Will the Real Jesus Please Stand Up?

Reza Aslan 2013

Reza Aslan 2013


Reza Aslan’s recent book, Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth, prompted me to return to the study of the Historical Jesus. I went straight to my copy of Schweitzer’s Quest and read it again, slower and more carefully. It reminded me of how everyone wants a piece of Jesus: from German deists writing 250 years ago to today in modern America. Dr. Aslan is no different. And all the hoopla about his credentials is, in my opinion, much ado about nothing. He has read much of the relevant material and shares the same opinions of liberal New Testament scholarship. I would have loved for him to have interacted with a Richard Bauckham, Ben Witherington III, N.T. Wright or Darrell Bock, but he did not. He believes, along with Hermann Samuel Reimarus in the 18th century, and S.G.F. Brandon in the 20th century, that Jesus was simply a political Messiah, and a pretty poor one at that. Basically, he sucked at being a revolutionary and was crucified after his miserable and lackluster failure.

Fascinating. Because when I read the gospels I see a Messiah who specifically and deliberately rejected political ambitions. In John 6 Jesus feeds thousands and in verse 10 he notes that there were about 5,000 men. And then he writes of Jesus in verse 15 (italics for emphasis):

Perceiving then that they were about to come and take him by force to make him king, Jesus withdrew again to the mountain by himself.”

Huh? This guy who wanted to lead a revolution all of a sudden has an army of 5,000 men at his disposal just walks away and lets the opportunity drop? Doesn’t sound like the kind of guy who wanted to lead a revolt to me.

Then I think of Jesus’ appearance before Pilate described in John 18 (which Aslan doesn’t think really happened – a convenient position). During their visit Jesus emphatically said (twice) that he had no nationalistic or political ambitions. I don’t see how it could be any more clear than this:

33 So Pilate entered his headquarters again and called Jesus and said to him, “Are you the King of the Jews?” 34 Jesus answered, “Do you say this of your own accord, or did others say it to you about me?” 35 Pilate answered, “Am I a Jew? Your own nation and the chief priests have delivered you over to me. What have you done?”36 Jesus answered, “My kingdom is not of this world. If my kingdom were of this world, my servants would have been fighting, that I might not be delivered over to the Jews. But my kingdom is not from the world.”

So I ask myself: “How can people read the same documents – the four gospels – and come to such radically different conclusions about Jesus – his self-awareness and his mission? Are we going to just play the old “my verse against your verse” game? We both cherry pick our verses that support our position and pit them against the other verses that seem to imply something else. I don’t think so. For what it’s worth, the record of the gospels seems to me to show without a doubt that Jesus was All About a spiritual kingdom from beginning to end. So, for those who see it like Aslan does, something else is going on. Here’s what I think it is.

  1. Aslan accepts the results of current liberal New Testament historical Jesus studies that began with German Enlightenment criticism during the 18th century. That is, we can know very little about the historical Jesus because we have such poor records of his life preserved for us. We don’t trust the gospels for reliable history. They are theology, not history. Fanboys who reinterpreted his defeat into a newer, spiritual movement rewrote them. And somehow, by God, this Jesus thing just happened to become the choice of 1/5 of the population of the world today. Don’t ask me why those other zealots, most of whom were more successful than Jesus (says Aslan) didn’t become the one, true King Jesus. Any scripture that looks like Jesus intended to establish a spiritual kingdom is obviously inserted from later editors to “rewrite the story” in order to support a less militant Jesus. So, you just can’t win by showing me all those verses that say otherwise.
  2. He presupposes a methodologically naturalistic account of history that precludes the miracles recorded in the gospels as being real events. Maybe they are real miracles, but we cannot base our belief in them on the record of the gospels because history can only tell us what probably happened and not what really happened. And if the miracles stories are not true, and if we understand a great deal of the gospels are later material, then what we have left is a very thin, bare historical account.

