Tuesday, July 30, 2013

A diller, a dollar....

Any similarity to any known scholar, living or dead, is purely coincidental.

As an addendum to the previous post, let me take this long excerpt from the introduction to Zealot and explain my disagreements with the book's approach:

This book is an attempt to reclaim, as much as possible, the Jesus of history, the Jesus before Christianity: the politically conscious Jewish revolutionary who, two thousand years ago, walked across the Galilean countryside, gathering followers for a messianic movement with the goal of establishing the Kingdom of God but whose mission failed when, after a provocative entry into Jerusalem and a brazen attack on the Temple, he was arrested and executed by Rome for the crime of sedition. It is also about how, in the aftermath of Jesus’ failure to establish God’s reign on earth, his followers reinterpreted not only Jesus’ mission and identity, but also the very nature and definition of the Jewish messiah.

There are those who consider such an endeavor to be a waste of time, believing the Jesus of history to be irrevocably lost and incapable of recovery. Long gone are the heady days of “the quest for the historical Jesus,” when scholars confidently proclaimed that modern scientific tools and historical research would allow us to uncover Jesus’ true identity. The real Jesus no longer matters, these scholars argue. We should focus instead on the only Jesus that is accessible to us: Jesus the Christ.

Granted, writing a biography of Jesus of Nazareth is not like writing a biography of Napoleon Bonaparte. The task is somewhat akin to putting together a massive puzzle with only a few of the pieces in hand; one has no choice but to fill in the rest of the puzzle based on the best, most educated guess of what the completed image should look like. The great Christian theologian Rudolf Bultmann liked to say that the quest for the historical Jesus is ultimately an internal quest. Scholars tend to see the Jesus they want to see. Too often they see themselves—their own reflection—in the image of Jesus they have constructed.

And yet that best, most educated guess may be enough to, at the very least, question our most basic assumptions about Jesus of Nazareth. If we expose the claims of the gospels to the heat of historical analysis, we can purge the scriptures of their literary and theological flourishes and forge a far more accurate picture of the Jesus of history. Indeed, if we commit to placing Jesus firmly within the social, religious, and political context of the era in which he lived—an era marked by the slow burn of a revolt against Rome that would forever transform the faith and practice of Judaism—then, in some ways, his biography writes itself.

The Jesus that is uncovered in the process may not be the Jesus we expect; he certainly will not be the Jesus that most modern Christians would recognize. But in the end, he is the only Jesus that we can access by historical means.

Everything else is a matter of faith.

First, lets put Aslan's own statements in the historical context he begins with:

The first century was an era of apocalyptic expectation among the Jews of Palestine, the Roman designation for the vast tract of land encompassing modern day Israel/Palestine as well as large parts of Jordan, Syria, and Lebanon. Countless prophets, preachers, and messiahs tramped through the Holy Land delivering messages of God’s imminent judgment. Many of these so-called “false messiahs” we know by name. A few are even mentioned in the New Testament. The prophet Theudas, according to the book of Acts, had four hundred disciples before Rome captured him and cut off his head. A mysterious charismatic figure known only as “The Egyptian” raised an army of followers in the desert, nearly all of whom were massacred by Roman troops. In 4 B.C.E., the year in which most scholars believe Jesus of Nazareth was born, a poor shepherd named Athronges put a diadem on his head and crowned himself “King of the Jews”; he and his followers were brutally cut down by a legion of soldiers. Another messianic aspirant, called simply “The Samaritan,” was crucified by Pontius Pilate even though he raised no army and in no way challenged Rome—an indication that the authorities, sensing the apocalyptic fever in the air, had become extremely sensitive to any hint of sedition. There was Hezekiah the bandit chief, Simon of Peraea, Judas the Galilean, his grandson Menahem, Simon son of Giora, and Simon son of Kochba—all of whom declared messianic ambitions and all of whom were executed by Rome for doing so. Add to this list the Essene sect, some of whose members lived in seclusion atop the dry plateau of Qumran on the northwestern shore of the Dead Sea; the first-century Jewish revolutionary party known as the Zealots, who helped launched a bloody war against Rome; and the fearsome bandit-assassins whom the Romans dubbed the Sicarii (the Daggermen), and the picture that emerges of first-century Palestine is of an era awash in messianic energy.
Just taking that as true (and I think it's largely accurate), we already have an issue:  was Jesus of Nazareth influenced by this "messianic energy"?  Were his followers?  Was he capable of saying anything in that context which would not be misinterpreted, misunderstood, re-cast in the context of such messianic expectations?  If Jesus of Nazareth could read the Gospel accounts, would he himself say "No, that is not what I meant.  That is not it, at all"?  Would he say the same of interpretations of his words (if they are his words) down through the centuries?

