Zealot?

July 31, 2013 in Misc · 6 comments

Zealot?

I commented to someone yesterday that I was bored and annoyed by the whole Reza Aslan controversy, so I hadn’t bothered to write about it. So in light of that disinterest, let me go ahead and add my two cents to the fray:

Someone’s faith is relevant to their academic and professional work. Not that a person of one religion can’t or shouldn’t write about another religion, but our beliefs do inform our writing and research, and our writing and research does inform our faith. The idea that we should lead perfectly segmented lives where personal faith doesn’t at all inform our broader life is naive and intellectually dangerous.

Someone’s academic credentials are important. We should always try to ascertain whether a person has appropriate credentials to be speaking with authority on a topic. If only we subjected Christian writers to as much scrutiny about their education as many are doing with Aslan. Of course credentials alone don’t make an argument or thesis true, but they are an important guideline for how much attention we should give to someone. In the case of Aslan, he certainly has sufficient credentials to write a book about Jesus. He’s not an expert in this area at the level of Crossan, Ehrman or Wright, but this topic is well-within his area of academic study.

The hype surrounding this book is a publicist’s dream come true. For a popular book that doesn’t appear to make a significant contribution to historical Jesus studies, this controversy is exactly the sort of thing one would hope for. Which makes me wonder if it least some of the flames are being intentionally fanned.

How many people commenting on Aslan and his book have actually read it? I haven’t. I may not. And until I do, I remain entirely unqualified to comment directly on its relative merits (or lack thereof).

6 comments… read them below or add one

Anna August 3, 2013 at 11:58 am

Hi Dan. I will have to disagree with you about faith being a relevant factor for historical study, which is what ZEALOT is. Aslan looks at the historical documents and talks about what sort of character Jesus might have been. Thus, what is relevant are his research skills and his academic integrity, not his relationship with God.

My sense from the title is that he takes the same view as Geza Vermes (and, to an extent, E. P. Sanders and J. D. Crossan), which is that Jesus was seen as a severe political threat to the Jewish ruling classes, especially the Saducees and the Pharisees, who feared he might insight a possibly violent insurgence against them. There has been a general scholarly consensus that what triggered Jesus’s crucifixion was his actions of knocking down the tables in the Temple at Jerusalem, the ONLY New Testament account which is nearly identical in all four Gospels.

Though I have not read the book, I believe it is aimed at those unfamiliar with early Christian history and basically updates lay scholarship on this matter, incorporating new finds, new interpretations of Sea Scrolls, and any new archeological updates that support this general view. As I have my Masters in Theology and am already familiar with the big authors on this subject, I shall likely give it a miss.

As for your boredom regarding the subject, I confess to being a bit disappointed in your on that front. As usual, FoxNews took the opportunity to be extremely bigoted, anti-intellectual, and polarizing on a debate that had the power to bring people together. In doing so, FoxNEws has yet again made Americans look like dumb thugs on the world stage. I am incensed that this horrific channel is still allowed to commit these hate crimes on a daily basis. As a Christian and an intellectual, I expected you to be more embracing of other religions — a la Jesus’s example — while recognizing academic pursuits as secular, not religious.

As for the subject matter, it may not be your cup of tea, but it is certainly a worthy topic and one that I believe everyone should study, given the Church’s level of political and financial capital.

I hope you have a great day! 🙂

Reply

Dan August 5, 2013 at 8:07 am

Hi Anna, thanks for taking the time to write this thoughtful reply.

To address a few of your points:

1. I think our faith is always a relevant factor in everything we do, and especially so when that faith takes explicit positions on the topic we’re working on. That doesn’t mean we should allow pre-conceived understandings to unduly color our results — we should always be on guard against biases — but it does mean that we should readily acknowledge the position we’re coming from and be willing to discuss how our personal beliefs do and don’t influence our work. I don’t have any problem at all with Aslan being Muslim and writing about the historical Jesus. But Islam does have a certain understanding of who Jesus was, and I think it’s relevant to know how Aslan integrates his personal faith with his professional work, though certainly not in the way Fox addressed the issue.

