Jesus Against the Scribal Elite

Wednesday, July 31, 2013

A Usually Happy Fellow Reviews Aslan’s Zealot – Le Donne

Reza Aslan’s Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth is an attempt to rehabilitate the *Jesus as a failed military revolutionary* argument that is well-known and well-worn in Jesus studies.  Aslan suggests that Jesus’ regional affiliations (Galilean militants), his enigmatic statement about Roman taxation ( ROMANES EUNT DOMUS ROMANI ITE DOMUM), attempts to keep his “messianic” aspirations a secret (a retread of Aslan’s undergraduate senior thesis), and a few of Jesus' statements about social discord make him a good fit as a proto-Zealot.  There’s more to his case, but almost every suggestion he makes in support of his thesis is as tenuous as the four mentioned here.

The strongest element of his case is the fact of the crucifixion. The fact that Jesus was executed as “King of the Jews” suggests that at least some Roman authorities recognized him as a political insurgent.  But this is not nearly enough to build the case that Aslan is trying to build: that Jesus was probably preparing his disciples for a militant uprising.

To be taken seriously on this point, Aslan would have to interact with David Chapman and/or Gunnar Samuelsson.  These scholars represent the most up-to-date researchers on the crucifixion in Jesus’ world.  Aslan cites neither.  If this key element of the book had been researched with more care, Aslan might have had a better chance of overcoming the many other deficiencies of this book.

Jesus’ preaching about God’s kingdom is undoubtedly political.  It makes sense that this teaching was directly related to the title posted on the cross (and/or the symbolic value of that title in Christian memory).  This much is not all that controversial.  Defining “political” is the key problem.  Reza Aslan’s book barely touches the vast sea of literature on this problem.  In short, this book is a surface-level (albeit well-promoted) rehash of an old puzzle in Jesus research.  Unfortunately, Aslan brings nothing new to the table that will help us solve the puzzle. He simply dismisses all of Jesus’ sayings about nonviolence as Christian invention.  This move isn’t unheard of, but he fails to make his case for invention adequately.

What has made this book controversial is not what Aslan says in the book.  What makes this book controversial is that many "Jesus consumers" (I just coined that phrase and I’m pretty proud of myself) are uncomfortable with Jesus books written by other-than-traditional-Christian authors.  Indeed, much has been make about Aslan’s lack of credentials, but was C.S. Lewis’ claim to expertise any different? [Insert your favorite Narnia joke here.]  —No—  Aslan might be guilty of inflating his résumé, but this is not what made the book controversial.  Sadly, I would welcome more other-than-traditional-Christian scholars in the field.  I really wish that I could endorse this book if for no other reason than to promote diversity.  I am convinced that the American news media’s fascination with Christian-Muslim relations has overshadowed the merits of Aslan’s thesis… or lack thereof.

There it is. If you were looking for a short review of Zealot by an established Jesus geek with fancy degrees, this is mine.  The rest of this review will be of less interest to casual "Jesus hobbyists" (I just coined that phrase too… I ought to drop the mic and walk off the stage now).

This book was depressing to read and I’m normally happy-fun guy.  I was often reminded of the scene in Anchorman when Ron Burgundy attempts to explain the etymology of the name “San Diego”. Okay, it wasn't that bad, but Aslan demonstrates on about every third page that he is not conversant with recent literature on Second Temple Judaism. There can be no doubt that Aslan is "kind of a big deal" (looking at you Lauren Green), but his appeals to first-century politics and religion relative to Jesus are superficial or misguided more often than not.

Here are a few examples.  This list is nowhere near comprehensive.

1) Our best historical reconstruction is that the Zealots were not a unified or an ideologically homogenous sect during Jesus’ time.  If Aslan’s thesis holds water (that is a big *if*, mind you), he would do better to use the term “proto-Zealot” or something of the like.  Aslan does eventually acknowledge that the term is problematic, but settles on this category error anyway.

2) Aslan writes that the Jews in Jerusalem observed “a direct commandment from a jealous God who tolerated no foreign presence in the land he had set aside for his chosen people. That is why when the Jews first came to this land a thousand years earlier, God decreed that they massacre every single man, woman, and child they encountered, that they slaughter every ox, goat, and sheep they came across, that they burn every farm, every field, every crop, every living thing without exception so as to ensure the land would belong solely to those who worshiped this one God and no other.”  Even a cursory reading of the prophet Isaiah will show the complexity of this problem.  Moreover, the secondary literature on this topic is gargantuan and Aslan cites none of it.  This not only smacks of laziness, but it is a laziness that has the potential to create misgivings among those who identify with modern Judaism.

3) Aslan repeatedly calls Jesus a “magician”. This is another category error betraying Aslan’s lack of research. The term “magician” or “goēs” is always a derogatory term in Jesus’ context. It would be analogous to calling someone a “trouble maker”. Aslan uses the terms magic and magician over and over again as if these terms carry the same denotative value that they carry in contemporary use. This gaffe might seem trivial, but it is symptomatic of Aslan's general lack of care.

4) He writes: “The reason exorcisms were so commonplace in Jesus’ time is because the Jews viewed illness as a manifestation either of divine judgment or of demonic activity.” This is only half incorrect, only half of the time.  Some Jews during Jesus’ time did view illness in terms of judgment and/or demonic activity. But not all Jews thought this way and not every instance of illness fell into these two simplistic categories.

5) Aslan speaks of the extravagance of the temple cult in Jerusalem.  This is an important discussion and deserves a better explanation than Aslan provides.  He overextends his claims about the burden of expense of the sacrificial system. He argues that the animals designated for sacrifice were of extravagant cost. “This is not the time for thrift,” he writes.  But Aslan fails to emphasize the accommodation that the priesthood made for impoverished worshipers.

