Sunday, February 9, 2014

Little Zeal for "Zealot"

Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth by Reza Aslan was the #1 bestseller in the New York Times list of “combined print and e-books, nonfiction” during the last three weeks of August 2013, just a month after its publication.

Zealot and its author became hot topics of conversation after Aslan (b. 1972), an Iranian-American, was interviewed on Fox News last July 26. Lauren Green, the interviewer, questioned the idea of a Muslim writing on the historical figure of Jesus Christ.
Green received widespread criticism for her line of questioning—mainly about whether Aslan was qualified to write about Jesus since he was a Muslim. But, a scholar’s field of research and writing is not restricted by his religious beliefs.

Actually, in his younger years, Aslan became an evangelical Christian. But then he converted back to Islam—mainly, it seems, not because of his dissatisfaction with Christianity as such but because of his dissatisfaction with fundamentalistic Christianity.
Aslan is now an Associate Professor of Creative Writing at the University of California, Riverside. He is a scholar of religions and has done extensive research of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. 
Aslan's credentials, however, have been questioned because of his academic background (a Ph.D. in the sociology of religion) as well as because of his present teaching position.
The biggest problem, though, is the historical reductionism found in Zealot. That is, Aslan seems to think we can learn everything we need to know about Jesus by historical studies. But is that really the case?
N.T. Wright is one of the leading contemporary New Testament scholars. In a 2010 article in Christianity Today, Wright writes about the importance of historical study about Jesus. 
But Wright also declares that “of course history isn’t enough by itself.” Exactly.
(In the same article Wright, in passing, dismisses the idea that Jesus “was really a revolutionary Zealot”—and that was three years before Aslan’s book was published. It is also interesting that while Aslan makes one bibliographical reference to Wright, he does not quote him one time in Zealot. )
Granted, there is a difference between the Jesus of history and the Christ of faith. But does that mean that only the former is subject to serious consideration and the latter is to be jettisoned if it does not seem to comply with the former? 
Surely not. That is the error of historical reductionism.
Historical reductionism is no more adequate for acquiring full knowledge about Jesus Christ than scientific reductionism is adequate for acquiring full knowledge about God and Creation. 
We gain valuable information from both historical and scientific studies. Neither, though, can provide us full truth about ultimate matters.
Also, in seeking to gain a full understanding of Jesus Christ, does faith not mean anything? Surely it does.
And in explaining the significance of Jesus Christ, does personal experience not mean anything? 
Again, surely it does. For example, the experience of Saul, the young man from Tarsus who later became the Apostle Paul, certainly must be taken seriously.
Saul’s dramatic change from persecutor of Christians to Christian evangelist/missionary was not on the basis of his historical studies of Jesus but because of an overwhelming spiritual encounter with the living Christ. Is there any other way to explain his radical conversion? 
Can any historical or psychological explanation suffice? Most likely not.
While Aslan’s book makes for interesting reading, I have little zeal for Zealot. There is much unsupported conjecture in what the author says about the historical Jesus. But mainly there is no serious consideration given to the significance of the Christ of faith.


  1. Thank you, Leroy, for your thoughtful critique of Aslan's book.

    I would suggest that historical reductionism is not the problem with Aslan's book. In fact, his book is a historical work, and as such, whether an author is Muslim, Christian, or humanist, such a book rightfully remains historical. I doubt that N.T. Wright ever writes outside his own theological framework. The idea that historical reductionism can be a mistake can only makes sense from a perspective we could call theological inflation. To take a historical figure, as people of faith do, and make metaphysical and ontological claims regarding the objective nature of that being beyond empirical experience is theological inflation.

    You're quite right that historical accounts cannot adequately account for the experience of Christ that millions of people have. And, in fact, when you make the distinction (a false one, in my view) between the Jesus of history and the Christ of faith, logically Aslan could be absolutely correct about Jesus, and it wouldn't alter anything in people's experience of the Christ. Nevertheless, that experience does not provide a foundation for criticizing historical work any more than it suffices for discounting science or evolution. And here's what I'd say is wrong with Aslan's book:

    It's not very good history. No, that's too strong. It's not done as thoroughly as it could be, and it ends up being dogmatic itself with insufficient evidence. Aslan is far too quick, it seems to me, to accept and justify evidence from the gospels and the historical context that support his thesis and to reject evidence that does not support it. He ignores almost entirely the body of work from the Jesus Seminar movement (pun intended) which is thoroughly historically critical, much of which comes nowhere near his dogmatic claim about Jesus.

    A longer discussion is needed sometime about the Jesus-of-history-and-Christ-of-faith dichotomy, which is unsustainable in my view. It dichotomizes reality into two segments that a monotheistic faith cannot in the long run accept. Theological and philosophical perspectives making sense of scientific history and faith must find a way beyond that dichotomy--a way that fully accepts both the empirical evidence of science and history as well as that of the experience of faith.

    This is too much fun. Thanks for the provocative essay for your generosity in informing and engaging us. I've got to run.

    blessings, anton

    1. Anton, thanks for your extensive, thoughtful comments. There is much I would like to say in response.

      Certainly, the problem is not that Aslan is a Muslim. As I said, a scholar's religion does not disqualify him from academic research and writing in any field.

