Reza Aslan—Historian?

Reza Aslan—Historian?

Yes, the author was attacked on Fox News for daring to be a Muslim writing about Jesus. But does his book actually meet the historical standards he claims?


Reza Aslan. (Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons)

The “most embarrassing interview Fox News has ever done,” in which anchor Lauren Green challenged the legitimacy of author Reza Aslan for writing Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth, seemed to be popping up everywhere on social media last week. The absurdity of the spectacle was multifold: Why—why?!—would a Muslim want to write about Jesus, Green kept asking, as though a nefarious plot to undermine Christianity were somehow afoot. Meanwhile, Aslan made a show of insisting that he possesses not only the academic credentials and but also the professional duty to do so (“My job as a scholar of religions with a PhD in the subject is to write about religions”). The story was quickly framed as a battle between the right-wing Islamophobes of Fox News and Aslan, the defender of intellectual life and scholarship.

Then an article in the right-wing Catholic publication, First Things, challenged Aslan’s claims about his academic credentials (his 2009 PhD is in sociology and was awarded on the basis of a 140-page dissertation on contemporary Muslim political activism) and his academic position (he is an associate professor of creative writing at the University of California at Riverside and does not hold either a doctorate nor a teaching position in the academic study of religion).

Those of us in the academic field of religious studies, especially biblical scholars and historians of early Christianity, found the whole business deeply cringe-worthy. The Fox News interview was not just embarrassing but downright offensive. The anti-Muslim bias of Fox is well-documented and is bad enough, whatever the specific context. But for scholars of religion, the Green’s conflation of the academic study of religion with personal religious identification is a familiar misunderstanding. After all, as one friend of mine puts it pithily, “You don’t have to be a zebra to study zoology.”

And then there has been a lot of debate, online and off, about whether Aslan possesses the proper credentials to write the book he has written. On this point, I wish to be quite clear: it is in principle quite possible for a scholar trained in one area of specialization to produce respectable work outside the framework of that field. Some of the most interesting work in the academic study of religion has been produced by scholars who, trained in one subspecialty, extend their studies into other domains.

Aslan’s claims concerning his academic degrees have led to some confusion: he uses the term “historian of religions” at times, “historian” at others. To people unfamiliar with the intellectual histories involved, the first term may not resonate. “History of religions” derives from the nineteenth-century German university context where the Religionsgeschichtliche Schule [history-of-religions school] sought to place the phenomenon of religion—especially in its archaic and ancient iterations—in social and cultural context. It has since become the name for a particular disciplinary approach to the study of religion, most often associated in the United States with the University of Chicago and the University of California at Santa Barbara, where Aslan earned his PhD in sociology. To the extent that he did coursework in the UCSB Religious Studies department, he can certainly lay claim to preparation in the history-of-religions approach. Although this approach was influential on the study of the New Testament and early Christianity in the first two decades of the twentieth century, it has had little impact in the decades since.

Aslan’s broader claim to working as a historian, however, is another matter. Frankly, he would probably have been cut a good deal more slack by specialists had he simply said that he was working as an outsider to the field, interested in translating work by scholars of early Christianity for a broader audience. But his claims are more grandiose than that and are based on his repeated public statements that he speaks with authority as a historian. He has therefore reasonably opened himself to criticism on the basis of that claim.

And here, there is much to criticize. Aslan argues that Jesus was a Palestinian peasant whose claims about the coming “kingdom of God” were both self-conscious and literal. Setting himself up in active and public opposition to Roman imperial authority, Aslan’s Jesus ran afoul of the Romans and the Jewish elites who aligned themselves with Roman power. From this reconstruction, Aslan derives the title of his book—Zealot—and his thesis that the crime for which Jesus was executed was treason.