Did Jesus, in other words, preach peace, and his followers thought it was revolution?  Or did he preach revolution, and they thought it was peace?  The difference is a matter of faith, but faith is just a matter of trust; and trust in historical method is little different than trust in religious teachings.  It's only a matter of which you choose.

And writing a history about 1st century Palestine is very much a matter of making choices.  The reference to the streets of Jerusalem running red with blood, for example:  that's from a single source,  Josephus.  He was a Jew sympathetic to the Romans (they paid for his histories, after all).  He was what we might today call a 1st century Roman embed:  he witnessed the sack of Jerusalem, something that had occurred by the time the Gospel according to Mark was written (the "abomination in the place of desolation" refers to the destruction of the Temple).  He was Jewish, so he was sympathetic to the victims (more so than a Roman might have been); but he was a Roman, so his biases favored empire.  His comment on the rivers of blood is not generally taken literally by scholars, though it is accepted as an indication of the wanton slaughter by the soldiers when they finally entered the city.  But, again, Josephus is the sole source for this information.  Is it accurate?  Is it reliable? Was there literally a river of blood in the streets of Jerusalem?  Most Biblical scholarship doesn't depend on historical documents for answers, but turns also to archaeology and, more recently, anthropology and even sociology, for answers.

Dom Crossan is one of the better scholars on this subject.  His most scholarly work, The Historical Jesus, is described on the cover as "The first comprehensive determination of who Jesus was, what he did, what he said."  Pretty much what Aslan claims to be getting at in his book; but Crossan goes in a radically different direction.  But I don't even need to go into Crossan's work, I can give you an idea of the issues involved in such research with a sentence from his prologue.  He is discussing the problems of what he calls "historical Jesus research," and uses the example of an address from 1986 to illustrate what he calls the problem of such research.  There are, according to the address he mentions, "seven different images of Jesus that have been proposed by scholars in recent years, the differences relating to the different Jewish backgrounds against which they have been chosen to locate their image of the historical Jesus."

There is Jesus as a political revolutionary...., as a magician...., as a Galilean charismatic...., as a Galilean rabbi..., as a Hillelite or proto-Pharisee...., as an Essene..., and as an eschatological prophet....
 John Dominic Crossan, The Historical Jesus:  The Life of a Mediterranean Peasant (HarperSanFrancisco, 1991), pp. xxvii-xxviii.

I excluded the references to the works of specific scholars there, just for clarity.  Crossan  discusses them, and devotes most of his book not to what Jesus said or did, or what others say he said or did, but to establishing the historical context in which Jesus of Nazareth lived.  It is a world almost as alien to us as that of the Aztecs; and just because the former is more familiar, we mistake it more for recognizable, when it isn't.  Most of the social structure of Palestine in the 1st century is as obscure to us as the social organization of tribes in New Guinea.  Crossan examines those differences in detail, determined to develop as accurate a picture of the the world of a Mediterranean peasant in the first century as possible.   If I don't go more deeply into Crossan's book here, it is because it is too difficult to summarize the scholarly presentation he makes.  The seven images of Jesus he presents, however, are reflected in the structure of the book, as he tries to peel away the layers while leaving them in place, so that we see our image of Jesus is built from many turnings of the historical kaleidoscope, and see that Jesus was perhaps some of these, perhaps none of these.

