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Fundamental Problems with Aslan’s Thesis

In my post of yesterday I moved beyond the simple errors of Aslan’s Zealot to discuss more substantive issues, taking his chapter “Zeal for your House” as both central to his argument (as he himself maintains) and highly problematic. Within the seven pages of this key chapter, I indicated that there are, by my count, six major problems, two of which I dealt with yesterday and the other four I will deal with here. Not only are some of the “historical” events that Aslan describes in this chapter almost certainly not historical, at least as they are narrated, both in the NT Gospels and in Aslan’s summary (e.g., the Triumphal Entry and Jesus’ success in shutting down the entire Temple complex; this is my first problem); and not only does Aslan fill in the gaps of our knowledge with fictional narratives that he himself has made up (this is my second), there are the following four problems, that here I deal with seriatim:

 

  1. His reconstruction of events is riddled with internal inconsistencies that show it cannot be right. In particular, he wants to emphasize, as I just pointed out, that Jesus actually, historically, shut down the entire Temple cult in the presence of “a corps of Roman guards and heavily armed Temple police” (p. 74). This act, Aslan claims, would have been “punishable by crucifixion” (p. 75) But if he’s right – why was Jesus not arrested on the spot and crucified? Did he miraculously disappear into thin air? Did no one know who was causing the disturbance when it was obviously no one but he? The inconsistency of Aslan’s treatment is seen on the very next page, where he indicates that the Temple authorities later hatched “a clever plot to trap him” (p. 76) by asking Jesus a really tricky question. But if that’s the case, then the authorities did know who was responsible for shutting down the Temple. If they knew, why didn’t they arrest him? And why did they have to play word games with him in order to trap him? This entire reconstruction – predicated on Jesus’ shutting down the Temple – simply doesn’t work historically. And yet it is absolutely fundamental to Aslan’s reconstruction.

 

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  1. His reconstruction of events is riddled with internal inconsistencies that show it cannot be right.   In particular, he wants to emphasize, as I just pointed out, that Jesus actually, historically, shut down the entire Temple cult in the presence of “a corps of Roman guards and heavily armed Temple police” (p. 74).  This act, Aslan claims, would have been “punishable by crucifixion” (p. 75)  But if he’s right – why was Jesus not arrested on the spot and crucified?  Did he miraculously disappear into thin air?   Did no one know who was causing the disturbance when it was obviously no one but he?   The inconsistency of Aslan’s treatment is seen on the very next page, where he indicates that the Temple authorities later hatched “a clever plot to trap him” (p. 76) by asking Jesus a really tricky question.  But if that’s the case, then the authorities did know who was responsible for shutting down the Temple.  If they knew, why didn’t they arrest him?  And why did they have to play word games with him in order to trap him?  This entire reconstruction – predicated on Jesus’ shutting down the Temple – simply doesn’t work historically.   And yet it is absolutely fundamental to Aslan’s reconstruction.

 

 2. He repeatedly makes historical assertions that lack credible basis.   I just indicated that “the Romans would have deemed” the shutting down of the temple “a capital offense: sedition, punishable by crucifixion.”   Where is the evidence for that?  Why would the Romans care if a Jewish preacher opposed the Temple cult?  Do we have any evidence from the Roman world of Romans caring about religious disputes internal to a conquered people?  Is there any instance in which the objection to a sacred shrine (not of Rome, but of their subjects) is deemed a capital offense, precisely by the Romans?  If so, this is the sort of thing Aslan should cite – at least in his notes!