6) Aslan writes: “To declare oneself the messiah at the time of the Roman occupation, therefore, was tantamount to declaring open war on Rome.”  This is typical of the many overstatements in Zealot.  See my statements about the “kingdom of God” above.

7) Aslan writes: “Herod was a convert, after all. His mother was Arab. His people, the Idumeans, had come to Judaism only a generation or two earlier.”  Which is it? Was Herod a convert or did his grandparents consider themselves children of Israel?  Aslan cites no other evidence of Herod’s supposed conversion.

8) Aslan places a great deal of weight on his adaptation of Wrede’s “messianic secret”.  Any discussion of this age-old puzzle must deal with David F. Watson’s book about honor and shame.  Aslan’s understanding of this subject is badly outmoded.

9) Aslan deals haphazardly and insufficiently with one of the most debated topics in historical Jesus research: the title “Son of Man”. He writes: “In employing the definite form of the phrase, Jesus was using it in a wholly new and unprecedented way: as a title, not as an idiom. Simply put, Jesus was not calling himself “a son of man.” He was calling himself The Son of Man.”  Aslan does not demonstrate even a passable knowledge of the secondary literature which is massive and manifold.  On a personal note, I’ve been reading on this topic for over a decade now and I still feel unqualified to chime in.  Aslan treats this topic as if nothing new has been advanced since the early 1980s and most of his citations are from the 1960s and 70s.

I’m all tuckered out, so this will be my last correction.

10) Aslan is woefully unprepared to discuss Second Temple politics.  Given that Aslan’s book is about Second Temple politics, this is a problem.  Aslan almost treats Josephus’ historical accounts as courtroom transcripts.  This is to say that Aslan's approach to Josephus is entirely uncritical. Lamentably, Aslan leans heavily on Josephus in almost every chapter and never cites the world’s leading expert on Josephus: Steve Mason.   There are many, many omissions in this book, but this is the most glaring to my eye.  Reading even a single book by Mason might have changed the results of Aslan’s thesis dramatically.  Indeed, Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth could only have been written by someone entirely unaware of the most recent and widely respected scholarship on Second Temple Judaism.

Without exaggeration, problems like this surface on about every third page.  I’ve only listed ten.

I would like to conclude on a positive note: Reza Aslan’s book will get a great deal of press, but will not win the day. This process will (please God!) result in a better understanding of Jesus’ nonviolent albeit complex and perplexing approach to imperialism.  On this note, I wait eagerly for Simon Joseph’s book The Nonviolent Messiah: Jesus, Q, and the Enoch Tradition.

You stay classy, Riverside.

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Anthony Le Donne is the author of The Wife of Jesus: Ancient Texts and Modern Scandals. Read a review of his latest book here.

67 comments:

  1. This was some of your best work Professor LeDonne...enjoyed every word. Thank you.

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    1. Thank you. I'm not presently a professor, but thanks for the kind words.

      -anthony

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  2. Just one nit to pick. Yes, C. S. Lewis' claim to expertise was diametrically different. Lewis was not versed deeply in NT scholarship, but he was one of the most insightful and widely-read literary scholars of modern times. Which means he brought a lot to this table.

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    1. When encountered as a theologian, alongside theologians who were his contemporaries, Lewis's lack of training is pretty apparent. One difference, though, is that Lewis didn't necessarily try to posture as a theologian.

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    2. David - with all due respect, being insightful and popular does not mean you have expertise. C.S. Lewis was a popular children's author, a strong orator, and had a writing style that became very popular and sold a lot of books.

      That doesn't mean that you're an expert. That's like saying that James Cameron can claim to be an expert on space travel because he made an insightful, record-breaking movie called "Avatar."

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    3. On the contrary, I think Lewis tried to posture himself as a theologian pretty explicitly. I don't think he tried to posture himself as an EXPERT or a SCHOLAR but as a person who wishes to write contemplatively on the nature of God? That description nearly defines his career as a published writer.

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    4. Hard to tell if it was posturing or not. I like that Lewis appeals to the wickedness of his own heart as his main credential for writing Screwtape Letters, not, as "some" had "accused him," of years of moral and ascetic theology.

      NT scholar or not, he wasn't a blind guide. And Lord knows there are plenty of them in NT scholarship. (On that note, great little review here on Aslan.)

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    5. Space Pirates: You clearly don't know anything about C. S. Lewis. Lewis wrote popular books in his spare time, yes. But he was also described by a contemporary as the best-read man of his time. He was the most popular lecturer on campus at Oxford, then served as Professor of Medieval and Renaissance Literature at Cambridge. He wrote ground-breaking and authoritative academic works that were highly relevant to many of the issues in NT studies. He also taught philosophy.

      Lewis was not just a genius, he was a prodigiously well-read and astute textual critic. Dismissing Lewis in his own field because he wrote some popular children's books, would be like dismissing Einstein because you don't like the way he played the violin.

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    6. Just something on CS Lewis who is on my mind (because I'm about to finish a book on him, CS Lewis in Crisis)... Lewis actually made few claims about the New Testament. His most sustained interpretation of the Bible came through his Reflections on the Psalms. But this, and a few scattered essays (some not originally intended for publication) are not enough to sustain a strong comparison with Aslan. In addition--as noted above--Lewis was a brilliant literary critic, trained in philosophy as well as Greek and Latin at the highest possible level (via his studies at Oxford). The weakens the analogy further. Yes, he was no New Testament scholar, and there are plenty of places to quibble or criticize Lewis's conclusions, but the majority of his work went other directions besides biblical studies and carried (often quite subtly) impressive scholarship.

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    7. What Greg says is true and though Lewis writing is highly informed from many disciplines, his Christian message was not based on theology but a life transforming spiritual experience. This also transformed his view of literary history and every intellectual discipline. He wasn't a theologian or a textual analyst or a historian but a Christian philosopher and apologist, which he made quite clear.

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  3. Being from California, I love the last line.

