Zealot or Messiah?

In an article on last Saturday, Harvard religious scholar Reza Aslan discussed the scholarly impetus behind his newest book: Zealot – The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth. Zealot, released July 16, explores the life and mission of Jesus Christ as a Jewish nationalist who fought for the liberation of His people from Roman rule.

Jesus before Pontius Pilate

Aslan’s article, entitled “Losing Christ and Finding Jesus”, traces the Iranian-born author’s own spiritual journey from teenage conversion and evangelical fervor to the academic skepticism that dissuaded him from the traditional Jesus of Christianity. How exactly does Aslan “lose Christ and find Jesus”? “[R]esearch into the origins of Christianity,” writes Aslan, “has made me a more genuinely committed disciple of Jesus of Nazareth” (as a Jewish teacher, healer, nationalist) “than I ever was of Jesus Christ” (salvation-bearing Messiah).

Essentially, Reza Aslan has derived from his research not a divine God-Man come to bear the sins of the world, but a wandering, illiterate peasant who taught compassion, challenged Roman authority, and died an untimely death before He could unite the Jewish people.

Obviously, this thesis is crawling with glaring theological implications. I wish to address these in this post, if only generally—what Aslan has written requires much more than an essay in response. But it is important to understand, at the very least, the root problem of Aslan’s thesis, the cultural resonance of his idea, and the protean nature of such accusations.

Though I have not read Zealot, I’m looking broadly right now at the core ideas expressed by Aslan in his interviews and book reviews. Aslan and his sympathetic reviewers provide very thorough coverage of his claims, so it doesn’t take long to understand his presuppositions, his thesis, his application, and ultimately the ways he undermines Jesus’ role as the Christ of God.

The fundamental problem with Aslan’s approach to Christological scholarship is that he dismisses the reliability of the Gospels. This dismissal is twofold. First, he questions their historicity. The pursuit of a nationalist portrait leaves no room for the Resurrection, miracles, the exchange with Pilate, or even Joseph and Mary’s trip to Bethlehem. Miracles and the Resurrection, though confirmed by hundreds of eyewitnesses, are said to have been injected into the narrative for supernatural effect. Jesus’ trial was too extraordinary to have actually occurred, and the journey to Bethlehem was merely a “deeply implausible” anecdote created to legitimize Jesus’ roots in the City of David (Kirsch).

Secondly, it seems that Aslan draws on the Gospels insofar as they might remotely support his conclusion. He is happy to highlight the many instances of Jesus’ ample compassion for the people, as it strengthens his portrayal of Jesus as the Common Man. As I understand from Zealot’s media coverage, Aslan associates Jesus’ actions with clandestine activity. When Jesus’ disciples procure two swords in Luke 22:38, Aslan sees rebellion brewing. Where Jesus conceals His identity, Aslan assumes secrecy. What Jesus proclaims of the coming Kingdom, Aslan interprets as a revolutionary movement to restore Israel. Even the “Render unto Caesar” exchange is understood as a radical nod to zealotry: a battle cry to “take back to God what is God’s!”

But go any further than these convenient exchanges that characterize Jesus, and Aslan jumps ship for “historical objectivity”. Any accounts of supernatural activity, any discourses on Jesus’ divine nature, and any mention of salvation from sin are dismissed as religious injection into the historical text. Aslan pits the apostles against each other in some contrived contest to proclaim the most concordant view of Jesus among the early Christians. Therefore, he claims that the Gospels cannot truly be trusted as accurate.

So Aslan operates under the assumption that the Gospels romanticized the life and ministry of Jesus and cannot be trusted for historical value. He opts instead for the more detached writings of Josephus and the “objective” historical descriptions of Judean attitudes towards the Romans, rejecting the authenticity of the Bible, which is “replete with the most blatant and obvious errors and contradictions.” Aslan roots his objective in a denial of Biblical inerrancy. Refutation of his thesis then ultimately requires a debate over New Testament reliability.

