CHICAGO August 7, 2013 — Dr. Reza Aslan became a household name when a Fox News interviewer crudely suggested that as a Muslim, he had no business writing a book about Jesus. The interview is a YouTube hit, a ten-minute confirmation of every Fox News stereotype. His book has since vaulted to the top of the bestseller list.
Beneath the layer of anti-Muslim hostility that skewed the encounter lies an interesting irony, the question was essentially legitimate. Personal perspectives matter enormously in Jesus scholarship.
There is no historically definitive Jesus. He is one of those rare figures in a class with Julius Caesar or Thomas Jefferson whose story is too intimately entwined in cherished myths to ever emerge in a single, consensus narrative. Efforts to define Jesus’ identity in historical terms are deeply burdened by the culture and personality of the scholar. Finding Jesus the man is only a barely more scientific process than finding Jesus the Christ.
Scholarship on the historical Jesus is almost impossible to separate from the times and from personal perspective. Prestigious Dead Sea Scrolls scholar John Allegro published a book at the height of the Hippie era claiming that Jesus was a hallucinogenic mushroom. John Dominic Crossan has been candid about the ways his experience as an Irishman influenced his understanding of Jesus as an anti-imperial rebel. Marcus Borg and Richard Horsley have interpreted Jesus through Marxist social science as a liberator of the oppressed and marginalized.
Two of the most popular current scholars of Christian history, Bart Ehrman and Elaine Pagels, are both motivated by deep personal experiences of suffering and loss. Their work reflects a hyper-personalization typical of our time and seldom seen in earlier scholarship.
If we choose to find the historical Jesus solely within the pages of the Bible, we face the same personalization we experience in modern scholarship. The four Gospels tell four stories about four different men.
The Book of Mark describes a scrappy upstart from sordid origins who is frequently angry, uncertain, and frustrated. He meets his end with frightening anguish and a sense of betrayed promise.
In John, Jesus is a barely human mystic. His birth story places him at the origins of the universe, where he is “The Word” through whom all things were made. He never doubts or stumbles or worries.
Luke and Matthew soften the rough edges of Mark’s Jesus. Matthew’s Jesus is born under the oppressive Jewish King Herod the Great. He lives squarely in the tradition of the Jewish prophets, harried to his death by corrupt religious authorities resistant to reform.
Luke’s Jesus is born at least a decade later than in Matthew, after Herod the Great was long dead and Rome had assumed direct administration of Judea. Jesus in Luke is careful to live as a good subject of the Empire, reaching out to gentiles and working a miracle for a Roman centurion.
Mark ends abruptly with an empty tomb and almost no explanation. It was such a frustrating conclusion that scribes later added eleven more verses to tidy up the narrative.
Matthew describes a final scene in which a resurrected Jesus presents himself to the disciples just before his ascension. In a remarkable line generally skipped in Sunday school, the disciples “worshipped him, but some doubted.”
In the final moment before Jesus’ supposed ascension the author of Matthew feels compelled to acknowledge that some of Jesus’ closest followers weren’t buying it. For the author to countenance that much doubt then his readers must already have been aware that many of Jesus’ earliest followers did not accept this account.
This diversity is evident in the earliest records we have of Jesus, the letters sent by Paul to the early churches. Paul is constantly wrangling with different factions of Jesus’ followers and his deepest rivals are the original Christians in Jerusalem.
Paul either had not heard or did not believe the story of the virgin birth, which he never mentions. In the introduction to his letter to the Romans he explains how Jesus became the “Son of God.” Jesus, according to Paul, gained the title by “declaration.” An audience in Rome would have recognized this as the same method by which the emperors obtained their immortality.
Differences of opinion among the early Christians were so severe that they led to Paul’s final arrest. According to the Book of Acts, a visit to the Christian leadership in Jerusalem went so badly that the Roman soldiers intervened to rescue him from the mob. They sent him to Rome as a prisoner where legend claims he was executed.
The diversity of opinion inside the official Biblical canon grows broader in other ancient sources. There are more than two dozen other accounts of Jesus’ life and theology that were not included in the New Testament. Personal perspective matters in defining Jesus.
This diversity poses problems for the literalists who are desperate to attach absolute authority to their subjective interpretation of Jesus. It is likewise frustrating for scholars whose mission is to find definitive answers in history. For everyone else, Jesus remains a highly personal subject of inspiration. The ambiguities that surround him enrich his appeal.
It would be helpful to know what personal perspective Dr. Aslan brings to the question of Jesus’ identity. The question has meaning. His on-air response, a resume-list of academic credentials, may have been appropriate in light of the interviewer’s ignorant disdain but it is ultimately unhelpful.
Fortunately, Dr. Aslan does answer the question in his book. By a further irony, the section of the book that answers the interviewer’s question is posted at the Fox News website. On the subject of Jesus, perspective always matters.
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