Much of his work rests on anthropology, on trying to understand a culture as it was, not as a reflection of our own.  His slightly more popular (in approach) book, Excavating Jesus, takes into account archaeology far more than anthropology. The change illustrates the complexity of Biblical scholarship.  His shorter version of The Historical Jesus, Jesus:  A Revolutionary Biography, best illustrates his binding thread (Jesus as a revolutionary, but not in the mold cast by Aslan) while removing much of the (frankly tedious) scholarship of the longer work.

I will be honest about my prejudices here:  I studied The Historical Jesus was a text in seminary, and met Crossan there (he was giving a guest lecture).  It was only after seminary that I came to accept most of Crossan's thinking, or to recognize the value of it; and I would recommend his shorter biography of Jesus to anyone (the longer work is almost like reading a phone book).  I thought at the time that Crossan had stretched too far into fields he wasn't familiar with (anthropology), and his Excavating Jesus finds him adding an archaeologist to bring information he might otherwise get wrong.  I'm still not sure how sound his anthropology is, but it is a useful tool in this kind of scholarship, if only because documents are not wholly reliable, and "history," even in the hands of a Josephus, is not history as we understand it today.

All of which is simply to say:  these are deep waters, and anyone presuming to know what they are doing, from the extreme denial of the existence of a man named Jesus, to the extreme denial of the veracity of any scholarship about "Biblical times," makes that claim against a large and well-studied field which is largely invisible to the public.  It doesn't have to be invisible, of course.  Two of the three books by Crossan that I've mentioned are quite sound works, but written for a general, not a specialist, audience.  Then again, Dom Crossan never got on FoxNews to promote his books, or put up a website with his face dominating the screen.

Things change; but scholarship remains scholarship.

To pick up with Crossan's 7 images of Christ, it's clear from his prologue that Aslan just grabs the one that interests him most, and declares his work on that image to be "historical," which is to say:  "most objectively true."  And that's where I call "balderdash."  Not because he's a Muslim writing about matters Christian (some of the best Biblical scholars in the world are, or have been, atheists.).   No, it's because Aslan is picking the Jesus whom, as he told Terry Gross, he would like to follow (he said it so fervently I assumed he was still a Christian).  But he needs to take his own words more seriously:
The great Christian theologian Rudolf Bultmann liked to say that the quest for the historical Jesus is ultimately an internal quest. Scholars tend to see the Jesus they want to see. Too often they see themselves—their own reflection—in the image of Jesus they have constructed.
That's what Crossan was getting at:  the image of Jesus we see in history, is the image of Jesus we are looking for.  Even Crossan, carefully taking into account the 7 images he mentions, creates yet another image of Jesus that is his own creation (which is why I reacted so negatively to it at first:  it threatened to uproot my preferred image of Jesus).  

Aslan claims that "purging" the scriptures of "their literary and theological flourishes" can yield a more accurate Jesus of history.  But can it?  That Jesus is still a product of our assumptions about that history.  Perhaps next we would need to purge our notions of history of their cultural flourishes; see the cultures of 1st century Palestine from a more anthropological position, in order to better understand that world in its terms, rather than in the anachronistic terms of the present.  And what does archaeology tell us that documents don't? Stone lasts longer than papyrus, and is just as much an historical record as the Dead Sea Scrolls, and often more reflective of the culture at large than a cache of writings held by a small group of fanatics.  Metal lasts long, too; what do the coins in the hands of the people tell us about what they considered, or at least were told, is important?  The very position of the Governor's Palace, hard against the outer walls of the Temple, speak volumes about Roman power and Roman concerns.  The way families were structured, the housing of people (as different from our way of living today as the house in Louisville a friend of mine once lived in.  It was a tiny "shotgun camelback," meaning it went straight back from the front, with a half-story above, big enough for a bedroom.  Today we would consider it cramped for a family of four.  For much of its history, it was occupied by an extended family of three families.  Anthropology ain't just for the wilds of Borneo.), can affect how people think of themselves as individuals, as persons, as a society.  Krister Stendahl has done groundbreaking work on the notion of the individual conscience, of the concept of an individual at all.  He traces it to Augustine in the 4th century.  To even think of Paul's writings as reflecting the ideas of Augustine is to retroject ideas that would be unknown for another 400 years, and yet we do it casually.