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  4. Thank you, thank you, thank you for drawing our attention back to where it belongs: the content of this book. The Fox News fiasco has everyone talking about the wrong things, and this will lead some of the sympathetic, but uninformed public to embrace Aslan's thesis not because it is solid, but as a reaction against Islamophobia. While those who reject Aslan's message because he is a Muslim need to ask themselves why they think this matters, those who embrace it for the same reasons need to ask themselves if his argument can withstand scholarly critique. I don't think it can.

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  5. Thank you. At last I read someone 1. Explaining many parts of the scholarly discourse the book does not address (and better yet, pointing readers to them, hey, useful!) and 2. Engaging Aslan's work with maturity and none of the elitist academic freakout I've been reading all over the web (guess what? disagreement make us stronger!)

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  6. Many thanks for your very helpful review, Anthony, which usefully situates Aslan's research in the context of recent work on the historical Jesus and finds it wanting. The note about Josephus and Steve Mason is particularly telling.

    I'm interested by your enthusiasm for Simon Joseph's new book. I will keep an eye out for it, though I must say that the opening sentence of the book's blurb does not fill me with confidence, "Drawing from Q - the most reliable source for the teachings of the historical Jesus . . ." Even for those who accept the Q theory, it is disappointing to see this kind of bold and sweeping claim. I hope Joseph book is more nuanced than this kind of Mack-style publicity.

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  7. This will have to be in two parts due to the size limit.

    Respectfully, Anthony, I am not persuaded by this aspect of your position on Aslan.

    “Aslan might be guilty of inflating his résumé , but this is not what made the book controversial. Sadly, I would welcome more other-than-traditional-Christian scholars in the field. I really wish that I could endorse this book if for no other reason than to promote diversity. I am convinced that the American news media’s fascination with Christian-Muslim relations has overshadowed the merits of Aslan’s thesis… or lack thereof.”

    What I understand you to be saying here is that (1) demographic diversity is valuable in your field for its own sake, and (2) expressions of concern about his credentials -- and reactions to his misrepresentations of same -- are really expressions of Islamophobia. As you put it in another post:

    “If by "tougher interview" Matthew Franck means "unprofessional, Islamophobic farce", I would agree. It pains me to say this, but both the interview and this First Things article seem to be motivated by religious distrust.”

    I see the focus on credentials quite differently.

    First, let me address your point about diversity. In my field, which is law, we deal with expert opinions as a matter of course. When someone presents himself as qualified to express an opinion in a highly specialized field of study, we apply a two-part test. First, we ask whether the person has the qualifications and credentials necessary to express an opinion worthy of respect – not agreement – by his or her peers. If the answer is yes, that person is then “qualified” to present an opinion to the jury, as we don’t want juries getting fooled by people who don’t really know what they are talking about. We don’t apply different standards to experts based on their particular demographics in order to achieve demographic diversity, as we don’t believe that that is at all relevant to the quality of the opinion. If the person is qualified to present an opinion, then we inquire into the opinion itself, and this is where diversity matters – diversity of opinion, not diversity of demographics. Diversity of the demographics doesn't improve the quality of the opinion; it just adds the fog of contemporary politics to the debate.

    Applying this to Aslan, I do not see that he gets past the first inquiry: whether he has the necessary training and mastery of the field necessary to earn the respect of those who do.
    (Continued in next post)

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    1. Niccolo, your point is well taken. And I am happy to hear (I hope that this is true) that the field of law functions like you say.

      I wonder if the field of religious studies is a bit different in this respect. I think that I have benefited greatly from a greater diversity in this field - not only of ideas, but of the backgrounds represented. This is not always the case and a strong thesis is always the trump card.

      -anthony

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    2. Thanks.

      It helps that the qualification process takes place in open court before the judge, who decides the issue. Its cards on the table.

      I see backgrounds as different than demographics, so, for example, an opinion from an appellate judge who spent real time trying cases will have certain qualities missing from someone coming to the bench from academia.

      Niccolo

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    3. But Aslan did not misrepresent his qualifications. FOX did. His Ph.D is in Sociology of *Religion*. He has an extensive background in the history of the times to get that degree and his earlier ones.

      This book is as much about Sociology as it is about history. I find the devaluing of his degrees and studies ludicrous.

      He is also a scholar. As such his training is in research, critical thinking, etc. He is well qualified to write this book...every bit as much as Karen Armstrong.

      Regardless of whether or not one agrees with the conclusions, Aslan was qualified to write them.

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    4. Liadan,

      You're quite right. Too much has been made of his credentials. My only concern on this front is that he represented himself as someone who makes his living as a teacher of religion.

      The book, as I have tried to do here, should be measured by the merits of the arguments. But I will stand by my earlier statement: Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth could only have been written by someone entirely unaware of the most recent and widely respected scholarship on Second Temple Judaism.

      Do the book's deficiencies reflect the author's educational blindspots? Most likely.

      -anthony

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  8. Part II:

    In your case, the answer appears to be rather clear:
    • “Aslan demonstrates on about every third page that he is not conversant with recent literature on Second Temple Judaism “
    • “Reza Aslan’s book barely touches the vast sea of literature on this problem”
    • “Aslan is woefully unprepared to discuss Second Temple politics. Given that Aslan’s book is about Second Temple politics, this is a problem”
    • “the secondary literature on this topic is gargantuan and Aslan cites none of it. This not only smacks of laziness, but it is a laziness that has the potential to create misgivings among those who identify with modern Judaism”
    • “Aslan repeated calls Jesus a “magician”. . . “This is another category error betraying Aslan’s lack of research [which] is symptomatic of Aslan's general lack of care”
    • “Aslan’s understanding of this subject is badly outmoded”
    • “Aslan does not demonstrate even a passable knowledge of the secondary literature which is massive and manifold. On a personal note, I’ve been reading on this topic for over a decade now and I still feel unqualified to chime in”
    • “Indeed, Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth could only have been written by someone entirely unaware of the most recent and widely respected scholarship on Second Temple Judaism”). These judgments do not square with your position the qualifications issue this is merely a case of someone who “might be guilty of inflating his résumé.” Rather, your judgments suggest what we in the law would call material misrepresentations. Here is what he says in the Green interview:

    I am a scholar of religions with four degrees including one in the New Testament . . . I am an expert with a Ph.D. in the history of religions . . . I am a professor of religions, including the New Testament–that’s what I do for a living, actually . . . To be clear, I want to emphasize one more time, I am a historian, I am a Ph.D. in the history of religions.

