Sex in heaven: a sidebar about Genesis 6

(This posting won’t make much sense unless you are familiar with the posting on “Sex in Heaven” here.) 

But what about Genesis 6?  Doesn’t it describe “angel sex” and how this is so broadly condemned?

Genesis 6:1-2 says that “sons of God” (angels) came and married the daughters of men, conceived children by them, and this was one of the proximate causes of the Great Flood; God was obviously not pleased with such angel behavior.

Well, perhaps.  The identification of these “sons of God” as angels is one possibility, but scarcely the only one; an argument can be made that “sons of God” refers rather to those men on the earth who still worshipped God appropriately (as opposed to “daughters of (wicked) men”), and therefore this passage was foreshadowing in some ways the sort of mixed Israelite-Canaanite marriages that would become a problem in Exodus and all the way through Ezra (ch 10) and Malachi (2:11). Even if one allows that these are angels, the offense is not necessarily that they had relations or even children, but that this was a mixing of angelic and human realms.  It was, in other words, an illicit attempt to bridge these two worlds, of the same sort that was attempted with the building of the tower of Babel (in an effort to reach heaven).  This same concern with “hybrid beings” possibly underlies Mosaic prohibitions against mixing fibers in clothing and seeds in fields (Lev 19:19) and other sorts of hybridization.  Some have even argued that this is the ultimate reasoning behind the prohibition against eating shellfish: they’re animals that aren’t fish (lacking fins and scales and sometimes having legs) but aren’t quite land animals (living in the water).  This separation between heaven and earth did not exist before the Fall, and will again be eliminated in the eschaton, but these are matters beyond what we’re concerned with here. This passage can only be made to completely prohibit “angel sex” again with dragging in assumptions foreign to the text, or by assuming that the conditions of Gen 6 will exist eternally. (cf Jude 6)

An even quicker than average review of “Bulletproof Faith: A Spiritual Guide for Gay and Lesbian Christians”

Bulletproof faith(The book can be found here, though it’s also available through inter-library loan at the Sacramento County Public Library)

Like most Americans, I have colleagues, friends and family who are gay or in same-sex relationships.  Most of these are explicitly non-Christian, though a vague spirituality is much more common than overt atheism.  Ever since doing a project on the Metropolitan Community Church as an undergrad, I’ve been fascinated by the gay-Christian movement, and I was initially attracted to this book after seeing a review in the Huffington Post (“why homosexuals should never argue scripture“). To her credit, Chellew-Hodge does an excellent job of providing means of “bullet-proofing” GLBT Christians. Many of the conservative individuals she has encountered clearly don’t deserve a response: someone shouting “dykes go to hell!” obviously doesn’t need a response so much as a restraining order. When it comes to discussing the issue “can I be a good Christian and a good homosexual,” her record is much more mixed. She has has a plan for developing a thick skin, but not a deep faith. When encountering someone who reasonably and calmly disagrees on God’s view of homosexuality and really tries to understand her, her advice boils down to repeatedly asserting “I don’t agree” and moving along when the other person becomes shrill or tires out. She clearly thinks that finding common ground with her opponents is best, but it is also obvious that “common ground” is small indeed: “we all agree that Jesus doesn’t like haters” (and that’s it). True, even thoughtful conservative Christians I know can agree with this, but little else. I suppose this is a recipe for civil peace, but not for policy or communion (in or out of churches).

From a theological perspective, Chellew-Hodge has drunk deeply both of post-modernism and higher criticism. Something is true because she knows in her heart it’s true (something Mormons, ironically, would agree with). Questions are asked because questioning is good, not because we actually want answers (many 3-year olds would agree). Biblical arguments (such as Romans 1) are dealt with by deconstruction: St. Paul was just a guy, not a very bright one, and we can disregard him at our leisure. Christians no longer approve of slavery and oppression of women, and this is the same (no argument necessary, since the victim is always right). Conservatives want us to repudiate our sexuality, while not repudiating their own heterosexuality (though the more thoughtful ones insist that Jesus DOES want heteros to do this, e.g. Mark 8:34-37 and/or Mt 5:27-30); if you’d like to disagree with Jesus, fine, it’s a free country, but no one appreciates being misrepresented. SUMMARY STATEMENT: if you’re gay and Christian good luck with that, and be thankful you’re not Muslim. Chellew-Hodge can help you deflect superficial criticism, but if you’re hoping any cognitive dissonance you have when talking with thoughtful, educated, conservative Christians will go away, you’ll be disappointed. She does have a thoughtful bibliography and recommended websites, however. I am going there next.

A quick review of “The Goddess in Every Girl” (M. J. Abadie)

The goddess in every girl cover

Cover of “The Goddess in Every Girl”

(This is intended as the first of a series of reviews of books which show up in the “new” section of the Elk Grove Public Library.  In general, I am impressed with their services and titles, especially given the chronic under-funding of the system.  Some of their acquisitions seem a bit odd, however.  Here is one such offering.)

As the title suggests, here is a book about goddess worship aimed as at early teenage girls.  Having some background in goddess narratives, there was very little surprising in it for me.  What was surprising was the overt encouragement of narcissism along with a hefty dose of lightweight spirituality, pseudoscience and historical revisionism.  But again, this is not terribly surprising if you have any familiarity with the goddess/Gaia/wicca/women’s spirituality movements.

The basic narrative, which this book rehearses in its opening chapters, is this: there was a Golden Age long ago (30000 years seems  the favorite figure) when societies freely worshiped the Great Goddess. They were affirming of women and women’s power, they were pacifists, egalitarian, respectful of nature, and lived without fear or uncertainty in the world.  However, these societies were also powerless against a rising patriarchal, warlike cult of the sky-god, who put these societies to the sword and absorbed them wholesale, to the point where today, goddess worshipers are seen as an oddity or even a danger. Though these patriarchal and misogynistic societies are common wherever you look, the worst tended to be the male-centered monotheisms, first Judaism and later Christianity.  Reclaiming this Edenic goddess culture is one of the tasks of this book.

In light of this narrative, certain things are true about all women in general: they are  powerful repositories of the goddess, able to contact her at will (indeed, they are her) and can expect healing and wholeness to result, not only for them but for the world.  Anyone who tells you that you that you need to change, or who tries to tell you what to do, especially if they are part of this patriarchal culture, is out of touch with the truth and needs to be politely resisted.  This process of undoing millennia of societal programming and appreciating the glory and splendor of the goddess who lives inside of you occupies the bulk of the book. It includes numerous experiential exercises common to many sort of self-help spirituality books, with a goddess spin, including everything from journaling to self-touch exercises and meditation and altar-making.

