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 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

Lessons from Bertrand Russell – by way of his daughter

Among the pantheon of world-famous atheists of the 20th century we must admit two of the most intellectual were Anthony Flew and Bertrand Russell. Both were trained in philosophy from Britain’s best universities. Dr. Flew studied at Oxford while Russell was a Cambridge man. Flew renounced his atheism and Russell remained steadfast in his unbelief until his death in 1970. I don’t know much about Flew’s personal life but Russell produced an autobiography in 1975. His daughter, Katharine Tait, told her side of the story in her book, “My Father, Bertrand Russell”, also published in 1975.

It is to her story I’d like to turn. She seems to have a very mature understanding of her life with her father and his four wives. Though we tend to distort of our own past by selective memory, she realizes this tendency and balances her initial judgments with more balanced introspection.

I’ll not bore you with the details of their relationship and her memories of her father. Rather, I think you can gather from her thoughts how things went down. I am specifically interested in her recollections of how God played into (and out of) his and her life.

Bertrand Russell and his wife established the Beacon Hill School in 1927 and their two children, John and Katharine, were among its students. It was a progressive education fostered by Bertrand’s belief that children should be presented all the options of a subject and be left to determine their own minds about it. Stuffy textbooks were not to be found at Beacon Hill (the math text was the only exception).

She recalls, “Besides being difficult, the material was often controversial. My father did not intend his education to be propaganda; he always wanted us to consider both sides and then make up our minds… In practice, at Beacon Hill, ‘making up our own minds’ usually meant agreeing with my father, because he knew so much more and could argue so much better; also because we heard ‘the other side’ only from people who disagreed with it. There was never a cogent presentation of the Christian faith, for instance, from someone who really believed in it.”

Regarding her father’s four marriages, she offers:

Tongue in cheek, my father later claimed his four marriages as proof that he approved of the institution of marriage…All his life he sought perfection: perfect mathematical truth, perfect philosophical clarify, certainty of God’s existence, a perfect formula for society, a perfect woman to live with in a perfect human relationship. And although he never found them anywhere, he never stopped looking.”

Her thoughts on good and evil:

I believe that good and evil are essential to one another, that neither of them can exist alone and that there is envy, fear, anger, resentment, in every human heart, no matter how well brought up. My father did not believe this. Though these ugly things exited in our hearts, their existence was always denied in our family relations and they were left to fester like hidden wounds.”

Later, while in college at Radcliffe, she was asked by a fellow student about her thoughts on God. She remembers the incident and recalls:

One day I sat in he library talking to a handsome young man who was a fellow student in one of my German classes. ‘Don’t you believe in any kind of God?’ he asked, knowing who my father was. ‘No,’ I said, ‘I don’t. It doesn’t seem to me necessary. ‘Then what is the point of living?’ ‘Well, I’ve been born now. I have little choice. Might as well go ahead and make the best of it.’ ‘That seems so bleak. How can you bear it?’ ‘Does it? Maybe. It’s just the way life is, the way the world happens to have developed. Not much use wishing it were otherwise.’ My godless world looked as desolate to him as a lifeless world would to me, but I was used to its impersonal freedom, never having known any other. At the same time, I was well aware that my existential despair was mere self-indulgence and that, God or no God, I would have to return someday to the humdrum world of doing good, helping individuals and mankind to the full extent of my rational benevolence, as I had been taught.”

On her marriage and nagging frustration with life’s big questions:

I was the fortunate wife of a promising young civil servant with two charming children. I had everything I wanted, yet I was not happy. What was wrong with me? In those years, the constant mental dialogue I carry on with my father took the form of reading The Conquest of Happiness,in the hope that it might help me.

The book promised a cure for ‘the ordinary day-to-day unhappiness from which most people in civilized countries suffer, and which is all the more unbearable because, having no obvious external cause, it appears inescapable.’ It seemed made to order for me, until I discovered that he considered puritan morals the cause of such unhappiness and their rejection its cure. What help was that to me, who had been brought up without this burden? How was I to explain or excuse my steady misery?…I must be a sad failure as a human being. Either that, or my father was mistaken… What could my father tell me about the purpose of living?… I read [my father’s] Sceptical Essays and Unpopular Essays, In Praise of Idleness and Marriage and Morals, but they all offered the same solutions: reason, progress, unselfishness, a wide historical perspective, expansiveness, generosity, enlightened self-interest. I had heard it all my life, and it filled me with despair.”

On her father’s religious upbringing…

In Grandmother Russell’s religion, the only form of Christianity my father knew well, the life of this world was no more than a gloomy testing ground for future bliss. All hope, all joy, were centered on the life after death and were to be achieved only by unceasing warfare against evil in oneself and others. My father threw this morbid belief out the window…

I believe myself that his whole life was a search for God, or, for those who prefer less personal terms, for absolute certainty…Somewhere at the back of my father’s mind, at the bottom of his heart, in the depths of his soul, there was an empty space that had once been filled by God, and he never found anything else to put in it…

The religion my parents had grown up in was a dry morality without grace, a series of impossible demands that left them defeated and depressed. They escaped from it joyfully into a free life that affirmed their own goodness and expected their children’s. And yet they passed on to us the same impossible demands from which they had suffered…

On her conversion to Christianity (Surprise, surprise!)

Before I started going to church, I had been running about the world, like Christian in Pilgrim’s Progress, looking for a way to escape the burden of my sin, and neither my father nor psychiatry had been able to help me…I remained ‘weary of earth and laden with my sin,’ just like my father in his youth.”

She and her husband began going to church and “as we went on going, Sunday by Sunday, I listened attentively to the hymns, the prayer book, the words of the Bible, even the sermons. As I listened, I began to think that what I heard made sense out of everything…And I found it easier to believe in a universe created by an eternal God than in one that had ‘just happened.’ For me, the belief in forgiveness and grace was like sunshine after long days of rain. No matter what I did, no matter how low I fell, God would be there to forgive, to pick me up and set me on my feet again. Though I could not earn his love, neither could I lose it. It was absolute, not conditional…

On her desire to share her faith with her father:

I would have liked to convince my father that I had found what he had been looking for, the ineffable something he had longed for all his life. I would have liked to persuade him that the search for God does not have to be vain. But it was hopeless. He had known too many blind Christians, bleak moralists who sucked the joy from life and persecuted their opponents; he would never have been able to see the truth they were hiding…All I could do was trust him to God’s care, knowing that God loved him more than I did and would do what was best for him.”

Wow. Powerful stuff. No commentary needed. As Jesus said, “He that has ears to hear, let him hear.”

For more of her story, you can find her book on Amazon.

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