    These are factual assertions he offered in a public interview to establish his qualification as – in his words – “an expert.” The assertions are material to the pitch he is making: buy, read, and perhaps accept the opinions in my book, because I know what I am talking about. You appear to describe someone who doesn’t know what he is talking about, which is very different from someone who does know what he is talking about and overcompensates for weaknesses in his credentials by enhancing what he has.

    Which brings me to the “religious distrust” issue. Setting aside the difficulty of seeing into the hearts of strangers conducting interviews and posting on blogs, I really do not see the questions being raised about his credentials or motives as Islamophobic. In the Green interview he said: “I’m actually quite a prominent Muslim thinker in the United States.” It doesn’t seem to me to be pretextual or Islamophobic to ask why a self-described prominent Muslim thinker, whose NT/Jesus scholarship is of the appalling quality you describe, is writing this book in the first place. What I understand them to be asking Aslan is this: are you really interested and competent in this field or is this book just a sensational exercise in self promotion and career-building?

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    1. I do think that the Green interview betrays an Islamophobia that is commonly demonstrated on FOX News and other politically conservative media outlets.

      Just one man's opinion... that happens to be shared by many.

      -anthony

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    2. I don't share that view. And many have often been proved wrong.

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    3. I wish people would use the words bigotry or prejudice instead of Islamophobia, which is a horribly misleading term. We don't speak of Christianphobia, Hinduphobia or Budistphobia. Muslims may face bigotry, prejudice and discrimination but Islam does not. One can be bigoted towards other people but not towards a set of beliefs. The term Islamophobia mistakes a set of beliefs (Islam) for people and makes it difficult for anyone to have a critical discussion about those beliefs without being labeled an Islamophobe.

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    4. Anonymous, I think that specific terminology is helpful in this case. An analogue here is the common distinction that academics make between Antisemitism and anti-Judaism.

      It is quite possible to fear/hate an ideology or a tradition. When this is evident (as with the case of Lauren Green) it should be exposed as such. Is this a type of prejudice? Of course.

      -anthony

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    5. I want to say, as one who was publicly attacked in Charleston SC for teaching NT "as a Jew" AND as one who has ventured to write in academic domains outside my narrow training, that Mr. Donzella's dismissal of Aslan strikes me as quite unfair. It is too easy in the evangelical politics swirling around Jesus research to cast an author/scholar as driven by religious biases and to trump up a person's religious identity in such a way as to make him a caricature of a Muslim/Jew/Catholic/whatever. Aslan acknowledges his background (as do most Jesus scholars) but writes -- as he insisted awkwardly from his little Fox cubicle -- as an historian. Mr. Donzella's criteria for scholarly expertise are also irrelevant to the "normal science" in which we engage in the interpretation of religions. Aslan's historical/research mistakes, as carefully outlined by Anthony, may be stupid and lazy as far as we in the field hold expectations for writing on this topic. They may reflect a person trying to make a deadline instead of striving for accuracy and a true representation of the field. Agreed. But the point is, they are all errors WITHIN the field of history of early Judaism. They do not bring in aliens or the Revealed Truth of the Son of God, or Catholic teaching, or (as Reza acknowledged on Fox) Quranic teaching. The Jesus he produces is not that far from the one that Vermes or Koester or Fredriksen have produced. And that's a far cry from the stuff you're going to get in a Bible study class at the local Church of Christ. In principle, I don't have any more problem with a guy who's written on contemporary and early Islam turning his focus to Jesus than I do with Norman Cohn studying Zoroastrians or Rodney Stark studying early Christians -- both, it turns out, with many errors in research and analysis. That's where I think Mr. Donzella creates an irrelevant standard for responsible expertise.

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    6. Thank you David, I agree (as I've said elsewhere) that Aslan's religion has become a factor in this discussion unfairly.

      I would disagree, however, that my outline of his errors was careful. A careful outline would have listed and devoted pages to seventy-plus errors in the book. I did not have the time, nor the inclination to be careful. This is a blog, after all.

      Finally, as someone who was recently disenfranchised from the "local Church of Christ" for my work on Jesus, I know well the biases that are expected from evangelicals. We all bring biases and feel challenged when outsiders refuse to align with our biases.

      At the end of the day, a writer must seek the advice of fellow experts (hopefully a diversity of experts). Aslan's book reads like a failure to consult anyone with any expertise in the field of Second Temple Judaism.

      Have you read the book yet?

      -anthony

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    7. "I am a scholar of religions with four degrees including one in the New Testament . . . I am an expert with a Ph.D. in the history of religions . . . I am a professor of religions, including the New Testament–that’s what I do for a living, actually . . . To be clear, I want to emphasize one more time, I am a historian, I am a Ph.D. in the history of religions."

      You have misquoted him

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    8. 4) He writes: “The reason exorcisms were so commonplace in Jesus’ time is because the Jews viewed illness as a manifestation either of divine judgment or of demonic activity.” This is only half incorrect, only half of the time. Some Jews during Jesus’ time did view illness in terms of judgment and/or demonic activity. But not all Jews thought this way and not every instance of illness fell into these two simplistic categories.


      It would have been nice if you provided examples.