A few quotes will give you any necessary further information:

  •  “Some 30,000 years ago, the Goddess reigned supreme over all the Earth’s people” (xii) and “remember that for some 4 million years the social relationships modeled by the Goddess women were cooperative” (86)
  • “As Nature and All There Is (sic), (the goddess) was not an impossible ideal of some far-removed, judging deity who decided everything and who was to be worshiped by ‘sinners’” (2); “the images produced by your unconscious are invariably true” and “the unconscious knows all and does not lie” (113)
  • “You can bring about the changes necessary to erase the oppressive laws and customs….Claim your Goddess power and use it well.  Be a Goddess Girl!” (9)
  • “In (your Goddess journal), write a short essay, story or poem on how you feel about the patriarchal system that suppresses women and makes girls feel inferior”(12)


The book proposes a modern interpretation of paganism, centered on an immanent goddess-figure who is ultimately discovered in the unconscious of every person (especially women).  All that is in touch with the goddess is good, whereas all things that oppose her discovery and expression are to be opposed.  Abadie self-consciously sees this book as an agent of both grand social change and a tool for use by young girls who feel like they don’t “fit” in the world as it is.

I was a bit surprised to learn something of Abadie’s biography.  She was (she died in 2006) not a newcomer in the goddess movement. She had an extensive background in both astrology and psychotherapy and was a personal friend of Joseph Campbell.  I say ‘surprised’ because this level of learning is not obvious in the text. There is a fair bit of pseudoscience thrown around rather casually: human civilization existing on some level 4,000,000 years ago (most anthropologists would squirm at 100,000), “every cell in your body replaces itself every 7 years” (145) (perhaps on average; many cells never get replaced, while others are replaced daily), and of course there is a fair debt to astrology.  Her ignorance of science is only exceeded by her ignorance of religion, with Christianity open to particular scorn: Paul was “a woman hater” and “evidence suggests that Paul was a homosexual” (41) who believed “women are good only for childbirth….Let them give birth until they die of it!” (42).   The Adam and Eve story was “propaganda” and any ancient prophetic concerns about ritual prostitution were of course written by men intent on oppressing women.  It’s clear that Abadie was well-read in goddess/wicca/astrology literature, but rarely stepped outside of it, and her knowledge of Christianity apparently stopped when she graduated from Catholic schools half a century ago.

The single biggest weakness of the book is that so much of it is simply made-up.   The ancient-Edenic-Goddess-society narrative has largely been modified and qualified out of existence by more recent and less agenda-driven archaeology; the best that can be said is that there may have been some cultures with a greater appreciation for goddesses than gods, and there is little evidence that life for these people was anything other than nasty, brutish and short.  Abadie does obliquely confront such criticisms with the two techniques common to much goddess literature: any criticism comes from patriarchal vested interests and therefore can’t be trusted and if any criticism turns out to be valid, it doesn’t matter since the truth of the goddess lies within each girl: the proof is in the subjective experience anyway.

The most disturbing thing about the book is not its factual problems, but in the way that it seems to self-consciously appeal to some of the worst characteristics of adolescence.  Yes, being a teenage girl in today’s world is not easy, and there are many lies out there, about girls’ bodies and minds and lives and futures.  Avoiding this ditch by driving into the one on the other side of the road seems to be Abadie’s prescription: you, as a teenage girl, are great, you’re a world-changer, a goddess in embryo, a priestess and queen in the new world that is arising who is wise enough now to reject a society that is intent on keeping you down.  There are many recommendations for teenage mental health out there, but “think more about how great you are” is not generally one of the better thoughts. The cure for poor self-esteem is realistic self-esteem, not a Pollyanna affirmation of everything inside you.

The book is intended for the already-convinced.  The typical girl who picks this up and gets beyond the first few pages is probably already hungry for what it says and won’t be interested in other views.  It’s obvious that Abadie is writing out of great wounds she herself experienced in earlier life, and assumes that this is equally true of the girls reading her book. Perhaps for this reason is the book to be despised: it sells faith-cures to the sick and, in some cases, actually seems to inoculate girls against anyone who might tell them the truth: that they are valuable people, that God doesn’t make junk, but that nonetheless they are not perfect and looking deep within themselves they are as likely to discover the dark and terrible as the bright and shining.  It’s no coincidence that many cultures with goddesses, from the ancient Greeks to modern Hinduism, are aware that there are terrible and frightening aspects to the goddess as well:  Kali or Artemis is just as likely to step on a mortal woman as to welcome her.  Abadie, of course, sees this as mere propaganda, and even if it isn’t, it doesn’t matter, since her experience tells her otherwise.  If I know a girl who is avidly reading this, I would have probing questions for her, but more importantly I would see a girl who feels disconnected from community, from good teaching about her world and herself and who needs to hear a truth that isn’t just speaking to her baser instincts of self-importance and self-righteousness.  The cure isn’t to burn this book, but to laugh at it and to pity its self-deluded boosters.

I guess my patriarchal war-god side is showing.  My bad.

The Ken Ham / Bill Nye Debate: what we can learn to prevent a tragedy like this from happening again…

Image               I attended the debate between Bill Nye (“The “Science Guy”) and Ken Ham (of Answers in Genesis (AiG) and the Creation Museum) on Tuesday night (by webcast at a local church, now available here and here), and though I didn’t pull my hair out and found it moderately interesting, I came away disappointed that so little was said.  Both sides have claimed victory which is pretty standard for these sorts of affairs.  Also standard was that this was enabled by the fact that both sides spent a little over an hour each picking holes in the other’s theory while mostly avoiding confronting any of the problems brought up against their own.  By about half way through the second hour (and especially into the question-and-answer), it was clear the debate was really over, with the unfortunate outcome that both sides walked away satisfied in their own strengths and their assessment of the other’s weaknesses.

                If you haven’t seen the actual debate, I do recommend it, especially if you’re new to these issues, as both sides presented frankly fairly predictable talking points for their positions.  The actual event was nothing near a “Scopes Monkey Trial”, much less a battle between science and religion: the real battle was between Ham’sYoung Earth Creationism (YEC hereafter) and Nye’s populist and vaguely agnostic science.  Being neither an agnostic nor a Young Earth Creationist, I didn’t really have a dog in this fight.  I wasn’t aware before the introductions that both men have relatively little formal education in their respective fields: Nye has a bachelors in mechanical engineering while Ham has an undergraduate degree in environmental biology and some graduate work in education.  Neither has any background in Biblical studies, philosophy or history, and it showed.  I was repeatedly frustrated: one comment would be made from either side (more often Ham’s) and I would think, “ah, now we’re getting somewhere”, but the ball would be dropped and they would go back to talking points.  This was true even when the comment would’ve been a coup for one side or the other.  Though the debate lasted nearly three hours, for all practical purposes it was over after each side made their opening remarks and their 30 minute position statements.

