Top critical review
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on 23 March 2014
I have read a stack of books on Jesus and early Christianity over the years. The historical Jesus is variously concluded to be a Jewish religious teacher, Jewish Mystic, Jewish Apocalyptic preacher, Messianic revolutionary, Essene, Nazarite, etc, or purely mythological, all deduced by different scholars from the same available evidence.
Aslan now makes him out to be a Zealot, a radical religious fundamentalist nationalist, who wanted to see an overthrow of the corrupt and exploitative temple priesthood and the Roman domination system and usher in the “Kingdom of God”, a Jewish theocracy based on the Torah, -along the lines of the mythical Kingdom of David and the more historical Josiah. According to this view of Jesus, if he had been a Muslim it would make him an Islamist in the modern sense.
Even without believing in Jesus as the Son of God, modern followers look to him as teacher of moral values, behaviour towards others as well as guide to experiental spirituality. All this Aslan strips away from his historical Jesus.
However, his book is wholly unpersuasive. Whilst it exudes scholarship in some places, it is superficial in others and leaves large gaps, in places where other scholars mined evidence and have drawn different conclusions, e.g. Burton Mack, Bart Ehrman, Marcus Borg and others. As such, Aslan’s book reads as if it is peppered with confirmation bias.
I find the book lacks credibility for the following reasons:
1.Aslan bases the idea of Jesus being a political revolutionary on the fact that he was crucified, and had the inscription “King of the Jews”. He says this is good evidence because Romans only used crucifixion for the crime of sedition and used inscriptions literally, not sarcastically, to announce the crime. Yet Aslan also declares that Pilate was not one for trials and summarily sent thousands upon thousands of Jews to the cross with a stroke of a pen, so his threshold for crucifixion was pretty low and it does not provide good evidence of what Jesus actually was.
The same sources that inform us about the inscription (the gospels) also tell us that the Roman soldiers made fun of Jesus, gave him a fake crown (of thorns) and mockingly called him “King of the Jews”. So, again, the inscription does not provide evidence of what Jesus actually was. Philo of Alexandra records similar mocking of prisoners by the Romans.
2.Aslan says that the closest we can get to Jesus’ ideology is through examining his successor as head of the movement in Jerusalem, his brother James (not the apostle), is known to have been a strict observer of the Torah. But how much more does that say about Jesus? James sent out emissaries outside Palestine to places like Galatia, Corinth and Thessallonica in order to correct the religious teachings of Paul. Why bother? He surely can’t have been expecting that this biblical “Kingdom of God” would be established in those places.
Further, James sent (or allowed to go) Peter, his closest fellow “pillar”in Jerusalem, to Rome as missionary, - surely not with Aslan’s ideas of Jesus’ vision? There is not much info on Peter’s mission in Rome, but his immediate successor, Clement of Rome, is only known for his efforts to establish an organised church within the Roman empire.
This suggests that the “pillars” in Jerusalem, James, Peter and John, had only religious and no political aspirations.
3. Aslan only talks about two groups of followers of Jesus, the community in Jerusalem headed by James and the Paul “school”. He ignores the evidence that Jesus left behind numerous communities each with their own perspective and ideas about Jesus' teachings. (See "Lost Christianities", Bart Ehrman, "Who wrote the new Testament", Burton Mack). They grew over the years and their beliefs and practices changed; some interacted, some remained isolated. Many of them created writings, purely aimed at preserving and defending their beliefs in their specific settings. This accounts for the differences in tone and content of the large numbers of writings we know about. Only some writings were kept and canonised, - as Gospels, Acts and Epistles, the majority of writings were lost or destroyed as "heresies". Some of these extracanonical writings are reflected in surviving writings and recovered through scholarship, or were rediscovered amongst the finds at Nag Hammadi.
Apart from the Gospel of Thomas and the earliest form of “Q” they do not contain close echoes of the historical Jesus. But note, none of them, including “Thomas” and “Q”, have any echoes of a revolutionary zealot. In fact, apart from the Jerusalem community (which survived as the community of Ebionites), none showed any concern for sticking to the Torah purity codes. If they were all followers of Jesus at the founding moment of their communities, this would seem very odd, and undermines Alsan’s position.
4. Although Alsan spends time and effort trying to extract evidence for his position from the community of James (who wrote nothing), he spends no time looking for evidence from other contemporary communities in the lost Gospel of “Q” and the found Gospel of “Thomas”, even though other scholars believe these may contain the closest documented echoes we have of the historical Jesus. Nor does he look at Paul’s letter for pre-Pauline material that Paul said he had received as a “tradition”, such as the early “kerygma”, and Christ hymn (which he quotes in Phil 2: 6-11), which undermine the idea of Jesus as a Jewish zealot.
The original forms of “Q” are discernible in the Gospels of Matthew and Luke, where it was drawn on, whilst the writer of Mark did not know it. “Thomas” was rediscovered in 1945 at Nag Hammadi, amongst a stash of scriptures hidden by 4th C Egyptian monks.
Written in its current form some time between 50 and 140 AD, the gospel of Thomas contains oral traditions of various ages, some of which may have been written down when Jesus was still alive. Both “Q” and “Thomas” contain nothing to do with Jewish Zealotery or political change. Thomas and the deduced earliest versions of Q contain only “sayings” of Jesus, aphorisms, wisdoms, mostly metaphorical. They are mostly to do with the revelation of a knowledge of a “kingdom of the Father” “that’s inside of you and all around”, and are clearly spiritual in nature.
5. I do not understand how Aslan’s Jesus thought his aim would be achieved and Alsan provides no explanation. He says Jesus amassed a following through performing miracles “for free” ! He then travelled to Jerusalem for the final week, but all this time he kept his idea of what the “Kingdom of God” was hidden from his followers. He provokes temple authorities, predicts his own death, then is executed, leaving baffled followers.
Alsan makes an interpretation of Jesus mentioning swords and violence but otherwise provides no evidence that Jesus was attracting large numbers of potentially militant followers inspired by Jesus to start a rebellion, whether armed, peaceful or spiritual. (In fact, as with most of Jesus’ aphorisms, the mention of swords and violence was undoubtedly metaphorical).
Or was Jesus relying on God to do it all at the end? But there is no mention of this in any of Jesus’ sayings in the Gospels. Aslan does not go into this.
6. Universally, scholars view the bible narrative as a mix of allegory, myth and history. Annoyingly, Alsan quotes left right and centre from both the old and new testaments as if they were factual, without explaining why he holds those particular quotes as truth, as if he still has a foot stuck in Christian fundamentalism.
In summary, Alsan’s deconstruction of the normative image of Jesus is unwarranted. More comprehensive scholarship, as in Burton Mack’s “Who Wrote the New Testament” (1995) and the level headed portrayal by Marcus Borg in “Jesus” (2006) leave room for the historical Jesus as a guide to behaviour and action towards others and experiential connection to all existence.