Monday, August 12, 2013

Reza Aslan, Jesus, and me

  Update:  some real reviews that discuss Aslan's work, not his religion:

Dale B. Martin in the  New York Times

Anthony Le Donne's blog


 Hard to express how profoundly disappointed I am with media reaction to Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth by Reza Aslan. I won't talk about (or link to) the ambush conducted by a Fox News interviewer. John Oliver's three-parter is friendly and fun, and Sister Rose Pacatte's interview is a respectful exchange. However, an NPR interview was just long enough to allow Aslan to give a bare-bones version of his viewpoint., while an essayist on Huffington Post takes the author to task for doing serious scripture criticism. Come on, scholars established long ago that the "Evangelists" adapted and embellished the Jesus story, even putting words into the Nazarean's mouth.

   Someday maybe I'll read a scholarly review that gives a more substantial and nuanced analysis of Aslan's portrait of Jesus. In the meantime, here are my personal impressions. I'm no scripture scholar. I cannot read Koiné, Hebrew, or Aramaic and have taken only a few introductory courses in biblical studies. I'm just a lay person --and practicing Christian-- who has always had the suspicion that Jesus of Nazareth was very different from the Christ of the Nicene Creed, the dreaded authoritarian God-Man who sits at the right hand of the Father judging us all. To satisfy my curiosity, I've devoured historical studies by investigators from Ernest Renan and Albert Schweitzer to the Jesus Seminar. Jewish scholars such as the last Geza Vermes hold a special appeal for me (after all, Jesus was a Jew). So, when Aslan's book was published I needed no prompting by Fox News or Comedy Central to run out and get it.

SPOILER ALERT: OK, so you probably know how the Jesus story ends. However, if you'd rather discover Aslan's version on your own, skip the paragraphs in blue.

    Aslan recounts "the story of the zealous Galilean peasant and Jewish nationalist who donned the mantle messiah and launched a foolhardy rebellion against the corrupt Temple priesthood and the vicious Roman occupation." (p. 169)  Jesus of Nazareth figures in a long list of unsuccessful messiahs who lived and died in what we know as the first-century-B.C.E. Holy Land. He was a zealot (not to be confused with a member of the Zealot Party, which would come much later).  Zeal constituted "a model of piety inextricably linked to the widespread sense of apocalyptic expectation that had seized the Jews in the wake of the Roman occupation...The Kingdom of God was at hand. Everyone was talking about it. But God's reign could only be ushered in by those with the zeal to fight for it." (p. 41)

    The priestly class was the target of Jesus' particular ire, "those who profited most heavily from the Temple's commerce, and who did so on the backs of poor Galileans like himself " (p.99) and who secured their position and livelihood by colluing with Rome. Jesus healed the sick and forgave sins without charge, thus undercutting the Temple cult and rendering the priests unnecessary. Jesus' message was always directed at his own people, whom he wanted to liberate, and it was always as political as it was religious. Although Jesus was not the pacifist that some modern theologians make him out to be, he was not "a violent revolutionary bent on armed rebellion" either, "though his views on the use of violence were far more complex than it is often assumed."  Jesus may have spoken in parables about the Kingdom of God, but his disciples knew what the coded language meant. His dramatic cleansing of the Temple revealed him as an uncompromising adversary of the reigning political system and led to his arrest. (His execution was not, however, preceded by the dramatic confrontation with Pilate, as recorded in the gospel of John.) The titulus nailed above Jesus' head proclaimed his crime. He was a common lestes who aspired to be King of the Jews. In other words, he was executed for sedition. Because crucifixion marked a Jew as accursed, Jesus' followers infused a salvific message into his death, and a later generation of learned writers scoured Hebrew scripture for prophetic words to explain the mission of the Nazarean.

