Behold the Man
By Reza Aslan
Random House, 2013
He comes to us as One unknown, without a name, as of old, by the lake-side, he came to those men who knew Him not. He speaks to us the same word: “Follow thou me!” and sets us to the tasks which He has to fulfill for our time. He commands. And to those who obey, whether they be wise or simple, He will reveal Himself in the toils, the conflicts, the sufferings which they shall pass through in his fellowship, and, as an ineffable mystery, they shall learn in their own experience Who He is.
So Albert Schweitzer wrote, in his spectral 1906 book The Quest of the Historical Jesus, and in the ensuing century, the toils of revelation have not eased. Books have poured forth in numbers great enough to satisfy even the hungriest devout bookworm. Joel Carmichael’s The Death of Jesus, Albert Nolan’s Jesus Before Christianity, John Dominic Crossan’s The Historical Jesus, John Meier’s A Marginal Jew, Craig Keener’s The Historical Jesus of the Gospels, Bart Ehrman’s Jesus: Apocalyptic Prophet of the New Millennium, Paul Fredricksen’s From Jesus to Christ – these and hundreds of others have probed the Gospels, the Acts of the Apostles, the Letters of St. Paul, the Dead Sea Scrolls, the Apocrypha, and the writings of Josephus, all seeking to pierce the temple veil and find the man behind the mythologizing.
There was a time – a long time, centuries of time, when every single one of these scholars would have been dispossessed, imprisoned, tortured, and executed for asking some of the questions they all ask. But age and schism and scandal have sapped Christianity’s ability to anathematize inquiry, and the 20th century in particular was as harsh to believers in Jesus as it was to believers in everything else.
In the First World War, all sides called for the Messiah’s benediction while they killed His followers. In the Second World War, a pogrom of unprecedented thoroughness against the Jews was met with silence by a Catholic Church sworn to love its neighbors. In the wake of Vatican II, septuagenarian priests at their Sunday pulpits referred to Jesus as “groovy.” The dawn of the 21st century saw a wave of “New Atheism,” propounded in books with titles like The End of Faith, and The God Delusion, and championed at the lectern by the late Christopher Hitchens, author of God is Not Great, who frequently told his chuckling audiences that there was no unequivocal history that Jesus ever existed at all. In his more generous moods, he was willing to grant that an eccentric preacher by that name roamed Palestine during the reign of the Roman emperor Augustus, gathering crowds of listeners, getting himself crucified, and eventually inspiring the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John.
Those Gospels want to tell the story of the Messiah, not the man – they establish Schweitzer’s ineffable mystery rather than dispelling it. Equally fervent since the Enlightenment have been the thinkers bent on telling the story of the man, not the Messiah: a humble Jewish teacher who promoted forgiveness and turning the other cheek and who went meekly to his own death. Thomas Jefferson famously excised the supernatural passages from his New Testament, the better to create a kind of Christian philosophy in which a Christ wasn’t necessary – which was the kind of intellectual move that drew rare scorn from C. S. Lewis:
You can shut him up for a fool, you can spit at him and kill him as a demon or you can fall at his feet and call him Lord and God, but let us not come with any patronizing nonsense about his being a great human teacher. He has not left that open to us. He did not intend to.
The great human teacher nevertheless continues to attract adherents; the work of separating Jesus from Christ is ongoing, and the outrage that work could inspire in so mild a breast as that of C. S. Lewis is still very much alive. Witness the recent storm of controversy over Reza Aslan’s new book Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus Christ.
Aslan, an American citizen who was born in Iran, is a professor of creative writing at the University of California, a scholar of comparative religion, and the author of 2005’s bestselling No god but God: The Origins, Evolution, and Future of Islam. In Zealot, he embarks on that same old quest to uncover the historical Jesus and finds not a lamb of God but a firebrand of violent political revolution, a man who came not to bring peace but the sword, a with-me-or-against-me insurgent intent on overthrowing Roman rule in Palestine and establishing a very tangible, very temporal Kingdom of God in its place. It’s a version of Jesus many earlier scholars have described as well – there is in fact no version of Jesus that earlier scholars have not described – but it’s sparked outrage in Zealot‘s case not only because the book strips mythology from Jesus but also because Aslan is Muslim. Immediately upon the book’s release, a pastor named John Dickerson posted a screed about it on FoxNews.com that reads in part:
Media reports have introduced Aslan as a “religion scholar” but have failed to mention that he is a devout Muslim.
His book is not a historian’s report on Jesus. It is an educated Muslim’s opinion about Jesus – yet the book is being peddled as objective history on national TV and radio.
Aslan is not a trained historian. Like tens of thousands of us he has been formally educated in theology and New Testament Greek.
He is a bright man with every right to hold his opinion about Jesus – and to proselytize his opinion.
As a sincere man, Aslan’s Muslim beliefs affect his entire life, including his conclusions about Jesus. But this is not being disclosed. “Zealot” is being presented as objective and scholarly history, not as it actually is – an educated Muslim’s opinions about Jesus and the ancient Near East.
“Zealot” is a fast-paced demolition of the core beliefs that Christianity has taught about Jesus for 2,000 years. Its conclusions are long-held Islamic claims – namely, that Jesus was a zealous prophet type who didn’t claim to be God, that Christians have misunderstood him, and that the Christian Gospels are not the actual words or life of Jesus but “myth.”
Dickerson’s main point, that “Reza Aslan has a horse in this race,” is designed to appeal to his fellow bigots (it’s the same point that’s made over and over again – to the embarrassment of every thinking person anywhere in the world – by idiot Fox News spokesperson Lauren Green, who, in a 10-minute quasi-discussion with Aslan, manages to remind him roughly 100 times that he is, in fact, a Muslim). All Dickerson’s secondary points – that Aslan isn’t a historian, that if Aslan is a Muslim he must be a devout Muslim, that Aslan’s religious beliefs must trump his scholarship – are obviously wrong, as also just may be his contention that tens of thousands of Fox News readers have been formally educated in New Testament Greek. But this hasn’t stopped dozens of people from reposting Dickerson’s comments as “book reviews” on Zealot‘s Amazon page, with a result predictable to everyone except those who brought it about: Aslan’s speaking engagements have proliferated, and his book has become a bestseller, vaulting to Dan Brown territory in Amazon’s sales rankings.
Such controversy usually exalts poltroons, but not in this case. Aslan is a gifted writer, and Zealot is a clear, vigorous layman’s trot on the case for a mortal, mundane, divisive Jesus. Aslan covers no new ground and makes no assertions that hundreds have not made before, and he’s frank about the essential impossibility of much of what he’s attempting. “Writing a biography of Jesus of Nazareth is not like writing a biography of Napoleon Bonaparte,” he tells us – an assertion with which Bonaparte would have agreed whole-heartedly, although not in the way Aslan intends it; because the source material is so scanty and opaque, the whole task is filtered through an inescapable egotism:
The great Christian theologian Rudolf Bultmann liked to say that the quest for the historical Jesus is ultimately an internal quest. Scholars tend to see the Jesus they want to see. Too often they see themselves – their own reflection – in the image of Jesus they have constructed.
Aslan is also an arrogant writer; it never occurs to him that the above observation calls for a certain humility in any scholar who attempts the quest. His book is charming, smart, and thought-provoking, but it never even glances in the direction of humility. Instead, it asserts as self-evident what many better thinkers have considered vastly problematic:
Indeed, if we commit to placing Jesus firmly within the social, religious, and political context of the era in which he lived – an era marked by the slow burn of a revolt against Rome that would forever transform the faith and practice of Judaism – then, in some ways, his biography writes itself.
(As Aslan himself mentions, all of the points he’s making in his book have been debated fiercely by scholars for centuries – it’s safe to say that nothing about this story ‘writes itself’).
There are many passages of great eloquence:
By the time he returned, the Galilee he knew – of family farms and open fields, of blooming orchards and vast meadows bursting with wildflowers – looked a lot like the province of Judea he had just left behind: urbanized, Hellenized, iniquitous, and strictly stratified between those who had and those who had not.
But there are many more passages of an absolutely bracing truculence usually given to much older scholars. “Paul’s lack of concern with the historical Jesus is not due, as some have argued, to his emphasis on the Christological rather than historical concerns,” we’re told at one point, “It is due to the simple fact that Paul had no idea who the living Jesus was, nor did he care.” Josephus’ account of the Roman general (and future emperor) Titus trying to restrain his men from destroying the Temple during the sack of Jerusalem in AD 77 is, we’re told, “obviously nonsense.” The idea that the “King of the Jews” placard placed over Jesus’ head on the cross might have been a bit of sarcasm on the part of the Roman soldiers at the scene is dismissed as more “nonsense”; “the Romans may have been known for many things, but humor isn’t one of them,” our author, rather innocently, tells us. “It is often assumed that when Jesus spoke of himself as the Son of Man, the Jews knew what he was talking about,” Aslan writes. “They did not.” And what of the Virgin Birth that started it all?
The argument in Matthew that Jesus’s virgin birth was prophesied in Isaiah holds no water at all, since scholars are nearly unanimous in translating the passage in Isaiah 7:14 not as “behold a virgin shall conceive” but “behold, a young maiden (alma) shall conceive.” There is no debate here: alma is Hebrew for a young woman. Period.
Fundamentalist howls notwithstanding, this sort of thing is endlessly fun to read. Zealot, thoroughly researched, provides a rolling End Notes discussion rather than specific source citations – an annoyingly timid brand of scholarship also on display in No god but God – so reading it straight through feels more like listening to Aslan hit his favorite New Testament obsessions than like reading an update of somebody like John Dominic Crossan. This is a cannily chosen method that plays to Aslan’s strengths, since he’s an entertaining writer who knows how to keep his narrative moving along.
The memory of the revolutionary zealot who walked across Galilee gathering an army of disciples with the goal of establishing the Kingdom of God on earth, the magnetic preacher who defied the authority of the Temple priesthood in Jerusalem, the radical Jewish nationalist who challenged the Roman occupation and lost, has been almost completely lost to history.
His over-arching theory is that Jesus was a radical Jewish nationalist, a “revolutionary zealot who walked across Galilee gathering an army of disciples with the goal of establishing the Kingdom of God on earth.” He contends that this figure – now “almost completely lost to history” – had to be suppressed because the great Jewish revolt across Palestine that resulted in the razing of Jerusalem and the destruction of the Temple made all things Jewish even more unpalatable in the Roman Empire. To a world of Gentile potential converts whose memories of insurrection were raw, St. Paul brought a new-fashioned Jesus who preaches acceptance and whose kingdom is reassuringly not of this world – a naive, superhuman being whose followers are instructed to do good to those who persecute them: an unobtrusive religion; a consolation to slaves, servants, and dutiful citizens rather than a call to action. The synoptic Gospels, taking their cue from Paul, give readers a Jesus already well on the way to being whitewashed into divinity:
As has been repeatedly noted, the gospels are not about a man known as Jesus of Nazareth who lived two thousand years ago; they are about a messiah whom the gospel writers viewed as an eternal being sitting at the right hand of God. The first-century Jews who wrote about Jesus had already made up their minds about who he was. They were constructing a theological argument about the nature and function of Jesus as Christ, not composing a historical biography about a human being.
Far from trumpeting his ascendancy, Aslan writes, the Jesus of these Gospels worked hard to keep his “messianic secret,” frequently instructing his disciples not to tell anybody about his secret life as the Christ. When he asks them at one point who the people of the region are saying he is, they tell him that some say he’s John the Baptist alive again, or Elijah returned from Heaven, or Jeremiah, or one of the other prophets back from the dead. Jesus then asks, “But who do you say I am?” – and it’s Simon Peter who flatly asserts that he’s the Messiah, a fact Jesus tells all of his listeners to keep to themselves until the time is right. The right time being, in the now-dogmatic Christian timeline, after his death and resurrection – and although the latter event might seem like red meat to Aslan’s paring knife, he’s at least winningly ambiguous about its impact:
Perhaps the most obvious reason not to dismiss the disciples’ resurrection experiences out of hand is that, among all the other failed messiahs who came before and after him, Jesus alone is still called messiah. It was precisely the fervor with which the followers of Jesus believe in his resurrection that transformed this tiny Jewish sect into the largest religion in the world.
Aslan will win few friends among that religion with Zealot; the faithful will read his send-off, “Jesus of Nazareth – Jesus the man – is every bit as compelling, charismatic, and praiseworthy as Jesus the Christ. He is, in short, someone worth believing in,” as one more inflammatory parting shot at the heart of their belief, which is that Jesus the man is Jesus the Christ.
The lively, thought-provoking energy of Aslan’s book won’t matter to those people, and their denunciations will only sell more copies of Zealot, which is nice for Aslan. And there’ll be no Christian fatwa, which is also nice for Aslan.
Steve Donoghue is a writer and reader living in Boston with his dogs. He’s recently reviewed books for The Washington Post, The National, The Wall Street Journal, The Boston Globe, Historical Novel Review Online, and The Quarterly Conversation. He is the Managing Editor of Open Letters Monthly, and hosts one of its blogs, Stevereads.