We at the Jesus Blog are pleased to welcome back Larry Behrendt for a guest post. Larry blogs over at http://jewishchristianintersections.com/. If you've seen one of Reza Aslan's recent interviews, you won't want to miss this:
Did The Second Temple Stink? (A Book Review)
I am predisposed to like Reza Aslan’s latest book Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth. Aslan is a talented author, he’s not Christian and he’s writing about Jesus. What’s not to like? Another point in his favor: Aslan strives to understand Jesus in the context of Jewish first century Palestine.
But I ran into problems from the outset of Aslan’s book. In the first paragraph of the book’s introduction, Aslan states that “[t]he itinerant preacher wandering from village to village clamoring about the end of the world, a band of ragged followers trailing behind, was a common sight in Jesus’s time – so common, in fact, that it had become a kind of caricature among the Roman elite.” It would be interesting to learn that the roads in Judea and Galilee were so crowded with itinerant preachers and their ragged followers that even Rome took notice! But what causes Aslan to reach this conclusion? His proof is as follows:
“In a farcical passage about just such [an itinerant preacher], the Greek philosopher Celsus imagines a Jewish holy man roaming the Galilean countryside, shouting to no one in particular: “I am God, or the servant of God, or a divine spirit. But I am coming, for the world is already in the throes of destruction. And you will soon see me coming with the power of heaven.”
It gets worse. If you read Celsus (or more exactly, if you read Book VII of Origen’s Contra Celsum, a refutation of Celsus that is the only source we have for Celsus’ work), you’ll find nothing about preachers or prophets “roaming the Galilean countryside”. There’s no reference in Celsus to these prophets “shouting to no one in particular” (in fact, Celsus indicates where these prophets spoke: “within or without temples”, “in cities or among armies”). To top it off, Celsus’ reference to prophets in “Phoenicia and Palestine” leaves it unclear whether Celsus was referring exclusively to Jewish prophets (or even to Jewish and Christian prophets).
So, let’s do the math: in Aslan’s description of the person “imagined” by Celsus, (1) he describes the person as itinerant when he may not be, (2) he describes the person as a preacher when he isn’t, (3) he describes the person as Jewish when he may not be, (4) he describes the person as roaming Galilee when he isn’t, and (5) he describes the person as shouting at no one in particular, when the person is speaking to specific persons or in specific places. For good measure, (6) Celsus was describing what “many” prophets say; he was not (as Aslan indicated) lampooning a single “Jewish holy man”.
This is not a promising start to a book about Jesus written by a “scholar of religions”.
Am I nitpicking? Maybe. But I feel like I can’t read more than a few pages of Aslan’s book without encountering something that makes me ask, “really?”
Take, for example, Aslan’s statement that Rome reserved crucifixion as a punishment “almost exclusively for the crime of sedition.” I’m not sure about that one. I’ve understood that crucifixion was a punishment that Rome reserved for slaves and the “worst kinds of criminals”. The online Jewish Encyclopedia indicates that crucifixion was the penalty in the Roman provinces for piracy, highway robbery, assassination, forgery and false testimony.
Another example: in the main body of the book, Aslan cites Josephus’ “reliable nonbiblical reference to Jesus”, found in Book 20, Chapter 9, 1 of the Antiquities ("the brother of Jesus, who was called Christ, whose name was James"). But in the main text of his book, Aslan ignores Josephus’ longer reference to Jesus, the one found in the so-called Testimonium Flavianum (Book 18, Chapter 3, 3 of the Antiquities). In his Notes, Aslan reveals the reason for his slight: according to Aslan, the Testimonium Flavianum “has been so corrupted by later Christian interpolation that its authenticity is dubious at best, and scholarly attempts to cull through the passage for some sliver of information have proven futile.” Really? No doubt that this passage is disputed, and that it’s not beyond the pale to dismiss the entire passage. But I think most scholars are willing to accept that at least a portion of the passage was written by Josephus. In Volume 1 of A Marginal Jew”, p. 61, John P. Meier is able to “cull through” this passage in a way that at least some scholars (Raymond Brown, Bart Ehrman) are willing to accept. To say that such “culling through” is impossible badly misrepresents the current opinion of most scholars.
