Wednesday, August 07, 2013

New Testament Scholars and Comparative Religion Scholar on Reza Aslan's Jesus book

Update (10 August 2013): John Dickson's lengthy review is included below.

Update (8 August 2013): I've included Craig A. Evans' elaborated review and Dale Martin's comment below.  

Reza Aslan's book on the historical Jesus is made famous by his interview. To convince his interviewer of his competency to write on the topic, he qualified himself as an expert on the origin of Christianity:
"I am a scholar of religions with four degrees including one in the New Testament . . . I am an expert with a Ph.D. in the history of religions . . . I am a professor of religions, including the New Testament–that’s what I do for a living, actually . . . To be clear, I want to emphasize one more time, I am a historian, I am a Ph.D. in the history of religions."
Matthew  J. Franck has pointed out Aslan's misrepresentation/exaggeration of his qualification:
"None of these degrees is in history, so Aslan’s repeated claims that he has “a Ph.D. in the history of religions” and that he is “a historian” are false. Nor is “professor of religions” what he does “for a living.”...Aslan has been a busy popular writer, and he is certainly a tireless self-promoter, but he is nowhere known in the academic world as a scholar of the history of religion. And a scholarly historian of early Christianity? Nope.

"What about that Ph.D.? As already noted, it was in sociology. I have his dissertation in front of me. It is a 140-page work titled “Global Jihadism as a Transnational Social Movement: A Theoretical Framework.” If Aslan’s Ph.D. is the basis of a claim to scholarly credentials, he could plausibly claim to be an expert on social movements in twentieth-century Islam. He cannot plausibly claim, as he did to Lauren Green, that he is a “historian,” or is a “professor of religions” “for a living.”"
Of course, anyone can write on topics beyond one's academic qualification. So no problem with Aslan, a sociologist of another religion, to write on the origin of Christianity. Yet to exaggerate one's scholarship in a particular field raises many questions.

Aslan's doctoral supervisor defended his qualification: "...he is who he says he is." That notwithstanding, it seems that his book itself betrays his unfamiliarity with the topic. As reviewed by the following New Testament scholars:
"What is most disturbing about Aslan's portrait and basic thesis, however, is its utter failure to reckon with Jesus' teachings on nonviolence and the well-documented history and tradition of Christian pacifism from the first through the fourth centuries. [...] According to Aslan, Jesus called for a revolution against Rome and was "no pacifist" because he had a "complex attitude toward violence" even though there is "no evidence that Jesus himself openly advocated violent actions" (120). What?

"This is not Islamic propaganda. This is just bad history.

"To add to the confusion, Aslan later concedes that Jesus “was not a member of the Zealot Party," which again begs the question - why name the book Zealot in the first place? Is this disingenuous? Was Jesus a "Zealot" or not? What does it mean to say that Jesus was a Zealot but not a "violent revolutionary?"

"It means book sales. " 
(Simon J. Joseph, Ph.D. in New Testament from Claremont Graduate University)

"Aslan is woefully unprepared to discuss Second Temple politics.  Given that Aslan’s book is about Second Temple politics, this is a problem.  Aslan almost treats Josephus’ historical accounts as courtroom transcripts.  This is to say that Aslan's approach to Josephus is entirely uncritical. Lamentably, Aslan leans heavily on Josephus in almost every chapter and never cites the world’s leading expert on Josephus: Steve Mason.   There are many, many omissions in this book, but this is the most glaring to my eye.  Reading even a single book by Mason might have changed the results of Aslan’s thesis dramatically.  Indeed, Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth could only have been written by someone entirely unaware of the most recent and widely respected scholarship on Second Temple Judaism.

"Without exaggeration, problems like this surface on about every third page."
(Anthony Le Donne, Ph.D in New Testament from Durham University)

"I have some serious reservations about Aslan's portrait of Jesus, and I suspect that most professional biblical scholars will share some of them. First, the book contains some outright glitches, things a professional scholar would be unlikely to say."
(Greg Carey, Ph.D in New Testament from Vanderbilt University)

"My criticism thus far is that Aslan doesn't always have sophisticated control of the scholarship, opting for some of the extreme or eccentric views. At times his interpretation of some of Jesus' sayings (such as taking up a sword) apparently fails to perceive the metaphor or hyperbole that is intended.

