Aslan’s Jesus: Dressing Up Fiction as Fact

I apologize for the apparent deceit. This post has nothing to do with the amazing allegories found in C.S. Lewis’ Chronicles of Narnia. Those stories, which feature a Jesus-character who has taken on the shape of a mighty, good-but-not-safe lion named “Aslan” are awesome and I highly recommend them, not because they contain factual information about Jesus, but rather because they function as a set of parables intended to excite the imagination of how Jesus might interact with us in the midst of our own life’s struggles and dreams. This post is not about THAT Aslan, but rather a formerly Christian author turned Muslim, Reza Aslan, who wrote a book about the reaImagel Jesus called, “Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth.”

Aslan’s book is a classic example of letting a pre-formulated conclusion guide the selection and interpretation of evidence and assembling it in a just-so fashion that purports to have discovered “the real Jesus.” Such efforts are not new. Ever since the Jesus Seminar first began publishing its opinions on what Jesus actually did and said (with the mere presumption that he was not God) there has been a growing list of piggyback authors who ran with their theses and even started branching out in novel directions. This has ranged from Dan Brown’s, “The Davinci Code,” to this latest entry from Reza Aslan. In the latter case, Aslan has decided that Jesus was little more than a religious fanatic, not unlike his contemporary Jewish zealots and Roman-haters, intent on attacking the Roman establishment and any sell-out Jews (like the Pharisees) that happened to cross his path. Aslan’s key thesis is that Jesus was not crucified because he claimed to be God (which Aslan denies), but rather because of Jesus’ actions at the temple, when he overturned the money changers’ tables in Mark 11.15-18. Aslan claims this would have been perceived by the Romans as a direct attack on Rome itself. Yes, you heard that right. Aslan attempts to instruct readers that Jesus was just another rebel leader whose only moment of anger and action in the Jewish Temple was understood as an attack on the Roman Empire and this culminated with his trial, conviction and execution.

How does Aslan come to this conclusion? By only fixating on extra-biblical sources and the Gospel of Mark at the expense of other New Testament documents and by selectively interpreting the Temple cleansing moment in Mark with little corroborating evidence. In the meantime, Aslan produces all kinds of faulty assumptions and indeed, bogus counter narratives that give his theory an air of plausibility.

There are several things that must be considered about Aslan’s thesis, not the least of which is that the Romans most assuredly did NOT view the Israelite cult as being synonymous with the Roman Empire. Granted, the Jewish religion was recognized as an established, ancient tradition, and was permitted to continue with its beliefs and practices so long as they did not interfere with Roman business and governance. This is also why, later on, it was such a dangerous and contentious thing for the new Christians to distinguish themselves from Judaism, for it meant that they were NOT an ancient, well-established religion and were thus NOT afforded any recognition under Roman law. Keep in mind however, that the tolerance of Judaism was only tolerance and not celebration, and certainly it was never considered to be representative of Rome itself. The Roman Empire and its official pantheon, with Caesar as God incarnate at the middle, viewed the parochial deities of its conquered peoles as backwards and almost totally irrelevant. Not only is this why we hear the names Mars, Jupiter and Venus, but not Yahweh when we consider Roman gods, it is also why the Romans occasionally took it upon themselves to go to their outlying provinces and beat up on the local rabble-rousers whenever they deemed it necessary.

Indeed, as the intertestamental era proved (from both Jewish and Roman sources), the only times Rome bothered to deal with the Jews was when Israelites revolted against the empire, best highlighted under the leadership of the Maccabees and their wilderness raids on empire holdings before the birth of Jesus. The second, and perhaps better known event involving a Roman campaign against the Jews happened in A.D. 70 when, in the aftermath of another Jewish revolt, a Roman force captured Jerusalem and leveled all but one wall of the Jewish Temple. Again, no one disputes this, but according to Aslan’s theory, Rome held that the Jewish Temple was integral to Rome itself and simply could not tolerate any attack on it. Does anyone else see the problem with Aslan’s claim? Are we simultaneously to believe that Rome destroyed the very temple that it held so dear and was integral to its own identity, but could not tolerate a relatively unknown Jesus turning over some tables and releasing some domesticated animals in the outermost court on the Temple grounds? Something is wrong with this thesis.

