Posted by: Brian Musser | May 12, 2014

A Limited Response to Reza Aslan’s Lecture

reza_aslan-zealotOn May 7th as part of the Drexel University College of Arts and Sciences’ annual Distinguished Lecture Series  Reza Aslan lectured on the topic of distinguishing between the Christ of Faith and the Jesus of History.  He was invited to speak on this subject in part due to his recent New York Times best selling book “Zealot: The Life and Time of Jesus of Nazareth.”  The Triangle, Drexel University’s independent student newspaper has a good recap of the lecture that you can find here.  I have not read the book itself but there are multiple reviews of it online.  Here are a couple that I found interesting representing a variety of backgrounds:

I did, however, attend his lecture and felt that it would worthwhile to respond.  Most of this response is designed to help in the discussions I have had with students since the lecture.  Some of my points may need more explanation for those who were not at the lecture and/or not in some of the related post lecture conversations.  If you have any questions about a particular point do not be afraid to comment in the appropriate section below.

  1. While it is true that the church throughout history has often created a picture of Jesus that is far different from the “Historical Jesus”, it does not necessarily follow that the Gospel accounts and the other New Testament descriptions of Jesus should be more closely aligned with the Churches “Christ of Faith” than with “Jesus of History.”
  2. While it is true that the Gospel writers were more interested in sharing truth than in presenting facts, it does not necessarily follow that they were completely unconcerned with the factual accuracy of their accounts.
  3. It is completely true that Jesus must be understood within the First Century context, however, the most interesting parts about Jesus is how He did not fit into His context.  Reza mentioned several of things about Jesus and/or early Christianity that are anomalies in the First century context (female disciples, individual bodily resurrection and a non-political Messianic movement).  Reza seems to blatantly contradict the contextual necessity for understanding by mentioning the “sore thumb” criterion for establishing historicity.   This criterion is based on the idea that the more something seems to stick out of context the more likely it is authentic.  the interplay between these two principles of authenticating that which sticks out of context but understanding only that which is in context creates a method that is naturally self-deprecating if not entirely self-defeating.  Or at best it creates a method that allows the researcher to apply whichever principle they want to the data in accordance to which answer would best fit their preconceived bias.
  4. I believe I heard Reza refer to the Jesus Seminar as the consensus of New Testament scholars, this is understandable because it is how the Jesus Seminar self-identifies.  However; nobody else in Biblical Scholarship refers to them as such.  There are multiple critiques on the Jesus Seminar readily available and even their entry in Wikipedia offers some of those critiques so I will refrain doing so here.  If you want a a Critique on the Jesus Seminar I suggest N.T. Wright’s article “Five Gospels But No Gospel:  Jesus and the Seminar”  or the book “Jesus Under Fire: Modern Scholarship Reinvents the Historical Jesus” edited by Wilkins and Moreland.  Although Reza is not part of the Jesus Seminar many of his basic assumptions are the same and responses to the Jesus Seminar can be easily applied to Reza’s work.

Allow me a minute to list four of these assumptions that greatly influence Reza’s work that are not necessary assumptions to do good Biblical scholarship:

  • New Testament documents are assumed to be false and must be proven true.  (We really don’t apply this principle to any other historical text except the  Scriptures.)
  • New Testament writers believed in what they were writing and therefore were biased and their bias discredits them as reliable historians.  (Bias doesn’t necessarily lead to unreliability.  Their are plenty of causes where the more some believes something the harder they work to provide the exact details as much as possible.)
  • The belief in Jesus’ divinity must be a later development of the church and not directly from the words of Jesus himself.  (See C.S. Lewis’ Trilemma about what happens if Jesus himself claimed to be God).  So therefore those passages that attest to the divinity of Jesus are not original with Jesus and there must be substantial chronological, generational and theological distance between the “Historical Jesus” and these texts that claim His divinity.  (We should not discredit the authenticity of statements just because they are religiously inconvenient.)
  • The miraculous should be assumed not to occur.  Therefore those texts that include miracles should be automatically deemed as inauthentic.  Those passages that include prophetic utterances about future events are best explained by assuming they were written after the events in question had happened.  For example Matthew, Mark, John and Acts include passages that reference the destruction of the Temple which happened in 70 C.E.  So these passages must be dated after the historical even because miraculous prophecies do not occur.  ( A. Maybe miracles are possible.  Our philosophical beliefs should not discredit passages from being authentic before we even examine those passages.  B. I’m not completely sure that given the fact the Temple was destroyed twice before and the tumultuous nature of the political context  that predicting the destruction of the Temple again really needed to be a miracle.)

So in conclusion: Reza was entertaining and his presentation stemmed directed from his research and was completely derived from his assumptions.  There were a couple places where he did not connect the dots from assumptions to conclusions.  His conclusions did not necessarily follow the data.  But mostly the only real argument I had with his presentation was with the basic assumption that under grid his research.  If you accept those assumptions you will be lead to conclusions similar to Reza’s but it is not necessary to accept the assumptions.



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