I have not completed my evaluation of Reza Aslan’s popular, interesting, and well-written account of Jesus, Zealot. To this point I have merely tried to show that despite his claims (e.g. in the Fox News interview) of being an expert who is qualified to write such a book, he is not an expert – in the ancient world, in the New Testament, in the Gospels, or in the historical Jesus. When I began this discussion I understand that a lot of readers thought that I was just being snooty and dismissive by pointing this out; but in my subsequent posts I’ve tried to show why being an expert really does matter. Someone who is not an expert makes mistakes – lots of mistakes, and often serious mistakes. And the problem is that the person doesn’t even know it. I don’t think Aslan knowingly wrote anything he didn’t think. The problem is that he doesn’t know the field well enough to know where there are gaps in his knowledge, or where he has accepted incorrect information that he has heard or read one place or another.
And so my first task was to point out some of the mistakes, and we can all be glad that I’m going to stop doing that now.
I am now going to move on to a different kind of evaluation that is at least as important. For some people it is even more important. One could think that Aslan may have gotten this, that, or the other fact wrong — about the Roman world, about Judaism, about the Gospels, about the historical Jesus – but that his overarching thesis is nonetheless intact and compelling. And so now I want to address the thesis itself, that Jesus is best understood as a political revolutionary intent on the military overthrow of Rome – or at least the expulsion of Rome from the Promised Land and the establishment of a sovereign state of Israel, all to be done by force.
As I have stressed early on in this series of posts, this is not a new thesis. It was in fact the very first thesis ever promoted by someone who wanted to write a “Life of Jesus” based not on a ready acceptance of everything said in the Gospels as religiously and historically accurate, but based on a critical evaluation of these texts, realizing that they contain mis-information, when looked at from a historical perspective. The author was the late eighteenth century Hermann Samuel Reimarus, a great German theological scholar, who wrote up his views but never published them, for fear of the scandal they would cause. They were published by G. E. Lessing after Reimarus’s death as the Wolfenbüttel Fragmente. In them, among other things, Reimarus argued that Jesus was a political revolutionary, but that his message of insurgency was covered up by his disciples after his death, who converted his teachings into a religion of non-violence. The Fragments were published in 1774-78.
So we’re not talking about something new here. This view of the historical Jesus has been around as long as there has been critical scholarship on the historical Jesus. Literally.
Scholars have had all that time to examine every surviving piece of evidence for the perspective, and it’s safe to say that 99% (probably 99.9%!) have found the thesis wanting. That doesn’t make it wrong, of course, and we have to examine it anew every time it appears. And now in Aslan’s intriguing account, it has appeared anew. So I want to examine it and explain why I don’t find it convincing.
Let me say at the outset that I am not personally troubled by it and for personal reasons almost wish it were true. I am not a Christian who wants to paint Jesus in his own image, and the idea of a political insurgent would sit perfectly well with me. I just think it’s not historically the most plausible explanation of what we know about Jesus from our surviving sources.
To begin with, I should stress that there are indeed some pieces of information from the surviving Gospel tradition that seem, on first appearance (or twelfth appearance, for some of them!), to be supportive of this view of Jesus:
- Why did Jesus’ followers have drawn swords when he was arrested, if they were not armed for battle? (Mark 14:47)
- Why did Jesus have “Simon the Zealot” among his followers? (Luke 6:15) – doesn’t this suggest his own zealot leeanings?
- Why did Jesus predict the violent overthrow of the Temple and engage in violent acts against those participating in the Temple cult if he was not in support of a violent overthrow of the established order?
- Why was Jesus arrested, tried, and executed as a political insurgent if he did not believe in political insurgency?
There is more, obviously. But not a lot more. My view is that any examination of the historical Jesus does indeed need to take these data seriously. But I have three things to say initially about such data, and here again I need to ask you to be patient with me. What I am going to say now is the overarching summary of what I want to explain in subsequent posts. Until you see my explanations, I do not expect you to be convinced! I’m simply now telling you what I am going to try to demonstrate in what is to come. So, the three points I want to make about such data:
- A number of these data do not in fact show that Jesus believed in a violent opposition to the Roman occupying forces.
- The predictions of the destruction of the Temple are not predictions of the destruction of the Roman armies. They are directed against the Jewish hierarchy, not the Romans. (And I will argue that Jesus did not think that the Temple was going to be destroyed by human force – e.g., by the army he would raise)
- The execution of Jesus was not for being an insurgent. It was for calling himself the future King. That’s different, very different indeed, and the difference will become clear in a later post.
- Such data can be explained better by appealing to another way of understanding Jesus, one that has been the dominant view over the course of the past century, that Jesus, rather than wanting a political revolution against Rome, was principally an apocalyptic preacher who thought that *God* (not Jesus and his followers, or an army he would lead into battle) was soon to overthrow the forces of evil (the Romans and their supporters among the Jewish aristocracy) in a divine act of judgment.
- The data that do seem to support the idea of Jesus as a political revolutionary are very, very few and far between. They do not comprise the majority, or even a significant minority, of the data we can establish as going back to the historical Jesus.
Let me explain this final point. Try to imagine the picture of the historical Jesus that emerges from a rigorously, historical, critical examination of our surviving sources as a large tapestry. The individual threads make up the overall portrait. There are a few threads here and there that appear out of place at first glance. But you can’t take these few threads and claim that they represent the overall portrait of the tapestry. The tapestry has to be understood as a whole, looking for the major features of its portrayal (and of course the stray threads need to be fit into it somehow).
How does one establish the overall portrait of the tapestry? It has to be done carefully and methodically, by applying rigorous historical criteria to all of our traditions found in all of our sources and seeing which of these traditions can be pronounced as historically probable. Aslan does not do that. He does not tell us what criteria he is using (so that he cannot be critiqued for using wrong ones) and he does not tell us how he has applied them (so that he cannot be critiqued for misapplying them, or reaching errant conclusions when applying them). What he appears to have done (it’s hard to say, since he never tells us) is to choose elements of the tradition that best fit the picture he wants to paint and then – lo and behold! – they do fit his picture, so that it looks like the picture has been constructed by the elements, when in fact the elements have been chosen by the already conceived picture. That makes for gripping reading, but it does not make for compelling history.
Again, I do not mean for this to be an empty charge. I want to show how it is true. But that will have to wait for my next several posts.