We do it casually because we are not scholars; because we do not consider the complexity of human existence, of human culture, of human history.  We imagine all times and places and peoples are like those we have known, and merrily we roll along.  It is comforting and it is convenient, but it is not scholarship.  Even anthropology makes assumptions about human society which must be constantly re-examined and critiqued.  Crossan's Historical Jesus is so long and dense because, like Bultmann's magisterial study of the Gospel of John, both men are scholars carefully detailing every assertion they make and putting it, as clearly and precisely as humanly possible, into an unbelievably dense and complex context.

To already assume that the historical Jesus was a "politically conscious Jewish revolutionary" is to throw all that complexity to the winds, not least of which because "Jewish" as an identity refers more to rabbinic Judaism than the Judaism of the days of Jesus.  So before Aslan begins he is introducing anachronism into his argument (that's one reason Crossan subtitled his book "The Life of a Mediterranean Peasant."), which makes his conclusions dubious, at best.  Frankly, even to speak of "politically conscious" is to commit an anachronism.  Scholarship demands accuracy.

I will say, lest I sound too petulant, that scholarship is a matter of judgment; of very critical, and very careful, judgment.  But the important questions of life, the important issues of life, the "how should I then live" questions, are finally matters of faith.  They are matters of what you put your trust in.  Scholarship can help you examine where your trust should go; but it cannot finally give you those answers.


Because I just found it, I'll add this as a footnote of sorts:  over at The Daily Beast, Lizzie Crocker identifies what she calls Aslan's six most controversial claims about Jesus.  She calls them "wild assertions,"  among which are:  "He claims Jesus was not born in Bethlehem, was executed as a common criminal, and was more of a rabble-rouser than a man of peace."

Most scholars have agreed for over 100 years the Bethlehem story is meant to connect Jesus to David, not to identify his actual birthplace.  I won't take time to find it now, but as I recall, Crossan's account of the life of Jesus concludes that he was buried in a pauper's grave, something little more than scraped ground where the corpse would be covered with a thin layer of soil.  Most likely. Crossan concluded, the dogs got to it.  Such was the common fate of the ptochoi like Jesus.  He was certainly executed as a common criminal and all but forgotten, which makes the remembrance of him all the more remarkable.  Whether Jesus was a rabble-rouser or a man of peace is, as I said above, still a matter of scholarly debate.

But controversial?  Only if you haven't been paying attention to the last 100 years of Biblical scholarship; or the last 20 years of publications on the topic of the life of Jesus.  Funny how long it takes this stuff to penetrate....


  1. It does all seem a little cynical. Once again, the lid is blown off Christianity, the shocking truth about the historical Jesus revealed. As if that doesn't regularly make headlines every year or so.

    I have to admit being a little bored even by the legitimate quest. For some years I favored John Meier's books, "A Marginal Jew." I still recommend him for those wanting a thorough review of the evidence. I had the first three of his volumes. I never looked at the fourth, and there is still another to come. But, honestly, there are the gospels, and the later non-canonical books, and the occasional stray reference here and there, and then it's speculation. That can be interesting. But it's not something one bases one's life on, or abandon's one's committments over. From a religious point of view, it's a purely academic exercise.

    I've never read Crosson's book on Jesus. I did read his book on the birth of Christianity, and my impression was that he did a masterful job of describing the setting in which Christianity arose, but that he went astray in trying to infer "what happened" from the historical, religious, and sociological context that he took such pains to describe.

    The great irony, as I see it, with this new book (which I'll admit I know only from discussion), is that its author has been accused of allowing his Muslim faith to "taint" his account--whereas, apparently, his approach seems to be to infer a narrative almost entirely derived from from the one fact which Islam expressly denies, Jesus' death by crucifixion.

    I suppose its a good thing that Jesus stays in the news...even if its yet another one.

  2. I know that this one is far below the fold at this point, but I thought you'd appreciate the following take on Aslan from the Jewish Review of Books: