As the CT article puts it, Rezla Aslan tells an old story about Jesus, but not, as the hymn writer puts it, “the old, old story.”
The old story Aslan tells is the story of early 20th century liberal accounts of Jesus. Jesus was not God but a Jewish apocalyptic figure who was little more than a zealot who sought the overthrow of the hold of Rome. He was executed, but his legacy “rose again” through the apostles, who spread the news that Jesus had been resurrected. Of course, Aslan concludes, he was not.
The real hinge upon which the story turns is the exaggeration of the differences between Paul and the original apostles. This is such warmed over scholarship that I am surprised at the incredulity with which the book is received. As CT puts it,
There is no question that Paul sharply disagreed with Peter and other leaders over the question of the role of the law of Moses in the lives of non-Jewish converts. Aslan would have his readers believe that the debate centered on Christology, the divinity of Jesus, rather than on Ecclesiology, life in the church. But the debate as described in the book of Acts and in Paul’s letters (especially Galatians) centers on food laws, Sabbath observance, and circumcision, not on the divinity of Jesus. Aslan would have done well to consult theologian David Wenham (author ofPaul and Jesus) and others who show the misguided nature of claims that Paul invented Christianity.
This kind of approach requires Aslan to late date the New Testament manuscripts. Aslan assumes the latest possible dates for the Gospels and Acts, dating Mark after A.D. 70, Matthew and Luke-Acts in the 90s (perhaps later), and John somewhere between 100 and 120. After assigning such late dates, he declares that there is no tradition of eyewitness accounts. My response is a simple “huh?” There is so much credible support of the New Testament Gospels as early that Aslan should at least appear to be struggling with his dating. But his thesis requires late dating. And so it goes.
The only thing that escapes me is why Aslan did not come out with this book at Christmas or Easter, the usual time popular debunkers of the traditional account of Jesus come out with their stuff. This makes front cover copy of the news magazines. Still, you can hardly do better than he is doing. #1 at Amazon and #1 hardcover at the New York Times.
The question is why the sales? How can something so 1950s end up capturing the interest of the 2013 audience? Maybe a couple of things explain this. First, the mainstream media decided to puff it. This is their kind of book–demythologizing Jesus, taking him down a notch. Aslan is all over the TV screen. And it demonstrates how late to the game the media are. Simple research would have told them that there is nothing here to see. Second, there is the sneaking suspicion on the part of a great number of people that the Church has pulled a fast one on us. Read “Church” here as “Roman Catholic.” In line with Dan Brown’s Da Vinci Code and Bart Ehrman’s Misquoting Jesus: The Story Behind Who Changed the Bible and Why?, there is the doubt that the Church can be trusted with the real story. Most of the students in my classes are of this mind. The patriarchy of old men “kicked out” certain books and included certain others to keep the story going that was in their best interests. Simple as that. And Jesus gets lost in history.
Maybe some want this to be true. But the facts do not support it. There simply was never enough central control for the true story to be covered up and a newer model, more conducive to preserving power structures, shoved into place. There is surely enough evidence to show the Church being political and participating in gutter intrigue. Any news here? But creating a Jesus who is God, transforming him from either a simple first century Palestinian carpenter or a Jewish insurrectionist, is a storyline that requires evidence. And that evidence is amazingly thin. The reality is that the simplest explanation actually does the best job of describing the Jesus story – the Gospels are eyewitness accounts of the Apostles encountering in Jesus the presence of Jehovah. The so called “false Gospels” supposedly circulating in the early church were not suppressed. They just stopped being read, and therefore stopped being copied.
Much is being made of Aslan’s Muslim heritage. But the Jesus he describes is no Muslim Jesus. Islam teaches that he is a prophet and did not die on the cross, having instead another die in his place. But Aslan does propose the Quranic assertion that the New Testament is a corrupted text. This is bedrock Muslim teaching. And on this liberal scholarship and Islam find a surprising co-belligerency.