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.
- 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.
- 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: