Friday, August 2, 2013

Reza Aslan, Pagels, Crossan, et al.: Jesus is not Lord

I am going to say up-front that I HAVE NOT READ REZA ASLAN"S BOOK Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth. So you can base your decision as to whether or not to continue reading this post on that disclaimer. I'll go one better: I will not read this book.

My reason for not reading it is twofold. First, with all of my commitments, the amount of time I have available to read is quite limited. This forces me to prioritize what I read. Second, from watching Aslan's now famous Fox news interview, in which the interviewer embarrassingly asked him how a Muslim could write a book on Jesus (a stupid question to be sure- his overly defensive answer was almost as embarrassing), to reading several short reviews of his book, like one from The Economist, to which I turned after the flames sparked by the interview, it seems to me that Aslan's book, while no doubt well-written (he is a professor of creative writing at University of California, Riverside), contains nothing new. In fact, all of this reminds me of so many of Elaine Pagels' books, several of which, such as Beyond Belief: The Secret Gospel of Thomas, I read and then regretted spending the time. I am particularly put in mind of John Dominic Crossan's 2009 book Jesus: A Revolutionary Biography, a revised and popularized version of his earlier book The Historical Jesus: The Life of a Mediterranean Jewish Peasant.

Jesus Cleansing the Temple, by El Greco, ca. 1570

While I don't want to push this fact too hard, I think it is somewhat revealing that, like Pagels' and Crossan's works, Aslan's book was not published by an academic publisher, but by Random House, a popular publisher. One does not need to delve deeply into Aslan's book to grasp his thesis, which is given away in the title: Jesus was a zealot. This prompts the question, "In the context of Jesus' time, who were these Zealots?" The Zealots were something like "the Jewish nationalist revolutionary party." They strongly opposed Roman rule and tried many times to incite the Jewish people to armed revolt. They believed that God would restore the Davidic Kingdom by the sword, by an armed uprising against the Romans. The Gospels only mention the friction between the Jews and Romans in passing, even in accounts of Jesus' passion, prompting a lot of scholarly commentary on the person of Barabbas, who was released by Pilate in Jesus' stead (Matt. 27-15-26; Mark 15:6-15; Luke 23:13-25; John 18:38ff). However, we know there was one zealot, or former zealot, among Jesus' followers: Simon (Luke 6:15; Acts 1:13- Luke and Acts were composed by the same author and are companion works).

In the most historically reliable documents pertaining to Jesus' life, which are found in the New Testament and called "Gospels," Jesus repeatedly opposed violent rebellion, saying things like "Put your sword back into its sheath, for all who take the sword will perish by the sword" (Matt. 26:52). Even in Acts we read that when He gathered with the apostles at the place from whence He would ascend into heaven, "they asked him, 'Lord, are you at this time going to restore the kingdom to Israel?' He answered them, 'It is not for you to know the times or seasons that the Father has established by his own authority. But you will receive power when the holy Spirit comes upon you, and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, throughout Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth'" (Acts 1:6-8). Zealot, indeed.

The answer to the question about how a Muslim can write a book on Jesus is that Muslims believe Jesus was not just a prophet, but a great prophet. However, they do not believe He was the divine Son of God, who died on the Cross as propitiation for the sins of the world, was buried, and rose again on the third day, let alone the one who sent the Holy Spirit after he ascended into heaven. As I will show, Muslims do believe that Jesus, Iesa, was taken to heaven by God and they also believe that He will play a unique role at the consummation of the world.

It seems pretty clear that Aslan's Jesus sort of straddles the gap between an Islamic Jesus, at least a Jesus that does not offend Muslim sensibilities, retaining the patina of a prophet (i.e., opposing oppressive and unjust Roman domination and rule of His people) and the Jesus of the now wholly insignificant and nearly forgotten Jesus Seminar, of which Crossan was a driving force. Aslan and his defenders are adamant in their insistence that his book does not present an Islamic Jesus, but yet another real, 'historical' Jesus, of which there have been so many (the angry political revolutionary Jesus is hardly Aslan's creation). One thing that is cited by some is that Aslan takes Jesus' crucifixion for granted, that is, he accepts that it happened. This is contrasted by some who ignorantly assert that Muslims do not believe Jesus was crucified.

The Islamic account of the crucifixion of "Iesa, son of Maryam" is what Christians would describe as "docetic," but with a twist. Docetism (from the Greek word dokein, meaning "to seem" and dókēsis, which refers an "apparition" or "phantom") is perhaps the most ancient of Christian heresies. Docetists, whose errors are argued against throughout the Johannine corpus (i.e., The Gospel of John, along with the 1st, 2nd, and 3rd Letter of John), believed that Jesus only appeared to be a physical, embodied human being, but really was a phantom, a ghost, a spirit, one who only "seemed" to die on the Cross. Here is what the Qu'ran teaches about Jesus' crucifixion:

The Crucifixion, El Greco, ca. 1596-1600

And [for] their saying, "Indeed, we have killed the Messiah, Jesus, the son of Mary, the messenger of Allah ." And they did not kill him, nor did they crucify him; but [another] was made to resemble him to them. And indeed, those who differ over it are in doubt about it. They have no knowledge of it except the following of assumption. And they did not kill him, for certain. (Sura 4:157)
Verse 158 of Sura 4 of the Qu'ran goes on to insist that, rather than dying on the Cross (he only seemed to because God made someone else who looked like Jesus die on the Cross), God raised Iesa to Himself. Verse 158 goes on to say, "And there is none from the People of the Scripture but that he will surely believe in Jesus before his death. And on the Day of Resurrection he will be against them a witness." The "twist" comes with the old switcharoo God pulls, replacing Jesus with someone else who looked like him (do I detect echoes of the capricious God referred to and denounced by Benedict XVI in his still stellar Regensburg Address?).

As set forth in The Economist review, Aslan insists that "Far from being a pacifist, Jesus... was the leader of a nationalist revolt against Rome who was punished for sedition, not blasphemy." Again, an insistence of Jesus being executed by the Romans for being a revolutionary is hardly ground-breaking. Aslan's thesis comes complete with the tired trope that the canonical Gospels are not reliable sources for Jesus' life, a claim that can be and has been not just rebutted, but refuted. The take away is that, while He may have been seen by many as the Jewish Messiah (which belief was obliterated by His death at the hands of the Romans), and by others as a prophet, or prophetic figure, Jesus is not Lord, which is hardly a scholarly conclusion borne out by the historical evidence.

As the apostle Paul insisted, "nobody speaking by the spirit of God says, 'Jesus be accursed.' And no one can say, 'Jesus is Lord,' except by the holy Spirit" (1 Cor. 12:3).

If someone can treat the best historical sources on the life of Jesus in such a cavalier manner, I feel somewhat justified in taking any "history" that person might seek to convey with a grain of salt. Besides, I don't have to waste 8 bucks and 149 minutes in a movie theater to be convinced that the latest remake of The Lone Ranger is a bad movie.

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