      I enjoyed reading your critique and you made some valid points, but I think you have also been guilty of some laziness (or perhaps lack of space). You keep making statements about Aslan's lack of 'familiarity' with various topics (like the Second Temple), but don't give examples that demonstrate this. Nor do you (except in a few cases) give texts for the lay person to read. I find this very frustrating.

      Its like half a critique...you make a statement to show his lack of research, but don't follow up with what you consider the 'correct' info or where we can go to get it.

      And I find the trend for other authors touting their own books to be criticizing Aslan's book a bit disingenuous .

      I would like to find one critical review of the book from someone who isn't selling their own book or who isn't an Islamophobe. (general statement, not directed to anyone personally)

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    9. Liadan,

      On the topic of Aslan's credentials I never quoted him, so I don't think that I could misquote him. You, however, did quote him above. If you are correct, he said, "I am a professor of religions, including the New Testament–that’s what I do for a living, actually"

      This is flatly incorrect. He is not a professor of religions. His colleague at Riverside confirmed to me that he is an adjunct instructor of creative writing. Moreover, what he does "for a living" has nothing to do with the New Testament.

      Thank you for making my case for me.

      -anthony

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  9. I would think that one major difference between Lewis and Aslan would be that Lewis consistently referred to himself as a lay (aka popular) theologian and expected to be treated as such, whereas Aslan's over there claiming degrees he doesn't have and expertise that isn't his.

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    1. Well to fair to Aslan, he was the son of the Emperor-beyond-the-Sea.

      -anthony

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    2. I would think another major difference is the sheer number of Lewis-lovers who rush to defend his awesomeness against any negative comparison, whereas Aslan's over there having degrees and still being challenged for daring to write.

      Kudos, Anthony, for "Jesus consumers" (though it sounds like a slur Celsus would have used for Christians if he had your wordsmith skills) and "Jesus hobbyists" (which might also describe the owners of Hobby Lobby).


      Eric

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  10. To respond to Niccolo, I think Anthony's point about diversity is important because as much as we strive for scholarly objectivity and method, we are influenced by our background and social context, especially in writing about a figure who is a cultural icon. Thus, while our field is much more diverse than the past when it was comprised predominantly of German or English liberal Protestant men, there is value in the insights of a scholar from a socio-religious background not yet highly represented in the field (i.e. Muslim) and with expertise in a different but related discipline (i.e. sociology of religion), not least in that it may call attention to certain blindspots in our field and introduce some new interdisciplinary skills from another. That said, unfortunately it just sounds like a not good book.

    Thanks for the review Anthony. I would be interested in seeing you or Chris develop further on the blog: 3. whether Jesus can be classified as a magician (cf. J.D. Crossan's use of the term, also Helen Ingram's thesis at her website http://wasjesusamagician.blogspot.co.uk/), 5. whether the temple cult was economically exploitative (e.g., I get what you are saying about the provisions of the priesthood for worshippers and pilgrims as E.P. Sanders emphasizes, but what do you think of the evidence cited by Craig Evans), 8. what you make of the messianic secret (do you agree with David Watson)? I would also ask about what you make of Son of Man but I feel the same way as you with all the texts/languages/secondary literature on that problem!

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    1. Thank you Mike,

      All good suggestions for future posts. I think that the magician business can be cleared up pretty quickly. Those who were suspicious of Jesus' foreign education/leanings (c.f. the Beelzebul controversy) might have thought of Jesus as a trouble maker (i.e. goes), but Jesus would have never thought of himself in that way nor would anyone remotely sympathetic to his cause.

      -anthony

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    2. Thanks, Mike. Respectfully, I do understand his point. This argument for diversity has been around a good while, particularly in university settings where they have received a good deal of scrutiny. I am simply questioning its validity. Interdisciplinary diversity is entirely different -- I agree with you there, having enjoyed some of Crossan's work with sociolofy and archeology.

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  11. Nic, you're addressing two issues that I think need to be addressed separately. Is it fair to question Aslan's credentials? And is it fair to question his motives? I'll be uncharacteristically brief: the answer to the first question is yes, probably, though we're probably holding Aslan to a higher standard than we applied to, say, Bill O'Reilly. The answer to the second question is no. And if we compare and contrast the way Aslan is being treated to the way he should be treated, there's a gap, and I think it's obvious that "religious distrust" is one reason for the gap.

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    1. Larry:
      Thanks for taking the time to respond.

      I think it’s always fair for consumers to question credentials in specialized areas of study. When I purchase works of history, I always check the author's credentials on-line. That is because, in my experience, professional, credentialed historians do a far, far better job of educating me as a reader than journalists who sometimes try their hand at history, as to my mind the journalists tend to rely on agenda because they lack the depth of knowledge needed to make the kind of measured judgments I look for in a history. That is why I haven't read O'Reilly's books. I chose to spend my dollars and reading time with people who have put in the hard work needed to know what they are talking about -- which in the field we are discussing includes your blog and Anthony's books. You were out early with an appropriate challenge to Aslan’s credentials, and I thank you for it.

      By all means, let's talk motive and how Aslan is being treated. He is being treated with growing skepticism and criticism because of the judgments coming in on the quality of his work as against the claims he made for his qualifications. That isn’t likely to change, and some of the frustration coming out here is that he failed to live up to what seemed at first such an appealing narrative to those so disposed – bigoted conservatives picking on a highly qualified scholar based on his religious beliefs – American fails once again to live up to its potential because of Neanderthals who watch Fox News – thank God there are good people like us to set things right. But I recall the announcement of O'Reilly's Jesus book attracting the same sort of negative attention that has attended Aslan's -- the suggestion being that O'Reilly's motives were necessarily tainted by his conservative credentials and association with Fox. This is just another form of bigotry. But then, I am a political conservative who follows this blog and yours. Why is it any better to question O'Reilly's motives for writing a book about Jesus, or Lincoln, or anything else based on his political affiliations, than it is to question Aslan's motives based on his religious affiliations? They seem equally irrelevant approaches to me. What matters in both cases is the quality of the work, not the identity politics.

