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Jesus and Paul, Both Zealots, and the Origins of Christian Faith
Reza Aslan has written a book about Jesus called 'Zealot' making him out to be a political radical. It's a good book, worth reading, even if he gets the Apostle Paul entirely wrong.
By Ed Knudson
A new book by Reza Aslan, Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth, is creating a storm of interest. I went to hear Aslan talk about his book at Powells Books in Portland, Oregon, but was turned away because the room was at its capacity. Part of the reason for this high interest in this book is that a Fox News interviewer had questioned why Aslan, as a Muslim, would write a book on the "founder of Christianity," as if there would be something wrong about that. The interview went viral on the Internet as an example of religious prejudice from Fox News. But the incident indicates there is lots of interest in Jesus, who he was, and how he is related to origins of the Christian church. The fact of a Muslim speaking of Jesus is itself something of interest. But here I will suggest that it was Aslan's experience with a particular form of Christian faith which explains much of what he says in his book. And it is not his current faith, Islam, which explains why he takes the approach he does in the book, but his modernist view of history. So he gets very wrong the way the Christian church came into being, especially his false understanding of the Apostle Paul.
I strongly encourage people to read this book, however, because it presents Jesus within the context of the political, cultural, and economic history of his times. Jesus is much more "political" than most Christians realize. And the book is based on a careful reading of the best bible scholarship of the last few decades. Aslan is a scholar himself but writes in clear, understandable ways for the general reader. You will learn a great deal about how the New Testament was put together from this book.
It may surprise you to hear me say, though, that the main theme of the book actually represents a rather standard experience of people with an immature faith who then delve into deeper study of the origins of their faith tradition in college or seminary. Aslan came to the United States from Iran with his family. As a youth he went to an "evangelical youth camp" in Northern California where he accepted Jesus into his heart. So Aslan's experience here is with the "evangelical" form of Christianity. Had he later gone to an evangelical college or seminary he would have experienced a form of scholarship supportive of that experience.
But he went to a Catholic university. And the Catholic church, like the more mainline Protestant churches, are much more open to what is known as historical-critical scholarship of the bible than the fundamentalist or "evangelical" churches. Aslan doesn't explain these distinctions in his narrative. He makes it seem as if he himself discovered that Jesus wasn't who he thought he was after he attended a Catholic school. But he had that experience primarily because he came to that school with ideas inculcated from his evangelical background.
To some degree all young people who attend college or seminary tend to have similar experiences. It is simply the process of gaining more knowledge. The process by which the church came about is extremely complex with many different figures involved over a long period of time. The main idea of Aslan's book, that Jesus was a Jew in Palestine who was crucified, and that Paul took these basic facts of Jesus' life and translated them into what became Christianity in the Roman world, is not unusual at all. But when seminarians study this in more detail, of course, they learn that it is not so simple as simply "accepting Jesus into my heart."
So what Aslan is talking about in his book on Jesus is not really so unusual. Too many people seeing interviews of him or reading reviews of his book may think he is saying something brand new. Not so. In fact, Aslan relies on major scholarship provided by both Catholics and Protestants over a very long period now.
One of the most helpful parts of the book is the early chapters about the historical context of the life of Jesus. And the focus here is the destruction of Jerusalem in 70AD by the Romans. This was a total destruction, Jerusalem was completely demolished. The Temple, the practices around which Aslan describes in a very interesting manner, is burned to the ground. This is in retaliation to the many liberation movements among the Jews, described in detail by Aslan, against the occupation of Palestine by the Roman state. It is in this context that Aslan says Jesus was a zealot, like others, burning in zeal for the liberation of the Jewish state from Roman oppression.
But Jesus was not like other zealots, of course, because those others have not been remembered like Jesus. And so Aslan spends most of his book on the question of why Jesus was, and so wrongly, remembered. He answers the question with his discussions of how the New Testament came to be and this, too, is very helpful for the general reader. And, again, the destruction of Jerusalem is the historical key.
The Apostle Paul's writings are the earliest documents in the New Testament, not the four gospels, and they were written before 70AD. So Paul writes without knowledge of what would happen to Jerusalem, and the church there, led by James the brother of Jesus. The gospel of Mark is the earliest gospel, written not long after the Jerusalem destruction. Matthew and Luke are based on Mark as a kind of template, and later the gospel of John is written. But all the gospels are written in the wake of the theological orientation of Paul which became prevalent outside Jerusalem over against the views of James and other Jewish Christians who perished in the conflagration. These are all rather standard results of current scholarship.
