an agnostic New Testament scholar who is critical of Christianity. His most recent book is titled Did Jesus Exist? A Historical Argument for Jesus of Nazareth. In it, Ehrman dedicates an entire chapter to the Gospels as sources of reliable history. As a critical scholar, Ehrman believes it is wrong to treat the Gospels as privileged texts. Instead, he evaluates them on the same bases that he would any other ancient narrative account. He writes,
“Sometimes the Gospels of the New Testament are separated from all other pieces of historical evidence and given a different kind of treatment because they happen to be found in the Bible, the collection of books that Christians gathered together declared sacred scripture. The Gospels are treated this way by two fundamentally opposed camps of readers, and my contention is both are wrong.
“At one end of the spectrum, fundamentalist and conservative evangelical Christians often treat the Gospels as literature unlike anything else that has ever been produced because, in their opinion, these books were inspired by God.
“At the other end of the spectrum is another group insisting that that the books of the Bible need to be given separate treatment. These are certain agnostics or atheists who claim that since, say, the Gospels are part of the Christian sacred scripture, they have less value than other books for establishing historical information.
“[The] authors [of the Gospels] were human authors… they wrote in human languages and in human contexts; their books are recognizable as human books, written according to the rhetorical conventions of their historical period. They are human and historical, whatever else you may think about them, and to treat them differently is to mistreat them and to misunderstand them.
“To dismiss the Gospels from the historical record is neither fair nor scholarly.” (5)
To read Ehrman, a vocal and prolific critic of Christianity’s claims about Jesus, prescribe a far more generous reading of the New Testament Gospels than affords Aslan, gives us a fixed point from which to place Aslan’s methodology. It is more than apparent that Aslan’s methodology is far beyond “left” or “liberal” and off into the void of profoundly spurious opinion.
So this raises the question: Why would Aslan be so dismissive of the Gospels as sources of true history?
The answer I propose is derived from Aslan’s repeated appeals to both controlled scholarship and objectivity. The facts, however, all point in the opposite direction. Not only are Aslan’s scholarly opinions not objective (which is always the case), he has at least one very good personal motive for creating a less-than-historical “historical Jesus”.
Reza Aslan’s De-Conversion from Evangelical Christianity
Perhaps the most revealing portion of Aslan’s Daily Show interview was when John Oliver began to share the powerful way he could relate to the humanity of Jesus, which for him as a child was most poignantly expressed in Jesus’s agonizing cry from the cross. For Oliver, this humanized Jesus and made him a person with whom he could relate. (It seems that more than ever, people who have not read the New Testament book of Hebrews, are desperately searching for a High Priest who “can empathize with
Aslan agrees, and then relates his own story of journeying from a convert to “evangelical Christianity” to an academic historian who admires his own historical reconstruction of Jesus. Aslan says,
“In college, when I began to study the New Testament, I became far more interested in this historical person, than I ever was of this (sort of) celestial ‘Christ’. This man who lived 2000 years ago, who defied the most powerful empire the world had ever know—and lost!—but nevertheless stood up for the weak and the powerless, the outcasts and the dispossessed, and ultimately sacrificed his life for those people.”
If he stopped here, I would be waving my Pentecostal hanky and shouting Amen! Aslan could be a Preacher!
But he goes on…
“Christians believe that he sacrificed his life to free us from sin. That’s a perfectly fine interpretation—for ‘the Christ’. But what we know about the man Jesus, is that he went to the cross on behalf these outcasts that he was fighting for.”
In part 2 of the extended interview, Aslan goes on to argue that Jesus was deeply involved in the politics of his day simply by virtue of assuming the Messianic role. Aslan correctly relates to viewers that “Messiah means ‘anointed one’. The entire purpose of the Messiah is to recreate the kingdom of David on earth, to usher in the reign of God. Well if you’re ushering in the reign of God, you’re ushering out the reign of Caesar”.
Aslan is precisely correct. The role of Messiah was a direct affront to the Roman empire, the assertion that a new empire was taking over. Simply by virtue of Jesus fulfilling the Messianic prophecies (e.g. entering Jerusalem on a donkey, etc.), Jesus’s actions proclaimed his purpose and telos.
The fundamental problem with Aslan’s assessment of Jesus is that he creates a very clear false dichotomy. One can either believe that Jesus was a revolutionary who went to the cross for his brothers and sisters fighting against the oppression of the Roman empire… OR… one can believe that Jesus went to the cross for the “sins” of all humanity. Aslan presents these options as mutually exclusive, but are they? Put simply, the answer is no.
Jesus most certainly was crucified under the charge of revolution, insurrection, revolt; Jesus most certainly did “fight for his people”; and Jesus most certainly did assume the highly political Messianic role that carried with it the implication that he would usher in the reign of God. On each one of these points, Aslan and the Church are in total agreement. The Church, however, understands something about history that Aslan does not. Namely, what the “reign of God” is actually all about.
For Aslan, the “reign of God” was merely coded Jewish language for a Jewish State, Jewish autonomy, Jewish sovereignty. But even a cursory reading of the Hebrew Bible reveals that for the Jewish people, the “reign of God” was far more than a nationalistic victory. The “reign of God” was the ushering in of an entirely new world order—a new way of all people relating to one another in love. In fact, in the Hebrew worldview, the “reign of God” would culminate in a “new heave and a new earth” (Isaiah 65.17). The Hebrew prophets foretold of a day when the “lion will lay down with the lamb” (11.6) and when “swords will be beaten into plowshares” (2.4), when people will “train for war no more” (2.4) and when God’s perfect justice will flow like a river, and cover the whole earth (Amos 5.24).
