Monday, August 19, 2013

Who Does He Say He Says He Is?: Reza Aslan's Zealot and the Politics of the Historical Jesus

A sketch of Jesus used to hang in a squalid corner of the Reed College Student Union.  Rendered in pencil, it depicted a pale, scruffy messiah with flowing locks of unkempt hair.  Typewritten words under the picture announced, “You kids can wear your hair however you want.  Just tell them I said so.”  While obviously a joke, there was no shortage of scrawny, white-hippie-Jesus lookalikes on campus when I was a Reed student.

In 1906, Albert Schweitzer published The Quest for the Historical Jesus: A Critical Study of its Progress from Reimarus to Wrede.  The Enlightenment had opened the door for a historical-critical approach to The Bible and Schweitzer surveyed dozens of scholarly efforts to describe the historical Jesus that had been published between the late eighteenth and the turn of the twentieth century.  Schweitzer’s book raised the issue of bias in the quest for the historical Jesus.  He observed that the scholarly depictions of Jesus tended to resemble the scholars who authored these studies.  Schweitzer did nothing less than call into question the legitimacy of the historical Jesus project.  Schweitzer then promptly left the field of religious studies to earn a degree in medicine and undertake a medical mission to Africa.  Scholarly interest in the historical Jesus dried up for half a century.

Later in the twentieth century, breathtaking discoveries such as the Nag Hammadi Library (1945) and the Dead Sea Scrolls (1946-1956) helped to reignite an interest in late second temple and early rabbinic Judaism, ancient Christianity, and the Jesus of history.  With thousands of new texts and new archeological discoveries, along with new approaches to literary theory, scholars renewed the quest to discover the historical Jesus.  Probably the most noteworthy effort was attempted by The Jesus Seminar which convened dozens of scholars and used the democratic process to arrive at claims about the historicity of the sayings and actions of Jesus.  Two of the leading contributors to the Jesus Seminar, Marcus Borg and John Dominic Crossan, published popular biographies of Jesus.

Both Borg and Crossan did a tremendous service to liberal and mainline Christianity by helping to rescue Jesus and The Bible from the forms of conservative evangelical and fundamentalist Christianity that dominated the American landscape in the 1980s and 90s.  They presented Jesus as a wisdom teacher helping to advance a spiritual revitalization movement within Judaism and as a liberal social activist speaking truth to Rome’s immoral power.  However, one wonders how Albert Schweitzer would regard Crossan and Borg.  Had they blended biography and autobiography?  Was the spiritual and social progressivism they attributed to Jesus a true reflection of Jesus or a reflection of their own values?

Consider Stephen Prothero’s fascinating American Jesus: How the Son of God Became a National Icon.  In this work Prothero reveals how Americans have imagined Jesus as a soft, maternal figure, as a scrappy prize fighter, as a corporate CEO, as an Eastern religious yogi, and even as a countercultural icon who would feel at home with hippies.  (Think of the portrait of Jesus in the Reed College Student Union.)  If religion and culture can so dramatically shape Jesus to suit its own purposes, who is to say that religious scholarship has not done much the same thing?

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The newest attempt to write about the Jesus of history comes in the form of Reza Aslan’s Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth.  Presenting ancient history and biblical scholarship in a way that’s compelling and exciting, Aslan contextualizes Jesus in the politics of his own day.  He chronicles the brutality of Roman rule, the responses to occupation by diverse Jewish factions, and the seemingly endless parade of revolutionaries who openly defied Rome and were slaughtered or crucified as a result.  Aslan presents us with a Jesus full of zeal, a man of fiery faith.  His Jesus is rough around the edges, strident, uncompromising, and at times violent.

Most everything we know about the historical Jesus can be summarized in a single sentence:  There was a Jewish man named Jesus who was crucified in Jerusalem during the reign of Pontius Pilate for the crime of sedition.  Reza Aslan’s exploration of the life and times of Jesus of Nazareth coheres with this history, focusing on the political history of first century Palestine and what we know about the history of Jewish resistance against the Roman Empire.