      When I was in law school in the mid-1980s, we were in the midst of a diversity extravaganza complete with reenactments of 60s-style demonstrations and sit ins. Apparently, some of my classmates had managed to convince themselves that they could only truly learn contract law from someone who looked like them -- not a promising start to a career dependent upon reasoning, to be sure. I was working as Arthur Miller's research assistant and one morning I arrived at work to find that someone had helpfully placed handwritten signs on the office doors of particular professors, including his, marked "White Male." Must be nice to have your career, the years of hard work and sacrifice and publishing in your chosen specialty reduced to a bigot's scrawl.

      I don’t share the belief that demographics provides special insight into hard subject matter like law or history or NT studies. Hard work does that. Allow me to use you as my example here. You were not raised in the Christian faith, but through dint of considerable effort you know more about NT and Jesus scholarship than I ever will. Would you think it rational for a Jewish religious studies program to hire me over you because my Roman Catholic upbringing gives me special sensitivity and insight into Christianity, when in fact you can runs rings around me when it comes to the actual subject matter being taught? Seems to me you have insight and sensitivity to Christianity in abundance, not because the nuns beat up on you or your grandparents come from Italy, but because you earned it.

      Niccolo

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    2. Niccolo,

      Your highly (self-)touted legal reasoning falls down hard right here:

      "Allow me to use you as my example here. You were not raised in the Christian faith, but through dint of considerable effort you know more about NT and Jesus scholarship than I ever will. Would you think it rational for a Jewish religious studies program to hire me over you because my Roman Catholic upbringing gives me special sensitivity and insight into Christianity, when in fact you can runs rings around me when it comes to the actual subject matter being taught?"

      No religious studies program has ever chosen an untrained amateur of any racial, gender, or religious minority over an esteemed and credentialed scholar of any racial, gender or religious majority. Virtually no advocate of placing a value of diversity has ever suggested that they should. This is called the straw-man fallacy and though it may stand up in some courts of law, it doesn't stand up under serious intellectual scrutiny.

      Stacy Vlasits

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  12. The only legitimate criteria, in my view, for finding the work of a scholar to be, well, unscholarly and unscientific, would be his/her failure to use the null hypothesis in the examination of all relevant materials: that hypothesis in this case would be, "There is no difference in the evidence for and against the assertion that Jesus was a Zealot." His/her use of the hypothesis could be missing, or if used, the materials could have been incompletely explored or interpreted according to an external bias. I'm not extremely well read, but, to my mind, Goodacre's Thomas and the Gospels fits the needed criteria pretty well. Generally speaking, I've seen few or no references to scholar's using the null hypothesis.
    My educational background is divinity and clinical psychology degrees at the master's level.

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  13. Good review. Thank you for you clear and reasoned comments. Let's hope that those concerned with the subject matter - rather than the author - find this blog.

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  14. Anthony, do you think you are overstepping what can actually be attributed to the Jesus character regarding the Kingdom of God?

    I agree with much of your review, and find faults in details as you do with Aslan, but have a few issues with your review although I agree with most of what you have stated.

    With up to 400,000 attendants at Passover [per E.P. Sanders] Jesus teaching the kingdom of god would be one of many invisible teachers at this event. It is my opinion it is his actions, or demonstrations as John Crossan points out that got him noticed over that of his teachings, which were filled in much later after the mythology started to grow after his death.

    If we follow Johnathon Reeds work in Sepphoris, there were huge socioeconomic differences between Nazareth and Sepphoris. With the previous tax war in Galilee in Judas time 6CE, I would not find it hard to believe that traditional Galileans born and raised Jews would take oppression and over taxation lightly. I see plenty motive for Jesus to demonstrate against the Hellenism and corruption in the temple.

    The name or term Zealot is not well defined nor understood fully. I have no problem viewing Jesus as a Zealot which would be typical for a man from Nazareth after growing up in a hovel that amounted to a work camp for the rebuilding and of Sepphoris as well as agrarian work to keep it fed. Where I differ from Johnathon Reed is I do find the socioeconomic impact of Sepphoris multiplying the divide between Hellenistic Judaism and traditional Judaism that started the movement of Christianity. I find Sepphoris under the definition of Hellenistic Judaism as they lived in opulence compared to those Jews living in Nazareth in houses made of crude fieldstones and mud.


    I don't think what defines Jesus as a Zealot, was that he was against the Romans military, as much as he was against the Hellenistic Herodian rule that kept Nazareth in poverty similar to Capernaum. That and the corruption in the temple due to the Hellenistic elite perverting Judaism and using the pagan deity Melqart on the official temple coins.


    I think Aslan is on the right track with the use of Zealot, and agree with your take more details are required to paint a more clear picture. I wish there were not so many grey areas were speculation is as good as it gets.

    John Winford/outhouse


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    1. John, thanks for this and for addressing the heart of the thesis in question. You write, "It is my opinion it is his actions, or demonstrations as John Crossan points out that got him noticed over that of his teachings..."

      Perhaps I could have been more clear. It is my view that Jesus' general message about God's impending reign (which almost all consider to be a key feature of his teaching) provides further evidence to what we learn from the "King of the Jews" polemic. I.e. it was not necessarily any particular statement about "Kingdom of God" that got Jesus in trouble. But acknowledging that he did preach theo-politics corroborates what we learn about Jesus in the passion narratives.

      As to the use of the term "Zealot" - what warrant is there for using the term as a title (indicated by your capitalization)? Defining "zealot" as a political category in the first century is highly problematic. At the very least, you might consider using the term without the capitalization.

      -anthony

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    2. Thank you Anthony for the correction on the capitol letter.

      I do agree zealot is highly problematic due to it being one cultures description of another. I'm not sure were even aware of the full diversity as described by Josephus in such a limited view.

      I think we open a can of worms so to speak when talking about God's impending reign, when using the Hellenistic sources we are left with to understand the context used for Galileans.

      If there was a division between Hellenistic Judaism and the common oppressed Jew, it is my opinion the traditional Jews could have viewed the coming kingdom of God, as a culture knowing the end was close, knowing many would rather commit suicide fighting oppression then living their current life, as one aspect of this looming end.

      My point is I think the traditional Jewish culture knew it was on very shaky ground, knowing the temple would eventually fall and should have been common knowledge.


      Do we run with Marks version of one time to the temple where he died? Or Johns version where he makes multiple trips? This would definitely be a key feature in understanding if the temple authorities even had prior knowledge of Jesus teachings VS his actions only that caught their attention in such large crowds.


      Thank you again for your civility due to my lack of knowledge.


      John Winford / Outhouse

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    3. When I'm not being a total arse, I like to give civility a try.

      I'm not comfortable with your dichotomy between hellenistic Judaism and traditional Judaism. Speaking in terms of a spectrum would be better. That said, I would guess that all Jews in the first century were influence by Greek culture to some extent. Some dramatically so.

      Some of your concerns are dealt with in my short Jesus book - now of ridiculously low cost!
      http://www.amazon.com/Historical-Jesus-What-Can-Know/dp/0802865267/

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  15. I'm not an academic on the subject of The Second Temple. Even so, I felt great doubt at many of Aslan's assertions that arrive at the thesis that Jesus was a militant revolutionary bent on displacing Roman rule by force. I remain puzzled by his (Jesus') precise motives, even after re-reading the book.

    However I am struck by the fact that no one appears to be disputing Aslan's statements that Jesus was born, NOT in Bethlehem, but rather Nazareth. Nor do I hear comment on Aslan's stated belief that Joseph and family never fled to Egypt to escape Herod's boy-child massacre. Well, I guess there goes Christmas. With the Fox News focus about the "War on Christmas" I'm surprised Ms. Green didn't touch on that.

    Aslan also makes it very clear that the gospels approved by The First Council of Nicea for the New Testament were written 1) NOT by the named apostles for the most part and 2) that they were all written more than 30 years (some many decades more) after the death of Jesus. This is important to me because I was brought up on the "facts" that those were the "Word of God". No, they are mostly the words of scribes recording hearsay depictions of alleged events, decades hence. Rodney King's infamous case of multiple narratives by eyewitnesses comes to mind.

    Perhaps all of you, who have apparently have read the gospels in their original text, already knew that. It's the Children-of-Noah, True Believers scattered densely across the Bible Belt who can't seem to grasp that The Bible---all of it--is the work of man. Let's begin there and start the discussion. Who cares whether Jesus was a revolutionary in this world or the next? Simply interject some modicum of reality to the discussion.

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    1. "Aslan also makes it very clear that the gospels approved by The First Council of Nicea for the New Testament were written 1) NOT by the named apostles for the most part"

      This point struck me as well. The other review of this book by a religious scholar that I've found so far was Greg Carey's, and he did not bring up this point either, but only alluded to it when he said, "Christian thought developed a great deal in the decades following Jesus' death... any credible account of Jesus' life must recognize that the Gospels do not provide direct windows into Jesus' activities."

      The gospel writers not actually being who they claimed to be would seem to be a very similar issue as that of Aslan's rather hotly-debated credentials.

      I must admit that I am not a Christian. I was raised Catholic, but there was so much in the Bible I could not reconcile, such as the Exodus story, and the actions of the Church struck me as being much more indicative of a political entity rather than a spiritual one. So I considered myself an atheist for many years. However, as I have settled down and started a family in the past few years, I've come back to a belief in God, but still not organized religion.

      Aslan's book is the first religious book I've been willing to read since then, and it's bringing out a lot of memories of these stories I heard as a child. His saying that, for people of the time, "history was not a matter of uncovering facts, but of revealing truths" is somewhat reassuring in that I'm willing to consider the possibility that I had listened to them for the wrong things before, but the issue still greatly troubles me.

      Are we not talking about an all-knowing God who can anticipate everything? Why would He allow writings to trouble a modern audience so much? He could have instructed the gospel writers to construct a more consistent account.

      I thought this was a very informative review, by the way.

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  16. Thank You for this great post! However, I think the comparison with C.S. Lewis is a poor one.

    Having read all of Lewis' theological/practical works on the Christian religion, and most of his fiction... I am unaware that Lewis ever made any claims to "expertise."

    Quite to the contrary, Lewis usually began his books with a statement emphasizing his LACK of scholarly expertise. He would often explain that he was just a layman in these matters, but he was a layman who had thought quite a lot about these issues and felt compelled to write.

    So I would submit that C.S. Lewis was the polar opposite to Reza Aslan, who it seems cannot OVER-emphasize or exaggerate his credentials enough.

    If Reza Aslan were to exercise an ounce of the humility that Lewis did, I'd have much more respect for him and his book. As it is, his propensity to exaggerate his own authority in response to skepticism (even if it is bigoted skepticism) has killed any interest I might have had in reading his "scholarly" analysis.

    If I cannot trust him to be honest about his own resume, then I cannot trust him to be honest in his work either. And I have no interest in trying to sift through the work of someone who casts professional integrity aside with such ease.

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  17. I became intrigued by this book when listening to Mr. Aslan's recent interview on NPR. I have not read the book, but I am interested in reading the book.

    That being said, after watching the Fox News interview, Mr. Aslan talks about a very extensive portion of the book dedicated to End Notes and says he lists those who both agree and disagree with his arguments.

