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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:


Review of Meyer’s Signature in the Cell by Anthony J. Sadar

This review comes from the Washington Times and is favorable to Meyer’s conclusions:

Review: Atheist Delusions, by David Bentley Hart

Here we review important books and articles, new or old, that relate to the issues surrounding Christian Apologetics. This review focuses on David Bentley Hart’s, Atheist Delusions: The Christian Revolution and Its Fashionable Enemies, published in 2009 by Yale University Press.

Atheist Delusions, by David Bentley Hart, 2009.

Francis Bacon reminds us that “Some books are meant to be tasted, others to be swallowed, and some few to be chewed and digested.” Atheist Delusions is of the “chewed and digested”  category.  It is a response to the New Atheists, the Triumverate of Christopher Hitchens, Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris. But Hart’s is not a point-by-point rebuttal. It is a studied and brutal expose of their uniform ignorance of the history of Christianity and the world into which it was birthed and grew. Indeed, he reminds us all that the very moral air we breathe today was first exhaled two millenia ago by Christianity’s uniquely clear moral vision of humanity.

It is immediately obvious that Hart is entirley at home and comfortable in the world of ancient Greece and Rome and their development through the Middle Ages. He is a first-rate historian who has given his life to the study of the thinkers of that period and their contribution to Western civilization. Hart is not interested in portraying Christianity as the answer to all of the ills of society. He is objective enough to recount its failures as well as successes. As he writes, “I feel no need to evade of excuse the innumerable failures of many Christians through the ages to live lives of charity or peace.”

His “ambitions are small” and “concerns the history of the early church, or roughly the first four or five centuries, and the story of how Christendom was born out of the culture of late antiquity.” His chief ambition “is to call attention to the peculiar and radical nature of the new faith in that setting: how enormous a transformation of thought, sensibility, culture, morality, and spiritual imagination of Christianity constituted in the age of pagan Rome; the liberation it offered from fatalism, cosmic despair, and the terror of occult agencies; the immense dignity it conferred upon the human person; its subversion of the cruelest apects of pagan society; its (alas, only partial) demystification of political power; its ability to create moral community where none had existed before; and its elevation of activy charity above all other virtues.”

Some might argue that if Christianity had never existed then we would find ourselves today in much the same moral climate. It is a case that cannot be made since history did not happen this way. And so we can only trace with the fingers of study how Christianity did, in fact, influence our world for better in a number of critical ways.

Review : Francis S. Collins’ belief, readings on the reason for faith

Francis S. Collins, former director of the National Human Genome Research Institute and one of the world’s leading geneticists, chose these 32 selections on various aspects of faith. The book is divided into eleven sections from Classic Arguments for Faith and Reason to the Problem of Evil to The Harmony of Science and Faith to The Irrationality of Atheism (with some other sections thrown in for good measure).

Those familiar with the genre will find the familiar selections from Plato, Augustine, Aquinas, Pascal, C.S. Lewis, Thomas Merton, G.K. Chesterton and Alvin Plantinga. What is new are pieces from N.T.Wright, Os Guinness, John Stott, David Elton Trueblood, Keith Ward, Tim Keller, John Polkinghorne, Alister McGrath and Anthony Flew. And to keep it interesting are works from outside the traditional camp: Elie Wiesel, Victor Frankl, Mahatma Gandhi, and The Dalai Lama. Notably absent are some classic apologetic works from authors such as William Paley (Natural Theology) and some of the modern philosophers like William Lane Craig, Cornelius Van Til, and Peter Kreeft. Nonetheless, much good material lies between the covers of this book.

Rather than slavishly recount much of the book (you can read it yourself) I’d like to highlight the parts that gave me an “aha” moment at my first reading. So here we go with comments on three selections:

A selection from Aquinas’ Summa Theologica contained his thoughts on the Simplicity of God. Contrary to Richard Dawkins, who insists that God must be at least more complex than his creation, Aquinas argues that God is, in essence, quite a simple Being. Hear him:

“God is, therefore, wholly Simple, for in Him there is no composition nor quantitative parts, neither is His Nature distinct from His Subject. He is wholly Simple likewise because what is composite comes after its component parts, and depends upon them; whereas God is the First Being. Moreover, a thing composite has a cause for its unity; but God has no cause, being Himself the First Efficient Cause. Also, in everything which is composite there is potentiality and actuality, which have no place in God. Finally, everything which is composite is a whole separate from its parts, whether like or unlike, which can in no way be said of God, Who His own Form, or rather His own Being, and, therefore, is wholly Simple.”