When you begin with these two approaches you are free to compose a Jesus of your own choosing. Schweitzer noted this back in 1906 and this is exactly what continues today. People have come up with the strictly Political Revolutionary Jesus (Reimarus, Brandon, Aslan). We have the Jesus who from birth was mentored by a secret society to inaugurate a gentle, benign spiritual movement – a Jesus specifically taught NOT to rebel against Rome (Karl Bahrdt and Karl Venturini). We have the Jesus who manipulated the events of his own life to seem to fulfill prophecy and who very cleverly faked the miracles and who faked his death (The Passover Plot, Hugh Schonfield in 1965). On and on and on we could go. You want a particular Jesus? A straight one? A gay one? A Hater Jesus? A Lover Jesus? Just go find them – they are already out there.

There is no compelling reason to accept the two starting points that many scholars hold. When you look at the gospels through more traditional eyes, you can only see a Jesus whose specific self-understanding and mission was to begin a new movement, worldwide in scope, spiritual in nature, to fulfill OT prophecies of the Messiah, about whom Isaiah wrote (Isaiah 9:6):

“For to us a child is born,
to us a son is given;
and the government shall be upon his shoulder,
and his name shall be called
Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God,
Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.”

My two cents.

Now below are some resources for you to consider. If you find others you would like to share with me, please tell me in your comment on this post and I’d be happy to consider it. Thanks for listening.

Reza Aslan spoke about his book, Zealot, at the Politics & Prose bookstore in Washington, DC on Thursday, September 19, 2013.


Dr. William Lane Craig responds to Aslan’s Washington Post article, “Five Myths about Jesus”


Ross Douthat’s first review of Zealot:


Douthat’s second review:


Paul Maier speaks on the Quest for the Historical Jesus – he’s a funny guy, BTW:



Moving Naturalism Foward – day one Introductions concluded

We continue looking at what was said at this conference. I must say that if you want to truly understanding the mind of a materialist, this series is absolutely a “must watch”. You will hear things at this conference that would have never been admitted in a public debate. Guards are relaxed. At ease among peers, you will hear how a naturalist thinks. We pick up with Day One, first morning session.

Terrence DeaconTerry Deacon introduced himself and mentions he was influenced by the thought of Charles Pierce. He has studied differences between human brains and the brains of pigs, bats and monkeys. He said he could change his mind about the “concept of information.” “How is it that a molecule becomes ‘about’ something?” (Good question, Terry).

I don’t think brains are like computers…I’m not saying it’s not a functionalist physicalist kind of story – I just don’t think our understanding of computation is big enough to accomplish what we want to say about this.”

I give all the meaning to my computer. My computer is like a car engine that I’ve assigned various values to what it’s doing…and if I’m a computer too then who is assigning it?…you get the same problem running back and back…”

I don’t think that understanding minds, consciousness or how brains work require us to do quantum theory.”

Rebecca Newberger GoldsteinNext to introduce themselves was Rebecca Goldstein. She says she comes from a very orthodox Jewish family where an ambitious woman was unheard of. She remarked that her parents allowed her to visit the library but they had no idea on how subversive a place it was. It was there she first encountered Bertrand Russell’s “Why I Am Not A Christian.” She says that book really “works on Jews” and that it “completely changed my mind.”

She wanted to work on Quantum Mechanics at Columbia. She left Columbia for Princeton and took classes under Karl Hempel. She read Thomas Nagel’s essay, “What Is It Like To Be A Bat.” The essay spoke to her. She received a Ph.D. in Philosophy and then became a novelist. She has written “philosophical novels.”

What could she change her mind about? “I would like to be convinced that progress could be made in philosophy, I’m not convinced it can be.”

Dan DennettDaniel Dennett sits next to Rebecca and begins by admitting that he didn’t have a science education from youth. He didn’t even study science as an undergraduate. At some point he worked with Quine, “who became my hero and mentor.” [Quine was a confirmed empiricist, pm]. At Oxford he took it upon himself to become self-educated about the brain. His supervisor, Gilbert Ryle, who didn’t have a scientific bone in his body, directed him to good tutors and advisors. He says he has had world-class tutors in evolutionary biology and neuroscience, neither of which he studied formally.

