Tuesday, July 30, 2013

A Gentleman and a scholar....

Not shown to scale; or even the right Aslan.

Raza Aslan's interview on Fox News has caused quite a kerfuffle:  first about the interviewer's technique, or lack thereof; and second, about Aslan's credentials, or lack thereof.

What's left out is that Aslan really isn't that much of a religious scholar.   I don't mean to demean him; but there's been some loose talk in response to this interview about how qualified Mr. Aslan is to write this book.  It's not that he isn't qualified; it's just that he's not the most qualified person on the planet, either.

Let's get the degree stuff outta the way first, and to save time I'll just quote Wiki:

Aslan holds a Bachelor of Arts degree in religions from Santa Clara University, a Master of Theological Studies degree from Harvard Divinity School, a Doctor of Philosophy in the sociology of religion from the University of California, Santa Barbara, and a Master of Fine Arts degree from the University of Iowa's Writers' Workshop, where he was named the Truman Capote Fellow in Fiction. It was during the summer before he went to Harvard that he converted back to Islam.
So, basically an M.Div. without the "Div." (MTS students study a very slightly different curriculum from M.Div. students), and two degrees in religion.  Fine.  This qualifies him to know something about religion, even to be a religious scholar.  But is his latest book a work of scholarship?  Well, I don't think so; not from what he told Terry Gross about it.:

"Almost every word ever written about Jesus was written by people who didn't actually know Jesus when he was alive. These were not people who walked with Jesus or talked with Jesus. These were not people who ate with him or prayed with him.

"[The Apostles] were farmers and fisherman. These were illiterates; they could neither read nor write, so they couldn't really espouse Christology, high-minded theology about who Jesus was. They certainly couldn't write anything down. Instead the task of spreading the Gospel message outside of Jerusalem, of really creating what we now know as Christianity, fell to a group of urbanized, Hellenized, educated Jews in the Diaspora; [and] for [the Romans], having grown up immersed in this Hellenized, Romanized world, the concept of a God-man was something quite familiar. Caesar Augustus was a God-man. What we really see in these 20 years after Jesus' death is this process whereby this Jewish religion based on a Jewish revolutionary becomes transformed into a Roman religion, where Jesus is transformed from a Jewish conception of a Messiah to a kind of Roman demigod."
There's nothing there you wouldn't already know from Marcus Borg or James Spong, two other writers of popular books on Christianity.  Give Mr. Aslan the benefit of the doubt and assume his book notes that process of transformation began with Saul of Tarsus, not with "Mark" of "The Gospel according to Mark."  (The earliest of the four gospels.  We don't know who "Mark" was or even if the author of that first gospel was one person; or where his material came from.  We are quite sure he supplied material for "Matthew" and "Luke," and there's no doubt the Johannine community had access to the gospels of Mark and Luke, but I digress.).

None of this, by the way, is controversial in New Testament studies, as I've mentioned before.   This time, though, I'm sort of intrigued with the idea that, if we could just remove the "Romanization" from Jesus of Nazareth, we'd all be better off.  Maybe we would, but can we?  I'm dubious.  And Jesus as Roman demigod?  Uh, no.

Caesar was a god who ruled by divine right, and with divine beneficence.  There's nothing in early church history, in the letters of Paul or in the later gospels, to indicate any of the followers of Jesus saw their Messiah as a ruler equivalent to Caesar:

A coin of Julius Caesar shows his spirit descending cometlike to takes it place among the eternal deities. A coin of Augustus Caesar calls him divi filius, son of a divine one, son of a god, son of the aforesaid comet. A coin of Tiberius Caesar hails him as pontifex maximuis, supreme bridge builder between earth and heaven, high priest of an imperial people. A silver denarius was a day's pay for a laborer and, if a day laborer meant somebody who worked every day rather than somebody who looked for work every day, it would have been a very good salary. Imagine this situation: If, after three days of hard work, a day laborer held those silver denarii in his hand, how would he, could he, should he distinguish between politics and religion in the Roman Empire?....Rome, and Rome alone, had built a kingdom and only it could approve how to build an underkingdom, a minrealm, a subordinate rule.

