In defence of Reza Aslan

Reza Aslan

Since I wrote about the latest 'real Jesus' bestseller two weeks ago, its author, Reza Aslan, has taken a fairly comprehensive beating in a variety of outlets, writes Ross Douthat.

- The New York Times

The consensus is that Aslan’s book makes a hash of more careful scholarship on its way to preordained conclusions. The critics also argue that his portrait of Jesus as a political revolutionary is just another predictable example of the way that the Nazarene’s contemporary biographers almost aways produce 'theological Rorschach tests that tell us far more about those who create them than about the elusive historical Jesus.'

This dovetails pretty well with my own take on Zealot. But after reading some of the takedowns, I feel ever-so-slightly inclined to defend Aslan: Not from the charge of being a self-promoter who’s written an unconvincing book, but from the charge, implicit in some of the reviews, of having done somethingworse than many more credentialed authors who have published on this topic.

The striking thing about Zealot, to anyone who follows the historical-Jesus literature closely, is that its rewriting of the Gospel narratives is relatively unremarkable. Aslan’s claims are implausible, but they aren’t usually baldly conspiratorial or deeply fabulistic or really wild, and his book is actually free of some of the worst sins of the genre.

Let me give some examples of what Aslan doesn’t do.

He doesn’t try to persuade his readers that literature written decades or centuries after the New Testament canon — the so-called 'lost gospels', Gnostic and otherwise, on which so much recent ink has been spilled — have anything like the same historical credibility or significance as the canonical Gospels and epistles. Yes, he cherry-picks egregiously from the New Testament sources, using a historical standard that seems to amount to 'if it fits my thesis, it’s authentic.'

Having stripped Jesus’s story down to what he considers its essence, he doesn’t then dramatically embroider it as well. As I noted in the column, one of the striking things about Aslan’s depiction of a political Jesus intent on setting up an earthly kingdom is that his protagonist ends up being relatively boring: The actual figure of Jesus recedes into a larger portrait of revolutionary turmoil, and the Nazarene becomes just another rabble-rouser with relatively unoriginal ideas. But this kind of minimalism is arguably more historically persuasive than the kind of hyper-speculative turn that many revisionist treatments take. 

FULL STORY In defence of Reza Aslan (The NYT)

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