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