John Dominic Cross and Jonathan Reed, Excavating Jesus, revised & updated (New York: HarperSanFrancisco, 2001), pp. 178-79.

Remember the story of the coin brought to Jesus in the Temple?  It was a trap:  if he said the coin could be used to pay the Temple tax, he was allowing both a coin with a graven image of man (the image of God) to be used for the Temple; and he was allowing Rome to be superior to God.  If he denounced the coin, he would be a political insurrectionist, threatening directly the authority of Rome (as I've mentioned before, Pilate's palace had walls tall enough to look down into the Temple courtyard, a hotbed of political activity every year at Passover when the Jews proclaim the supremacy of God over all claims of deity, even Caesar's.  That was no accident on the part of Rome.

You can see from the quote above that even a coin had significance to Caesar's claim of deity (it's no accident we put "In God We Trust" on our coins today).  Jesus, of course, avoided the trap.  As Dom Crossan renders it: "Return to Caesar what belongs to Caesar.  Return to God what belongs to God."  (John Dominic Crossan, The Essential Jesus, HarperSanFrancisco, 1994, p. 61).  That's not the claim of a Roman demigod asserting equivalence to Caesar.  That's not the claim of a "supreme bridge builder between heaven and earth, high priest of an imperial people."  That's not anyone claiming equivalence to a Roman demigod.  And yet the communities that tried to follow Jesus produced stories that included Jesus asking his disciples:  "Who do you say that I am?"  The story of the coin and Caesar's face is generally accepted as historical by Biblical scholars like Crossan; the question is not.  But Aslan's case rests on the claim made by Jesus' followers, not the historical figure; and the claim they made was much more complex than "Roman demigod."

And it was a claim that wouldn't be worked out for over 4 centuries.  The New Advent entry on Nestorianism is instructive.  Nestorius lived in the mid 5th century.  Even as his claim is labelled a "heresy," the article works to explain, in excruciating detail, what he said and how it should be understood, all without accepting it as correct Church teaching.  The very idea that within 20 years of his death a church existed which had worked out that Jesus was a Roman demigod, is laughable.  A century after Constantine, the Church was still struggling with ideas about Christology.  Did they just want to complicate what the disciples had figured out in the 1st century?  Or was something else going on?

How the first Christians saw Jesus is complex, since we don't see him that way now.  That complexity extended from the attempts by Paul (who seems to have linked it to the crucifixion and resurrection, something now considered a heresy) through attempts by the four gospel writers (Mark doesn't attach Jesus' divinity to his birth, as Mark doesn't mention the birth; Matthew and Luke have differing theological takes, and John's Jesus is almost non-human, which veers off into another heresy.  No wonder it took the church centuries to iron this stuff out.)  Try, for example, following the line of argument at New Advent over the development of Nestorianism.  That's Aslan's "high-minded theology" in pill form.  Even if you can't follow it (and it is as dense as a fruitcake), you can get see that such discussions took place over centuries, and involved hundreds of voices.  Just consider this much:
The lot of Nestorius was a hard one. He had been handed over by the pope to the tender mercies of his rival, Cyril; he had been summoned to accept within ten days under pain of deposition, not a papal definition, but a series of anathemas drawn up at Alexandria under the influence of Apollinarian forgeries. The whole council had not condemned him, but only a portion, which had not awaited the arrival of the bishops from Antioch. He had refused to recognize the jurisdiction of this incomplete number, and had consequently refused to appear or put in any defence. He was not thrust out of his see by a change of mind on the part of the feeble emperor. But Nestorius was proud: he showed no sign of yielding or of coming to terms; he put in no plea of appeal to Rome. He retired to his monastery at Antioch with dignity and apparent relief. His friends, John of Antioch, and his party, deserted him, and at the wish of the Emperor, at the beginning of 433, joined hands with Cyril, and Theodoret later did the same. The bishops who were suspected of being favourable to Nestorius were deposed. An edict of Theodosius II, 30 July, 435, condemned his writings to be burnt. A few years later Nestorius was dragged from his retirement and banished to the Oasis. He was at one time carried off by the Nubians (not the Blemmyes) in a raid, and was restored to the Thebaid with his hand and one rib broken. He gave himself up to the governor in order not to be accused of having fled.
There is far less "high-minded theology" there, than there is good ol' power politics.  And if you think that's a consequence of the post-Constantinian nature of the church, don't overlook the fight between Peter and Paul, documented in Paul's letters and Luke's later (and pro-Pauline) account, over whether the message of Jesus should go to the Jews alone, or to the Gentiles as well (a split still illustrated in the Gospels, 3 out of 4 of which were clearly written by and for Jewish communities).  Paul finally won that, but not because Peter gave up fighting.

