Slate has published a story
about the brouhaha surrounding a book I've not yet read: Reza Aslan's Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth
I caught Aslan on The Daily Show
and disagreed with his take on Jesus. Aslan obviously thinks that Jesus sympathized with the anti-Roman revolutionary movement; I think otherwise.
As noted in an earlier post, my interpretation of the "Jerusalem is doomed" passages in the Gospels differs from the views held by most academics. I think that those passages constitute nothing more -- and nothing less -- than a wise reading of the political situation: Jesus could smell rebellion in the air, and he could guess how that rebellion would end. His "foreknowledge" had nothing to do with ESP and everything to do with common sense. (Josephus seems to have had the same "foreknowledge," although he briefly joined the rebellion anyways.) If Alsan's theory is right, why would Jesus sympathize with a revolution that he knew could only end badly for Israel?
Aslan probably considers the "Jerusalem is doomed" passages to be material added by later writers. And that's the problem with most modern New Testament scholarship: It's possible to create any Jesus you want.
The trick is simple: You read the Gospels, you pick out a few bits that you like, you say "These parts are true" -- and then you dismiss everything else as spurious.
This approach has some validity, or at least inevitability, since the Gospels do, in fact, present true (or true-ish) material encrusted with barnacles of fiction. Most modern scholars would, for example, agree with my presumption that the crucifixion accounts have a strong historical basis, while the nativity stories are far more questionable.
But how do you distinguish the rock from the barnacles? Alas, too many scholars pick and choose their "truths" based on their pet theories -- and that's where the problems set in. Thus, James Tabor, in The Jesus Dynasty
, takes very seriously the (conflicting) "ancestry of Jesus" lists in Luke and Matthew -- even though Luke's list goes all the way back to Adam!
Most other scholars consider those lists dubious; personally, I think they're downright ridiculous. Yet they fit Tabor's pet theory, so he treats the silly things as...well, as Gospel.
As noted above, I haven't read Aslan's book yet, but I fully expect him to play a game similar to Tabor's. That said, such books can be very interesting. You don't have to agree with a work to get something out of it.
Although guys like Ehrman, Crossan and Tabor tend to annoy the religious right, the reaction against Aslan has been very different. Aslan is despised in a way those three are not. Why? Because he is a Muslim. At least, he comes from a Muslim background; I don't know if he is devout.
Right now, the Islamophobes are doubling down on their bigotry. And they are using Aslan as their whipping boy.
Here's how Slate tells the story:
It’s got plenty of competition but this may just be the single most cringe-worthy, embarrassing interview broadcast on Fox News. At least in recent memory. Fox News anchor Lauren Green had religious scholar Reza Aslan on her show Friday to talk about Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth, his book that has been stirring up some online controversy recently. And right off the bat, Green gets to what is important: “You’re a Muslim, so why did you write a book about the founder of Christianity?” Aslan seemed a little flabbergasted: “Well, to be clear, I am a scholar of religions with four degrees, including one in the New Testament, and fluency in biblical Greek, who has been studying the origins of Christianity for two decades, who also just happens to be a Muslim.”
But Green just wouldn’t let it go: “It still begs the question though, why would you be interested in the founder of Christianity?” Aslan then starts talking to Green slowly, as if she were a child: “Because it’s my job as an academic. I am a professor of religion, including the New Testament. That’s what I do for a living, actually.” But Green insisted, accusing him of failing to “disclose” that he’s a Muslim and at one point asking him about a stupefying claim on whether a Muslim writing a book on Jesus isn’t sort of like a Democrat writing a book on former president Ronald Reagan.
Aslan has become the target of anti-muslim rhetoric this past week as he’s made numerous media appearances to publicize his book. Author and pastor John Dickerson harshly criticized media outlets on FoxNews.com, saying reporters “have failed to mention [Aslan] is a devout Muslim.” In a piece for WorldNetDaily, Pamela Geller writes that “jihadist operatives like the vicious Reza Aslan are carried on the shoulders of the media and intelligentsia like a football hero at the end of an impossibly fought game.” Many who share these views have taken to Amazon to give the book one-star reviews. Aslan “is a Muslim and not a historian,” reads one of the one-star reviews.
