Although a controversial new book on the “historical Jesus” is topping best-seller lists, claims made by its author are tired when it comes to New Testament scholarship, a Scripture professor says.
“There’s basically not a lot new,” Dr. Andre Villeneuve from Denver’s St. John Vianney Theological Seminary said of Reza Aslan’s recent “Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth.”
“It kind of re-hashes what’s been said in the last – not just 20 or 30 years – but the last 100 or 200 years about the search for ‘the historical Jesus,’” he told CNA in an Aug. 6 interview.
“He creates this artificial split between the alleged Jesus of the Gospels and the Jesus of history, as if they would be radically different figures. That again is nothing new, it’s been done for decades and even centuries.”
Aslan’s book shot to the top of best-seller lists following a roundly criticized July 26 Fox News interview in which his credibility was attacked because of his Muslim religious identity.
“The critique that he’s a Muslim is really out of place,” Villeneuve said. “It’s not that because you’re a Muslim that you can’t write a book about Jesus … it’s not fair to says he’s trying to push the Islamic view of Jesus in the guise of scholarship.”
Villeneuve pointed out that Aslan’s positions on Jesus do not always correspond with the Muslim perspective – and that he in fact parts with Islamic belief by acknowledging the crucifixion of Jesus and rejecting the virgin birth.
But in that same Fox News interview, Aslan also claimed to be an expert in religious history, calling himself “a Ph.D. in the history of religions” and “a scholar of religions with a Ph.D. in the subject.”
His doctorate, however, is in sociology, and while he examined the sociology of religions, his expertise – that is, the subject of his dissertation – is the jihadist movement of 20th century Islam.
Aslan is also associate professor of creative writing at University of California-Riverside, based on his master’s degree in fiction. He also holds a masters of theological studies, and a bachelor’s degree in religions.
“It doesn’t seem like New Testament studies would be his specialty,” Villeneuve stated.
Aslan portrays Jesus as the frustrated leader of a rebellion against Roman occupation of Jewish lands, and that he was nothing but a failed revolutionary and zealot.
“That puts Aslan more or less in the liberation theology camp, of seeing Jesus as someone who radically challenged the Roman occupation, and in favor of the poor, the marginalized, the dispossessed – really interested more in social justice than anything else.”
Villeneuve said it’s “completely fair” to think that the Romans might have perceived Jesus in such a secular way, but that there is a “big difference between how Jesus saw himself, and how the Romans perceived or understood Jesus.”
“As far as Jesus’ point of view goes, it’s preposterous to put him in the Zealot camp.”
Villeneuve noted Aslan’s contention that Jesus never considered himself to be God, because “that was never heard of in ancient Judaism … he claims the idea of the divinity of the Messiah was completely foreign to Judaism in Jesus’ time.”
“This is false,” Villeneuve explained. Among others, Daniel Boyarin, an Orthodox Jewish scholar, has noted that the idea of the Incarnation, “and even of … some plurality in the godhead, were concepts present in Second Temple Judaism.”
Boyarin, he said, points to the book of Daniel and to the apocryphal book of Enoch for the presence of the idea of a divine Messiah being present in the Judaism of Jesus’ time, and added that “Aslan does not refer – I’m not sure he’s even aware – of these positions.”
“The idea that the divine Messiah was present in Second Temple Judaism would be very important to find out and know, before you start dismissing it and saying ‘divine Messiah’ was a completely Greek, pagan concept."
While granting that “Zealot” is “thoroughly researched,” Villeneuve said that it seems to have been researched in such a way that “he’s influenced by the Jesus seminar school,” which in the 1980s and 90s had proposed Jesus as nothing more than a rabbi, sage and healer.
Aslan’s view is dismissive and prejudiced against the very possibility of supernatural occurrences, rejecting the miraculous “because these things just don’t happen.”
“Be careful of these anti-supernaturalist prejudices,” Villeneuve advised, “and these revisionists really following the fad of questioning the Christian faith because it’s the popular thing to do.”
“There are dozens of good books written about Jesus every year, but whatever will question that will be more readily accepted.”
Villeneuve offered Benedict XVI’s books on Jesus of Nazareth as resources that “really answer a lot of these claims” and show that “not only in the Gospel of John, but in the Synoptics, you see a man who is definitely taking on this authority that goes way beyond that of the rabbis and scribes of his day.”
The irony, he said, is that Aslan “proposes Christianity is revisionist,” that the earliest Christian community, as Jews, “were completely willing to go into apostasy” and preach things “contrary to what Jesus actually believed.”
“When we really try to think along those lines of what Aslan’s trying to make us believe, it’s really somewhat preposterous actually: that all these early martyrs and disciples were willing to die as martyrs for what, according to him, was a colossal lie, or myth.”
“I would submit that Aslan’s book is a fad that will pass away, and he’s not the first, not the last, but the Gospels will still be around in 20 years, when everyone will have forgotten his book.”