I don’t spend much time with philosophers these days…when I think of all the wonderful people in the field of philosophy who aren’t here, I’m so glad.” (laughter) Like Owen, I am just appalled to see how in spite of what I think is the progress we’ve made in the last 25 years, there is this sort of retrograde gang, including some young ones, that are going back to old-fashioned arm-chair philosophy of mind with relish and eagerness and it’s just sickening – because their work isn’t worth anything and they lure in other people to do it. It’s cute, it’s clever and it’s not worth a damn.” (Hmmm…wonder what young philosophers you have in mind here, Dan? I can think of one senior statesman of philosophy you are thinking of and that Alex Rosenberg actually voiced, Thomas Nagel. editor)

I believe that Wilfred Sellers nailed it. He described THE job of the philosopher – the one that is a respectable and valuable service – that is, helping people with their intuitions about how the Manifest Image goes together with the Scientific Image. We know it doesn’t go easily. And ever since Eddington and his two tables there’s lots of scientists who’ve tried. Scientists aren’t particularly good at it. And philosophers aren’t particularly good at it either if they don’t know the science. What I think you have to do is appreciate just how – where the Manifest Image came from – how come there IS a Manifest Image? What – first…there is the Manifest Image of the tick. The Manifest Image of people is very different from the Manifest Image of anteaters or birds, for instance…”

The issue that is most pivotal is free will. The issue about truth has come up, and it’s interesting that there are some philosophers and scientists who have arrived at the position that believing in free will is so important that we should foster this as a holy myth, even though it ain’t true. If I found myself in that camp I’d be in deep trouble…but in fact I find myself in the camp saying that actually, once you understand what free will is and what it has to be in order to make lives have meaning, there’s no conflict at all – it’s not a holy myth, it’s the literal non-metaphorical truth that compatibilism is true.”

Functionalism and homuncular functionalism. I am still a homuncular functionalist. My view now is that the brain is largely an anarchist assemblage of selfish neurons which can form correlations and cabals and interact – that you have to take their agendas seriously and then you’ve got a model of computation which is profoundly unlike the model that handles the latter.”

Near the end of the session Sean Carroll said, “The festishization of truth is something we need to – (pause) – overcome? (everyone laughs) I’m still a truth fetishist myself.”

Day One, Morning, Second Session

Two more introductions to go: Jerry Coyne and Steven Weinberg. Note carefully what Jerry Coyne says about evolution and religious faith.

Jerry Coyne begins. “I’m an evolutionary biologist who came to this late. I suspect like Richard, my becoming an atheist and a naturalist was a reaction to the fact that the opposition to what I was trying to teach, which was obdurate, was based on religious faith that you could not dispel by teaching people the facts about evolution…I realized that the way to teach evolution was to get rid of religion and then how do you do that? Well you can reform society but you can also argue against religion. Many atheists have done that very well. I’m writing a book now…about the incompatibility between science and religion so there are a lot of areas in there I want to get people’s takes on at this meeting. That involves questions of free will, questions of mathematics, questions about how we know things, other ways of knowing things besides science. I’m here I guess specifically to address the question of free will. I guess I’m one of the few incompatibilists in this group – I guess Alex is another one. To me the question is largely semantic…My alternative theory is that we’re collations of molecules that obey the laws of physics and sometimes it appears that we do that rationally, but a lot of times we don’t.  And my replacement for free will would be the statement that our decisions are made by internal forces that we don’t understand and that we should deep six the idea of free will in terms of this statement.”

On what he would change his mind about – (pay attention to his answer and see if scientism rears its ugly head again. And, does Jerry Coyne have doubts about science being the sole road to knowledge?)

This is a question I’ve been wrestling with in my book and it’s a powerful weapon in the armamentarium of theologians… that there are other ways of knowing besides science. In other words, art, literature, music are ways of knowing. I’m interested in exploring that question. Of course that’s all used to justify religious ways of knowing but I don’t believe religion is a way of knowing, but I’m interested whether there are other ways of knowing besides science. I’m completely open about this, I haven’t decided. I would like to think that science answers all questions and in that sense I would be a scientist…an advocate of scientism. None of that is to justify religion but theologians use art, music and literature too as ways of knowing and from that then Jesus and revelation as a way of knowing so I would like to be able to discuss that question.” (But Jerry, if you are “completely open” about this, why have you decided that religion is not an option? Just curious. Could it be that you have a prior commitment to materialism/naturalism that rules it out? But of course – you’ve said so.)

Steven WeinbergSteven Weinberg, last but not least. He began by commenting that he the dullest person in the room because he is a theoretical physicist and always wanted to be a theoretical physicist. He said that he  has strong feelings on the subject of morality, consciousness and free will but would not comment on those at the moment but would wait for their proper time in the course of the meetings.

Moving Naturalism Forward

The Attendees at the "Moving Naturalism Forward" Conference

During the final week of October 2012, a group of fourteen thinkers met for three days in the Berkshires of southwestern Massachusetts to discuss the project, “Moving Naturalism Forward.” Naturalism is functionally equivalent to atheism, and the stated aim of the meeting was to “address the very difficult questions raised by replacing folk psychology and morality by a scientifically grounded understanding of reality. We would like to understand how to construct meaningful human lives in a world governed by the laws of nature.

On the agenda for discussion were: free will, morality, meaning, purpose, epistemology, emergence, consciousness, evolution and determinism. You know, everyday solve the world stuff. The event was supported in part by a generous donation from the Scorpio Rising Fund, as advised by Nicholas Pritzker, who attended the proceedings as an observer.

The fourteen thinkers represent a variety of different disciplines including physics (three representatives), biology (two representatives), anthropology, complex systems theory, philosophy (five representatives), neuroscience and economics. The attendees were: Sean Carroll (moderator), Jerry Coyne, Richard Dawkins, Terrence Deacon, Simon DeDeo, Daniel Dennett, Owen Flanagan, Rebecca Newberger Goldstein, Janna Levin, Massimo Pigliucci, David Poeppel, Alex Rosenberg, Don Ross and Steven Weinberg. Sam Harris was invited, but could not accommodate.

Day One

Sean Carroll, brainchild and organizer, began first day introductions with a very interesting question. He asked everyone to introduce themselves and “to try to say one thing you’d be willing to change your mind about over the course of the next three days.” This is where it got interesting rather quickly.

What would you be willing to change your mind about?

Answers from three people especially intrigued me: Richard Dawkins, Alex Rosenberg and Simon DeDeo.

DawkinsDawkins said candidly he would like to think it would be possible that he could be wrong about his atheism/naturalism. That’s right. He said as much. Here’s the actual quote (at the 9:30 minute mark in the session):

If you ask me, “What would make me change my mind?” I would like to be able to say that it would be possible to change my mind about naturalism itself. The problem is, I have a hard time imagining what anything but naturalism would look like…How could you even conceive of demonstrating supernaturalism?…What I’m saying is that I cannot imagine what evidence for supernaturalism could possibly look like.

Just before this admission, Dawkins explained that his study of zoology was not from just a passion to study natural history but that “my interest was rather more philosophical than natural history. I always was interested in the deep questions of existence – why are we here, what’s it all about, what is life, where does it come from, and so on…

Alex Rosenberg

Alex Rosenberg said essentially the same thing. Note this quote carefully (17:55 into the session):

The thing I could change my mind about is fairly radical. My own view is that naturalism is deeply incompatible with what Wilfrid Sellars called the Manifest Image – and I’m sure that philosophers around this table will help non-philosophers understand what is meant by the Manifest Image. And of course there are people around this table who say that it is compatible with large chunks of the Manifest Image and if they could change my mind, then I would be very happy.”

So Sean Carroll asks the obvious questions no one else dared ask: What is the Manifest Image? Alex continued:

So the Manifest Image is an intelligent, sophisticated, well-informed version of common sense, of a view about the furniture of reality that reflects what most people believe it is without being supernatural…” He goes on to explain that the implications of naturalism reached in his book, The Atheist Guide to Reality, commits him to reject “almost all” of the Manifest Image. In case you’ve forgotten what Alex had to say in his book, kindly allow me to refresh your memory. Here’s a quote from pages 2 and 3:

Is there a God? No. What is the nature of reality? What physics says it is. What is the purpose of the universe? There is none. What is the meaning of life? Ditto. Why am I here? Just dumb luck. Does prayer work? Of course not. Is there a soul? Is it immortal? Are you kidding? Is there free will? Not a chance. What happens when we die? Everything pretty much goes on as before, except us. What is the difference between right and wrong, good and bad? There is no moral difference between them. Why should I be moral? Because it makes you feel better than being immoral. Is abortion, euthanasia, suicide, paying taxes, foreign aid, or anything else you don’t like forbidden, permissible or sometimes obligatory? Anything goes. …

Now perhaps I can understand better why he “would be very happy” if his mind could be changed so that he didn’t believe this. You see, atheism is one big wet blanket. It’s no fun. Never has been and never will be. But since he’s committed to naturalism, he has to take the whole thing and it’s a real drag.

Simon DeDeoNext up was Simon DeDeo, who studies complexity theory at the Santa Fe Institute. He answers Sean’s question this way:

What I might be wiling to change my mind on…and so the idea that you can have a scientific theory of mentality, of thought, of consciousness, that didn’t simply reduce to a story about computation, about the functional relationships between different parts of your brain – if that were possible – if it were possible not to believe that and yet not to believe in mysterious mind mist that penetrates and has special relationships to neurons and to some biochemical phenomenon – if it were possible to believe that without being supernatural – I would love that…

In other words, mind is so terribly complex and I don’t like my functionalist interpretation of it, but I have no choice because we can’t allow a non-material explanation now can we? Sound familiar? This is classic scientism at its best. The presupposition of materialism is absolute.

And so we have on the very first day of the “Moving Naturalism Forward” Conference an admission by at least three of the participants that they essentially wish naturalism weren’t true. Nice start to moving things forward.

Pardon me if I introduce two quotes from the Bible as they came to me. My first one is Ecclesiastes 3:10-11:

I have seen the business that God has given to the children of man to be busy with. He has made everything beautiful in its time. Also, he has put eternity into man’s heart, yet so that he cannot find out what God has done from the beginning to the end.

And again, Acts 17:26-27:

And he made from one man every nation of mankind to live on all the face of the earth, having determined allotted periods and the boundaries of their dwelling place, that they should seek God, and perhaps feel their way toward him and find him. Yet he is actually not far from each one of us…”

An Early Awareness of Fine Tuning – from 1833 !

Christian apologists are surely aware of the modern principle of the Fine-Tuning of the universe. The “strong form” of the insight addresses the values of the fundamental constants of physics. Scientists such as Robert H. Dicke, Fred Hoyle, John Gribbin, Martin Rees, Paul Davies, Stephen Hawking, and numerous others, agree that our universe possesses these physical constraints. However relatively recent it may appear to be in the scientific literature, it has been stated at least as early as 1833, and I’m sure there are other occasions where it can be found earlier.

William Whewell was a 19th century English polymath, scientist, Anglican priest, philosopher, theologian, and historian of science, not to mention Master of Trinity College, Cambridge. As a curious matter of fact, he was the first to coin the term “scientist.”

During Whewell’s time, debates raged over the relationship of natural theology and the new discoveries and findings of modern science. A certain Earl of Bridgewater, gentleman naturalist, commissioned eight Bridgewater Treatises upon his deathbed to explore “the Power, Wisdom, and Goodness of God, as manifested in the Creation.” Whewell’s work was the third in the series. The treatises are:

1. The Adaptation of External Nature to the Moral and Intellectual Condition of Man, by Thomas Chalmers, D. D.
2. On The Adaptation of External Nature to the Physical Condition of Man, by John Kidd, M. D.
3. Astronomy and General Physics considered with reference to Natural Theology, by William Whewell, D. D.
4. The hand, its Mechanism and Vital Endowments as evincing Design, by Sir Charles Bell.
5. Animal and Vegetable Physiology considered with reference to Natural Theology, by Peter Mark Roget.
6. Geology and Mineralogy considered with reference to Natural Theology, by William Buckland, D.D.
7. On the History, Habits and Instincts of Animals, by William Kirby.
8. Chemistry, Meteorology, and the Function of Digestion, considered with reference to Natural Theology, by William Prout, M.D.

Dr. Whewell’s task was to argue for the existence of God as evidenced by the findings of astronomy and general physics. In a section on “The Length of the Year” he made this observation:

“The length of the year or interval of recurrence of the seasons is determined by the time which the earth employs in performing its revolution round the sun: and we can very easily conceive the solar system so adjusted that the year should be longer or shorter than it actually is. We can imagine the earth to revolve round the sun at a distance greater or less than that which it at present has, all the forces of the system remaining unaltered. If the earth were removed towards the centre by about one-eighth of its distance, the year would be diminished by about a month; and in the same manner it would be increased by a month on increasing the distance by one-eighth.

We can suppose the earth at a distance of 84 or 108 millions of miles, just as easily as at its present distance of 96 millions: we can suppose the earth with its present stock of animals and vegetables placed where Mars or where Venus is, and revolving in an orbit like one of theirs: on the former supposition our year would become twenty- three, on the latter seven of our present months. Or we can conceive the present distances of the parts of the system to continue what they are, and the size, or the density of the central mass, the sun, to be increased or diminished in any proportion; and in this way the time of the earth’s revolution might have been increased or diminished in any degree; a greater velocity, and consequently a diminished period, being requisite, in order to balance an augmented central attraction. In any of these ways the length of the earths natural year might have been different from what it now is: in the last way without any necessary alteration, so far as we can see, of temperature.

Now, if any change of this kind were to take place, the working of the botanical world would be thrown into utter disorder, the functions of plants would be entirely deranged, and the whole vegetable kingdom involved in instant decay and rapid extinction.”

You may find his work in various formats here: (happy reading!)

Astronomy and General Physics Considered with Reference to Natural Theology

Thomas Malthus as Apologist

Of course you know this most famous work by Thomas Robert Malthus – An Essay on the Principle of Population (1798). It is still discussed today among social theorists, Marxists and academicians. Charles Darwin credits his first insight into natural selection as inspired by his reading of Malthus. In addition, Malthus scores Christian apologetics points as he touches upon a variety of issues such as the best life, morality, the purposes of God, the reasonableness of bodily resurrection and the problem of evil. Who knew? It is a fascinating work that went through seven editions.

One extended quote on the reasonableness of bodily resurrection will hopefully pique your interest. He begins with a thought experiment…

The resurrection of a spiritual body from a natural body does not appear in itself a more wonderful instance of power than the germination of a blade of wheat from the grain, or of an oak from an acorn. Could we conceive an intelligent being so placed as to be conversant with inanimate or full grown objects, and never to have witnessed the process of vegetation of growth; and were another being to shew him two little pieces of matter, a grain of wheat and an acorn, to desire him to examine them, to analize them if he pleased, and endeavour to find out their properties and essences; and then to tell him, that however trifling these little bits of matter might appear to him, that they possessed such curious powers of selection, combination, arrangement, and almost of creation, that upon being put into the ground, they would chuse, amongst all the dirt and moisture that surrounded them, those parts which best suited their purpose, that they would collect and arrange these parts with wonderful taste, judgment, and execution, and would rise up into beautiful forms, scarcely in any respect analogous to the little bits of matter which were first placed in the earth, I feel very little doubt that the imaginary being which I have supposed would hesitate more, would require better authority, and stronger proofs, before he believed these strange assertions, than if he had been told that a being of mighty power, who had been the cause of all that he saw around him, and of that existence of which he himself was conscious, would, by a great act of power upon the death and corruption of human creatures, raise up the essence of thought in an incorporeal, or at last invisible form, to give it a happier existence in another state.

The only difference, with regard to our own apprehensions, that is not in favour of the latter assertion is that the first miracle we have repeatedly seen, and the last miracle we have not seen. I admit the full weight of this prodigious difference, but surely no man can hesitate a moment in saying that, putting Revelation out of the question, the resurrection of a spiritual body from a natural body, which may be merely one among the many operations of nature which we cannot see, is an event indefinitely more probable than the immortality of man on earth, which is not only an event of which no symptoms or indications have yet appeared, but is a positive contradiction to one of the most constant of the laws of nature that has ever come within the observation of man.”

More gems such as this are to be found, but I leave it to you, dear Reader, to find them.

An Essay on the Principle of Population

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