Therefore, when Jesus comes on the scene, deliberately walking in the political, revolutionary role of Messiah, he’s not only “opposing Rome on behalf of his people,” but he’s also announcing the beginning of a new age—the very “reign of God!” For Aslan to acknowledge that Jesus was fulfilling the role of the Jewish Messiah without acknowledging that the “reign of God” the Messiah would usher in was as “spiritual” as it was “political” betrays a deep, deep misunderstanding of the ancient Hebrew worldview. Ancient Hebrews didn’t divide the world into neat compartments of “spiritual” and “political.” Ancient Hebrews didn’t see their nationalistic sovereignty as something separate from the new age of shalom the Messiah would bring. They saw them as one and the same! The type of dualism that Aslan is dealing in is a Platonic (Greek) way of viewing the world that the historical Jesus would not recognize!
Objectivity, Scholarship, and the Pain of Loosing the Jesus of Faith
In both his Daily Show and Fox News interviews, Dr. Reza Aslan has attempted to disclaim his historical reconstruction of Jesus in two ways. First, he goes out of his way to assure viewers that he is not “attacking Christianity” by letting us know that his own wife and mother are Christians, and that his brother-in-law is an “evangelical pastor.” This is what I’m calling the “control” defense. By making this claim, Aslan is essentially using another version of the “I have a black friend” defense for the accusation of racism. Instead of a “black friend,” Aslan has a “Christian mother,” a “Christian wife,” and an “evangelical pastor brother-in-law.” So he’s triple protected from anti-Christian bias—see how that works?!
The second way Aslan insulates himself from the accusation of bias is by claiming his education grants him scholarly objectivity. Aslan’s Fox News interview is a debacle for multiple reasons. The interviewer obviously did not do her homework, does not know who Aslan is, and for some reason assumes one must be a Christian to write about Jesus. Her biases are obvious and aren’t surprising in the least, considering where she works. But Aslan’s defensive posture also went overboard. The first time he countered her questioning about why a Muslim would choose to write a book on Jesus with his academic credentials, I applauded him. Aslan has more than adequate academic credentials to author a book on Jesus. It’s clear her questioning was purely out of fear of his Muslim faith. There’s no doubt the interviewer would not have started with the same line of question for a Christian author writing about Muhammed, for example. But, nevertheless, Aslan’s defense crossed the line when his insistence of his academic credentials then led him to deny any and all biases whatsoever. At that point, I felt disappointed in Dr. Aslan.
The beginning of scholarship is recognizing one’s limitations, preconceived notions, and biases, because every human being has them. None of our motives are pure, and none of us is perfectly capable of interpreting “facts.” Aslan insisted several times that he has been studying religion and Jesus in particular for 20 years. That is a long time to remain completely objective about a figure who has literally changed the world. I submit, it is impossible. Scholars with PhD are least of all objective. They have reached the end of an arduous program honing their focus tighter and tighter until it reaches a fine point. PhDs have more opinions than should be expected on subjects they have researched for decades, spending countless hours reading and writing. To remain objective on a subject onto which one has poured so much attention isn’t even feasible let alone expected. Of course Aslan is biased! Of course he has strong opinions! That’s completely normal, and doesn’t necessarily negate his scholarship. What does, however, besmirch his scholarship is adamant insistence that he is objective.
I want to suggest that there is no greater reason for Aslan’s bias than his own testimony of loosing the Jesus of Faith for himself. In his Daily Show interview he described himself when he became an evangelical Christian as a young person. He said, “I really burned with [Jesus’s] Gospel message. I really felt it deep in my life.” That’s not a dispassionate description at all. In fact, that sounds like the testimony of someone who deeply wanted to believe in Jesus. But as his testimony goes on, it’s clear that he felt he had to choose between the Christ of Faith whom he’d encountered and the Jesus of History whom he’d begun to study in school. That choice drove a wedge between Aslan and the Jesus who he’d encountered—the Risen Christ.
N. T. Wright, who is arguably the world’s foremost New Testament scholar and historian, has written an enormous amount about Jesus and his first-century context. In an article for Christianity Today from several years ago, Wright defending the need for history, but also discussed history’s limitations and our own vested interest in history. I wonder if Wright’s insight isn’t wholly relevant for Aslan.
“…history isn’t enough by itself. […] It isn’t enough to know that Jesus is the Savior; I must know that he is the Savior for me. History cannot tell me that. But it can reconstruct the framework within which it makes sense—the biblical framework that Jesus and his followers took for granted. If Jesus didn’t really exist, or was really a revolutionary Zealot, or a proto-Buddhist mystic, or an Egyptian freemason, the “for me” floats like a detached helium balloon on the thin, vulnerable air of subjectivism. It is when we put Jesus in his proper historical context that the Resurrection proposes that he was the Messiah, that the Messiah is Lord of the world, and that he died and was raised for me. History is challenging, but also reassuring.” (7)
1. Alsan’s academic religion credentials start with a BA in Religions from Santa Clara University, an MTh from Harvard Divinity, and a PhD in Sociology of Religion from UC Santa Barbara. Sources: [http://rezaaslan.com/about/, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Reza_Aslan#Background, http://www.drew.edu/crcc/programsinitiatives/wallerstein-distinguished-visiting-scholars/dr-reza-aslan]
4. Aslan’s book on Jesus is titled: Zealot, the Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth [http://www.thedailyshow.com/watch/wed-july-17-2013/reza-aslan]
5. Did Jesus Exist? The Historical Argument for Jesus of Nazareth by Bart Ehrman (HarperOne, 2012), p.71-73 [http://amzn.com/0062204602]
7. “Abandon Studying the Historical Jesus? No, We Need History” by N. T. Wright