 

 3. Aslan argues that the central concern of Jesus – as seen in these stories – relates to a matter that in fact is never mentioned in any of these stories (only in his “summary” of them).  In particular, he provides an interesting, but somewhat idiosyncratic, interpretation of Jesus’ response to the Jewish authorities who ask him whether they should pay tribute to Caesar.  This is the famous case of Jesus saying “Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s and the things that are God’s to God.”   Aslan tries to argue on the basis of the Greek that “render unto” literally means “give back to” (based on the etymology of the Greek word apodidomi).  And since the coin is Caesar’s, but the land of Israel is God’s, then Caesar should get back his coins and God should get the land back, from the Romans.  I find this to be a highly problematic interpretation for three reasons:

a. It is a facile interpretation of apodidomi, based on its etymology.  Sometimes this word does mean “give back” something that once belonged to someone else.  But that is not its typical meaning, as any study of the word in the Greek language generally or in its usage within the NT quickly shows.   Etymology (apo = back; didomi = give; therefore: give “back”) is not the best way (or even a good way, usually) for determining what someone means when using a word.  When you go out to pick your dandelions, you probably are not thinking that what you are doing involves “teeth of a lion” (the etymology – from the old French – of dandelion).  The best way to see what a word means is to look at it in its range of contexts.  apodidomi usually just means to give or pay something.

 b. Aslan’s interpretation means that Jews *should* pay tribute to Caesar, which is at odds with his view that as a zealot Jesus did not think they should.

 c. Most important – this is really the key – the idea that the “land” belongs to God and so should be given back to him simply doesn’t make sense as Jesus’ meaning.   First, notice that the land is never mentioned in this passage.  Where did Aslan get the idea that Jesus was talking about the promised land from this passage?  He didn’t get if from the passage.  He brought it into the passage.  It’s simply never mentioned and not there.   Moreover, ti doesn’t make sense to say it’s there.  Jesus is telling his Jewish questioners that they are to give to Caesar what belongs to Caesar and to God what belongs to God.   But the entire problem is that the Jewish people don’t have the land to give back to God.  The Romans have it.  How can Jesus tell the Jewish leaders to give back to God something that they don’t have?  It doesn’t add up.  And for a simple reason.  Jesus isn’t talking about the land.  That may be Aslan’s obsession, but it’s not Jesus’.

 4. Similarly Aslan maintains that the fundamental charge against Jesus, leading to his death, is one that in fact never appears in any of our sources.   He argues that because Jesus was zealous for the land to be returned to Caesar, this was “enough for the authorities in Jerusalem to immediately label Jesus as a lestes,” that is as a bandit/zealot opposed to the political forces in control of his land.   This then is what led to his arrest and crucifixion.  And what’s the evidence that Aslan cites for the authorities designating Jesus as a lestes?   None.  And why?  Because there is none.   In none of our accounts of Jesus arrest, trial, and crucifixion is he ever called a lestes, by the Jewish authorities, by the Roman authorities, by his friends, by his enemies, by the Gospel writers, by himself, by anyone.   So why does Aslan maintain that this is how Jesus was described by his enemies as the reason for killing him?  Because it is central to his thesis.  It is in fact his thesis.

The one saying of Jesus that could in *theory* be used to support the idea that Jesus was arrested for being a lestes is Mark 14:48 (also found in Matthew and Luke, taken from Mark, but not in John).  This is when Jesus ask those coming to arrest him why they have come with swords as if to arrest a lestes.  The point of this passage, though, is that Jesus doesn’t understand why they’ve come armed like this as if  her were a lestes, when obviously he is not.  So if the saying is historical, as Aslan thinks, then it is an explicit disavowal that Jesus was a lestes.  But one could (and Aslan does) take the verse to mean that even though Jesus denied being a lestes, that is what the arresting authorities thought he was (so they came with swords).  But that interpretation doesn’t work either, precisely because after his arrest, when Jesus is put on trial, it is decidedly not for being a lestes.  Jesus was not executed for being a guerrilla soldier.  He was executed for calling himself a king.  There’s a big difference.  And understanding why Jesus may have called himself king, and understanding what the Romans would have taken it to mean, are the keys to understanding Jesus’ death.  As it turns out, nationalistic zeal to establish Israel as a sovereign state in the land has nothing to do with it.  This I will show in subsequent posts.


2009 Debate With Mike Licona: Can Historians Prove the Resurrection of Jesus?
Aslan’s Key Chapter

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Comments

  1. Avatar
    Scott F  December 23, 2013

    Another (weak) bit of evidence for Jesus being a bandit might be the portrayal of him crucified between two other thieves. I don’t know the original wording here but I can imagine Aslan or his supporters latching on to this detail.