Zealot reflects wide reading in the secondary literature that has emerged in the scholarly study of the historical Jesus. In that sense, as one colleague of mine puts it, Aslan is a reader rather than a researcher. Aslan’s reconstruction of the life of Jesus invests a surprisingly literalist faith in some parts of the gospel narratives. For example, he argues, against the scholarly consensus, that the so-called “messianic secret” in the Gospel of Mark (a text written four decades after the death of Jesus) reflects an actual political strategy of the historical Jesus rather than a literary device by which the author of that text made sense of conflicting bits of received tradition. His readings of the canonical gospels give little attention to the fact that the writers of these texts were engaged in a complex intertextual practice with the Hebrew scriptures in Greek, that these writers were interested in demonstrating that Jesus fulfilled prophecies written centuries earlier—in short, that the gospel writers were writers with (sometimes modest, sometimes expansive) literary aspirations and particular theological axes to grind. Biblical scholars have, over many decades, sought to develop methods of textual analysis to tease out these various interests and threads.

But Aslan does not claim to be engaged in literary analysis but in history-writing. One might then expect his reconstruction of the world of Jesus of Nazareth to display a deep understanding of second-temple Judaism. Yet, his historical reconstruction is partial in both senses of the term. For example, he depends significantly on the testimony of the first-century Jewish historian Josephus, taking it more or less at face value (which no scholar of the period would do). Meanwhile he amplifies Jewish resistance to Roman domination into a widespread biblically based zealotry, from which he concludes that Jesus was intent upon armed resistance and the establishment of the kingdom of God on earth. Moreover, his reconstruction of the Judaism of the time is too flat and monolithic. At best, his argument is overstated; at worst, it depends upon scholarship that has been definitively challenged by more recent work in the field and upon a method that cherry-picks from the ancient sources.

One could go on through Zealot, pointing out places where Aslan represents a particular issue as straightforward and uncontroversial when, in fact, the matter remains the subject of considerable debate among specialists. Or one could ask about the method for his selection of scholarly works on which his discussion depends—and why many important works that would complicate his narrative are missing from the bibliography of the book. (The absence of traditional footnotes—the sine qua non of scholarly documentation—makes it quite difficult, if not impossible, to trace the lineage of many of the claims in the book, the lengthy bibliography at the end notwithstanding.) These would be among the numerous legitimate criticisms that historians of early Christianity and biblical scholars—specialists in the field—might lodge. But there is something else, more elemental to consider about the nature of this work.

In 1906, Albert Schweitzer—yes, that Albert Schweitzer—published a book-length review of dozens upon dozens of lives of Jesus produced from the eighteenth century through the very beginning of the twentieth, Von Reimarus zu Wrede: Eine Geschichte der Leben-Jesu-Forschung [From Reimarus to Wrede: A History of Research on the Life of Jesus], which appeared a few years later in English as The Quest of the Historical Jesus: A Critical Study of Its Progress from Reimarus to Wrede. A work at once erudite and mind-numbingly boring—I warn my students not to drive or operate heavy machinery while reading it, should they decide to spend in this manner hours of their lives they will never get back—Schweitzer’s Quest makes the decisive and incontrovertible point, through careful analysis of dozens of lives of Jesus written over a 200-year period, that efforts to reconstruct the life of Jesus are bound to fail both because the historical archive is so irreparably fragmentary and because every life of Jesus inevitably emerges as a portrait with an uncanny resemblance to its author. Schweitzer didn’t use these terms, but his point is that lives of Jesus are theological Rorschach tests that tell us far more about those who create them than about the elusive historical Jesus.

It is to this history, I would argue, that Aslan’s Zealot belongs. Zealot is a cultural production of its particular historical moment—a remix of existing scholarship, sampled and reframed to make a culturally relevant intervention in the early twenty-first-century world where religion, violence and politics overlap in complex ways. In this sense, the book is simply one more example in a long line of efforts by theologians, historians and other interested cultural workers.

Simply put, Zealot does not break new ground in the history of early Christianity. It isn’t clear that any book framed as a “the life and times of Jesus of Nazareth” could, in fact, do so. Indeed, if it had not been thrust into the limelight by an aggressive marketing plan, the painfully offensive Fox News interview, and Aslan’s own considerable gifts for self-promotion, Zealot would likely have simply been shelved next to myriad other examples of its genre, and everyone could get back to their lives. As it is, the whole spectacle has been painful to watch. And as it is with so many spectacles, perhaps the best advice one might take is this: Nothing to see here, people. Move along.

Q&A with Reza Aslan.

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