Reza Aslan and the Search for the Historical Jesus (…and Robert E. Lee)

lee-jackson-in-prayerIt should come as no surprise that following FOX News’s debacle of an interview with Reza Aslan his book, Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth, shot up to No. 1 at Amazon. I decided to pick it up as well and finished reading it yesterday. It’s beautifully written and provides an excellent introduction to the subject. As a graduate student in philosophy, with a concentration in philosophy of history, I studied the debate over the Synoptic Gospels as a case study of how historians formulate and revise their interpretations. That was a long time ago so reading Aslan’s Zealot felt fresh.

As I was reading I couldn’t help but be reminded of the extent to which the controversy surrounding Aslan’s book (or any attempt to critically explore the historical Jesus) reflects some of the same dynamics in our Civil War community. The FOX interview itself represented the worst in the virulent strain of anti-intellectualism that ignores any attempt to engage in serious critical thinking in favor of discrediting the author. We see this quite often when the scholarship of academic historians who write Civil War history is dismissed based on assumptions about their politics, regional affiliation, etc. rather than engaging the argument itself. Many view academic scholarship as a threat to stories that have been accepted without question.

Aslan’s book offers a very readable introduction to the kind of history that is steeped in sound methodology defined by the critical evaluation of evidence and analysis that is informed by relevant scholarly sources. He, of course, applies the historian’s craft to a subject that for many cannot simply be discussed in purely historical terms. It goes without saying that many bypass secular language altogether. This post is in no way an attempt to assess this particular position. What I find instructive is Aslan’s careful exploration of the stories passed down primarily through the Gospels about Jesus in an attempt to pinpoint specific facts about his life and the world in which he lived. That itself can be a walk on the slippery rocks for many as it is for those who hold tight to stories passed down about the Civil War: think Chamberlain at Gettysburg, Kirkland at Fredericksburg or Gordon at Appomattox. We find meaning in certain stories and are loathe to have those stories challenged.

Such challenges abound in the search for the historical Jesus as they do in the case of any historical study. Here are a few.

  • Textual Analysis: The Synoptic Gospels are not all independent sources about the life of Jesus. Little information about their authors exists. None of the authors were witnesses to Jesus’s life. Their writings were not meant to be understood strictly as historical accounts. In other words, the authors were not necessarily interested in telling historically accurate stories. They were written decades after Jesus’s death.
  • The Problem of Language: No one knows what language Jesus spoke, though there is some agreement that it was likely Aramaic. According to Aslan, Jesus was likely illiterate, which makes it difficult to believe stores that have him debating Jewish scholars in the Temple about religious texts. This also becomes an issue when it comes to translating his story into different languages. Aslan provides a number of examples where the meaning of certain words/concepts has been lost.
  • Canonization of Gospels: One of the most interesting parts of the book explores the struggle between Paul and Jesus’s brother, James, over how to understand his life and ministry. The upshot is that Paul increasingly came to understand Jesus’s ministry apart from Jewish law and culture altogether whereas James and the rest of the inner circle did not and even called on Paul to answer for this interpretive shift more than once. Aslan offers an intriguing explanation as to why the early Church excluded James and others in favor of Paul.
  • Historical Context: Jesus was one among many self-proclaimed messiahs during a time of great social, political, and economic upheaval.

Let me be clear that I am not in any way suggesting that Aslan offers the final word on any aspect of this debate. I am less interested in whether his preferred interpretation holds than I am with what it tells us about how we approach the study of the past. The above list only skirts what is a very complex explanation, but for every kind of interpretive question raised by Aslan in this book we find the equivalent in our Civil War community.

You can bet that for every person who was outraged by FOX’s interview with Aslan there were just as many, if not more, who cheered every step of the way. Those cheers were expressions of approval not just of the interviewers continued emphasis on Aslan’s religious preference, but in defense of stories that are held as sacred and untouchable. The mere questioning of such stories is already to cross a line.

Like anyone else I like a good story. That said, I am no longer surprised when the application of mature scholarly analysis and a deft pen results in a historical narrative that is much more interesting and meaningful than the mere acceptance of stories handed down generation after generation. That was certainly the case for me after reading Aslan’s book and it is also true when it comes to trying to make sense of the American Civil War.

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24 comments… add one
  • Peter Binkley (@pabinkley) Aug 19, 2013 @ 12:24

    Have you read any of April de Conick’s work on the Jesus tradition in the first couple of centuries? She looks at what became the mainstream as well as all the fringe groups (gnostics of various stripes, etc.); and she takes the idea of community memory as her starting point. You might well find something in common with your own work.

    • Kevin Levin Aug 19, 2013 @ 12:25

      Thanks for the recommendation. That does sound interesting.

  • TF Smith Aug 19, 2013 @ 6:42

    The “Marble Messiah” complex?

    Sounds like a thesis topic…

  • Michael Lynch Aug 19, 2013 @ 6:29

    I’ve never been all that impressed with a lot of the scholarship coming out of the “Third Quest” for the historical Jesus. It’s characterized by far too much overstating of claims, overstating of certainty about the reliability of certain methodologies, over-reliance on dubious sources (or hypothetical sources), and a tendency to present certain types of scholarship as The Real Deal Historical-Critical Scholarship while neglecting to engage scholarship that is equally rigorous but less sensational. It’s not about a dichotomy between historical scholarship on one hand and beliefs held in faith on the other; within the scholarship itself there’s a complicated spectrum of opinion. The unfortunate thing about the Fox interview is that it reinforced the notion that the historical Jesus issue is a debate between scholars and believers, when in fact almost every scholarly statement arising out of the Third Quest has been a subject of contention within the scholarly community. There’s no such thing as a scholars’ historical Jesus–there have been as many historical Jesuses as there have been scholars writing books.

  • grandadfromthehills Aug 18, 2013 @ 18:29

    I am a bit amazed at your delving into this. I thought the campaign against one lost cause would be enough without jumping on a religious philosophy! However, the cause of Christianity has far more to offer than that of the South.

    I might suggest serious enquiries into “Mere Christianity” by C.S. Lewis and “The Case for Christ” by Lee Strobel.

    Sam Vanderburg
    Gun Barrel City, TX

    • Kevin Levin Aug 18, 2013 @ 18:36

      I am sorry that you interpret this post as a campaign against anything. Nothing could be further from the truth.

      • grandadfromthehills Aug 18, 2013 @ 18:52

        Thanks, Kevin. This just seems to be a bit broad and I find my comments could add nothing compared to what has been writen by others.

        I am a bit amazed that there is serious scholastic consideration on the authorship of Matthew. Of the synoptic authors, he was the earliest with linguists considering his Gospel being possibly first written in Aramaic by the structure. Matthew was an eyewitness according to history.

        I still have scholastic problems with many other points brought forward. I do not think I need to be an apoligist, but more questions were raised about the author than were questioned.

        Historically, there is likly more evidence for the resurrection of Jesus than for Cesar crossing the Rubicon.

        Does this get me kicked to the curb? LOL!

        Sam Vanderburg
        Gun Barrel City, TX

        • Kevin Levin Aug 19, 2013 @ 2:49

          What can I say, I blog about what is on my mind. There is nothing groundbreaking or even that interesting here.

    • Peter Stam Aug 18, 2013 @ 22:22

      You probably don’t really mean the “serious inquiry” into those books by Strobel and Lewis. If one does delve into them, they are discovered to be seriously flawed and one-sided, preaching to the choir of those who already believe.

      I suggest you read books along the line of “God in the age of science” by Herman Philipse or “Atheism: the case against god” by George H. Smith. Makes for very interesting reading material, and if nothing else it broadens one’s argumentative spectrum.

  • Patrick Young Aug 18, 2013 @ 17:33

    I am not suggesting you did. I just wonder about the conflating by many Christians of religious belief with historical truth claims.

    • Kevin Levin Aug 18, 2013 @ 17:37

      OK, but getting back to your last comment, am I wrong to assume that there has to be something historical in that “didactic fiction” which anchors it in place and time?

      • Patrick Young Aug 18, 2013 @ 17:45

        Only if you think that there had to be a burning bush for God to covenant with his people. The central “fact” of Christianity is the Resurrection, which is inherently outside of history and impossible historically.

        • Patrick Young Aug 18, 2013 @ 17:48

          We don’t approach “Also sprach Zarathustra” by remarking on the difference between Nietzsche’s or Strauss’s depiction and the “historical Zarathustra”.

        • Kevin Levin Aug 18, 2013 @ 17:53

          The central “fact” of Christianity is the Resurrection, which is inherently outside of history and impossible historically.

          No disagreement there, but does it matter historically as to who was resurrected? Isn’t there a curiosity as to identity? Hope you don’t mind the questions.

          • Patrick Young Aug 18, 2013 @ 17:56

            The Nicene Creed says what a Christian BELIEVES, not what he can prove.

            • Kevin Levin Aug 18, 2013 @ 18:02

              Wouldn’t it be more historically accurate to say that what a Christian believes reflects the disagreements and rivalries of the Council of Nicea over how to interpret the life and ministry of Jesus? Thanks for responding to my questions.

              • Patrick Young Aug 18, 2013 @ 18:06

                No. It reflects the outcome, not the debate.

                • Kevin Levin Aug 18, 2013 @ 18:09

                  Got it. Thanks for putting up with me. 🙂

            • Rob Baker Aug 18, 2013 @ 18:07

              Much like the Apostle’s Creed. Ambiguous historically yet literal in aspects of “belief.”

              But to answer Kevin I’d say it matters historically, a historically proven resurrection would be a big deal, and definitive proof of a deity. As for identity, I think there is a constant curiosity and search for identity.

              • Patrick Young Aug 18, 2013 @ 19:21

                As my priest would say, if we could prove the Resurrection, then we wouldn’t need Faith and without Faith, Salvation would be impossible. So stop trying to prove stuff or we’ll all go to hell.

  • Patrick Young Aug 18, 2013 @ 17:24

    When I was in Catholic school in 9th grade I was taught that the Bible is didactic fiction, that three of the Gospels were based on a common lost source (the synoptic Gospels), that they were written when they were to memorialize Jesus before the last people who knew him died, that Paul’s innovation was the gentilization of the Jesus cult taking it outside its losing battle to be an alternative sect within Judaism, etc. I would think that this is hardly news to Christians familiar with their religion.

    • Kevin Levin Aug 18, 2013 @ 17:26

      I would think that this is hardly news to Christians familiar with their religion.

      I am not in any way suggesting that it ought to be interpreted as such.

  • Patrick Young Aug 18, 2013 @ 17:17

    A note on “THE HISTORICAL JESUS” nonsense. It seems to miss the point of what a religion is. The Bible isn’t a religion, it is a book. As Catholics used to understand, Jesus did not come to earth to write a book.

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