Seeing the Jesus Reza Aslan Wants to See
Is anyone else weary of books promising to give us the “real Jesus”? You know, the Jesus before Christianity, the one stripped of all the superstitious varnish of the New Testament Gospels, leaving only a supposedly factual portrait of a 1st century Jewish peasant, inevitably re-imagined according to the preferences of the author? Well, there’s been another one written, and it’s climbing the best-sellers list: Reza Aslan’s Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth, and, yes, the mainstream media is fawning over its author and what has been labeled his biography of Jesus.
The truth here is simple: Aslan is presenting nothing more than the same tired old re-reading of Jesus so common in the skeptical writers of the 18th, 19th, and 20th centuries. There’s nothing new to see here. In fact, you probably already know precisely how this story goes—the Gospels are unreliable, Jesus was merely a man later deified by his followers, his death was the result of his incendiary challenges to Rome, etc., etc. Never mind the mountains of prestigious scholarship that actually validates the historical accuracy of the Gospel accounts and confirms their traditional portrayals of Jesus.
The only new ingredient, perhaps, is Aslan’s professorship in Creative Writing, which, according to some reviews, serves him well in writing the book in the style of historical fiction. But this last comment is perhaps the best launching point for summarizing just how to assess what the author has given us—Zealot is a fictional account of Jesus, heavy on the author’s own imagination, selective in its historical evidence, confident in confessing error as fact, and rooted in a long-line of liberal scholarship that dismisses the Christian faith as a fairytale. No wonder the media is salivating over it. How could they possibly pass up a popularly packaged, old school denial of the Christian faith? The answer is, they simply can’t. But those of us who know better can.
Perhaps you’re wondering what would motivate a non-scholar and non-historian like Aslan to take on a subject beyond his academic competence and about which there is no shortage of books peddling similar theses? Could it be that his Muslim upbringing, his emotionally charged conversion to and subsequent rejection of evangelical Christianity, and his return to the religion of his childhood provide a backdrop for Zealot? He says such things are irrelevant to his depiction of Jesus offered in the book. I’ll leave you to ponder the more plausible alternative.