And on that point:  some 70 years after the crucifixion, the battle was still raging within Jewish communities to determine who would follow Jesus of Nazareth, and who would not.  My major complaint with the Gospel of John is how much credence it lends to exclusionary readings of the teachings of Jesus, and especially to anti-Semitism throughout Western history.  It is a gospel written by Jews for Jews, condemning those Jews who have condemned them.  The virulence of the family struggle is almost palpable, and sometimes it spills over into misunderstanding and dangerous anachronism.  For Aslan to aver that Jesus was accepted by Christians as a Roman demigod only 20 years after his death, is laughable.

And very poor scholarship.

We come, you see, after this long line of discussion and argument and contention.  It is as much a part of our understanding of how things are and ought to be and are to be understood as our native language is.  We can no more change it than we can change our skin, and we cannot go backwards in order to find a new way forward.  Nor can we find a reconciled past that will smooth out our future.  Contention stands at the heart of Christianity.  Even the four gospels were written for four different communities.  Was one of those Peter's, another Paul's?  Luke-Acts is clearly Paul; the other three may well be from Peter's side of the church (they are more clearly rooted in the Jewish communities of the 1st century).  They disagree with each other on points as small as why Jesus was born where he was, and as grave as what he did on the last evening before his crucifixion, or what he said on the cross, or even what he did at his resurrection and after.  Part of the work of scholarship is to acknowledge this complexity, and to make sense of it for a contemporary audience.  That audience may be other scholars, or it may be the general public.  The very substance of the argument changes with the audience addressed.  My complaint with Aslan is that he seems to want to iron out too many of those contentions in favor of one side.

Let me be clear:  if Mr. Aslan's only purpose in writing this book was to lay before the general public the generally accepted understand of the historical Jesus by modern scholars, I would have no complaint with it at all.*  Oh, I might quibble over details, but I'm basing my knowledge of the book's content largely on the Fresh Air interview; so I'm not even complaining about what he wrote.  I assume, in general, it's a perfectly harmless text.  But it wasn't written to bring scholarship to the masses:  it was written to further the career of Reza Aslan.

I mean, what else is that website about, if not promoting the wondrousness of Reza Aslan.   I don't really have a problem with that, either, except that it has precious little to do with scholarship.    The  three books, he lists on his website, while interesting, are not works of scholarship in any field.  They are, however, all I can find about Mr. Aslan's publishing history.  The Atlantic notes, "[h]e has,,,published extensively on religion;" if you call two popular books on Islam and one on Jesus "extensive."  But they are popular books, not works of original scholarship.  That doesn't mean he's incompetent to opine on any subject, or to have written a book about Jesus of Nazareth.  I doubt, however, that this latest book "sheds new light on one of history’s most influential and enigmatic characters by examining Jesus through the lens of the tumultuous era in which he lived."  I would imagine it's actually more of a re-hashing and popularization of work done by Dominic Crossan and other scholars of the New Testament.  The "new light" is new only to those unfamiliar with the work that precedes Aslan.  So I guess it's new if it's new to you.  But it ain't necessarily so.....

Was Aslan wrong to go on Fox News?  He's probably gotten more attention for that than for his Terry Gross interview.  So he did himself proud.  He says he knew what to expect, but he probably didn't quite expect this much attention; nor is he sorry to be getting it.

Am I going to read his book?  Nah; there's nothing in there, at least from that NPR interview, that I didn't learn in seminary.

Can I be a religious scholar now?