Again, what I am primarily targeting here is not so much the book in and of itself as it is the central idea. Publications such as Zealot often necessitate separate tomes for refutation by Christian scholars. This idea deserves some attention, however, not because I think Reza Aslan has built some impregnably solid case (he hasn’t), but because it already in various shades runs rampant in the postmodern world, held by many skeptics, universalists, and emergent “Christ-followers” alike.

Postmodern culture possesses a peculiar attraction to the underdog, the revolutionary, the subtly tragic prophet, the wizened maharishi. We tend to like visionaries like Che Guevara, John Lennon, and Mahatma Gandhi. It’s no surprise, then, that similar images would also be projected upon Jesus Christ to correlate with this mentality and expunge any inkling of divine presence.

After all, Jesus is wildly popular in Western culture. What people actually believe about His nature, purpose, and life is a much different story. In a culture where social justice and compassion are more of a trend than a firm conviction (though those values are certainly important), Jesus’ teachings and ministry to the underclass resonate well. Where relativism thrives, Jesus’ words about judging are easily misinterpreted. Where people prefer to follow rather than commit, Jesus’ commands to “follow Me” are all too easily misapplied. When the culture shrinks from wrath and judgment, Jesus’ warnings about Hell and condemnation are hushed and minimized. In other words, the surf of popular mentality underscores the topics of agreement and undermines the words of discomfort.

Reza Aslan’s new book is popular enough to receive extensive media coverage for those very reasons. People like a Jesus whose limits of controversy exist only in the political and traditional realm, a Jesus stripped of deity and soteriological purpose. With a practically factual tone of certainty, Aslan supplies that very picture:

“This is who Jesus was, the historical Jesus: he was an illiterate, day laborer, peasant from the country side of Galilee who hung around with the most dispossessed, poor, weak, outcasts of his society—people whom the temple rejected. And who, in their name, launched an insurrection against the Roman and priestly authorities. …It means rejecting power, in all its forms—religious and political—it means denying yourself in the name of the poor and the marginalized regardless of their religious or their sexual orientation or anything else. If you do not do those things, you are not a follower of Jesus. ‘Cause that’s who Jesus was.”

It’s true that Jesus was a humble Man who associated with the lowly and poured Himself out on their behalf. And it’s true that He challenged the authority of the scribes and Pharisees. But if that’s all there is to the picture, Jesus was an unmitigated failure. If in the name of historical objectivity we strip Jesus of His divine nature and purpose, Jesus gave the world no hope for which to live. Under such a framework, His death was untimely, His legacy was short-lived, His mission no different from that of any leader rising from the religious traditions of our world. There is nothing that could have produced the change that turned the world upside down. Aslan’s treatment of Jesus Christ resonates strongly with our compassion-driven culture but instead strips it of the hope and purpose that would make social justice anything more than warm fuzzies for a generation of philanthropic egotism.

Ultimately, Reza Aslan’s ideas about Jesus are nothing new. Arianism takes many forms. Those for whom Jesus is inconvenient would like to deny His divinity and mission altogether, whether they be atheists, Mormons, Muslims (whose worldview surely influenced Aslan), Jehovah’s Witnesses, or simply the “Jesus-Followers” of the 21st century. Whatever the means, Satan loves to deceive, and he will seek to do so with any false gospel that denies the eternal love and sovereignty and righteousness of our God.

Christians must never relent in proclaiming Christ’s atoning death and resurrection until He comes again in glory. On two fronts must we proclaim and defend His Lordship to those who deny Him as the Christ. To those viewing Him as a mere prophet, we present His qualifications as the one and only promised Messiah who fulfilled the Scriptures and offered the final sacrifice for the remission of sins. To a world of skeptics and “Jesus-followers”, we defend His divine nature, His heavenly purpose, and the hope of His resurrection. The proclamation of anything contrary to that saving truth is to make Him a liar.

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