Friday, August 9, 2013

We've All Heard This Before: "Zealot" and the Same Search For the Missing Jesus

I hesitate comment on the noise generated around the Reza Aslan's book Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth for a number of reasons and none of them have to do with the man's faith or his credentials. First, it should be noted that the book has generated interest because of a poor interview on Fox News where the host asked the same question (why would a Muslim write a book about Jesus?) over and over again while Aslan repeatedly falsifies his academic credentials - over and over again. If you care to waste a few minutes of your precious time, you can watch the interview below:



The interview has since gone viral particularly among Fox News haters and to a certain extent deservedly so. But don't just blame the journalists at Fox News, the media in general lack the know-how and the desire to offer a substantive interview on issues of theology, Scripture, or religion. Most journalists aren't familiar with such a world, aren't interested in it, and find it an odd place to live and avoid it at all cost (another example of this would be the Pope's recent comments on those struggling with homosexual temptation).

Ulimately I have refused to read (let alone review) the book for one of the main reasons New Testament scholar Dr. Denny Burk has refused to: any "historian," "theologian," or "expert in religion" that writes a book on Jesus without at least taking the Gospel accounts seriously is a waste of my time. This is not to suggest that one must affirm the historicity of the Gospel accounts, but to at least admit that of all the evidence we possess on the life, ministry, death, and resurrection of Jesus, the best place to start remains the Gospels.

The Gospels are best for several reasons (and this is certainly not an exhaustive list). First, they are the earliest writings. Admittedly, I hold to a view that the Synoptics were written before AD 70 and the Apostle John wrote the fourth Gospel. Even many, if not most, liberal scholars affirm that the Gospels had to have been written earlier than virtually all of the pseudopegripha Gospels especially among the Gnostics. So-called scholars who trump the Gospel of Thomas or Mary (or whatever) over Mark are only fooling themselves and are wearing their bias on their sleeves. They want an ethical or political or jolly or postmodern Jesus. They'll take anything but a crucified Christ.

Secondly, they all report the same basic story. We could debate all day over difference here and there, but they all affirm the life, ministry, death, and, yes, resurrection of Jesus. If there was a wreck and four witnesses came forward all affirming, from their own unique perspective, the same basic events - car A ran into car B - there would be no reason to deny the basic account. In the same way, all four Gospels, being the earliest, affirm the same story - He lived; He died; He rose.

Thirdly, who would make up this story? The Gospels do not present disciples without flaws. On the contrary virtually all of them are portrayed as weak followers particularly among the leaders. Jesus, too, is not portrayed as a superhero who jumps over tall buildings in a single bound. We see Him tired, hungry, poor, lonely, betrayed, and crucified. Add to it the belief that Jesus was raised bodily from the dead and each disciple laid down their lives in defense of that and you have a story that one would be hard pressed to make up and defend.

In the end, though, Aslan (an unfortunate name given my affection for the Chronicles of Narnia) denies, not a more historical Jesus, but a Jesus of his own choosing. Aslan offers nothing new here. It is a repackaged argument we have all heard before. A different cover with a different author doesn't make the argument more credible or new.

In his column on the book Ross Douthat raises this point brilliantly. He begins:

BEFORE “The Da Vinci Code” and “The Gospel of Judas,” before Mel Gibson’s “Passion” and Martin Scorsese’s “Last Temptation,” before the Dead Sea Scrolls were unearthed and the Gnostic gospels rediscovered, there was a German scholar named Hermann Samuel Reimarus. 

It was Reimarus, writing in the 18th century, who basically invented the modern Jesus wars, by postulating a gulf between the Jesus of history and the Christ of faith. The real Jesus of Nazareth, he argued, was a political revolutionary who died disappointed, and whose disciples invented a resurrection — and with it, a religion — to make sense of his failure. 

In Reimarus’s lifetime these were dangerous ideas, and his argument was published posthumously. But within a few generations, historical-Jesus controversies inspired publicity rather than persecution. By the Victorian era, when the Earl of Shaftesbury attacked David Friedrich Strauss’s “Life of Jesus, Critically Examined” as “the most pestilential book ever vomited out of the jaws of hell,” he was just contributing to the book’s success. 

Today there are enough competing “real Jesuses” that it’s hard for a would-be Strauss to find his Shaftesbury. 

The search for the "real" Jesus has really only been a secular search for a more palpable Jesus easier to deny. Thomas Jefferson famously cut out (literally) the miracles of Jesus. From Reimarus to now Aslan, Christ-deniers are taking out the rest under the guise of having something new to say. This is all a reminder that denial is a short conversation. Its hard to offer something new when all you can do is deny what everyone else has believed, just ask any theological liberal. Liberals been spinning out the same arguments with different covers for decades. Aslan is doing the same here in the "search for the historic Jesus" movement (how many quests have there been now?) In short, we've all heard this before.

Douthat goes on:

Instead, Aslan’s book offers a more engaging version of the argument Reimarus made 250 years ago. His Jesus is an essentially political figure, a revolutionary killed because he challenged Roman rule, who was then mysticized by his disciples and divinized by Paul of Tarsus. 

The fact that Aslan’s take on Jesus is not original doesn’t mean it’s necessarily wrong. But it has the same problem that bedevils most of his competitors in the “real Jesus” industry. In the quest to make Jesus more comprehensible, it makes Christianity’s origins more mysterious. 

Part of the lure of the New Testament is the complexity of its central character — the mix of gentleness and zeal, strident moralism and extraordinary compassion, the down-to-earth and the supernatural. 

Most “real Jesus” efforts, though, assume that these complexities are accretions, to be whittled away to reach the historical core. Thus instead of a Jesus who contains multitudes, we get Jesus the nationalist or Jesus the apocalyptic prophet or Jesus the sage or Jesus the philosopher and so on down the list. 

There’s enough gospel material to make any of these portraits credible. But they also tend to be rather, well, boring, and to raise the question of how a pedestrian figure — one zealot among many, one mystic in a Mediterranean full of them — inspired a global faith.

Read the rest here. In the end, I concur with Dr. Denny Burk, who has the right credentials to speak on this matter, that Aslan's book is a waste of time for everybody. Period. End of story.



Ross Douthat - Return of the Jesus Wars
Denny Burk - Why I’m not reading Reza Aslan’s book


For more:
The Historical Jesus - Ben Witherington
Ravi Zacharias' 12 Arguments For the Historicity of the Resurrection
"The Case For Christianity" Documentaries
"Raised With Christ" by Adrian Warnock: A Review
NT Wright: Did Jesus Really Rise From the Dead?
"The Jesus Inquest" by Charles Foster: A Review
"The Case for Easter
"The Case For the Real Jesus" by Lee Strobel
Why Pundits Should Stick to Punditry: Chris Matthews & Jesus Meek and Mild
Why Pundits Should Stick to Punditry: O'Reilly Yet Again
Why Punidts Should Stick to Punditry: Universalism, Inclusivism, and Freud's Wish Fulfillment
Glenn Beck on Mormonism: Misinformation Abounds
Romney Will Burn In Hell: Bashir, MSNBC, and the Current Climate of Progressive Punditry
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