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Sunday, August 18, 2013
Reza Aslan’s book “Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth” was meant to generate discussion. It has. But it really adds little to an understanding of Jesus’ identity. It adds a plethora of information about the first century Jewish and Roman world in which Jesus lived, all of it intensely fascinating, but it is a giant leap to assume that the “real Jesus” can be known from such findings.
Jason Barr in his review of “Zealot” (“Jesus was a radical,” Aug. 11) is correct about the readability of the book. It is well written and weaves a fascinating analysis of the extra New Testament information available to historians. And his analysis of the New Testament is certainly provocative, but his conclusions demand discussion.
Barr, being a historian, knows that works of history are more than the accumulation of data, even if the data are immense. It becomes history when it is interpreted. And all who write history start with a point of view they want to prove. Total objectivity is never possible. Good historians know this and strive not to let their assumptions cloud their judgment. Serious and honest readers of Aslan’s book will have to decide upon the degree of objectivity in his book.
Aslan begins his book with words of Jesus recorded in Matthew: “Do not think that I have come to bring peace on earth, I have not come to bring peace, but the sword.” What follows is a book to prove that Jesus was just another in a long list of violent revolutionaries intent upon the overthrow of Rome’s dominance of the Holy Land. And he asserts that the New Testament’s claim that Jesus was not a violent rebel but a man of love, goodness, gentleness and humility is pure fabrication. One would think that Aslan, being a good Muslim, would appreciate the Muslim mystics like Hafiz and Rumi who delight in metaphor. And since Jesus seems to have been a past master at using metaphors in order to challenge thinking, is it not possible that his use of the word “sword” might just refer to something like a “sword of truth” that does divide people and threaten peace?
In his review, Barr makes the innocent claim that Aslan is bound “to step on toes.” That may be the understatement of the year. Not only does he step on toes, but in short order he stomps on the toes of both Christians and Jews with one big boot. “The God who shatters the heads of his enemies,” writes Aslan, “bids his warriors to bathe their feet in their blood and leave their corpses to be eaten by dogs (Psalm 68:21-23) — that is the only God that Jesus knew and the sole God he worshipped.” Not only Christians, but Jews, might take some issue with that. And why does he limit his assumptions about the God of Israel to texts that depict him as violent and blood-thirsty while ignoring the majority of texts that depict YHWH as a loving Father?
But far more important is the question of the true identity of Jesus. Barr was wise not to venture into this infinitely complex issue, yet this is the purported purpose of Aslan’s book: to prove that the church’s belief about Jesus is totally mistaken.
There have been three scholarly quests seeking to define the Jesus of history behind the Gospel portrayal of him. The first quest began in Germany in the 19th century. The most influential book was David Frederick Strauss’ book, “Das Leben Jesu” (1835). It was followed by other writers who also hoped to go behind the Gospels to discover the real Jesus. That first quest ended with Albert Schweitzer’s “The Quest of the Historical Jesus” in 1905. His conclusion was that the Jesus these authors found was no more than a reflection of their own philosophical beliefs, ideas and values.
What was thus assumed to be a fruitless quest for the historical Jesus was abandoned until 1953. At a gathering of Rudolph Bultmann’s former students, Ernst Kasemann gave a lecture that began a second quest. The conclusion of this quest was that the Gospels offer a fresh authenticity and that the various and sometimes conflicting stories and teachings have a basis in history.
We are now in the midst of a third quest of the historic Jesus. The current quest began in the mid-1990s with the Jesus Seminar, which set out to determine which sayings of Jesus were authentic and which were not. This third quest has moved far beyond the Jesus Seminar and now includes more than 25 internationally recognized biblical scholars, some Jewish and some Christians, who have invested untold hours and written untold pages of research and scholarship in their works. Each has a particular point of view.
Aslan quotes a few of them to lend credibility to his book but rejects their conclusions. But the members of this third quest agree, some more than others, that the overall testimony of the New Testament and the Gospels is far more trustworthy than many critics assume. Indeed, Schweitzer’s conclusion still holds true, that those who reject the testimony of the Gospels always seem to find a Jesus who represents their point of view. Fundamentalists who take the Scriptures straight and literal will find no comfort in the work of these scholars, but thinking Christians will.
Reza Aslan’s “Zealot” can hardly be included in this third quest. And the people to whom his book will appeal are likely those who have already written off the Christian faith for reasons that have nothing to do with so-called historic data.
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