Consider how Reza Aslan interprets the parable of the Good Samaritan.  He argues that the thieves on the road are the Romans, the beaten man left to die represents the Jews, and the priests who walk by and ignore the man are the Temple priests who are complicit with Roman rule.  The Samaritans, historically speaking, “rejected the primacy of the Temple of Jerusalem as the sole legitimate place of worship.” (p. 101)  The parable is less about the moral obligation to help out those in need and more a challenge to the authority of the priests of the Temple.  Aslan interprets this parable as particular and politicized, not spiritually universal.

As a scholar, Aslan’s biography of Jesus is far from original.  He draws extensively from generally accepted scholarship of the New Testament and the world of early Christianity.  His biography may paint Jesus as a revolutionary, but it is far from a revolutionary work of scholarship.  He distills mountains of accepted scholarship into his biography of Jesus as a “politically conscious Jewish revolutionary who, two thousand years ago, walked across the Galilean countryside, gathering followers for a messianic movement with the goal of establishing the Kingdom of God but whose mission failed.”

I suppose it is possible to critique Reza Aslan’s Zealot a-la-Schweitzer by pointing out that Aslan’s previous scholarship, especially his doctoral thesis entitled How to Win a Cosmic War, concerns religious violence and international conflict.  Is Aslan giving us a selective biography of Jesus focusing on these aspects of his life, or does the best available scholarship about Jesus point to him as a historical figure best defined by zeal?  (Let me be clear that this observation does not invalidate the scholarship of Aslan any more than it invalidates the scholarship of Pagels, Borg, Crossan, Wrede, Strauss, or Reimarus.) 

There is a more interesting story here than whether Reza Aslan has looked into the mists of history and seen reflected back the Jesus he had hoped to see.  The story involves contemporary difficulties with seeing Reza Aslan and with seeing the Jesus that Aslan sees.  I find myself thinking again about the infamous interview that Lauren Green conducted with Reza Aslan on Fox News.  As painful as the interview was to watch, it was great for business, helping to propel Zealot to the top of the New York Times bestseller list.  What is striking about the interview is how challenged Green is to see Aslan.  “You’re a Muslim.”  “I am a scholar of religion.”  “You’re a Muslim.”  “I am a scholar of religion.”  In hindsight, I bet Reza Aslan wishes he had thought to ask, “Who do you say I am?”  Just as some said that Jesus was John the Baptist or Elijah or one of the prophets, Lauren Green seemed to have projected her biases and stereotypes about Islam onto Professor Aslan.

Make no mistake.  Aslan’s Jesus is a zealot, a radical Jewish nationalist driven by his strong faith to revolutionary, even violent, acts.  This is not the Prince of Peace we’re talking about here.  Can we imagine Jesus in this way and not simultaneously see Aslan through an Islamophobic lens?  If it is so difficult to see one another when we are face to face, how much more difficult is it to dare to understand the life of a Jewish peasant from Nazareth who lived two millennia ago?

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Other notes:
The nearly 60 pages of notes at the end of the book are almost as good as the book itself, especially if you are interested in Biblical scholarship.  In these notes he weighs the evidence supporting the various claims he makes and why he prefers some interpretations to others.  He is a total boss in these notes!

Note to copy-editor:  In the acknowledgments section (p. 217) the name of one of Aslan’s professors at Harvard Divinity School is misspelled.  Jon Levenson, not Jon Levinson.


Personally speaking, one of the best parts of this book was that it allowed me to take a trip down memory lane to my undergraduate education at Reed College where I majored in religion and my three years of coursework at Harvard Divinity School where I received a Master of Divinity degree.  At HDS I took Intro to the New Testament from Professor Karen King who was a fellow with the Jesus Seminar.  I also took an unforgettable class with Jon Levenson on the Jewish Liturgical Year, which is why I remember how to spell his name.  Ah, fond memories of Q, two source theory, the fact that half of Paul’s letters were not written by Paul, the awareness that it is doubtful that a single word in the New Testament was written by anyone who met Jesus and that the bulk of the Epistles were written before the Gospels, that the Gospels were not meant to be read as histories, and all sorts of other interesting things like this.