Finally, we ought to consider the Roman prefect in charge of Jerusalem and his reaction to the charge the Jewish leaders brought against Jesus. Under Roman governance, the Jewish Sanhedrin was stripped of its formal ability to execute its own criminals. The Jewish court HAD to have Roman involvement to bring about capital cases, and this is precisely why they brought Jesus to Pontius Pilate. But what does Pilate say when the Jews bring Jesus before him? According to John 18:35 (which Aslan ignores), when Jesus asks why he is being brought to trial, Pilate responds with the following: Am I a Jew? Your own people and chief priests handed you over to me. What is it you have done?”  It’s pretty clear that Pilate has no idea what is going on with this odd Jewish, non-Roman religion. He can’t pretend to understand the complexities of this ancient sect or its regulations. The best sources we have for the affair, indeed, the only sources we have of Jesus’ trial indicate that it was not an offense  that started in the Jewish Temple with moneychangers and pigeons (ok, “doves”), but rather because Jesus had claimed that he was a king, and not just any king, but THE King, like God. Because the Jews rightly perceived Jesus’ claims, they could not tolerate it, so they told Mom and Dad Rome who, given a history of Jewish revolts, essentially had to prosecute any additional backwoods subjects who threatened (real or imagined) the sovereign authority of the Roman Empire. So they executed Jesus in the Roman fashion reserved for rebels and Roman dissidents. Of course I would argue that when it comes to Jesus, you can’t keep a good man down, but I suppose that is another topic.

The bottom line is that people familiar with the New Testament can see where Reza Aslan gets his ideas. When push comes to shove, Jesus was executed as a rebel leader by the Roman Empire, and his disruption in the Jewish Temple could be perceived as acting against a religion that Rome officially recognized and tolerated. While these are necessary components for Aslan’s thesis, they are not sufficient to establish it as fact. To fabricate a counter-narrative about Jesus like Aslan did requires a lot of creative license, not to mention cherry-picking parts of the Bible that lend credence to his musings while ignoring evidence that calls them into question. His book is a classic example of stacking the deck to fabricate a picture of Jesus that casts aspersions on Christianity and does so with a whiff of plausibility. Just like the so-called “Gnostic texts” that tried their best to reinterpret Jesus and issue their own rendition of him (and were accepted by folks ignorant or uncomfortable with the Jesus offered by the oldest and best sources), the revisionist tradition continues today and has found new authors and credulous readers to carry forth the banner.

That being said, perhaps the most damning assessment of Alsan’s book can be found on its own back cover:

Aslan rips Jesus out of all the contexts we thought he belonged in and holds him forth as someone entirely new. This is Jesus as a passionate Jew, a violent revolutionary, a fanatical ideologue, an odd and scary and extraordinarily interesting man.—Judith Shulevitz

Well, what are we to say about a 21st century author who invents an “entirely new” Jesus almost completely unhinged from what the oldest and best sources say about him?
I’ve got a suggestion:

Bullshit.

Thanks for reading me,

-CL

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About C_Lambeth

I currently live in the Pacific Northwest. I graduated from Missouri State University with a Bachelor's of Science and from George Fox Seminary (now Portland Seminary) with a Master's of Divinity. In addition to knowing Christ and helping others know him, I am passionate about peace, the environment, Christian feminism, justice for all (not just the wealthy) and being a lifelong learner. Please feel free to comment on any of the posts here or to suggest new posts altogether. Thank you for reading me! -CL
This entry was posted in Atheism / Secular Humanism, Questions for Christians, Theology. Bookmark the permalink.

30 Responses to Aslan’s Jesus: Dressing Up Fiction as Fact

  1. M. A. K. says:

    Lambeth, your entire review is based upon accepting and believing in what was written in the new testament. Your reference to the Risen Christ is a giveaway. Can you list any other primary source that substantiates the “risen Christ?” Nope, only four parts of the New Testament, each of which was written years after the events they claim took place. One could legitimately ask why would thousands commit suicide by following Jim Jones in South America. Or die in a fire in Waco following David Koresh? Didn’t those people accept opposition and hardship for the sake of a myth? Reza Aslan was looking at the story from an objective historical view. Think about it for a minute. The only biographies we have of Jesus are in the New Testament. And, they were written by people who liked him and followed him. Therefore, those stories objective? Do you think a biography of President Obama written by someone who followed him and admired him would be objective?

    • I disagree. Corbin was leveraging the same source Aslan used. In this case Corbin’s review was more objective because he made use of other historical sources in addition to Aslan’s source, (if it’s true Aslan only used St. Mark’s gospel). Even the scholars who are critics of Christianity agree that the NT canon is THE most well-preserved collection of manuscripts of antiquity -ever- and that the authors truly believed what they wrote was true. Based on this scholarly consensus involving textual criticism, the four Gospels are the absolute best historical sources of information we have on the man Jesus. No one who studies ancient manuscripts seriously disputes this. I say, great review Corbin. Thanks for the post!

  2. C_L says:

    Thank you, Russell. As usual you make some fine points, but I have to admit that I misspoke. Aslan did use texts beyond the Gospel of Mark. They are not biblical, but he does draw on alternate sources for the general context of life in 1st Century Palestine. That being said, he is at a total loss for primary sources, or even early secondary sources that corroborate his thesis that Jesus was executed just because of the Temple cleansing episode. That remains little more than an exercise in creative writing and, as you pointed out, runs contrary to the oldest, best historical sources we have for the life, death and resurrection of Jesus.

    Always great to hear from you, Friend!
    -CL

  3. C_L says:

    MAK,
    As Russell pointed out, my review is based upon the full weight of the biblical text, not a limited set that only affirms my own theories/ conclusions. Even Aslan apparently thinks that at least SOME parts of the Bible are authoritative, with a bit of selective interpretation that is.

    For your own part, the argument you constructed is predicated on little more than a belief that biased people are incapable of telling the truth. Since nobody comes to any conclusion as an unbiased or casual observer, the argument founders under its own weight. Your faith in Aslan’s “objectivity” is just that: faith, and it is remarkably similar to Christians who accept the full testimony of biblical authors. I don’t fault you for having faith, but it is faith indeed.

    Furthermore, your mentioning of the four separate witnesses of the New Testament undermines the claim that multiple attestations of a “Risen Christ” do not exist. Critics of Christianity would do well to recognize that the Bible is not a single document composed by a single author (unlike the Qur’an, the Book of Mormon or the musings of Jim Jones or David Koresh, et al.), but rather a collection of sources from different authors, languages, cultures, times and places. As you have framed the argument, it seems that you are a little too eager to dismiss any primary sources that affirm the unique character of Jesus of Nazareth as God incarnate. Are we really to believe that primary sources affirming this Jesus as Christ would NOT be included in the biblical canon? That in itself is a dubious assertion.

    Finally, we should consider that, unlike the followers of Muhammed, Joseph Smith, Jones and Koresh, the first followers of Christ would have known for themselves if what was being said about Jesus was true or not. They weren’t just taking someone else’s word for it. They themselves were witnesses, accessing their own experiences and memories. Also unlike the list of folks I mentioned above, Jesus did not write anything himself. It was the people he met and lived with who took up the mantle of transmitting the events of his life, death and resurrection. Of course we may argue that the church later invented these stories, but that also takes a lot of faith on the part of the skeptic, and it is incumbent upon those who make such claims to prove the point if they want to move it out of that faith realm. Such efforts also seem to suffer from a chronological miscue, for if there were no resurrected Jesus, then all of his initial followers would have known it, and it seems unlikely that a church would have carried on only later to write itself back into existence. Horse and cart and all that. Of course people are free to believe whatever they like, but Reza Aslan’s book is… less than convincing for Christians already familiar with the territory and the trodden trails of skeptics trying to pass themselves off as objective and dispassionate observers.

    -CL

  4. ChainThree says:

    I confess that I was drawn into reading your review due to my interest in Narnia, but despite the disappointing lack of lions, I really enjoyed your review. Thanks for writing it!

    • ChainThree says:

      I just read this post to Steven, who said it was an excellent review and gives it an “A+”. Based on his study of the Roman Empire, the Romans certainly did not view the Jewish temple as a symbol of the Empire; the monotheism of the Jews was very much at odds with the polytheism of the Romans and the Empire only tolerated the practice of Judaism because the Romans were fascinated by items/practices of antiquity.

