In the 1990s I was invited to be a part of a discussion group at our local university with one of the founders of the Jesus Seminar. The Jesus Seminar was a group of scholars intent on debunking the historical accuracy of the Gospels. They said what the Gospels tell us about Jesus cannot be trusted but that they can get behind the Gospels and relay to us what Jesus was really like. Today this mantle has been taken up by Reza Aslan and his best selling book, Zealot. In a series of essays, I will relate what I learned from my encounter with the Jesus Seminar and how it applies to Reza Aslan. In this post I want to point out that these sceptical scholars are not objective, unbiased observers, but are partisans with an agenda.
The book the Jesus Seminar scholar had us discuss was supposedly a book about the New Testament. Indeed, the interior chapters were critical observations about the Bible. But to my surprise, the first and last chapters of the book were not about biblical scholarship at all. The first and last chapters were about politics and society, complaining about the Bible’s influence on our culture. In other words, the book was not a dispassionate look at the New Testament by an objective scholar, but it was a attack job by a person with a political agenda. Of course, this does not address the truthfulness of any one claim the author made about the Bible. Those have to be dealt with carefully with scholarship. But the media often present these individuals as objective scholars with no axe to grind. This is simply is not true. They hate the Bible and want to destroy its credibility.
I believe this is also true of Reza Aslan and his new book. Aslan is not an expert in biblical scholarship. His PhD is in sociology and his expertise is in modern Islam. The academic position he holds is in creative writing, not even in religious studies. Reviews of his book by those who are experts in New Testament scholarship are scathing whether they be from traditional Christians or not.
First, they complain that he has not kept up with the latest scholarship, evidencing ignorance of books and articles that could affect his position. Secondly, he does not interact with viewpoints held by credible scholars that are different from his own, giving the reader the impression there is no debate about the points he makes. Third, he makes outright mistakes about facts that are disputed by no one and he states facts in a way that makes scholars uncomfortable in their imprecision, shading them in his favour. This greatly reduces his credibility in the scholarly community. One scholar said he makes errors such as we have described on every third page and that his book is not a contribution to Jesus studies and that it would have little to no impact on the scholarly debates in that area.
If we ask what the book really is, it is historical fiction. After all, Aslan is a professor of creative writing and reviewers who are not biblical scholars feel it is a compelling read. The problem is that Aslan and the media are portraying the book as a latest in scholarship on Jesus that presents an objective look at him for a new generation. Nothing could be further from the truth. I even think Aslan knows this. Some of the mistakes in makes are so basic, it is hard to believe he would be so ignorant, scholar or not. For instance, he says “Jesus stood on the shores of the Sea of Galilee and breathed the salt air.” The Sea of Galilee is known by everybody to be a fresh water lake. It’s like he saying to the believer and unbeliever alike, “I am the smartest man in the room for I have fooled you all.”
If honest scholarship is not what his book is about, what is Aslan’s agenda? He was converted to a form of evangelical Christianity as a teenager. I would guess it was not an intellectually robust form of the faith. When he went to college, he encountered a more secular view of the universe and was convinced by it. He felt he had been manipulated by Christians into believing in the Christ of the Bible. I believe this book is his angry pay back to the Christians he felt mislead him.
Some people who have only been exposed to a non-thinking form of Christianity are completely awed by the first biblical critic they encounter with a PhD. They are unaware there maybe good scholarly reasons to doubt the doubter. Unfortunately, this is the affect Reza Aslan is having with his new book. He portrays himself as just being a mainstream scholar who is just stating facts when in reality he is a zealot seeking to convert people to his viewpoint.