    QUESTION: Are the concerns outlined in this blog not at all noted by Mr. Aslan in his End Notes?

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    1. One might say that Dr. Aslan's end notes expose him to criticism more than anything else. My post highlights only a few of these deficiencies.

      -anthony

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  18. You were much more polite to him than I was in my review on Amazon.com.

    I know you only listed ten of many things wrong with the book, but one of the biggest, I thought, was the entire third Part of the book, which leans heavily on the false dichotomy of "Hellenistic"/"Palestinian Judaism.

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    1. Quite right Evan. And I appreciated your review (not wanting to duplicate it).

      -anthony

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    2. Evan,
      I tried to find your review but there are now over 50 pages of reviews and I missed it. Can you post a link to it here?
      Thanks

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    3. I believe his review is at http://www.amazon.com/review/R21OMGM9NATGX6/ref=cm_cr_rdp_perm

      You just need to search "Hellenistic"/"Palestinian Judaism" under the reviews for zealot

      A very well thought and written review IMNTBHO!

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    4. Here you go:

      http://www.amazon.com/review/R21OMGM9NATGX6/ref=cm_cr_rdp_perm

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    5. Excellent. Thanks. Its a useful read

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  19. Very well done. Thanks. Come say hi some time if you around Pacific. Ken

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  20. Nancy writes:

    I am a layperson who has read Aslan's Zealot. I am reasonably well-read in New Testament history, yes, but not a professional NT scholar, much less an academician.

    As such, it seems clear to me that your list of criticisms in this blog post represents more the exasperation of the specialist than major impediments for the non-academic audience to which Aslan has addressed the book.

    First, about "zealot." Aslan (pp 40-49) discusses "zeal" as Jewish attitude/s about their national independence; he never uses the political, capital Z Zealot in describing Jesus or his activities and specifically distinguishes the two.

    You mention "the case that Aslan is trying to build: that Jesus was probably preparing his disciples for a militant uprising." In fact, (p. 120), Aslan refers to Jesus' "complex attitude toward violence," saying specifically, "There is no evidence that Jesus himself openly advocated violent actions." I believe the academic familiarity with Zealot is coloring your view of Aslan's use of the term here. For the scholar, this is reasonable; I think the degree of objection has far less pertinence to a lay reader. I don't feel the slightest bit misled.

    Secondly, about "Son of Man," a similar point can be made. So far as I can tell, the overwhelming majority of Christian laypeople haven't so much as a clue what the phrase might mean. They don't want (or, I believe, need) to know there is a massive secondary literature about the matter. Aslan's discussion--which to you seems inexcusably outmoded--at least brings his readers halfway to a working understanding of the term. You can take it from there.

    Likewise with Second Temple politics. Neither your blog post nor any of your comments elsewhere mention specifics, so I (without sophistication about the subject) have to wonder if, here again, your objection is that Aslan is egregiously misleading his readers in major ways with his broad-brush view, or merely that he is offering less than you think adequate.(Which will matter far more to you than to me.) While sympathizing with your impatience, I can't help wondering if it is exaggerated.

    As for your blog points #'s 2-7, they all read to me like more fine-point quibbles rather than substantive complaints of concern to the lay audience. Are we idiots? No. But neither do most of us want the massive background you rely on. And when we do, we can read Gunnar Samuelsson's dissertation.

    Finally, you conclude that Aslan's book "will not win the day." With scholars, it certainly will not; he was never trying to do that. His objective has been his own exploration of the subject of the historical Jesus, which he is sharing with the public. The result is a wonderfully readable, well-grounded (though imperfect) book which is fascinating--and educating--a great many people who will never make it through the works of authors who meet your standards.

    As for the fact that he's a Muslim? So, Amy-Jill Levine is “a Jewish Yankee feminist" holding a named chair in New Testament in a southern Christian divinity school. Way past time for folks to grow up.

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    1. Thank you for you response Nancy. I cannot address all of your concerns here. I must, however, take issue with your claim that Aslan doesn't ever use "Zealot" as a title. He does, in fact - on the title page.

      I agree with you when you agree with me that the argument of this book will not win the day with academics. And to keep the lovefest going, I also agree that folks need to grow up. This, after all, is not a very "Muslim" book in that it does not echo the teachings of the Quran or Hadith. That it happens to be written by a Muslim is a non-issue.

      -anthony

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  21. If you're looking for a portrait of a true zealot (lowercase z), you ought to have a look at the Apostle Paul. He's my kinda guy. What did HE have to say about this Jesus of Nazareth? Paul refers to 'the gospel of the resurrection'. I have to trust translators, since I have no classical Greek, but I'm left with the idea that one of the least of the concerns of this gospel messenger is who sits in Caesar's Palace. Paul is not a Galilean, but an aristocrat. Any effort to characterize Jesus that sidesteps the writing of Paul is in trouble already.

    I enjoyed the review. I'll have to take a pass on this book, since it misses the point of the resurrection. In other words, I think it's a failed thesis from the start, even though it may make an entertaining read. Political action can't do the trick - only Jesus can set men free.

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  22. oh well, another case of a book that sells because it has provoked (underserved as it turns out) scandal; the profit machine is ringing...

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  23. Aslan's book is really tame. Perhaps Aslan, being a Muslim, thinks he is being radical, but in the field of N.T. criticism he is in the junior league.

    For a more radical assessment please read the book 'Jesus, King of Edessa', which traces the links between Jesus and a king of Edessa, and concludes that they were the same person. Why? For many reasons, but two of these are that they both were Nazarene Jews, royal princes, revolutionaries, 'persecuted' by the Romans, and wrote letters to Edessa. In addition they both:
    a. Have the same names.
    b. Wore a Crown of Thorns.

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    1. Um, Unknown, isn't the earliest tradition that these two wrote letters to each other?? You're right--this is an even more radical thesis than Aslan's.

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