"This book will make no significant or lasting contribution to the scholarly discussion of Jesus."
(Craig A. Evans' Facebook update, Ph.D. in Biblical Studies from Claremont Graduate University)

"There are numerous problems with Zealot, not least the fact that it heavily relies on an outdated and discredited thesis. But it also introduces a number of its own novel oddities and implausibilities. Aslan has canvassed much of the responsible scholarship in the field, but he does not always choose his options prudently. He often opts for extreme views and sometimes makes breathtaking assertions. I cannot help but wonder if Aslan’s penchant for creative writing is part of the explanation. Indeed, Zealot often reads more like a novel than a work of historical analysis."
(Craig A. Evans' elaborate review)

"...the book also suffers from common problems in popularization, like proposing outdated and simplistic theories for phenomena now seen as more complex. [...]  But the book also suffers from common problems in popularization, like proposing outdated and simplistic theories for phenomena now seen as more complex. Mr. Aslan depicts earliest Christianity as surviving in two streams after Jesus: a Hellenistic movement headed by Paul, and a Jewish version headed by James. This dualism repeats 19th-century German scholarship. Nowadays, most scholars believe that the Christian movement was much more diverse, even from its very beginnings.

"Mr. Aslan also proposes outdated views when he insists that the idea of a “divine messiah” or a “god-man” would have been “anathema” to the Judaism of the time, or when he writes that it would have been “almost unthinkable” for a 30-year-old Jewish man to be unmarried. Studies of the past few decades — including “King and Messiah as Son of God” (Adela Yarbro Collins and John J. Collins) and my own “Sex and the Single Savior: Gender and Sexuality in Biblical Interpretation” — have overturned these once commonplace assumptions."
(Dale Martin, Ph.D in New Testament from Yale University)

"Aslan's thesis requires us to believe that the Gospel writers were crafty enough to invent a Jesus who regularly called for humility, service and the "love of enemies" but stupid enough to leave traces in their works of a Jesus who endorsed fighting Roman enemies. It's the stuff of conspiracy theorists: dismissing evidence that contradicts your theory as "manufactured," while simultaneously interpreting the massive lack of evidence as proof of suppression.

"...the list of exaggerations and plain errors in Zealot bear testimony to Aslan's carelessness with concrete history. If this were presented as a work of fiction, there would be no shame in such oversights. But if this were handed in as an essay in an Ancient History Department, it would most likely fail, not just because of the numerous inaccuracies, but because of the disturbing confidence with which they are habitually stated.

"The Jesus depicted in Zealot is certainly a figment of the imagination of a professor of creative writing, but he is likely to do concrete damage to the public's appreciation of a vast and worthwhile academic discipline. Aslan's Jesus is giving history a bad name."
(John Dickson, Ph.D in Ancient History from Macquarie University)
Besides experts on the origin of Christianity, Stephen Prothero (Ph.D in Religion from Harvard University) who has written on comparative religion commented:
"In “Zealot,” Aslan gives us a Jesus who fights back, and not in the manner of Gandhi. But his rebellion fails. Roman authorities crucify him for sedition. His followers scatter. And those who return in his name reinvent him as a pacifist lording over a purely spiritual kingdom.

"In short, Jesus was a frustrated Muhammad — a man who, like Islam’s founder, came to revolutionize the world by force yet, unlike Muhammad, failed. This makes for a good read. It might even make for a good movie. Just don’t tell me it’s true."

Tuesday, August 06, 2013

Doing good and keeping a promise equally important--By Daniel Koh Kah Soon

Here is Daniel Koh's (Christian Ethicist at Trinity Theological College) response to the St. Margaret's Secondary School's hair affair, first published at Strait Times, 3rd August 2013:
ST MARGARET'S Secondary School has a well-earned reputation for providing an all-rounded education for its students, and this is why it has consistently been a school sought after by students and their parents ("Girls' bald move a no-go at school"; yesterday).

Part of the ethos of the school, in helping to form character, is for students to follow certain rules which are made known to all of them.

It is clear that the principal did not forbid the students from having their heads shaved in support of the Hair for Hope project. She supported that move. All that she asked for, and the students agreed to do so, was for them to wear wigs to school.

The students should be commended for their efforts in making a bold and bald statement supporting cancer-stricken children.

But the support can surely be given without breaking school rules, for example, at the school assembly when their efforts are acknowledged, in their classrooms when teachers can praise their stand, or in their personal conversations with their friends in and out of school.

Of course, outside of school, they can take off their wigs if they so choose.

The students who went bald deserve our praise for their brave move.

Being brave is commendable, but keeping their promise must be of equal importance.

In this case, they promised to wear wigs, and they should have done so, unless they can be excused on medical grounds.

I am a supporter of Hair for Hope. I did my small part in helping to raise awareness and in supporting children with cancer when I had my head shaved on Sunday at VivoCity.