As if Muslims cannot be historians...!
Tellingly, these bigots never dare to address the question of whether Jews may write about Jesus. Many Jews have done so, and they have often had some important and interesting things to say. Maimonides wrote about Jesus in the 12th century. Some of you may know the famous story of Nahmanides and the great dispute in Barcelona. Here's a modern Jew
who writes about Jesus -- and in the process, he praises Aslan's book.
Moreover, if the risible Pamela Geller really thinks that no Muslim scholar should write about Jesus, then shouldn't the restrictions also work the other way? Do scholars who hail from a Jewish or Christian heritage have the right to write about Muhammed?
Of course they do. Anyone from any background may write on any topic that he or she considers intriguing. Granted, what you write won't be of much value to others if you refuse to do your homework, or if you lack the talent for original thought.
A year ago, I read a book called Did Muhammed Exist?
by Robert Spencer. At the time, I didn't know who Spencer is. I later discovered that he's a Greek Melkite Christian and an anti-jihadist firebrand who often works with Pamela Geller. As you know, I don't like Geller, and thus I'm not likely to admire anyone who pals around with her.
Nevertheless, his book is a fascinating read. Perhaps perversely, I came away from it convinced of Muhammed's historicity -- even though, as with Jesus, barnacles of fiction formed around the facts. Spencer deserves credit for arguing fairly: He gives the reader enough evidence to walk away with a conclusion differing from the one he intends.
For a while now, I've toyed with the notion of writing a Sunday post comparing Spencer's work with that of popular dimwits like "Archaya X" who argue for the nonexistence of Jesus. We've discussed the "mythicist" issue in a previous post
. As Bart Ehrman notes in his excellent recent book on the topic, virtually all New Testament scholars (most of whom are agnostics or atheists or not-conventionally-religious) concede the existence of Jesus. Yet "evangelical atheists" of the Richard Dawkins school seem to be under the impression that the "myth" theory represents the scholarly consensus, even though the opposite is true.
Most of the people who think this way are young, arrogant ninnies who would rather poke out their own eyes than read a book with footnotes.
So why do these young, arrogant ninnies want
to believe that Jesus was a completely mythical personage? Because -- to put it bluntly -- they've got a bug up their asses about Christianity, and because these smirky twerps like to think that they're smarter than other people. For most of these kids, fundamentalist Protestant Christianity is the only variant they know, and I can certainly understand why they've learned to dislike it. For them, the "myth" theory fulfills a psychological need. It's their way of exacting revenge.
Spencer, I think, has similar motives. He hates Islam passionately, so he has a psychological need to strike it at the core. But unlike the smirky young twerps who dote on Archaya X and the Zeitgeist
pseudodocumentary, Spencer is willing to do actual research. Thus, his work is far easier to recommend.
As noted above, I wasn't persuaded by his argument, well-mounted as it is. We know from the history of recently-born religions -- and by "recently," I mean the past two centuries, for which we have good records -- that religions do not make themselves. Religions have founders.
Joseph Smith and L. Ron Hubbard were demonstrably real people. Even though their followers have tried to affix "barnacles of fiction" to their histories, those barnacles cannot erase the fact that a new faith always has a father. (Can you name an exception? Even the cargo cults trace back to an historical figure named Tuka.) Such has been the pattern during the past two centuries; such, I believe, was the pattern in antiquity.
Now, I told you all of the above mainly to introduce you to Spencer and his book. My purpose is to ask an obvious question: If Spencer can write about Muhammed, why can't Aslan write about Jesus?
Fair is fair.
Believe it or not, instead of avoiding the comparison to Spencer, Geller -- who positively luxuriates
in hypocrisy -- is very quick to mention the guy, even as she trashes Aslan
Robert Spencer is a writer without peer and a nonpareil scholar, the author of 12 books on Islam, jihad and related topics, including two New York Times bestsellers. Yet “Did Muhammad Exist?” was ignored and dismissed by the intelligentsia, the media elite and subversive academia.