    • Avatar
      Scott F  December 23, 2013

      Hey – Jesus Barabbas is described as an “iestes”, too. That is three people who are theives in the Gospels so Jesus must have been one, too. This is fun!

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  December 26, 2013

      Yes — but the strange thing is that unlike them, he is not called a bandit. He’s called the king.

      • Avatar
        willow  December 27, 2013

        I remain convinced that Jesus considered himself heir to the throne of King David, through Joseph (not the Holy Spirit), along with all of the responsibilities that came with it. Making the claim in the face of Roman rule earned him the mockery of the sign, “Jesus. King of the Jews.” that hung above his head on the cross.

        More than that, though, he bore a high priestly bloodline through Mary, cousin to Elizabeth, mother of John the Baptist, wife of Zachariah, the (Aaronic) priest, if memory serves me correctly; and you’re sure to correct me if I’m not. 😉 That his brother James was allowed well within the Temple courts indicates to me that there was more than a just a possible kingship there, but a priesthood which might account for his not having been arrested upon ransacking the place. He was, after all, not only referred to as Lord, he was called rabbi and teacher as well.

        Clarify and correct, at will.

        Wasn’t Peter the first to refer to him as Messiah? And just what is a Messiah if not but one anointed, smeared with oil, and set apart for a particular mission or purpose as even that heathen King Cyrus was! (What a kind heathen!) It seems to me his (Jesus’) mission was to reign in the kingdom of God and then to sit upon its throne, in perpetual service to whom he referred to as his father and our father and your father, God, then and there and not here and now. And he failed; but why? Simply because God and His legions of armies didn’t arrive on time, and not even in the nick of time which left Jesus hanging, suffering and beseeching, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” He was so sure.

        But of course, I’ve great empathy for the man I once loved so much, having so painfully come to terms with the fact that he was – just a man. A man who I believe lived out his life trying to turn the hearts of the people back to God and the Torah.

        Moreover, I can only imagine the tales he was told as a child, growing up, regarding his bloodlines. I don’t believe, though, that he thought of himself as the virgin born/first born son of Almighty God, even because he never said he was, and surely he would have had much to say about something like that! But of course, it could be that Mary just forgot to tell him. She seems to have forgotten so many things.

        • Bart Ehrman
          Bart Ehrman  December 29, 2013

          Yes, I think the idea that Jesus was from the davidic line may have been a later invention of the Christians. The vast majority of Jews had no idea what their bloodlines were. And he could not be a priest through Mary. Priests were born into priestly families, all of whom descended from Levi. (Jesus was allegedly descended from Judah instead).

          • Avatar
            willow  December 29, 2013

            Good morning. 🙂

            Question: What is it that causes you to say that you think Jesus’ connection to King David is a Christian invention? Do you believe Joseph was the father of Jesus? What are you thoughts on the suggestion (Talmud) that a Roman soldier (Pantera) may have fathered him? How about Antipater? Is there any real evidence for either/any?

            Your aunt has traced your lineage all of the way back to the Mayflower. I grew up hearing all about our pilgrimage to the Americas. That an island (Clark) is named after our ancestor who brought the Mayflower safely ashore, during a storm they say, has always been a source of great pride among the many who pass down the legend, generation after generation. Perhaps the same was true of Jesus. To be related to Kind David, I would think, would have been a really big deal in the day, and passed down through generation after generation. I’m leaving that one to wonder, then. It is rather curious, though, that none of the men related to KD, prior to Jesus, would have picked up the mantle and claimed the throne. IE: Joseph. Why, Jesus?

            You’re right. I stand gratefully corrected regarding the connection between Aaron, Jesus and the high priesthood. That’s why I’m here, to learn, and I thank you for the opportunity you present here.