But at this point let me ask a question I think the early gospel writers also were asking: Does Jesus have any meaning beyond the end of Jerusalem and the Jewish temple? The answer was for them, yes, and they wrote their gospels in the context of living communities of faith which maintained in various forms the memory of Jesus. This is an exercise of the interpretation of history. The gospel writers interpreted history in the context of the history of the people of Israel in the Hebrew scriptures, trying to answer questions of where Jesus had come from, what he had done, what he taught, and what the meaning of all this might be for how we were to live our lives today after Jersalem was gone from the world. In the four gospels we have four different versions of the continuing "living faith" of early Christian communities.
Aslan discounts all this and claims that the gospels falsify Jesus and he will tell us the truth. He engages in what is really a rather standard modernist form of historical interpretation, with a focus on the individual as the historical agent of change. In this view it is the actions of individuals, not communities, which make history, a modernist conceit. So Aslan is going to inform us about Jesus as an individual, not Jesus as the memory of communities in the midst of the conflict of history.
But to do so Aslan uses the very gospels which he otherwise tends to negate as authoritative witnesses. These gospels reveal the Jesus who enters Jerusalem as the long awaited "king of the Jews" and cleanses the temple, the key events Aslan uses to demonstrate Jesus the Zealot. These central events are right there in the gospels for all readers, including modern readers, to see and appreciate as ways to understand who Jesus was. Yes, the church itself, through the ages, has certainly downplayed the significance of these obviously political acts, and I like the fact that Aslan has lifted up these texts as crucial to his argument, but it is not only him who sees the significance of these matters. A large part of the church today reads these texts as central to an understanding of the Jesus dedicated to the liberation of people from the oppression of political and economic domination. It is such a reading which most characterizes what we can call the "public theology" of both the Catholic and mainline Protestant churches today.
And that is a fact that many people who are flocking to hear Aslan speak may not realize. He is relying on the scholarly work of the church itself as it seeks to honestly wrestle with the historical meaning of Jesus today. It is not because he is a Muslim that leads him to critiZe the church, of course, something he would not himself say, but too many people with simple mindsets may so understand him, such as those listening to Fox News and others not acquainted with the results of applying the historical-critical method of reading the bible.
Aslan's biggest fault is how he interprets the Apostle Paul. Although Aslan places Jesus entirely in the context of his being a Jew in Palestine he fails to also place Paul in the context of the church in the Roman empire. He interprets Paul's theology as generalized, "spiritualized" abstractions. He blames Paul for using Greek philosophical categories to re-interpret the meaning of Jesus and thus lose the notion of Jesus as a political zealot. Here Aslan is taking on a standard misunderstanding of many seminary students in an earlier era, that Paul wholly changes what Jesus was all about. Aslan's idea of Paul seems informed primarily on his evangelical experience than on historical scholarship.
Current scholarship on Paul has come to understand him as a sort of zealot not so different from Jesus but applied to a different social location. Jesus functioned primarily in rural Palestine; Paul addressed urban communities outside Palestine in the larger Roman-dominated world, including Rome itself. And Paul presented a Christian faith not to legitimize Roman rule but explicitly over-against it. Jesus is Lord, not the Caesar. Jesus was raised from the Roman cross, he could not be contained by the dominating power of Rome. To see the results of current scholarship on Paul take a good look at a book by John Dominic Crossan, God and Empire: Jesus Against Rome, Then and Now. Crossan shows how Paul teaches equality and justice and says:
... I consider Paul as the apostle who took Jesus's message out from the Jewish homeland into the great big Roman world. I emphatically do not agree with those who think Paul betrayed Jesus or invented Christianity. He accurately and effectively rephrased Jesus's message of the already-present Kingdom of God in his own language for that wider world. And he did so not in some newly invented and peculiarly Christian language but in and thereby against the public discourse of Roman imperial theology. (p. 141)After Paul the Christian faith became increasingly popular until in the fourth century it actually became the official religion of the empire as Aslan discusses in the final chapter of his book. And it is that association which led to that which Aslan dislikes, the abstract understandings of Jesus as divine. We in the church today are becoming more and more aware of the dangers of this association of Christian faith with state authority because it is the opposite of what the biblical witness tells us both about Jesus and in the words of the Apostle Paul. It is ironic that it may be a Muslim scholar who provides an introduction to a radical political Jesus for many people in the country today who otherwise would never have picked up a book about him. For that the church following in the way of Jesus and Paul should be grateful.
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