      • C_L says:

        Thank you for the comment. This is precisely what I take issue with regarding Reza Aslan’s book. He has multiple religious studies degrees, including a PhD, and he makes much about his credentials while claiming that he has been studying Jesus for 20 years. Well that’s wonderful, and I have no doubt that it’s true, but the fact remains that even us mere mortals with no doctorate degrees in religious studies can do a little research of our own and realize the central tenet of Aslan’s “Zealot” is egregiously flawed. What is worse is that I find it remarkably difficult to believe that a person with his credentials could blunder into such a bad thesis without knowing it was bankrupt. If anything, this proves that having a PhD under one’s belt is no guaranty of quality scholarship.
        -CL

  5. J. Linnstrom says:

    Thank you for your excellent and extensive review. I hope people would read your review instead of wasting their money on this fictional work masquerading as a scholarly work by a historian.

  6. J. A. Magill says:

    At least this review acknowledged that Aslan is fully in the mainstream of modern scholarship. Then it gets dicier. Aslan never claimed that the “Israelite cult” was synonymous with the Roman Empire. However Romans kills anyone who they saw as challenging their local clients. Even the gospels, for all their contradictions, agree that he did that!

    • J. Linnstrom says:

      Aslan’s entirely new Jesus as evaluated by the Huffington Post’s interview with him:

      “This is who Jesus was, the historical Jesus: he was an illiterate, day laborer, peasant from the country side of Galilee who hung around with the most dispossessed, poor, weak, outcasts of his society — people whom the temple rejected. And who, in their name, launched an insurrection against the Roman and priestly authorities. That’s Jesus. So, if you claim to walk in Jesus’ footsteps, that’s what it means.

      It means rejecting power, in all its forms — religious and political — it means denying yourself in the name of the poor and the marginalized regardless of their religious or their sexual orientation or anything else. If you do not do those things, you are not a follower of Jesus. ‘Cause that’s who Jesus was.” -Reza Aslan

      Sexual orientation? Where in the heck did that come from?
      We are not talking a bad historical research here. We are talking hallucination!

      • C_L says:

        Linnstrom,
        I actually like the 2nd half of Aslan’s quote as you referenced it. I don’t think that Jesus would have us treat people poorly because of their sexual orientation. However, you are exactly right about most of Aslan’s Just-So Jesus being little more than a hallucination of Aslan’s own mental projections. In contradistinction to Luke 4.16-20 (Where Jesus is reading from a scroll at synagogue), Aslan’s very first assessment of Jesus as “illiterate” is an obvious mistruth.

        But we shouldn’t be too surprised at this purposeful misrepresentation. Folks hostile to Christianity are always looking for ways to undermine the real Jesus, and when they can’t find any, they invent their own, often taking an ounce of truth and working it up into something almost completely unrecognizable. Unfortunately, lots of folks are taken in by the deceit. Just look at the comments left by folks like J.A. Magill.

    • C_L says:

      I have to confess, Magill; I am having a difficult time parsing your comment. And Aslan’s fringe re-imagining of Jesus hardly constitutes the “mainstream” position on Jesus.

      • J. A. Magill says:

        Would you prefer the mainstream non-Christian view? Pretty much all the vitriol I’ve seen centers around jesus not being God, aview shared by most of humanity and a sizable chunck of the early jesus movement

        • C_L says:

          I thought you already claimed to have given us the mainstream non-Christian view (Aslan’s), but I admit that I am still having difficulty with the specificity of your syntax. Nevertheless, you seem to be claiming that a “sizable chunck [sic] of the early jesus [sic] movement” didn’t regard Jesus as God. It also appears you have bought the spin from revisionist historians (like the Jesus Seminar) who think the Gospel of Thomas et al., is on par with (and of the same vintage as) the gospel accounts included in the New Testament. Unfortunately for such theories, these so-called “Gnostic texts” are late to the party and were rightly rejected by the church in the 3rd and 4th centuries.

          As for the number of people who reject Jesus as God, surely you are aware that truth is not contingent upon the number of people who accept it?

  7. J. Linnstrom says:

    Well, you are right on the spirit of Jesus who taught unconditional love of God. I was just being somewhat sarcastic because I cannot pinpoint how Jesus addressed alternative sexuality!

    HOWEVER, Jesus did mention some ‘eunuchs are born that way’ and they have their place in the Kingdom. So one can argue that Jesus teaching homosexuality is innate for some people.

    My point should have been that Aslan’s so called ‘insurrection by Jesus’ consisted of overturning tables in the temple market and chasing away animals! Wow, what an insurrection!!! Romans should be quaking in their boots!

  8. Michael G. says:

    Jesus asked His apostles, “Who do people say that I am?” They told them what they were hearing on the streets. Then He asked, “Who do you say that I am?” Peter answered for the rest –“You are the Christ of God.”

    And so it is today. “Who do people say I am?” Jesus asked. Some say a myth, some say an insurrectionist, some say a rebel, some say a teacher. “Who do you say I am?” To that I answer, “you are the Christ of God.” This is the radical view that all the world despises and mock. Let them, if they so choose. God gives them that option.

    • J. A. Magill says:

      Um, Michael, you do realize that this answer is wholly consistent with Aslan’s view (saving of course that “the people” wouldn’t have answered in Greek)? Christ, which is the Greek for anointed, refers to the idea of being the Messiah. It isn’t a synonym for being God, or at least it wasn’t until folks started messing with the language (and that reading makes a lot of texts rather odd, as suddenly King David becomes “god”).

      • C_L says:

        Magill,
        Thank you for offering the classic argument against Jesus’ own radical claim of his messiahship that placed him as one with the Father (YHWH). You are right in pointing out that none of the Jews (except John the Baptist and perhaps a few other folks) were looking for Jesus’ radical redefinition of the term Christ/ Messiah. This alone casts serious doubt on anti-Christian claims that Jesus’ Jewish contemporaries were gullible folks who would believe just about anything about gods becoming human. Your faith that Jesus never claimed to be God is inconsistent with the full measure of the New Testament. Of course you are free to believe whatever you like, but mere belief does not reality make.

        As for your earlier insinuation that the Jesus Seminar (and by proxy, Aslan) represents the mainstream of modern scholarship, that is an overstatement. The Seminar represents a thread of modern scholarship, but certainly not the only one. Given that most of its fellows categorically reject Jesus Christ and the idea that God exists, is it any wonder that the Jesus Seminar paints a radically different picture of Jesus than that which we find in the New Testament? Surely they are not letting their agendas drive their conclusions, are they?

        Nevertheless, perhaps the most damaging criticism of Reza Aslan’s misguided musings comes from the quote I mentioned in my initial review. Once again I must ask: Are you suggesting that we should merely accept Aslan’s 21st century thesis that invents an “entirely new” Jesus almost completely unhinged from what the oldest and best sources say about him?

        -CL

  9. J. A. Magill says:

    I suspect that most mainstream scholars would agree that arguing the (god/not god) debate is way out of bounds (though they’d likely point out that an awful lot of followers of the early Jesus movement fell on the “not” side of that slash). As for Judith Shulevitz, I suspect that this is why the book is getting so much attention. In a fine tradition, Aslan is taking a largely academic topic and revealing it to a general public who were wholly ignorant of its existence. The fact is that there’s very little “new” in Aslan, but rather he’s building on the work of many, many other scholars. Far from a “21st century author’s thesis,” Aslan’s thesis has been explored by scholars for more than a hundred years.

    As for your rather condescending first paragraph, one might just as well say that you believe that Vishnu isn’t a god, “but mere belief does not reality make.” You depend entirely on a short collection of self contradictory texts and claim that it is self evident truth. That is of course your right, but you might be at least a little humble about it.

    • C_L says:

      As I said, the anti-Christian scholars and groups like the Jesus Seminar are not without their biases, and it should come as no surprise that people, from Christian fundamentalists to militant atheists, like to create and draft a Jesus of their own making into their belief structure. As usual, the truth is likely somewhere in the middle.