          • Bart Ehrman
            Bart Ehrman  December 29, 2013

            I just don’t think there’s any way ancient peasants had the foggiest clue who their great-great-grandfathers were (or that they every thought about it), let alone ancestors from a thousand years earlier! We’re lulled into thinking that this kind of thing was common knowledge because we find genealogies in the Bible. But these are artificially constructed (that can be demonstrated) and do not represent what Jews were doing “on the ground.” And not even with modern methods of genealogical research can my aunt figure out who my paternal ancestor was from a thousand years ago!! But yes, I do think that Jesus’ father was probably someon named Joseph. Apart from the fact that he was a peasant manual laborer in the hamlet of Nazareth, I don’t think you know much of anything about him.

  2. Avatar
    RonaldTaska  December 23, 2013

    I made a mistake in a recent comment. Previously, I had commented that Aslan had written in a recent article that the “Triumphal Entry” was fiction. I was referring to an article that he wrote which was published in the
    Washington Post on 9/26/13. The article is entitled “5 Myths About Jesus.” It does not, however, discuss the “Triumphal Entry.” This was my error. Bad memory. Sorry about that.

  3. Avatar
    RonaldTaska  December 23, 2013

    So, why did Jesus call Himself “King of the Jews”? Is this a reference by an apocalyptic prophet to being king in a future kingdom of God?

  4. Avatar
    judaswasjames  December 23, 2013

    Bart: As it turns out, nationalistic zeal to establish Israel as a sovereign state in the land has nothing to do with it.

    Me: OK, that being the case, can we move on to what DOES have something to do with it? You know what I’m talking about.

  5. Avatar
    ditdine  December 24, 2013

    In #4 you say “He argues that because Jesus was zealous for the land to be returned to Caesar…”. I think you meant to say “He argues that because Jesus was zealous for the land to be returned to *God*…”, don’t you?

  6. Avatar
    toejam  December 24, 2013

    I think the “render unto Caesar” pericope is one of the most fascinating and thought-provoking in the gospels. It can be read in so many different ways. Although I agree with your criticism of Aslan’s interpretation, I think he’s closer to the money (forgive the pun) than others who say it’s a post-Pauline tradition that’s more about conformity/assimilation or as a means to keep the empire off their back (pay your taxes so we don’t get torched!). I definitely read it as a protest of sorts: The empire’s currency is meaningless to Jesus and he wants nothing to do with it. This fits well into either the ‘zealot’ hypothesis, the Crossan-Borg hypothesis, and the ‘apocalyptic prophet’ hypothesis. Do you think it goes back to the Historical Jesus?

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  December 26, 2013

      Yes, I do. But I don’t think he was talking about land. He was talking about devotion.

  7. Avatar
    reedm60  December 24, 2013

    Fantastic post! Thank you so much!

  8. Avatar
    ben.holman  December 24, 2013

    In point 1 you say, “But if that’s the case, then the authorities did know who was responsible for shutting down the Temple. If they knew, why didn’t they arrest him?”

    then in point 2 you say, “Why would the Romans care if a Jewish preacher opposed the Temple cult?.. Is there any instance in which the objection to a sacred shrine (not of Rome, but of their subjects) is deemed a capital offense, precisely by the Romans?”

    It seems like you’re contradicting yourself. First you seem to say, had Jesus acted out in the temple, he would’ve been arrested on the spot. Then you say, there’s no evidence the Romans would’ve cared enough to do anything. Are you saying that, the Romans would’ve *arrested* him, but not executed him for causing a disturbance?

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  December 26, 2013

      Point 1 is talking about the Jewish authorities (who had their own police). Point 2 about the Roman authorities.

  9. Avatar
    RonaldTaska  December 25, 2013

    I have read all of your blogs and all of your books for the Barnes and Noble crowd, listened to many of your debates, and listened to all of your Teaching Company tapes. All have been quite helpful to me and I am amazed by your productivity. For me, the best of your books is your New Testament textbook (which I have not yet finished) because it illustrates the different critical approaches so well using a different critical approach with each Gospel. I do, however, find myself struggling with a methodological problem which is probably a struggle for you as well. I understand about multiple attestation, dissimilarity and so on, but it still strikes me as odd to say that the Gospels are not historically reliable, but then to quote the Gospels to prove historical points such as that Jesus was an apocalyptic prophet. I cannot think of a better way to go about it and I understand that it is the best we can do, but I still think it is problematic. It is sort of like saying Galen’s views of medicine were no good, but then quoting Galen to propose medical treatments. How do you deal with this problem?

