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Two scholars respond to the actual content of Reza Aslan’s take on Jesus

Two scholars respond to the actual content of Reza Aslan’s take on Jesus August 1, 2013

Over the last couple of days, two New Testament scholars have weighed in on Reza Aslan’s recent book, Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of NazarethI’ll read the book soon enough. Thus far I’ve just been keeping up in the spate of interviews–least of which worth mentioning is the FOX debacle (If I may quote Lisa Simpson, “The FOX Network has sunk to a new low.”)

Many conservative critics have focused on how Aslan represented/misrepresented his credentials on the FOX interview. I feel he should have been more careful, though my sense is that criticism is a bit overblown and–I may be wrong–driven by a desire to discredit a book with objectionable content.

I would bet dollars to donuts (what an odd expression) that if Aslan had written a book with a conservative spin, his academic claims would not have come up by these same critics, at least not with the same degree of righteous indignation–and may even have been buried.

For what it’s worth, and although not the same thing, I’ve called myself in certain contexts a “theologian” even though I have a PhD in Ancient Near Eastern studies with a focus on the Hebrew Bible/Old Testament and its early history of interpretation. I’m pretty sure FOX wouldn’t know what to do with that.

Anyway, the content of the book is more the issue–as is the case with any book–and from what I see, Aslan’s credentials would not hinder him from doing solid academic work. I sensed though, especially after listening to the NPR interview, but also from perusing the internet, that the book may be getting more attention that it deserves.

From how Aslan represented his work, it seemed to me that he was simply rehearsing many of the main themes of mainstream New Testament scholarship.

Of course, in a book aimed at a general audience, packaging scholarship for the masses is fine and good, but Aslan spoke as if he had uncovered some deep mysteries of the life of Jesus–like, he was actually a person who lived in 1st century Roman controlled Palestine, and paying attention to that world helps you understand Jesus. So, for example, he was crucified for insurrection.

Yes, we know. Again, that’s not the problem, but he seems to be presenting these things like a wide-eyed novice, discovering for the first time that there is history behind the Gospels that the Gospels both shed light on and obscure.

In the NPR interview he announced once or twice, as if it were a new thought, that there is a difference between the Jesus of history and the Christ of faith. Yes, and scholars have been writing about that for quite some time, but Aslan’s apparently either/or take on this issue by-passes necessary nuancing (as opposed to something like this).

Aslan’s presentation of his book may simply be part of the rhetoric of generating interest for a general readership. But, my spidy-sense was tingling and I was almost immediately suspicious that there may be a some gaps in Aslan’s grasp of “the historical Jesus.”

That suspicion has been confirmed in my mind at least by two online reviews of  the book, one by Greg Cary, professor of New Testament at Lancaster Theological Seminary, and the other by Anthony Le Donne, known to many of you as yet another casualty of the fundamentalist resurgence in Christian academia, and is now among other things an editor of the Journal for the Study of the Historical Jesus.

Cary tries to draw out potential contributions of the book. Le Donne wastes no time going for the throat. Together they give two scholarly critical reviews of the book’s content that differ in tone but not too much in substance.

They are worth reading, especially for those who might not be familiar with the world of the academic study of “the life and times of Jesus of Nazareth.”

From my point of view, none of this casts aspersions on Aslan as a man or a scholar. And he certainly shouldn’t have to defend his right to write a book on Jesus because he is Muslim (or once was, or whatever). My sense, though, is that the book’s selling point may not be its content, but the life story of the man who wrote it–a Muslim convert to evangelical Christianity who left the faith at least in part due to his academic work in New Testament. That is a common enough story, and one worth telling, but what he wrote about Jesus needs to stand or fall on its own.

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