Next, an essay by British novelist Dorothy L. Sayers voices an interesting take on matters that have usually belonged to the experts of New Testatment textual criticism. I will quote her at length since it is well worth the echo:

“Bible critics in particular appear to be persons of very leisurely mental growth. Take, for example, the notorious dispute about the Gospel according to St. John.

Into the details of that dispute I do not propose to go. I only want to point out that the arguments used are such as no critic would ever dream of applying to a modern book of memoirs written by one real person about another. The defects imputed to St. John would be virtues in Mr. Jones, and the value and authenticity of Mr. Jone’s contribution to literature wouldbe proved by the same arguments that are used to undermine the authenticity of St. John.

Suppose, for example, Mr. Bernard Shaw were now to publish a volume of reminescences about Mr. William Archer: would anybody object that the account must be received with suspicion because most of Archer’s other contempraries were dead, or because the style of G.B.S. was very unlike that of a Times obituary notice, or because the book contained a great many intimate conversations not recorded in previous memoirs, and left out a number of facts that could easily be ascertained by reference to the Dictionary of National Biography? Of if Mr. Shaw (being a less vigorous octogenarian than he happily is) had dictated part of his material to a respectable clergyman, who had himself added a special note to say that Shaw was the real author and that readers might rely on the accuracy of the memoirs since, after all, Shaw as a close friend of Archer and ought to know-should we feel that these two worthy men were thereby revealed as self-confessed liars, and dismiss their joint work as valueless fabrication? Probably not, but then Mr. Shaw is a real person, and lives, not in the Bible, but in Westminster. The time has not come to doubt him. He is already a legend, but not yet a myth; two thousand years hence, perhaps–”

It is rather unfortunate that the “Higher Criticism” was first undertaken at a time when all textual criticism tended to be destructive-when the body of Homer was being torn into fragments, the Arthurian romance reduced to its Celtic elements, and the “authority” of manuscripts established by a mechanical system of verbal agreements…When it came to the Bible, the spirit of destruction was the more gleefully iconoclastic because of the conservative extravagances of the “verbal inspiration” theory. But the root of the trouble is to be found, I suspect (as usual), in the collapse of dogma. Christ, even for Christians, is not quite “really” real – not altogether human-and the taint of unreality has spread to His disciples and friends and to His biographers: they are not “real” writers, but just “Bible” writers. John and Matthew and Luke and Mark, some or all of them, disagree about the occasion on which a parable was told or an epigram uttered. One or all must be a liar or untrustworthy, because Christ (not being quite real) must have made every remark once and once only. He could not, of course, like a real teacher, have used the same illustration twice, or found it necessary to hammer the same point home twenty times over, as one does when addressing audiences of real people and not of “Bible characters.”

Dorothy Sayers’ has the kind of common sense realism about the New Testament that needs to find a friend in the textual critical community. One can only hope.

Lastly, we will take a peek at the entry from the Dalai Lama, who we find “has spent many years reflecting on the remarkable advances of science.” He views science as “essentially a mode of inquiry that gives us fantastically detailed knowledge of the empirical world…” While respecting the value that science brings us, he also understands that “many aspects of human existence, including values, creativity, and spirituality, as well as deeper metaphysical questions, lie outside the scope of scientific inquiry.”

Like many Christian thinkers, he sees an implicit misapplication of science called “scientific materialism” which he holds to be “an assumption that the scientific view of the world should be the basis for all knowledge and all that is knowable.” Underlying this assumption is a presupposition that all of reality can be reduced to matter and energy and nothing else. He decries this reductionism and says that it is actually not a scientific conclusion, but rather an unjustified metaphysical conclusion. As he himself says it, “The view that all aspects of reality can be reduced to matter and its various particles is, to my mind, as much a metaphysical position as the view that an organizing intelligence created and controls reality.”