2. To clarify my boredom and annoyance: I’m bored by Fox News, I’m bored by people getting incensed by their shoddy work, I’m bored by drummed-up controversy. I’m annoyed that this is even a story, I’m annoyed that Aslan book is getting more recognition (and selling more copies) than many better books in this field. I think historical Jesus studies is enormously important, but I don’t think Aslan and his book is who we should be focusing on in this regard.

Reply

Anna August 5, 2013 at 10:51 am

Hi Dan,

Thank you so much for your response! I guess when I originally read your post I was under the impression that you were defending Fox, which upset me. But now I see it was my misunderstanding.

I hear your point about faith being a factor in our lives, but I think we must be careful not to bring religion into the secular (and most particularly government)! Academics, engineers, dentists, doctors, lawyers, truck drivers, etc should be evaluated in their professional merits, not on their relationship (or lack thereof) with God.

In the case if ZEALOT, Aslan states on page two of the book that he is a practicing Muslim, and mentioned in the interview that his mother and wife are both Christian. You may believe this is relevant for his historical research and analytic deduction, but I do not. On this point, I guess we’ll have to “agree to disagree”. 🙂

Again, thanks so much for your comments. This is a great site!

Reply

Dan August 5, 2013 at 12:35 pm

Understanding how we do, and how we should, integrate our faith with the rest of our life is a complex and ongoing task. I agree that we shouldn’t evaluate people strictly on their religious beliefs … but those beliefs aren’t an isolated part of people’s lives. If a doctor claims to believe that blood transfusions are against his religious beliefs, should we simply ignore that fact? If a geologist claims that the earth is only 6,000 years old because that’s what his religion tells him, should that matter? If a scholar believes that Jesus is the Son of God, should we trust their scholarship about Jesus to be completely unbiased?

What if, in researching his book, Aslan came to the conclusion that Jesus really is the Son of God? What if Aslan became a Christian through the result of his study? Would questions about his personal faith still be off-limits? Are questions about Bart Ehrman’s agnosticism or Richard Carrier’s atheism off-limits when discussing their research of Jesus?

I understand your point: we shouldn’t questions Aslan’s scholarship because he’s a Muslim. I totally agree with that. But if our academic work and our personal faith truly never influence each other, how real is our faith and how rigorous is our research?

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Anna August 7, 2013 at 10:12 am

Aha! Now I believe I see where our disagreement lies: Faith versus Fact.

Aslan’s research is purely on Jesus as a historical figure, putting the very few facts we know about his life in the context of temporal Palestine (and likely Rome, as well as surrounding provinces). He never tries to answer or even address whether or not Jesus is “the son of God”, a claim no one can prove or disprove. As such, faith really doesn’t come into the equation any more than it would for any other professional situation.

For my part, I have found great comfort and a deepening of faith thanks to historians such as Aslan. I have never found the idea of the Virgin Birth or the physical resurrection of Jesus at all tenable, even as a young child in my Lutheran nursery school. It wasn’t really until I delved into theology for myself — including not just reading the Bible, but speaking at length with clergy and reading books by E. P. Saunders, J. D. Crossan, and Geza Vermes — that I found my faith.

I feel that I am a stronger Christian for dispelling the “magic” and “miracles” attributed to Jesus. I view the Christ as an extraordinary man who became divine through his extraordinary compassion, wisdom, and bravery. In my version of Jesus (which is unique to me, as it should be), I can aspire to imitate Jesus. As I feel no connection with the “magical” version of Jesus, that form of Christianity just leaves me bored and cold.

Obviously to each his own, but it is these scientific expositions of Jesus as a historical figure that give me the most inspiration. If it doesn’t resonate with you, that is fine. Then there is one less book for you to read! 🙂

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Dan August 14, 2013 at 9:26 am

I appreciate where you’re coming from, but I still don’t like the strict distinction you’re making between Faith and Fact. I don’t think we can so neatly separate the historical, factual, natural, scientific study of Jesus from the spiritual, miraculous, supernatural, metaphorical and literary study of Jesus. Of course one can emphasize different areas of study and one should strive for objectivity. But our study of one area/aspect of Jesus will bleed into other areas. To be clear, I think studies of the historical Jesus are enormously important and we should support and encourage them. But we should be open and honest about our biases rather than claiming we can approach the study of Jesus from a purely objective position. Historical Jesus studies have no Archimedean point.

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