Bottom line: Reza Aslan is a poor and unoriginal historian

As one scholar states, "Nothing to see here, people. Move along."

If you, like me, are interested in Reza Aslan’s book, Zealot, and the surrounding controversy, be sure to read John Dickson’s review, “How Reza Aslan’s Jesus is giving history a bad name”, on the Religion and Ethics website (Australia). Here is a key section:

A third problem with Aslan’s revival of Reimarus’s thesis is that no one seems to have remembered it. There is not a scrap of real evidence that any Christian traditions – any traditions at all – recalled Jesus urging rebellion toward Rome. Where are the stray sayings of Jesus that imply insurrection? Where are the hints in Josephus or Tacitus? There is simply nothing.

Aslan thinks he finds a hint in Matthew 10:34, the opening quotation of the book: “Do not suppose that I have come to bring peace to the earth. I did not come to bring peace, but a sword.” Quoted on its own and put on the lips of some other first-century figure, this might read like a call to arms. But I would wager my annual book allowance that 99.9% of specialists in the field would echo Ulrich Luz, perhaps the leading authority on the Gospel of Matthew today, that “our saying does not reveal a revolutionary Jesus. The immediate context, vv. 35-36, makes this interpretation impossible.” In this passage, Jesus is speaking in classic Jewish imagery of the dividing lines his message will bring among families. This is exactly what the following verses go on to say. But by ignoring evidence that doesn’t fit and stretching evidence so that it appears to fit, Aslan is able to make the “impossible” a reality: the sword statement, he assures us, is a relic of an earlier revolutionary Jesus.

All of the “love” sayings, by contrast, were either inventions of the Gospel writers or originally focused on the love of one’s fellow disciple and collaborator against the powers. Aslan insists, “After the Jewish revolt and the destruction of Jerusalem (in AD 70) the early Christian church tried desperately to distance Jesus from the zealous nationalism that had led to that awful war.” This is pure revisionism that gains its plausibility in the way doubts about the 1969 lunar landing do.

Aslan’s thesis requires us to believe that the Gospel writers were crafty enough to invent a Jesus who regularly called for humility, service and the “love of enemies” but stupid enough to leave traces in their works of a Jesus who endorsed fighting Roman enemies. It’s the stuff of conspiracy theorists: dismissing evidence that contradicts your theory as “manufactured,” while simultaneously interpreting the massive lack of evidence as proof of suppression.

The discipline of history cannot work like this. Rarely can a theory be taken seriously that is not based on evidence attested across sources. Deleting, cherry-picking and imagining are no substitute for the even-handed sifting of evidence that characterizes historical enquiry. This is why almost no one followed Reimarus back in the eighteenth century and why Brandon’s revival of the thesis in the mid-twentieth century is typically found today only in a footnote. I predict Aslan’s work won’t even find its way there.

Worse for Reza Aslan, there is overwhelming positive evidence that Jesus, far from being a closet zealot, directed his teaching against that tradition. That his message focused on love and, in particular, love of the unlovely and the enemy, is richly attested across the historical traditions left behind by those closest to him.

This is not a case of looking up Bible verses and choosing our favourite ones. The study of the historical Jesus is a fundamentally “secular” discipline, applying the same tests of historicity one finds in all historical investigation. A key criterion is known asmultiple attestation, which affirms that when multiple sources independently offer roughly the same portrait of a person or event from the past, that portrait takes on greater plausibility.

And here is where Aslan’s theory must finally give up. Few contemporary scholars – whether Christian, Jewish or non-religious – doubt that the New Testament sources (known as Mark, Q, L and Paul) were written independently of each other: in other words, the authors of these texts did not have access to the writings of the others. Just as few specialists would dispute that all four of these sources portray the message of Jesus as involving a radical ethic of non-violence, inclusivity and love. The source known as Q, dating from around the 50s AD, even contains a story of Jesus’ compassion toward a Roman soldier and his scolding of Israel for not having the faith of this pagan overlord.

All of this gives the competent historian a high degree of confidence that, whatever else may be doubted about him, Jesus was about as far from being a political revolutionary as a first-century Jew could be.

Dickson goes on the outline several specific errors (a “litany of errors”)—many of them quite embarrassing—foisted upon readers with great confidence by the (ahem!) über-credentialed, heavily educated, and thoroughly objective Dr. Aslan. Elizabeth Castelli, Ann Whitney Olin Professor of Religion at Barnard College at Columbia, reiterates similar criticisms:

But Aslan does not claim to be engaged in literary analysis but in history-writing. One might then expect his reconstruction of the world of Jesus of Nazareth to display a deep understanding of second-temple Judaism. Yet, his historical reconstruction is partial in both senses of the term. For example, he depends significantly on the testimony of the first-century Jewish historian Josephus, taking it more or less at face value (which no scholar of the period would do). Meanwhile he amplifies Jewish resistance to Roman domination into a widespread biblically based zealotry, from which he concludes that Jesus was intent upon armed resistance and the establishment of the kingdom of God on earth. Moreover, his reconstruction of the Judaism of the time is too flat and monolithic. At best, his argument is overstated; at worst, it depends upon scholarship that has been definitively challenged by more recent work in the field and upon a method that cherry-picks from the ancient sources.

One could go on through Zealot, pointing out places where Aslan represents a particular issue as straightforward and uncontroversial when, in fact, the matter remains the subject of considerable debate among specialists. Or one could ask about the method for his selection of scholarly works on which his discussion depends—and why many important works that would complicate his narrative are missing from the bibliography of the book. (The absence of traditional footnotes—the sine qua non of scholarly documentation—makes it quite difficult, if not impossible, to trace the lineage of many of the claims in the book, the lengthy bibliography at the end notwithstanding.) These would be among the numerous legitimate criticisms that historians of early Christianity and biblical scholars—specialists in the field—might lodge. …

Zealot is a cultural production of its particular historical moment—a remix of existing scholarship, sampled and reframed to make a culturally relevant intervention in the early twenty-first-century world where religion, violence and politics overlap in complex ways. In this sense, the book is simply one more example in a long line of efforts by theologians, historians and other interested cultural workers.

Simply put, Zealot does not break new ground in the history of early Christianity.

Read more on The Nation site.

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About Carl E. Olson 1200 Articles
Carl E. Olson is editor of Catholic World Report and Ignatius Insight. He is the author of Did Jesus Really Rise from the Dead?, Will Catholics Be "Left Behind"?, co-editor/contributor to Called To Be the Children of God, co-author of The Da Vinci Hoax (Ignatius), and author of the "Catholicism" and "Priest Prophet King" Study Guides for Bishop Robert Barron/Word on Fire. His recent books on Lent and Advent—Praying the Our Father in Lent (2021) and Prepare the Way of the Lord (2021)—are published by Catholic Truth Society. He is also a contributor to "Our Sunday Visitor" newspaper, "The Catholic Answer" magazine, "The Imaginative Conservative", "The Catholic Herald", "National Catholic Register", "Chronicles", and other publications. Follow him on Twitter @carleolson.