What bothers the Dalai Lama about this “radical scientific materialsm” is “the narrowness of vision that results and the potential for nihilism that might ensue.” It matters to our common humanity “whether we see ourselves as random biological creatures or special beings…” If we limit ourselves to a materialist position it provides no basis for ethics. He writes that “From a Buddhist perspective, a full human understanding must not only offer a coherent account of reality… but also a clear awareness of how we should act.”

He concludes by saying “Today, in the first decade of the twenty-first century, science and spirituality have the potential to be closer than ever, and to embark upon a collaborative endeavor that has far-reaching potential to help humanity meet the challenges before us. We are all in this together. May each of us, as a member of the human family, respond to the moral obligation to make this collaboration possible. This is my heartfelt plea.”

And with him, all Christians can agree and work toward this end.

Review: Plato’s Timaeus

The Timaeus has been characterized as Plato’s case for Intelligent Design. This comparison is not far off the mark. It represents his mature thought and was among his last works published during his 50 years or so of literary output. The Barnes & Noble edition version which I recommend (Benjamin Jowett translation) is only 85 pages and can be read in half a day if you are serious and not-distracted.

As a Christian I could not help but constantly compare Plato’s cosmogony with that of Genesis – and you will too, with much interest. Our fascination with the creation of the universe is not new. It is a subject as old as recorded history and Plato takes his turn early in the history of ideas. It is yet another reminder to us that Western philosophy is simply a series of footnotes to Plato.

After a short dialogue among Timaeus, Socrates, Critias and Hermocrates, Timaeus sets out an extended monologue of his account of the creation of the universe and man. He begins by posing this significant question:

“Was the heaven then or the world, whether called by this or any other more appropriate name – the question which I am going to ask has to be asked about the beginning of everything – was the world, I say, in existence and without beginning? Or created and having a beginning?” (section 28)

Plato’s answer: “Created, I reply”. It is a matter of common sense to Plato that created things have a cause. This not only applies to individual instantiations of things but to our world as a whole. However, in contrast to the Judeo-Christian tradition, Plato’s world was not created ex-nihilo. There existed first a primordial chaos, from which the Creator fashioned an orderly world. The origin of this chaos is not explained, just assumed. And Plato’s Creator is thus referred to as the Demiurge (a transliteration of the greek ‘demiourgos’ – best translated as “Craftsman”). The Craftsman fashions his world after the pattern of a perfect form – in the manner an architect would refer to a blueprint.

Another interesting question Plato addresses is one that anticipates modern theories of the universe/multiverse. Timaeus asks:

“Are we right in saying that there is one heaven, or shall we rather say that they are many and infinite? There is one, if the created heaven is to accord with the pattern.” (section 31)

Christian theology throughout the early and medieval period settled on a universe – Giordano Bruno notwithstanding. But it is a subject in the forefront of apologetics because the modern proponents of the multiverse have found, so it seems to them, a convenient way out of creatio ex-nihilo which is the logical outcome of the Big Bang theory. Of course, a multiverse simply pushes the question of origins further back, but that is another story.

Another conclusion that Plato reaches is that time was created with the Universe – a conclusion also reached by Augustine and consonant with the modern Big Bang theory, where all matter and energy was focused into a singularity that exploded and became our universe. Timaeus says:

“Time then, was created with the heaven, in order that being produced together they may be dissolved together…” (section 38).

Timaeus provides some considerable detail on the creation of the heavenly bodies, animals and man in Sections 38-42, passages which can be read with great interest with its obvious comparisons of the creation account in Genesis. Plato’s Creator creates the world but he left it up to the various lesser gods to create man. And what of the creation of woman? Well, if you thought being created from man’s rib was a setback, Plato can beat that. According to Plato, woman was created when man, having lived an unrighteous life, would pass into another, lesser life and return as a woman. Maybe Genesis wasn’t so backwards after all?

There is much more to his story. He tells of the creation of our body parts, the elemental forces of the universe (fire, air, earth and water), and the perfect forms of the universe (the five perfect solids – an inspiration to Kepler a thousand years later). But as you can see, there is much in his account that Christians in later years would come to appreciate and accommodate. A fascinating read that carried great weight with the ancient world.

Now go, read, and learn.

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