In his Epilogue, Aslan describes the council of Nicea as having debated whether Jesus was human or divine. Aslan writes that one group of debaters, consisting of an Alexandrian priest named Arius and his “Arian” followers, “seemed to suggest” that Jesus was “just a man – a perfect man, perhaps, but a man nonetheless”. This is nonsense, straight from the Gospel according to The DaVinci Code. I’ll turn to Bart Ehrman’s book debunking The DaVinci Code: “From the very beginning – as far back as we have Christian writings … -- it became commonplace to understand that Jesus was in some sense divine.” Even Arius – about as radical an Arian as there ever was – agreed that Christ was “preexistant” and had divine status. The question debated at Nicea is better understood as, how was it that Jesus was both divine and human? Aslan gets Nicea wrong in a second way: he states that after the Nicene council, those who disagreed with the Nicene Creed “were immediately banished from the empire and their teachings violently suppressed.” But the aftermath of Nicea was much more complicated than this. The story is well told in Richard Rubenstein’s terrific book When Jesus Became God. In essence, after Nicea the Arians made something of a comeback, and the battle between the Arians and the Niceans went on for 60-odd years, until (arguably) the matter was settled when the Nicene Creed (in revised form) was affirmed by the Council of Constantinople in 381.
Here’s my favorite bugbear (so far) from Aslan’s book: his description of what it would have been like to witness an animal sacrifice at the Temple in Jerusalem:
“The stink of carnage is impossible 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.”
As a Jew, I’ll admit: this passage stung my pride a bit. Is it true, is it really true, that the Temple stank?
Sometimes it seems, there’s a book written in response to any crazy question I might ask. In this case, the book is Scenting Salvation: Ancient Christianity And the Olfactory Imagination, by Susan Ashbrook Harvey. I have not read the whole book, but courtesy of the Internet, I’ve sniffed my way around it (couldn’t resist). Here’s a particularly fragrant passage from Harvey’s book:
“From the simple to the complex, Mediterranean sacrificial practices could be—and in ancient texts almost always were—characterized by the smells they generated. Incense was burned along the route the ritual procession would follow, and at the location where the rite was held. Flowers, wreaths, and perfumes adorned altars, cult statues, sacrificial victims, ritual leaders, ritual garments, and participants. Libations added the scent of (perfumed) wine. On the occasions of animal sacrifice, the smell of blood and roasting or boiling meat deepened the multiple aromas. Because fire was a frequent component, these smells were associated further with their accompanying smoke. In the smoke, the combined smells of the ritual process could be seen to pass, literally, from earth to heaven … to the ancients—whether Greek, Roman, Egyptian, Syrian, Jew—the savor of sacrifice required “beauty” if it was to be worthy, or even appropriate, for the deity to whom it was offered. Fragrance was itself an attribute of divinity, and of everything characterizing the divine.”
So, perhaps, the Jerusalem Temple did not smell like a stockyard. But Aslan has a vivid imagination, and if he wants to think of the Jerusalem Temple as a slaughterhouse, who am I to say no? Let’s keep in mind that Aslan has advanced degrees in religion, but he makes his living as an Associate Professor of Creative Writing, and his Jesus book is, well, creative. It has a, well, loose feeling to it. Not only does Aslan occasionally play loose with the facts, he also makes a series of odd statements that lead me to wonder what creativity he’s up to. For example: when Aslan cites Jesus’ statement in Matthew 15:24: “I was sent solely to the lost sheep of Israel” – Aslan characterizes this statement as “a message of racial exclusion”. Really? Were first century Palestinian Jews members of a different “race” than Samaritans, Syrians, Canaanites, Phoenicians and Nabataeans? Who thinks this? Since when is “race” a first century concept?
Frankly, it’s exhausting to read a book like Zealot, and constantly have to pause in mid-thought to ask if Aslan is giving me the straight dope. I’m not a Ph.D. like Chris or Anthony; it’s not clear to me from page to page when I can trust Aslan to lead the way. Still, I suppose that when I’m dealing with an author who could write an older book as good as No God But God, I owe it to myself to keep reading the newer book and try to find its central point. Which I will do.
Wish me luck, I think I’m going to need it.
Thank you kindly, Larry.
For my review of Zealot click here.-Anthony Le Donne, Ph.D.