      But I still think that historical reductionism is a problem. Is it possible to gain adequate knowledge about reality from historical (or scientific) studies? If we live in a world where there is no transcendence, no reality beyond what we can deal with by scientific or historical methods, perhaps the answer is Yes.

      But that is what I mean by reductionism. I don't think apprehension of reality (Reality) can be grasped fully by historical or scientific studies. To claim (or imply) that it can reduces the complexity of reality to the immanent world.

      So are we left with "theological inflation"? I'm not sure what all you are implying by that term.

      I believe that theology is "faith seeking understanding," to use the old phrase that is still of great value. Theology doesn't seek to inflate anything; it simply seeks to find the means to express the meaning of faith, which is basically human response to Transcendence. Since Transcendence can't be adequately perceived or expressed by historical or scientific studies, theology is necessary.

      Although there were problems in how it was used, especially when unduly welded to power, the old idea of theology being the "queen of the sciences" was not mistaken, in my opinion.

      True, there are competing theologies, and part of the problem of the past was linking one theological system to political power and trying to suppress or eradicate other theological systems.

      But theology seeks to understand Reality (Transcendence) in a way that historical (or scientific) studies, as such, cannot.

    2. Anton, one more comment now, and then I've got to go on to other things today.

      I disagree that the distinction between the Jesus of history and the Christ of faith is a false one. That is because the two perceptions operate on different levels, as I have just indicated.

      The Jesus of history is what we get from historical studies, such as Aslan's and many other similar studies through the years, first summarized by Albert Schweitzer in his "The Quest of the Historical Jesus" (1906, 1910).

      But the Christ of faith is exactly that, a faith position. The "Jesus of history" studies don't deal with Transcendence as such.

      But faith, as I indicated above, is human response to Transcendence. Thus, it deals with a different "dimension" than studies about the historical Jesus.

      I don't see that there is a problem of dichotomy here.

      Historical/scientific studies dismisses what is not available to empirical evidence. So there is a dichotomy there, one could say.

      But theology (faith seeking understanding) in no way dismisses the historical, scientific world. All of reality, as well as Reality, is included in its field of study. There may well be different dimensions, but it is all real and worthy of study.

      But the physical is not allowed to take precedence over, or to dismiss, the metaphysical.

  2. I like your response to Aslan`s book Leroy, but I want to comment on a purely Non-educated and ordinary lay person`s perspective.
    There will Never be an end to the disagreements among educated scholars and Super sophisciated historians, so I humbly submit that whatever we believe or don`t believe-WHAT IF what the Bible says is True?
    I would rather Live as if there is a God and find out that there isn`t, than live as if there is No God and find out that there is!
    It really doesn`t matter what we think in the end, so why Not have the insurance(without paying Any premium)to insure that we will end up in the proper place in the end.
    This is my Humble opinion.
    John T. Carr
    Charitable Giving Foundation

    1. Mr. Carr, that position has a long tradition and is also known as Pascal's Wager from Blaise Pascal who put it forward in the 17th century.

  3. I heard his interview. Although he had a couple of historical errors, I did appreciate his challenge to all to ask questions. Too many people accept what they are told without checking it out. In the end we must decide about those things of which we care. This frequently does require a leap of faith, or an acceptance of a hard fact, or a denial of evidence - these are all common in practice. There are many things of which we don't know to question, or else we don't care. I am frequently irritated by a view which says "Don't confuse me with the facts". Dr. Aslan does need to be challenged, but we should be grateful that some may gain new insight and challenge from a variant perspective.

  4. Local Thinking Friend Joe Barbour sent the following comment by email (and gave permission to post them here):

    "Thanks so much for sharing this with us. You have found the real flaw that plagues most historical studies of Jesus’ life and teachings. They never consider the Jesus of faith and to us that is the real Jesus we have experienced again and again over the years."

  5. Thinking Friend Thomas Howell is a history professor at William Jewell College. He sent the following comments (and posting permission) from India:

    Dr. Howell says that "when you argue that historical study is insufficient for Christ you are likely right. However, then we must allow other religions, whose followers must be accepted to have equal faith in their beliefs, to adduce the same kind of evidence.

    "I happen to be in India at the moment where I just was shown a spot where 2,331 people made sworn statements that they saw fire come down from above and bodily lift a Hindu holy man to the heavens. I personally don't accept that, but the Hindu has an equal right to reject as ridiculous any belief in a miracle on the road to Damascus. Every religion has examples of individuals who underwent dramatic conversions and we are back to square one."

  6. Leroy,
    Thanks for your critique of Aslan's book. You have noted well his focus on historical reductionism. I have recently finished the book (and will post something on my blog about it as well). What also seems suspect in his "historical" approach is that he is very arbitrary and capricious about what he considers historical and what he casts out as spurious. He did not seem to have any well articulated criteria by which he made historical decisions. I am glad you pointed out that he neglected N. T. Wright's work. One cannot write a book on the historical Jesus today and not engage the works of Wright in some fashion.

    1. I much appreciate, and agree with, these comments. (But I wish I knew who "Unknown" is.)