*TPM tells me that Aslan's first book came out while he was pursuing a Ph.D.  in History of Religions, and the book aroused his professors:

"Professors who had been working with me suddenly turned their backs to me. Unnecessary obstacles were put in my way. There was an attitude—not just amongst the professors, but amongst my fellow students as well—of Who the hell do you think you are? How dare you take this discussion that we’re having in a room with four people and make it palatable to a large and popular audience?"
I don't doubt this story, but let me offer an alternative view:  popularizing scholarship always involves misrepresenting the results of scholarship.  The simple view of Nestorianism, for example (per that long quote above) is that the heresy was about the dual natures of Christ.  Read the New Advent entry, however, and you won't get that simple an answer (go to Wiki for simple and misleading answers, please).  Scholars have reason to be resentful of people who think they are wise enough to boil down what is "really meant" to a version that will be "palatable to a large and popular audience."  Sometimes its jealousy; but sometimes, it's because you are distorting their scholarship.

And, one has to ask, how carefully did he document his sources?  I'd have to look at a copy of his book before I decided it was as full of footnotes and references as, say, Bultmann's The Gospel of John.   That was a work of scholarship written for scholars.  Bultmann wrote for popular consumption, too, but he still carefully noted where his material was coming from.  He just more often relied on his own thinking, developed after years of scholarship.  His scholarly works were a lively engagement with a long and well-documented discussion, which is not a discussion you have with a general audience.

Aslan was still a Ph.D. candidate, not a scholar at the end of an illustrious career, when this story took place.  Perhaps his professors thought him a bit presumptuous, and a bit careless.  Like I say, I have nothing against Aslan; but his "insights" in his book don't seem to be "new light" at all; or really nothing more than what others have already said.  I don't wish to denigrate him; but I've no use for hype, either.


  1. Magnificent essay. I'm copying it and reading it several more times. About the only thing I can disagree with is the jest about going to Wiki. I wouldn't trust Wikipedia on anything to do with any hot button issue, especially not of interest to pop-atheists.

    I especially liked this:

    And if you think that's a consequence of the post-Constantinian nature of the church, don't overlook the fight between Peter and Paul, documented in Paul's letters and Luke's later (and pro-Pauline) account....

    What a perfect example of Christians not being honest about the problems within Christianity, of not facing the hard issues, etc. NOT (as I understand the young people once said).

    It's so funny, for a field of human thought we're always told is on its last legs how endlessly fascinating religion and, specifically, Jesus are. As you said, even the atheists define themselves in terms of those, defining themselves as not being those instead of any positive, independent character of their own.

  2. "There is far less "high-minded theology" there, than there is good ol' power politics."

    But there was a simple point behind it all, one that even the "simplest fisherman" could understand. Nestorius denied that the Virgin could be called "Mother of God." The reasons for that were complex, as was the counter-argument (I know, as I own a volume of St. Cyril's letters. They are indeed difficult.) But the main point is a simple one of worship and devotion, and by and large it was an important one.

    Of course these questions sometimes took centuries to be fully developed. Was there a time when the Son was not? Is is proper to venerate images of Jesus and the Virgin and the saints? There are practical questions that did indeed become quite complex. But I don't see that any of them were any more complex than the subtle work St. Paul did, in the first Christian generation, trying to untangle the relationship between law and grace.

  3. I've come to the conclusion that what people do is what they really believe. Especially what they do that is done at a cost to themselves. I'd put feed the hungry, clothe the naked visit the prisoner, do justice to the widow and orphan, treat the alien among you as one of yourselves.... those are the real hard issues in religion. Much of the rest of it is just distraction from those.

  4. "Much of the rest of it is just distraction from those."

    There I can't agree. As part of a single whole, worship and sacrament and creed and prayer tend to support the ethical imperatives. That's not to say that they can't be used to hide from them; anything can, really. But I think, on the whole, they support them. Otherwise, the mere ethical imperatives shrink on the vine.

  5. I appreciate your point but the kind of thing that is noted in the post doesn't. Jesus didn't say that those who believed in The Virgin Birth in just the right way or got the relationship of the Christ Spirit to the corporeal humanness of Jesus were his relations, it was those who did the will of God who were.