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  December 26, 2013

      I deal with it at length in my writings! I do NOT think the Gospels are useless as historical sources. Even if they are not historically accurate, they do contain historical details. The question is how to get away from the legends/fictions/made up stories/made up parts of stories to the actual historical events. In some ways, my entire study of the historical Jesus is based on on the solution to that question, and it involves applying rigorous historical criteria to documents that were not meant to be historically acccurate biographies.

  10. Avatar
    jill_m  December 26, 2013

    Caution: Contains opinions.

    I first heard about this book from having seen the Fox ‘book-review’ with Aslan that went viral. I was very impressed with how calmly he responded to the interviewer who kept challenging him for writing about Jesus while being muslim. And even more – the interviewer had to admit that she had not read the book! On the basis of Aslan’s demeanor under the circumstances, I thought that this would be a good book to read.

    I am glad that I did not purchase it. I read the library copy, beginning with hope, but for me the book turned very sour very quickly. My impression is that Aslan would like to taint Jesus as someone who was violent and politically motivated, so as to denigrate the message of compassion, mercy, and love which, I believe, Jesus brought. I suspect a very anti-Christian agenda. (I could write a lot more, considering the slaughter of Christians that is proceeding right now as I write, but I will refrain.)

    Not happy.

  11. Avatar
    Wilusa  December 26, 2013

    I’ve been thinking about things that have been cited as evidence Jesus could have been a revolutionary: his disciples’ supposedly being armed when his enemies came to arrest him, and one of those disciples being called “Simon the Zealot.”

    Do you think it’s possible that the disciples *weren’t* armed? That Jesus’s earliest followers wanted to stress that he didn’t resist arrest…so at first, they described his disciples’ having tried to defend him (with nothing but their bare hands), and his having stopped them. But as the story spread by word of mouth, the nature of the disciples’ resistance became exaggerated. Until in the final version, not only were they armed, but Peter actually chopped someone’s ear off, and Jesus magically healed him. Do you think that’s all it was, a story that grew in the telling?

    Also, could that disciple named Simon actually have come to be called a “zealot” *later in life*?

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  December 26, 2013

      My view is that htey were not armed. I’ll explain how and why I come to that in a later post. And yes, what you say about Simon is possible; but there is something else to consider that I’ll also mention in a later post.

      • Avatar
        kidron  December 29, 2013

        I am surprised that you don’t think the disciples were armed … especially since you seem to rely on the criteria that those things which would be an embarrassment to later Christians would more likely to be historical. Let me suggest that indeed they were armed as the gospel story suggest. And my reason. … There were two parts to the gospel that Jesus preached … the first was REPENTANCE and the second was the nearness of the coming kingdom of God. The first part applied to those in his audience. They were indeed to be ZEALOUS for the Mosaic Law. As example … do not commit adultery was more stringent … don’t even look at a woman with lust … etc. This need for the population to lead exemplary lives was important for the trigger for God to act in history to establish his kingdom on earth. HOW was it to occur … by hosts of avenging angels coming in the clouds. Jesus was not trying to establish an earthly army. He was relying on god to supply the army … indeed all this is spelled out in detain in the prophecies of Zechariah … and now to the two swords. Why on earth were they to carry two swords up to mount of Olives. Well this is also spelled out by Zechariah … the mount of Olives was where the armies of angels were to start their earthly rampage and as Zechariah points out … “Israel is to join in the fray”. Jesus did not go to the mount of Olives to pray for strength to be crucified … he was their to observe God’s angels to stream from the clouds … led by one like unto the son of man as per Daniel’s prophecy. One thing I think supports this view are the war scrolls found at Qumran. They too were waiting in an estate of extreme purity for the time when God would send the armies of light to fight with the forces of darkness … for them these were the Kitim.

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