   Why did the story of this would-be messiah not perish with him? Because his followers were convinced that he had risen from the dead and did not stop proclaiming it. While the Resurrection is a phenomenon that cannot be submitted to historical inquiry, "there is this nagging fact to consider: one after another of those who claimed to have witnessed the risen Jesus went to their own gruesome deaths refusing to recant their testimony....It was precisely the fervor with which the followers of Jesus believed in his resurrection that transformed this tiny Jewish sect into the largest religion in the world." (p. 174, 175.)                                  .  
    However, what we know as Christianity got off to a fractious start to say the least. Conflict arose between James the Just, brother of Jesus and head of the "mother assembly" in Jerusalem, and Saul of Tarsus, who took the name Paul after his conversion. Paul and James clashed over the extent to which Jewish law should continue to be observed, although the writer of the Acts of the Apostles downplayed the animosity existing between "these two bitter and openly hostile adversaries."  However, once the mother assembly in Jerusalem was annihilated by Rome, "Paul's Christ ...obliterated the last trace of the Jewish messiah in Jesus." (p. 190)  The gospels, written six decades after the death of Jesus by persons who had not known him personally, were addressed to non-Jewish audiences. "Scattered across the Roman Empire, it was only natural for the gospel writers to distance themselves from the Jewish independence movement by erasing, as much as possible, any hint of radicalism or violence, revolution or zealotry, from the story of Jesus, and to adapt Jesus's words and actions to the new political situation in which they found themselves." (p. 149). Thus did the no-account peasant and would-be messiah become God incarnate, the Second Person of the Blessed Trinity, Jesus Christ.

  Reza Aslan has a B.A. from Santa Clara University, a master of theological studies from Harvard,  an M.F.A from the University of Iowa, and a Ph.D. in the sociology of religion from the University of California at Santa Clara. He currently teaches at the University of California, Riverside.

  That master of fine arts is certainly evident in Aslan's vivid, you-are-there writing:

    The priest takes your sacrifice to a corner and cleanses himself in a nearby basin. Then, with a simple prayer, he slits the animal's throat ... This is as close as you will ever by to the presence of God.  The stink of carnage is impassible to ignore. It clings to the skin, the hair, becoming a noisome burden you will not soon shake off.  The priests burn incense to ward off the fetor and disease, but the mixture of myrrh and cinnamon, saffron and frankincense cannot mask the insufferable stench of slaughter.Still, it is important to stay where you are and witness your sacrifice take place in the next courtyard, the Court of Priests.  Entry into this court is permitted solely to the priests and the Temple officials, for this is where the Temple's altar stands: a four-horned pedestal made of bronze and wood --five cubits long, five cubits wide-- belching thick black clouds of smoke into the air. (from the Prologue, pp. 4, 5, 6).

   This kind of writing is a rare joy.  If you don't believe me, we can spend some time together in the Bible studies section of the university library where I work and sample tomes written over the last 200 or so years. See if you're still awake after a half-hour of erudite, footnoted prose, liberally sprinkled with essential Bible vocabulary in the original ancient languages. Aslan has the good sense to organize his references into a separate 50-page section following his narrative. He knows how to construct a good read and plunges us right into the turbulence of the era.

  I perused those 50-pages of scholarly notes, by the way,  lingering over those that were most interesting to me.  I recognized many sources cited by John Dominic Crossan and others, although  Aslan sometimes reaches different conclusions. Notably, Aslan's Jesus believed the end times to be near, a view not shared by Crossan and other recent scholars.

   More problematic, even painful for me is Aslan's treatment of Jesus' teachings, particularly the Sermon on the Mount and the parables. Although he is not unique in this, the author affirms that Jesus in no way departed from Jewish law, and he considers the contrasting formula "You have heard it said ... but I say to you" to be later a later interpolation. I'm familiar, of course, with Jesus' assertion, "I have only been sent to the lost sheep of the house of Israel" (Matt 15:24). However, if Jesus did not mean his teachings to have universal application, I guess I feel a bit...well...left out. I too want to be part of bringing the "upside-down kingdom" into being. However, what role can a 21st-century follower have if "thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven" is just code for "please Lord, help us kick the Romans out as soon as possible"?   What bearing does the message of a nationalistic Jesus have on Marcus Borg's vision of "the world as if God were in charge?" Or on Martin Luther King, Jr.'s Beloved Community?  Jesus becomes just another liberation figure, no more or less admirable than Garibaldi....

      Bring it on. I find these challenges to my own Christology every bit as passionate as the quest for the historical Jesus.  

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