      I apologize for having offended you with my first paragraph. That was not my intent. Nevertheless, my criticism remains valid. You are free to place faith in whatever scholarship you like. Similarly, if you want to argue for the sources establishing Vishnu as a legitimate god and that such evidence is superior to that regarding Jesus, then that is your argument to make. However, if you want to attempt to discredit the earliest, best sources regarding Jesus Christ, his claims and resurrection, you’ll have to do better than simply believing that the New Testament is wrong about these issues or citing completely unrelated texts from other religions. And, as we have already discussed elsewhere, your claims about contradictions in the biblical text are insufficient to overturn its core message.

  10. J. A. Magill says:

    Again, it is rather tortured use of language to claim that it my rejection of the Christian Scripture’s view of Jesus is a matter of “faith” as opposed to your acceptance of that message, just as it would be to say that it is a matter of “faith” that you reject Vishnu, Allah, Krishna, etc. You of course have every right to your view. Imagining that these views are somehow self evident, however, is odd in the extreme.

    • C_L says:

      Actually, what I am saying is that both of our positions are contingent upon faith, and that renders your entire last post as rather moot. I am also pointing out that Christians ground their faith in the oldest, best evidence, that which is contemporary with the generation of Jesus.

      • J. A. Magill says:

        That claim would be incorrect. Your claim is by definition immune to contrary evidence. Any item found that might go against your view, you discard. That is the definition of blind faith, a condition from which only one of us suffers.

        • C_L says:

          Quite to the contrary, I am very willing to look at any evidence and follow wherever the best evidence leads. In point of fact, that is precisely why I am a Christian. Faith connected to solid evidence is anything but “blind.” Nice try, though.

          Now, since you apparently believe that you have not faith, but knowledge, surely you can tell me how it is that you “know” your view on Jesus accords with reality. Share with us so that we might “know” as well.

  11. J. A. Magill says:

    I just no they hold to the preponderance of the evidenced based on the oldest gospel (and given the many contradictions there in) and non gospel accounts as well as the Roman and Jewish sources of the period. By contrast you just keep pointing to the CS and denying anything unless it endorses the CS view. That’s blind faith defined.

    • C_L says:

      Magill, the syntax in the first sentence of your last post does not parse. I apologize, but I can’t make head or tails of what you mean. I think you are claiming that you have not faith, but knowledge, so again I ask you to relate what you “know” about Jesus that is not contingent upon faith. To be honest, and as I have already said, it seems you have not knowledge but faith, and I suspect you simply haven’t come to terms with it. I suppose that remains to be seen, but it’s up to you.

      In the meantime, you have repeated the charge (twice so far) that I am denying evidence that rivals my beliefs. I have to ask, to what evidence are you referring?

      And again it must be pointed out that a few discrepancies or even outright contradictions in the Bible are insufficient to overturn its entire message.

      Finally, and yes, as I have already indicated multiple times, I have not blind faith, but reasonable faith as it is connected to the evidence. Thus, your accusation is wild and baseless. Now, if we want our hair to blow back from our faces, let’s ask ourselves if you previously had “blind faith” (unhinged from evidence) about my alleged blind faith, or if you “knew” it? Let’s see which one of us is really open to the evidence and who is mistaken on this point.

      I look forward to your reply.

  12. J. A. Magill says:

    Sorry but hard to type on phone. Gospels can’t agree on when jesus died, what he said, birthplace, etc. At the same its portrait of Pilate is contradicted by the roman records. Add to that that jewish early jesus followers denied jesus divinity. Whole libraries have been written on this and so one can’t post it all but that’s just a start.

    • C_L says:

      Magill,
      I think I missed it, what evidence is it that you believe I am denying?

      And lest we forget, I asked you to tell me how you “know” what you claim to know since you purport to operate independently of faith. Surely you can tell me how it is that you know your view on Jesus accords with reality. Share with us so that we might know as well.

      Pending your reply to that query, let me try to get your last post straight: You believe that because eye-witness reports (and the collections thereof) don’t all say the exact same things in the exact same way, the general tenor of their stories must be false? Is that what you intend?

      Or, with regard to your second claim, that since people disagreed about who Jesus was, we can’t trust what anyone said about him if they happened to conclude that he was divine, but we can if they did not? Is that what you mean? Can you perceive any problems with this type of thinking?

  13. Pingback: Review Reza Aslan - Zealot - The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth

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