Saturday, September 28, 2013

Do We Really Need Another Historical Jesus Book?

          About two months ago, you may have seen floating around the web a FOX News interview of Reza Aslan, a scholar of religion who also happens to be Muslim. Aslan put out a book this year titled Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth. The interview made a stir because the poorly informed Fox News host couldn't seem to fathom the idea that a Muslim could possibly have anything good to say about Jesus. She apparently doesn't know that Jesus (known as Issa in Islam) is considered a revered prophet by Muslims and receives quite a bit of favorable attention in the Qur'an. Yet, as Aslan patiently makes clear repeatedly in the interview, his book isn't a Muslim perspective of Jesus but an attempt by a religion scholar to understand the person Jesus using the tools of historical investigation. The host was woefully ignorant, but her poor excuse for an interview did have the unintended result of giving the book all kinds of publicity which sent it to number one on the NY Times non-fiction bestsellers list.
            If I must pick sides, I'm on Aslan's side against a silly TV host who believes all Muslims are anti-Christian and hell bent on destroying America, but what I didn't care for were Aslan's protestations of objectivity. In the Fox interview and elsewhere, Aslan declared that he was an objective scholar who examined the historical figure of Jesus using the objective tools of historical research. He should know better. I believe that he attempted to use a particular methodology to write about Jesus and that point of view is different from his religious views, however, critiques of historical scholarship-especially of historical scholarship of religion-have pointed out for a couple of generations now that no such objectivity exists for anyone. Historical data requires interpretation and the interpreter's own culture, biases, philosophical presuppositions, etc. shape her or his interpretations.
            Think of recent historical figures, such as Ronald Reagan, Henry Kissinger or Franklin Roosevelt, what an historian writes about one of these presidents depends in large part on that scholar's political views. Similarly, a biography of the Buddha, Muhammad or Joseph Smith may be shaped by a scholar's particular education, social status, religious leanings and culture. An undergraduate philosophy major learns this lesson the first time she is assigned to read Michel Foucault.
            The myth of objectivity does not mean, however, that all scholarly works are equally valid or invalid. There are more and less responsible historians. The best ones admit their own biases (at least as much as they are self-aware) and make efforts to consider the perspectives of others who do not share them. The best ones also seek to compile evidence including evidence that does not necessarily support their perspective. The truly best historians admit when they reach the limits of historical evidence and move beyond it into hypothesis and conjecture.
            The fact that a scholar has a particular point of view-if he or she admits it-can lead to some fascinating discussions and even revisions of thinking about history. Consider a history of Manifest Destiny in the United States written from the perspective of Native Americans rather than European Americans. Similarly, one of the best books on the historical person of Jesus I have read was written by Amy-Jill Levine, a practicing Jew, who critiques Christian religious scholars for anti-Jewish bias when writing about the life of Jesus. I would have liked to have heard Aslan speak about how his own perspective as a Muslim influences his scholarship on Jesus. What would a Muslim see in the New Testament's portrayals of Jesus or the culture of first century Palestine that a Christian might miss? It's too bad that conversation didn't happen.
            I haven't read Aslan's book and I probably never will, not because I'm offended he's a Muslim (I'm not) nor because it is a bad book (I have no idea if it is), but rather because I grew tired years ago of reading books claiming to reveal the "true" Jesus of history as compared to the Jesus of the church. As I write these words, I just walked over to my bookshelf where I counted 58 historical Jesus books from the early 1800's to the present. In each of them, the writer claims to provide the "real" Jesus. My couple of shelves of Jesus books is just a drop in the bucket of historical Jesus books written since the late 1700's. A century ago, Albert Schweitzer wrote The Quest of the Historical Jesus, in which he showed that the previous century's scholarly works about Jesus revealed more about their authors than about Jesus. Ironically, Schweitzer didn't apply his criticism to his own picture of Jesus which looked a lot like Friedrich Nietzche's "superman." Nonetheless, Schweitzer's point is well taken towards all of the historical Jesus books written before and after him.
            The problem with any attempt to provide a "true" or "objective" view of the person Jesus apart from the writings of the New Testament is that there really isn't anything else to go on. Other than a few brief mentions of Jesus and his followers by ancient historians that tell us little, there are no sources other than the New Testament. Paul, who never met Jesus prior to his death, wrote around twenty years after Jesus died and says little about his teachings or actions apart from his death. The Gospels were written 40+ years after Jesus' death, and although it is extremely likely they contain words and deeds that come from eyewitnesses to Jesus' ministry, scholars do not agree on which ones definitively go back to Jesus and which ones are the additions of later editors. Scholars, like those in the publicity-seeking Jesus Seminar, claim to have definitive answers about what Jesus "really" said and did, but an examination of their process for making such determinations reveals that they, like all historical Jesus scholars before them, end up with a Jesus who looks pretty much like their own presuppositions.
            Don't get me wrong, I think historical research very much matters for our understanding of the teachings and actions of Jesus. An understanding of first century Judaism helps us understand who the Samaritans were and why Jesus' parable of "The Good Samaritan" would have been scandalous to his hearers. An understanding of the patriarchal culture in the ancient Mediterranean world helps us understand the forgiving father in the parable of "The Prodigal Son" as a powerful example of grace. An understanding of the Roman dominance of first century Palestine helps to explain why Jesus was put to death on a cross. Context matters and shapes our reading of the New Testament, but ultimately historical research cannot tell us objectively or definitively who the person Jesus was. We are left to make up our own minds based on our own biased readings of the New Testament and what biased scholars tell us about the world Jesus lived in.   
            When I went to seminary, I was taught that the writings of the Jesus Seminar revealed the identity of Jesus to an extent never before revealed. My esteem for the Historical Jesus scholars of the 1990's was shattered however, when I went to do doctoral work in New Testament. Then I learned that claims about the historical Jesus in the 1990's were essentially the same ones made in the 1890's and the 1790's-Jesus was a non-miracle working prophet who happened to share the politics of highly educated Caucasian people.
            In the end, I have to admit that who I think Jesus was is in large part dependent upon who I believe Jesus is. My own faith claims and what I choose to believe are my own experiences of God along with my culture, education, politics, family upbringing, etc. determine the claims I make about the person Jesus was. That belief has changed over my lifetime and will certainly change more in the future. (For example, whether or not I believe God intervenes in the natural world and if so how I believe that happens determines whether or not I believe Jesus performed miracles and rose from the dead.) My belief about who Jesus was is informed by what I know of the context in which Jesus lived, but it is also informed by the context that I live in.
            I'm glad to be a minister who has the privilege of serving a church where our beliefs about Jesus do not have to align completely. Instead, we get to share our journeys with one another, including our distinct understandings of who Jesus was and our beliefs about who Jesus is to us now.

Grace and Peace,

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