Juxtapose that to the recent adulation heaped upon the Islamic supremacist Reza Aslan for his new book. Aslan is an advisory board member of the National Iranian American Council, which has been recently exposed in court as a lobbying group for the Iranian regime. He has smeared and lied about Spencer and me on national television, and responded to Spencer’s reasoned rebuttals with homophobic abuse worthy of a seventh-grader...
Of course, nothing Aslan said resembles homophobia.
You should ask yourself, how did we get here? How can a reasonable, educated and pre-eminent scholar like Robert Spencer be relegated to the very fringe (if that) of the literary world, while jihadist operatives like the vicious Reza Aslan are carried on the shoulders of the media and intelligentsia like a football hero at the end of an impossibly fought game.
See if you can catch the big problem in this next bit:
Clearly, Robert could have entitled his book “Pedophile,” because we know that Muhammad’s favorite wife was taken at the age of 6 and that their “marriage” was consummated when the Muslim prophet was 54 and she was 9. Spencer could also have called his book “Annihilator,” because we know that Muhammad slaughtered an entire Jewish tribe, the Banu Qurayza, by beheading. Surely Spencer exercised restraint in not entitling his book “Bloody Warmonger.” Any of these would have been the equivalent of Aslan’s title “Zealot.”
In other words, Pam Geller is stipulating the existence of Muhammed -- thereby contradicting Spencer's thesis
. A nonexistent person cannot also be a real-world annihilator. Geller is so caught up in the throes of rage-gasm that she cannot see her contradiction!
By the way: In the first century, the word zealot
meant "rebel," not "fanatic." The title of Aslan's book is not an insult; it refers to a theory of Jesus' political motive. Even though I consider that theory wrongheaded, we should note that the same idea has been voiced by many others; it may be considered one of the standard "theories of Jesus."
If you have seen Aslan's teevee appearances, you're probably asking the same question I'm asking: Geller wants us to think that
guy is a jihadi
? She must be kidding!
Aslan is a scholar, not an Islamic polemicist. The view of Jesus he has presented (at least on television) conflicts with the view of Jesus one finds in the Koran.
Islam's holy book does not
present Jesus as a zealot. Muslims have traditionally regarded Jesus as a great religious prophet, not as a political figure. If Aslan sees Jesus as an insurrectionist, he contradicts the standard Islamic view.
I very strongly doubt that Aslan accepts the beloved (by Muslims) tale of the Virgin Mary and the palm tree
. The Koran also says that Jesus started talking shortly after birth; I suspect that Aslan would say that this tale contains, at best, only a poetic
Most importantly: The Daily Show
interview gave me the clear impression that Aslan thinks Jesus was, in fact, crucified. The reality of the crucifixion seems to be the crux of this scholar's argument. He thus contradicts the Koran's strange teaching that Jesus was not
crucified (a view probably inspired by certain Gnostic sects).
One should study one's enemies. How can Geller hate Islam so deeply if she doesn't even know the Islamic view of Jesus? How can she argue that Aslan is a Muslim propagandist -- or even a "jihadi" -- when he presents a "theory of Jesus" which (as far as I can tell) has no relation to anything in the Koran? Either Geller is ignorant of these matters, or she is captiously exploiting the ignorance of her readers.
Remember also: Spencer’s book was accurately and forthrightly entitled, “Did Muhammad Exist?” It’s a legitimate question, even though on the BBC recently an interviewer tried to badger Spencer into admitting that there was something wrong, and offensive to Muslims, with even investigating this historical question.
I haven't seen the interview (and would appreciate a link to it, if it's on the net), but I doubt that any BBC interviewer would argue for limiting scholarship. I understand that the BBC itself has, at least glancingly, addressed the historicity question in a documentary about Mohammed.
By the way: One cannot fairly argue that Spencer's book was ignored if the BBC interviewed him.
Geller's outrageous double standard should be obvious: If Spencer has every right to argue that Muhammed is mythical -- and indeed he does -- then Aslan has every right to argue that Jesus was an anti-Roman rebel. Although I don't agree with either proposition, I think that there's a bit more evidence for Aslan's view than for Spencer's.
Some people mainline heroin. Some people mainline hate. Pam Geller has injected a lot of the latter into her veins -- but lately, her drug of choice seems to be hypocrisy