                Both sides were adept at poking holes in the other’s theory.  To his credit, Nye probably stayed on topic a bit better.  The question they were debating was “is creation a viable model of origins in today’s modern scientific era?”  Ham’s points largely boiled down to:

  • “Evolution” is used equivocally in science education; for a discipline valuing precision and reasoning, these things are often lacking in science education
  • It’s perfectly possible to be a YECist and a scientist (he gave several brief interview snippets with such scientists)
  • Science has an experimental arm (like chemistry) and a historical arm (like paleontology); this latter is beholden to secularist interpretive paradigms  which skew the scientist’s ability to reconstruct history accurately
  • AiG prioritizes “the account based on the Bible, taking it literally as Jesus did”, meaning a recent (6000 years ago) creation over 6 24-hour days and a global flood
  • The real battle is over authority, i.e. the authority of the Bible or the authority of scientists wedded to secularism


Nye in a sense had the easier job and was better at staying on target, largely restricting his comments to poking holes in Young Earth Creationism while not presenting what (I think) he assumed everyone knew:  that science has developed the theory of evolution as a satisfactory and helpful theory of origins.  His specific criticisms:

  • Multiple lines of evidence point to an old earth: limestone layers, Antarctic ice layers, ancient trees, rates of soil deposition, radiometric dating as well as astronomical evidences
  • Creation science has its problems: high rates of speciation after the flood which are not observed now, fossil evidence which is inconsistent with Middle Eastern origins of many animals (e.g. kangaroos), and the lack of observational evidence to support a recent catastrophic global flood.
  •  He also brought up logistical problems in the story of Noah, and on several occasions questioned the reliability and universal applicability of the Bible (though this was by far his weakest area, creating many cringe-worthy moments for someone who does know something about the Bible)
  • A repeated refrain concerned the dangers of YEC: it would weaken science and technology education and possibly imperil America’s leadership in these areas.


A rebuttal period followed these position statements, but it was frankly fairly unproductive.  Ham advocated trust in the Bible over trust in the interpretations of scientists, no doubt a good talking-point for Christians but obviously not going to impress any non-Christians.  He called into question the results of some radiometric dating, and generally called into question the idea of death existing before the Fall (i.e. death could not have occurred before Adam and Eve existed and sinned).  Nye largely responded by insisting that radiometric dating is accurate, that fish shouldn’t be afflicted with death because of human sin (“are fish sinners?” he asked at one point), and accused Ham of “magical thinking” in claiming that rates of speciation have changed over the last few thousand years.  The debate was largely over at this point, however, and it tended to degenerate into “your theory is SOOOO dumb…” after this.

There was a question-and-answer session after their presentations and rebuttals, but what was most amazing was each speaker’s unfamiliarity with the other’s ideological community.  For instance, one asked Ham (both had a chance to respond to each question), “can you think of anything that would change your mind?”  This question is straight from the skeptic manual of How to Talk to Christians, but Ham interpreted it as a call to battle, “here I stand, I can do no other.”  His supporters clapped, in other words, while his opponents rolled their eyes.  A more nuanced approach to the question (perhaps the subject of a future post) did not occur to him apparently.  “How did consciousness arise from matter” and “where did atoms come from”, both clearly weaknesses of materialism were asked of Nye; his response?  It’s a “mystery”, which says to Christians that he refuses to accept the truth of the Bible and says to skeptics that he’s humble and a good scientist.  “If YEC is untrue, can you still be a Christian?” (I was paying attention now):  no, according to Ham, “if you believe in millions of years, you have a problem with the Bible”.  And so goes the remainder of my respect for Answers in Genesis, though I’ve no doubt they’re wonderful people.


So what was the end result of all this?  My hunch is that YECers will go away affirmed: Nye just doesn’t understand what naturalistic presuppositions he brings to his scientific interpretations, he doesn’t understand the Bible, and he’s obsessed with sex like most evolutionists (he spent about 5 minutes discussing the advantages of sexual reproduction in fish).  Likewise, skeptics walked away affirmed: Ham doesn’t understand science, doesn’t understand that most people don’t agree with the Bible, and can never be convinced otherwise no matter what the evidence shows.

There are bigger ways to understand each of these issues and arrive at an intellectually consistent way to look at the Bible, the age of the earth, the nature of the scientific enterprise: these were not discussed.  There were tantalizing hints that came and went in a flash during the debate:

  • Nye repeatedly referred to YEC as “Ken Ham’s Creationism”; I don’t think this was meant to goad, but to point out that there are other ways to believe in a God who created the universe and the earth without buying the whole YEC meal package.  Alas, Nye didn’t bring up any other theories, though his Biblical literacy is poor enough that it’s probably good he didn’t, as I doubt he could articulate it coherently, much less to Ham’s satisfaction.
  • Ham mentioned that scientists are working from Christian assumptions, such as belief in an ordered and predictable universe where human effort is both productive and meaningful.  “Now we’re getting somewhere interesting,” I thought.  But it was not to be: Ham mentioned it once more, but did not pursue it, and I doubt Nye even knew what he was referring to.
  • There was some mention of the need to interpret data (whether Biblical or geological or biological or astronomical), but this was also not developed.  Both ultimately seemed to agree that some things just didn’t need interpreting: evidence is evidence, they just differed on whether the Bible or radiometric data required more interpretive gymnastics to rely upon.  Clearly neither man appreciated that there is no such thing as interpretation-free evidence: nothing just “speaks for itself”.  Who knows how many microbiologists threw away contaminated petri dishes before Alexander Fleming said, “say, I wonder if this mold might have some sort of ‘anti-biotic’ property, so to speak?”  The reader of the Bible and the classifier of fossils both bring ideological baggage with them; what are we to do with it?  Alas, neither speaker went here.
  • Nye at a couple points brought up the issue of whether natural law can vary.  For instance, YEC says that Noah only brought onto the ark “kinds” (roughly analogous to the “family” level of taxonomy) which then rapidly (over a few hundred years) diversified into the millions of species over the entire earth that we see today.  Does natural law change like this?  Ham did not directly respond, and it would’ve been interesting for Nye to push the point: does God not only intervene in the miraculous, but change classes of physical laws and constants for periods of history? What would this sort of theology do to scientific inquiry?  Did this God of order and truth only make the universe “appear” to be old?  Did he make Genesis intentionally debatable, and if not, why didn’t he make it clearer?  Why is it clear to Ham, and so unclear to others (including many Christians)?  Again, theology is not Nye’s strong point, so he was well not to go here.  He did offer a general argument against Christianity generally known as “the argument from pluralism” (there are so many gods, how can you know the right one?), but he neither developed it, nor did Ham point out its difficulties.


            In short, Nye spent his time attacking Ham’s estimate of the age of the earth, while Ham spent his time attacking the philosophy of naturalism.  Both left their own ideological cities unguarded while they went to attack the other’s city.  The end result is two destroyed cities, but little else.  A truly neutral observer likely left thinking, “well, I can’t be a young Earther, but the science seems so tentative, and there are a few scientists who buy it; I guess we’ll never know.”  Fortunately, people of this mindset probably ignored the whole debate from the beginning.  If you pushed me, I would say that Nye “won” the debate in the sense that at least he addressed the actual question (“Is creation a viable model”) more directly.  I ultimately think Ham has a sturdier worldview (i.e. Christian theism), but his commitment to a young earth is baggage he’s not willing to leave behind in the race toward the goal, so he’s likely to lose the race.

An indepth review of Reza Aslan’s “Zealot: the Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth”

Zealot coverZealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth
by Reza Aslan (Random House, 2013)

(If you want a shorter version, try here)

Reza Aslan’s Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth is one of the latest forays into popular level historical Jesus studies.  Such “quests” for the historical Jesus  are nothing new and date back to at least the early 19th century (here is an accessible intro as well as information about the Jesus Seminar, which stands in this tradition).  The public, and the media especially, tends to have a short historical memory, so Aslan’s book has been seen as a ground-breaking blockbuster revealing the “real truth” about  Jesus, the church, etc.  Common to other revisionists such as Bart Ehrman, Aslan has a gift for making a complex subject very approachable (doing in print what skeptics such as Penn Gilette  and Bill Maher  have done on camera).  Like these others, Aslan presents a picture which is comfortingly academic while glossing over many of the more difficult areas.  What he gets right, he does well, but what he gets wrong tends to be ignored or explained away, often with a hand-wave toward that greased-pig of “scholarly consensus.”  For this reason, this analysis of his work is divided broadly into three sections: the good (what he gets right and does well), the bad (where his presuppositions are unexamined and difficulties ignored) and the ugly (things he gets just wrong or appears to gloss over, apparently to support a faltering thesis).

Introduction: what’s the basic idea?

Aslan’s thesis is simple enough, though he does have a couple of unique twists to what is essentially a theologically liberal approach to historical Jesus studies.  1st century Palestine was an area in political and economic upheaval with a restive peasant Jewish population oppressed both by Romans and their own privileged countrymen.  On to this stage comes Jesus, the latest in a line of aspiring messiahs.  Essentially an ordinary peasant carpenter, Jesus lives and ultimately dies for the most obvious of reasons, the reason nailed over his cross: he was a seditionist and political troublemaker.  Rather than fading away like so many others, however, his followers try to keep alive his revolutionary sentiments, even as the movement fractures along Jew/Gentile and revolutionary/pacifist lines.  The Romans ultimately decide for them, destroying the traditional revolutionary thread with the razing of Jerusalem in 70 CE.  The remaining church, struggling for life, adopts the writings of an early heretic (Paul/Saul of Tarsus) and combines this with some unique features to make a religion more palatable and less threatening for the Romans, giving birth to the Gentile church we know today.  The real Jesus of history is largely a cipher, since what we possess is really more of a synthesis of these later thoughts cast backwards onto Jesus as the most convenient hook. Unlike many popular-level works, Aslan also provides a bibliography and index, in addition to a relatively rich “notes” section where he cites the sources for many of his reconstructions and theories.

Part the First: the good

As you can tell, I’m not a fan of Aslan’s overall thesis, but let’s start with what he gets right.  He says he has spent 20 years studying Jesus (xix-xx), and in general it shows.  He has obviously read deeply, if not widely, and is fluent in many historical texts and studies that usually escape the notice of typical church-goers.  His overall picture of 1st century Palestine is mostly accurate: it was a time of political and economic upheaval, though he admits that the particular time of Jesus’ ministry was unusually politically stable.  The picture he paints of Jesus’ day is down-to-earth, and he has a knack for making it familiar to modern readers; he nowhere explicitly states this, but it doesn’t take a genius to see that the reason that it is easy to appreciate is that it looks not unlike modern-day Palestine, with economic and political issues in constant foment and no easy resolution in sight.  Throughout the first two chapters, he is also careful to point out necessary contrasts to today: the religious background of 2nd temple Judaism was inescapable, as was the Roman occupation, and these are not the sorts of images that jibe with depictions in “The Jesus Storybook Bible”: this is gritty real life, nasty, brutish and short, and who you knew and the wealth you had determined who you were.

On to this scene comes Jesus, and from the beginning, this Jesus is neither the hair-parted-down-the-middle popular Protestant Jesus, nor the ever-suffering Catholic Jesus.  He’s just Jesus, a peasant Jew, trained by his father in the only path open to him as a landless Jew, but he has imbibed enough of the revolutionary brew around him to really appreciate the religious, social, and political issues that occupy everyone else in the region.  Aslan is to be commended so far: this is a real Jesus, truly human and growing up as a human, not a popular not-quite-touching-the-ground Jesus.  If this Jesus appeared on the streets of America, he would neither understand nor be understood, for both linguistic and cultural reasons.  This is a humbling realization for many, and would be an excellent tonic to take before trying to interpret any New Testament text.  Unfortunately, Aslan himself soon forgets humility, and the Jesus he creates becomes so typical, so ordinary, so very “1st century zealot Jew” that there ceases to be any reason for him to be the basis for a new religion.  But I am jumping ahead.

The Bad: unstated presuppositions, scholarly ‘consensus’ and theory-driven interpretation

As a creative writing professor, Aslan starts out his book with two ‘hooks’ to draw in the reader.  One is the prolog of part I, a reenactment of the assassination of the high priest Jonathan in the mid-50s CE and it is a nice piece of writing, though perhaps a bit melodramatic in spots (“the insufferable stench of slaughter”, 6).   The other (and in my opinion, the more enlightening) hook is his autobiographical aside in the “Author’s Note.”  Aslan was (and, perhaps by his own conception, still is) a Christian.  Though raised nominally Muslim, he had a typical summer-camp conversion to Christianity, embracing Jesus in the vigorous American evangelical tradition, inviting Him into his life and becoming a diligent disciple.  Like many others, however, he lost his faith in college, mostly as a result of higher criticism and a general non-Christian academic environment.  It is not unlike Bart Ehrman’s journey that he recounts in Misquoting Jesus, though Aslan’s “de-conversion” has a social science and history spin instead of Ehrman’s textual critical one.

Besides just being interesting, this journey also provides some warning for the unstated presuppositions that lie ahead.  Aslan has not shaken off much of his conservative and populist thought patterns: if Jesus is one thing, he cannot be something else, and if a passage says one thing for one reason, is can’t be saying something else at the same time.  Common to many a fundamentalist-turned-skeptic, Aslan has difficulty with nuance and provisional thinking; it is icing on the cake that this sort of breezy certainty makes for entertaining and comforting writing for a popular audience. His writing style consistently says, ‘let me clear away the cobwebs for you, this isn’t all as complicated as the priests and pastors would have you believe!”  Ironically, this is probably the same message he got at summer camp, those years ago: “Jesus is the answer to your longings, life doesn’t have to be as complicated and messy as you think!”

Like a hybrid of popular evangelicalism and popular skepticism, he brings an interesting set of presuppositions to the text.  Most of these are unstated, and it is not obvious when this is intentional (to support a weak thesis or not clutter up the text) and when he honestly does not see that there may be other views.  His reading on the historical Jesus is deep, but not wide: a look through both the notes and bibliography suggests that the only source for information he sees as reliable is secular, politically liberal and anti-supernaturalist. Surprising for someone with a background in sociology, Aslan doesn’t seem to appreciate much of the more recent work on Jesus’ likely cultural and social background.  For instance, his explanation of the “messianic secret” (the tendency early in Mark for Jesus to try to ‘hush up’ his messianic identity) is a state-of-the-art explanation for 75 years ago: Jesus was trying to avoid getting crucified.  He seems entirely unaware of the work by Bruce Malina and others looking into the role of ascribed identity in an honor/shame culture where Jesus grew up.  Aslan correctly notes that there were a variety of expectations about what a ‘messiah’ would look like and do (134) though he later ascribes most of this to post-hoc embellishment by a Gentile church. Jesus, being nothing but typical, would not have any sort of unique take on what a “messiah” was supposed to do. The sources Aslan cites are all reputable theologians and Biblical scholars, but they share this in common: whatever Jesus was, he was not the messiah or the son of God, much less God incarnate dying for the sins of the world.  To suppose otherwise, even for the sake of argument, apparently puts Jesus immediately into the Christian summer camp mold that Aslan has rejected.

Also somewhat surprising for someone with his level of education, Aslan repeatedly has odd and misplaced expectations of the Biblical text.  Though he clearly knows the difference between different types of texts (history, epistle, apocalyptic, etc.), he generally doesn’t allow this to affect his interpretation.  Paul, for instance, “displays an extraordinary lack of interest in the historical Jesus”(xxv).  I suppose this is true: these are, after all, letters Paul is writing to established Christian congregations, addressing both practical and theological problems; there is scarcely any need to rehearse what these churches already obviously know about the historical Jesus.  In addition, these were “high context” societies, where rehearsal of what everyone already knew would be both unnecessary and a waste of good papyrus.  Aslan, however, sees this as evidence that Paul didn’t know anything, and was just creating theology out of some sort of free-association in reaction to his pharisaical upbringing.  Others have written about just how much you can glean from Paul about the historical Jesus (here and associated bibliography), so I won’t rehearse it here; that Paul knew nothing of the historical Jesus is frankly not supported, regardless of what Aslan prefers.

Essentially all of chapter 14 falls prey to this mishandling of the texts.  Letters are expected to provide history, whereas texts which are self-consciously historical (e.g. Luke, see Luke 1:1-4 and Acts 1:1-3) are merely post-hoc theological musings. Further, when Aslan allows some level of historicity (e.g. in the overall gospel of Mark), he misses the forest for the trees: “in the gospel of Mark, there exists not a single definitive messianic statement from Jesus himself.”  Well, this is curious: if the text was manhandled by editors to look more “Christian”, one would certainly expect some sort of statement (Aslan dismisses essentially the entire gospel of John on this basis), but if it accurately presents what Jesus said or did, the whole gospel screams ‘messiah!’  True, there is no “messianic statement”: there are only exorcisms, nature miracles, claims to forgive sins, judge the world, rise from the dead, fulfill prophecy and defeat the devil.  Besides this, there’s nothing messianic about this simple, earthy record of Jesus!

He often disregards interpretations like this, often on thin pretexts.  He does this explicitly in at least one place (75): “put aside for a moment the centuries of exegetical acrobatics that have been thrust upon this bewildering episode (of the cleansing of the temple)”.  OK, why?  Is there a reason to put it aside, or is the mere labelling of it ‘acrobatic’ sufficient?  Aslan is far from the first reader to find Jesus’ cleansing of the temple curious, but there is nearly 2000 years thought on the subject; Aslan is the latecomer here.  This is what CS Lewis refers to as “chronological snobbery”: the fact that an interpretation is new means that it is more likely to be accurate than earlier ones (with no argument  necessary).  The same thing occurs with Jesus’ response to the question about taxes (77): rather than see Jesus’ response here as giving to God what is in the image of God (i.e. man), he argues that what is God’s is the land of Israel, and so Jesus is here calling for insurrection.  Aslan is not the first to suggest this (as his notes show), but he gives no particular reason to discard the older interpretation except that it is old, and his interpretation better supports his thesis. He gives similar treatment to the  “Son of Man” sayings (of which there is an immense literature suggesting that, though Jesus was unique in calling himself this, it is one of the most ‘messianic’ things he repeatedly said).

Aslan’s book is meant for a popular audience, which means that both nuance and a historical review of Jesus studies are somewhat out of place.  However, he too frequently calls upon “scholarly consensus” to bolster a point he’d rather not discuss.  “Scholarly consensus” is notoriously difficult to pin down, as any scholar in any subject knows.  There are some things which are known, yes, but when it comes to disputable issues, there’s usually a humble and nuanced consensus when it exists at all.  Aslan’s assumptions about consensus show up early (xix): that the Bible is “true, literal, and inerrant” is “irrefutably false.”  He makes no effort either to support this, nor (and probably more importantly) define what he means by “true, literal and inerrant.”  I, for one, hold the Bible to be “true, literal and inerrant,” but my hunch is that my thoughts about this are substantially more nuanced than what Aslan held when he left his evangelical Christian culture for the university.  The overall impression is that this is simply something adolescent, and that anyone who continues to believe this is in a sort of mental adolescence: it is time to grow up now, even if it means letting go of cherished notions that we find comforting.  Throughout the book there is this gentle background music, the lyrics of which are “let’s let go of simpler times and grow up now; it’s time to leave the childish behind….”  If anything is likely to throw an orthodox Christian into a state of doubt, it is this gentle sway in the background more than anything that Aslan explicitly says.  To read Zealot is to swim in these sorts of assumptions, and the fact that they’re stated rarely and gently only adds to the spell.  I believe there is some analogy with frogs and kettles that would be apt here: Aslan is not a shrill Richard Dawkins, calling down fire from Science to burn up the believers, he’s just a gentle teacher, helping you move forward into a brighter and wider world, a world where we can believe in Jesus with our eyes open, and therefore believe in him much more fully than was possible before (212).  Any reason for believing in Jesus at all has already been removed, but this thought would hurt the flow at this point, so is left unsaid.

Behind this overall impression are a number of particular unstated commitments.  It’s clear that Aslan is nothing if not a committed naturalist and materialist (this is why the claim by some that, as a “Muslim”, Aslan has no business writing about Jesus is especially odd).  Aslan repeatedly states that the gospels are “late” (meaning written after 70 CE), and this is one of these things about which scholars supposedly all agree.  Unless you’re familiar with the secondary literature he cites, the reason for this may not be obvious: they must be after 70 CE, because they show Jesus predicting the destruction of Jerusalem, and since predictive prophecy is impossible, they must have been written after this, with these prophecies carefully placed later to bolster Jesus’ prophetic credentials.  This reasoning is iffy for at least two reasons. First, it would not take a prophetic genius to predict Jerusalem’s eventual destruction; indeed, others have called Jesus’ prophetic ability false simply because it took another 40 years to come to pass.  More importantly, this commitment to anti-supernaturalism is simply assumed: prophecy, miracles, dying for the sins of the world, these are simply things that grown-ups don’t believe!  It’s the 21st century, for goodness sake!  That thinkers as qualified as Alvin Plantinga, William Lane Craig, Mike Licona, NT Wright, FF Bruce and more have argued that this assumption is unwarranted is simply left by the wayside (or perhaps Aslan simply doesn’t know it).  It’s true enough that a certain amount of methodological naturalism is necessary to do science or history.  However, to assume that naturalism at the foundation of the universe is a philosophical and theological statement, not a historical or scientific one.  This forms the unstated basis for much of what actual argument occurs in Aslan’s book.  Jesus, in casting out demons, is not showing that he is more powerful than Satan (though this is what the text states, and what it expects the reader to see, and has nearly 2000 years of people seeing this), but is showing that he is “a professional exorcist performing tricks.”  That neither his followers nor even his opponents (Mt 12:24) saw it this way isn’t important: demonic activity is just beyond the pale for enlightened people like us.

Supremely, “the resurrection is not a historical event” (176).  Aslan’s cursory treatment of what has long been seen as the linchpin of the Christian faith is strange.  The earliest Christian traditions we know of (Paul’s discussion of “what I received, I passed on to you as of first importance” in 1 Cor 15) emphasize it as central, and every tradition we have, secular or sacred, agrees that the disciples were different people 3 days after the crucifixion. He does spend some time looking at the idea of resurrection, noting both how some Jews expected it at the end of time and how pagan philosophers generally despised the concept.  He notes the idea of Jesus rising can be traced to no later than the 40s.  He does not generally deal with the actual textual evidence. What seems to be implied is that since it is overtly miraculous, there is nothing the historian can say, which means there is nothing that can be said, and if nothing can be said, it didn’t happen.  Aslan is not so crude as to actually say this:  it is more just a background assumption, a sort of “let us be done with this foolishness, now shall we?  I’ve never seen anyone rise from the dead, and I daresay the same is true of you.  If you want to consider Jesus to be risen in some sense in your heart or your tradition, that’s fine, I suppose (though I’ve grown beyond it), but let’s have none of this ‘physical resurrection’ that science has proven impossible.”  Since Aslan disposes of the whole event in two pages (173-4), it’s hard to know if this is what he is actually thinking.

Similar to his handling of “scholarly consensus” when it comes to miracles is his handling of textual traditions.  He has clearly swallowed hook, line and sinker the idea of “redaction criticism.”  This perfectly legitimate discipline aims to see how texts and traditions have changed over the years, and that some has occurred is an actual consensus: even a cursory reading of the Gospel of John or Revelation shows that there has been much theological musing and development between the 50’s (when Paul was writing) and the 90’s when these were written.  However, like naturalism, if this is turned from a method into a foundational assumption, trouble results.  “That Jesus came from this tightly enclosed village of a few hundred impoverished Jews may very well be the only fact concerning Jesus’s childhood about which we can be fairly confident” (26).   Of course, if you assume that Luke and Matthew were written late, as little more than propaganda, I suppose this is true, but he has not established this fact.  Similarly, the gradually diminishing role of John the Baptist (87-88) is seen not as the result of theological musings, fleshing out exactly what it meant when John said, “he must increase and I must decrease” (Jn 3:30), but instead is a “frantic attempt to reduce John’s significance.”  If there is something frantic here, Aslan needs to show it, not merely proclaim it as obvious.  In the case of President Lincoln’s assassination, I suspect that the role of Maj. Henry Rathbone was initially seen as crucial (he certainly blamed himself for allowing it), but only historians and Lincoln trivia buffs today know his name; does this mean that his role was, in fact, crucial, or merely that with reflection and the passage of time, we appreciate that his presence in the booth didn’t have much effect on the assassination?  That historical accounts of an event evolve is not much disputed today; that this automatically means that history is inaccessible to us is a supposition, not an argument.  Aslan seems unaware of this.

As these examples begin to show, Aslan is adept in using the “revisionist two-step”: first you call a text into question, impugn its reliability and historicity, and then you use the same text to “see behind” the text to what was really going on.  It’s all propaganda and theological infighting until the text can be made to support a thesis: then it becomes again reliable.  Jesus’ temptation in the wilderness, for instance: all this talk of the devil and fasting 40 days is clearly nonsense, but a perceptive reader (like Aslan) can see that this event has its origin when Jesus went into the wilderness to join John the Baptist’s wilderness commune (88-9). The text nowhere says that this had anything to do with joining John the Baptist; it appears to be linked only chronologically in the text (which Aslan assumes has been extensively edited  after 70 CE). To be consistent, it would be better to say that it never happened at all.  Aslan makes his method explicit (154):  “The only means the modern reader has at his disposal to try to retrieve some semblance of historical accuracy in the passion narratives is to slowly strip away the theological overlay imposed by the evangelists”.  What he seems to mean is that ‘educated adults’ strip away any theological overlay and replace it with a historically skeptical overlay; why one is to be preferred over the other, he does not say.  He uses this method again with John 7 (27-29) and often adopts the general posture that what is important is what is not said.  The truth is hidden from both the gullible pew-sitters and the original readers, but has been revealed to careful modern scholars.    Aslan does not deal with secular texts this way.  With few exceptions, if Josephus or Tacitus or Pliny the Younger said it, it is simply true, and obviously more trustworthy.  Indeed, even when an account is quoted by a Christian, who is quoting a lost work by a 2nd century opponent of Christianity, who is a trained rhetorician (Celsus), this is to be believed over Luke or Mark (xxiii).  It all comes dangerously close to “the reason scholars see this writer as reliable is because he agrees with me.” The hubris is astounding.

Finally, in embracing this spectral scholarly consensus, Aslan often states as simple fact things which are far from decided.  Palestinian literacy rates, the language(s) Jesus (or the disciples) spoke (34), what we actually know about Pilate (47), that the gospels were written by other than the traditional authors (xxi), that Stephen knew nothing of Jesus before the crucifixion(163):  all of these are merely put in the category of “what everybody knows from scholarly consensus.”  There is ongoing, vigorous debate about all these issues, in fact.  Again, Aslan is writing for a popular audience, and doesn’t want to get bogged down in details, so on one level this is excusable.  That he seems to imply that there is no debate is less forgivable; he gives a nod to it once (xx), but such discussions are never fleshed out.

As is probably obvious by now, Aslan often allows his theory to drive interpretation.  He insists early on that the picture he paints of Jesus arose naturally out of careful and ongoing study (xx); his autobiographical account suggests, however, that by the time he was in graduate school, Jesus the Christ had long succumbed to the Jesus of history, and his journey since then has just been filling in details.  For instance, Aslan goes to some length to point out that there were all kinds of ‘messiahs’ floating around Palestine (49) (and, by implication, it would only be a matter of time before one got lucky and acted as the foundation for a world religion).  What he fails to point out is that the list he gives (“the Egyptian”, Simon bar Kochba, etc.) is comprehensive, exhaustive and covers nearly 150 years.  To say, “a new messiah arose, on average, every 30 years over an area of several thousand square miles” sounds both much less impressive and doesn’t support his thesis: it’s left to the reader’s imagination to suppose that there was a messiah on every street corner in the year 30.  Similarly, his description of exorcists fails to mention that all we know about exorcists is from less than a half-dozen texts (excluding the gospels and Acts) over 200 years from mostly fragmentary manuscripts.  But Jesus was clearly just jumping on the bandwagon, and apparently had a knack for that kind of tom-foolery.

The most sustained place where his thesis drives the reporting of facts comes in his overall discussion of Jesus’ “kingdom of God” (120-122).  When Jesus says something violent or ‘zealous’, it’s clearly original; when Jesus says to “turn the other cheek” or “my kingdom is not of this world”, these are clearly later additions by editors trying to pacify Jesus.  What goes unmentioned is the fact that these divergent sayings occur in the same text, presumably edited into its current form by the same people with the same motives, and that even revisionist scholars (e.g. of the Jesus Seminar ) agree that many of the pacifist sayings are legitimately of Jesus. For Aslan, Jesus was a zealot, a political revolutionary; this has already been established, thank you.  Similarly, “regardless of how Jesus viewed himself, the fact remains that he was never able to establish the ‘kingdom of God’” (144): since his kingdom was based on a violent overthrow of the Romans, clearly he was a failure.  Anyone who claims this was not Jesus’ intent is clearly letting their religious sentiments guide their interpretation (unlike Aslan, who is objective).  The coup de gras is an odd passage on p 157, where Aslan discusses the trial before Pilate:  “the argument that the trial rules laid down by the rabbis in the Mishnah did not apply in the 30’s when Jesus was tried, falls flat when one remembers that the gospels were also not written in the 30’s.”  I suppose this is true, but I’m not sure what the point is: if the rules did not apply in the 30’s, then this supports the contention that the gospels relied on early witnesses.  So was the trial written in later for theological purposes (in which case the editors were wily enough to use trial rules that didn’t exist anymore), or left in because they showed real history (in which case the editors weren’t thorough enough to remove the seditionist charges)?  When the gospels record sedition, it’s for the careful scholar to see; when they record theology, it’s a later addition, and the distinction between history and faith is obvious according to scholarly consensus, or at least according to Aslan’s scholarly consensus. It’s all starting to feel like a “when did you stop beating your wife” sort of investigation.

Finally, Aslan’s presuppositions insist that something can be history or it can be theology: it can’t be both (this may be a holdover from a fairly literalist and Biblicist Christian upbringing).  For instance, Jesus was crucified for sedition, not to take away the sins of the world.  As a Christian, of course, I can affirm that he did both: is not the very ground of my sin the fact that I am in rebellion against God?  Jesus died as a rebel: how appropriate, for I deserve death as a rebel.  The fact that this could be both historical fact (that Pilate crucified him as a seditionist) and theological fact (that he died for the sins of the world) does not occur to Aslan: theology is not connected, in any way, to history, this is another of these Things All People Know.  In this, I don’t hesitate to say that Aslan never really knew what it meant to be a Christian.  The high school Christianity he grew up in wasn’t known for its intellectual or theological rigor.  That he assumes that this sort of Christianity is the best argument Christianity has to offer is less excusable, especially for someone with a formal background in history, sociology and Biblical studies.

The Ugly: factual and reasoning errors and the historian’s paradox

There are a number of simple factual and reasoning errors Aslan makes as well.  Admittedly, this is a work of popular history, not a doctoral dissertation, but they are worrying because of their frequency.  Some are minor: for instance,  “cool salt air” (95) cannot blow off the Sea of Galilee, it being a fresh-water lake.  Others verge on dishonest, or at least misleading: one of the first authors he cites is Celsus (in reference to the number of messiahs wandering around Palestine), though he fails to mention that Celsus was writing at least 100 years after Jesus, that he was writing a polemic work against Christianity, and that none of his work survives except as quotations in another  author (Origen); interesting, in other words, but hardly a first-class historical source.  He goes to pains to prove how obscure and backwater Nazareth was, and then complains that secular historians failed to note Herod’s massacre of the infants there (31). Among his objections to the Roman census of Luke is that there are no records of such, leaving the impression that the Romans were marvelous record-keepers (which is true, relative to other ancient empires, though their record-keeping was abysmal by current standards, and very little of it has survived).  “Centuries after Jesus’ death, Christians would see Jesus in Old Testament prophecies” (166): true, though they would also see them less than 30 years after his death as well in Paul’s letters, and within a few years in Acts, unless one merely assumes Acts is fictitious.  “Dozens died that day” (172) when Jesus was also crucified: no, three died, the gospels are united in that. It is doubtful the Romans would’ve been insensitive enough to go on a crucifying spree the day before Passover, anyway, and if Aslan knows of dozens more, historians would be fascinated to learn of it. The apostle Stephen’s first impression of Jesus’ followers were that they were “hirsute men and ragged women huddled beneath a portico” (164), though it is doubtful that a group that undeniably included Mary Magdalene (a wealthy supporter of Jesus and legally independent woman) would’ve ever been ragged, huddling, or more hirsute than anyone else.  His freeform translation of Mt 22:21, “give back to God the property that belongs to God” (76-77), is simply incorrect (the Greek does not specify “property”, merely “that which is of God”).  He argues that James, the brother of Jesus, has been “carefully excised” from the New Testament, his existence being an embarrassment to those teaching Mary’s perpetual virginity; except that he then quotes the church fathers Clement, Origen and Hegesippus as supporting James, and fails to mention that Mary’s ongoing virginity wouldn’t become an issue until some 200 years after the New Testament texts reached their final form.  He mentions Nicaea as a “defining moment”, though he largely fails to mention what it defined; though he clarifies himself further down, he leaves it to the reader to assume that, since Jesus’ divinity was clarified at Nicaea, he was not considered divine before this (see any number of rejoinders to Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code for comments on this).  Some of these issues are relatively minor in his overall scheme, but he (and his editor) do his readers no favors in sacrificing accuracy on the altar of colorful prose.

Finally, the book as a whole leaves the reader unsatisfied about Jesus because it creates at least as many mysteries as it solves.  In by far the most incredible assertion, Aslan claims that, in the wake of Jerusalem’s destruction, Christians had to find a way to distance their Jesus movement from the commotion, and had to do it fast.  This is a well-enough established fact that Aslan is able to pin the composition of Mark down to within a few months (69), something that would be ground-breaking news if other historians believed it.  What Aslan fails to mention is that this rewrite seems to have failed horribly, given the political implications of proclaiming “Jesus is Lord” (the earliest creed we have) and given the persecution the early church faced throughout the first 3 centuries.    Christian editors, as clever as they were, apparently weren’t clever enough to create a custom-made Roman religion that the Romans actually liked.  For some reason Aslan omits, however, it persisted until Constantine made it official.  Incidentally, we do have an example of a religion designed for the Roman world:  Mithraism.  Originally Persian, it received a makeover as it travelled west, and became both popular and reasonably well respected in the Roman world by these same centuries.  It didn’t look much like Christianity, however, and even the few similarities are probably examples of Mithraists taking cues from Christians (not vice versa, as is often claimed).

It gets worse.  Several large swaths of history remain simply unexplained.  Besides his brushing aside the resurrection accounts (I recommend Licona’s The Resurrection of Jesus: a New Historiographical Approach ), Hebrews, Luke and Paul largely get the brushoff.  Hebrews is perhaps dismissed because it is anonymous (though this doesn’t seem to affect Aslan’s treatment of the gospels, which he assumes to be anonymous), though it may be dismissed merely because it is inconvenient: it writes of the temple and its sacrifices in the present tense, does not predict their immanent temporal end or the destruction of Jerusalem, and has a high Christology. In Hebrews, Jesus is no itinerant, radicalized rabbi doing exorcism tricks, but the ultimate revelation of God, superior to both Moses and the angels, and all this seems to be true for at least some Christians (apparently Jewish ones!) before 70 AD, by someone other than Paul (some argue that Paul wrote Hebrews; I don’t necessarily dispute this, though I doubt Aslan would see the letter as Pauline, given its lack of attribution within the letter).  The book of Acts ends in the mid 50’s CE, which is beyond dispute, with Paul on his way to Rome; there is no mention of the destruction of Jerusalem.  Aslan continues to insist that Luke (and Acts, as its sequel) was written after 70, and in places argues that it is as late as the 90s.  This is necessary since he must assume Markan priority, and Mark could not have been written before 70 (according to “scholarly consensus”).   How does he address this?  Well, he doesn’t, as near as I can tell.  Perhaps the writer of Luke was merely clever enough to end his book in the 50’s to make it appear to have been written contemporaneously, while still making sophomoric mistakes about the Quirinian census of Luke 1.

Finally, the greatest mystery of all, the one Aslan set out to answer, remains unresolved.  Aslan’s Jesus was nothing if not ordinary: an illiterate peasant Jew, with a smattering of 2nd-hand knowledge of the Torah, upset by Roman occupation and economic inequality who got himself crucified like so many other would-be messiahs.  This one, however, is different: he acts as the foundation for a new religion which would conquer the Roman Empire.  This despite the fact that the whole story of a Jewish savior of the world (silly), from Nazareth (laughable), who got himself crucified (need we say more?), is claimed to have bodily risen from the dead (ROFL!) to found a new kingdom, but one we can’t see (of course! snicker!).  If this is a religion tailor-made for the Roman world, I’m not seeing it (consider The Impossible Faith for more details).  According to Aslan, Jesus didn’t do it alone, or at all, actually: it’s mostly Paul’s fault.  Paul, a Pharisee of Pharisees, of the tribe of Benjamin, persecutor of the church (which, at the time, was apparently preaching thoroughly orthodox, if politically disruptive Judaism, if Aslan is to be believed), has… well, some sort of experience on the Damascus road.  What this is, we’ll never know, apparently, but it turned him into some sort of anti-Jewish, James-and-Peter-hating Jesus-booster, and despite this nervous breakdown, he was able to found competing churches all through the Mediterranean.  A religion based on a false Jesus, who was preached by a disreputable madman, in direct opposition to Jesus’ family and disciples, all in an effort to make a pacifist faith which is palatable to the Romans who mostly wound up hating it: is this really more likely than that Jesus simply is who the gospels say he is?

This is the historicist’s paradox:  if Jesus and his movement are only explicable in purely natural and historical terms, then subsequent history becomes a mystery.  Aslan is hardly the first to face it.  Most writers in the “quest for the historical Jesus” run into it.  Jesus becomes supremely ordinary, but, for reasons lost to us, becomes in the end the savior of the world. He is claimed to have risen from the dead, in a culture where the resurrection was only going to occur at the end of the world (in Judaism) or was ridiculous in general (in Greek philosophy), and this exalted view of Jesus was preached less than 10 years (and probably less than 5) after his death.  The only possible explanation is that all the records of this (the gospels) are clever forgeries, though not clever enough to escape the detection of historians writing 1900 years later, apparently, though they seemed to have fooled many before this, even cynics within a generation or two of the events.  Finally, the best Aslan seems to be able to record is “then something extraordinary happened. What exactly that something was is impossible to know”(179).  I suppose this is true, if the miraculous is simply impossible to believe: plausibility structures are harsh mistresses.  They even can make a careful historian look like he has no idea what he’s talking about.  Aslan paints a picture of who Jesus was but he fails explain how he became Savior and Lord to so many, and how the texts became so quickly and thoroughly corrupted (but not so corrupted as to be undetectable in their corruption). He successfully explains away Jesus the Christ by selective reading of scholarship, by idiosyncratic interpretation, and by simply ignoring swaths of historical and textual evidence.  If one is eager to get rid of Jesus the Christ, I suppose no price is too high.  Aslan starts and ends his book assuring us he believes in Jesus more than ever (xx, 212).  It is not clear what is left for him that is worthy of belief.

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