Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Reza Aslan In Bizarro World

The more I get into it, the more peculiar Zealot becomes.

Reza Aslan's approach to the history and texts that form and shape our understanding of the growth of Christianity is a hot mess.  On the one hand, the story he's telling...and this is storytelling, not history...is totally rooted in the kinds of materials you'd encounter in a competent seminary.  He knows the source material, and uses it, but is so radically selective in how he engages in the text that it's baffling.

On the one hand, he out and out rejects story after story from the canonical Gospels as absurd and obviously flawed.  Take, for example, his approach to the stories of Jesus engaging with the synagogue in Nazareth.  "There was no synagogue in Nazareth," says Reza, with total confidence.  It was a small Jewish village of between 1,500 and 2,000 souls, and they were all--every last one of them, according to the book--illiterate.

He also mentions, in passing, that nothing at all remains of the village as it stood in the time of Jesus. Other historical sources tell us much the same thing.  It was a backwater.  One with a reputation for being a welcoming place for holy people, as an inscription mentions.  But now, nothing remains.  So with no evidence at all, he makes a bold and affirmative statement of certainty about a synagogue that may or may not have existed.  Odd.

And on the other hand, he waxes eloquent about how Jesus certainly followed his father Joseph to a large nearby town looking for work, spinning out a story about how he watched the rich Roman oppressors and grew to hate them.  It is utterly imaginary, but he states it with such confidence.

He has beef with the story of Jesus before the Sanhedrin, because that wasn't the practice in the period after 70 CE.  But...it was supposed to have happened before that, you might say.  Well, that doesn't matter, he replies.

It gets odder.  Reza says repeatedly that Christian nonviolence--every saying in every Gospel--only stems from the Gospel writers seeking to make Christianity palatable in the Roman Empire after the fall of Jerusalem in 70 CE.   Jesus never said any of those things, he argues. It all got written in after Jerusalem fell.

In making that assertion about nonviolence, he blunders right on past the continuing debate about the dating of Mark, the earliest Gospel, placing it confidently after the fall of Jerusalem.  He also ignores that most of the Q source sayings--on nonviolence--come from a now-lost document that was likely circulating well before the Gospels were written.  And...bizarrely...he forgets that most of Paul's Epistles predate those Gospels, and that the ethos Paul teaches is completely simpatico with the nonviolent spirit.

It gets odder and odder, as he at one point claims that statements about Paul's importance to the early church are just the work of "sycophants" like Luke, and should be viewed as "ahistorical."  Hwaaat?  I know plenty of really excellent scholars who might have a little bit of an issue with that.

Paul, he suggests, was totally at odds and in conflict with the real leaders of the church, who were really led by Peter and James in Jerusalem.   Paul, we hear, was a frustrated failure, whose influence was ultimately negligible and would have been utterly eliminated if it hadn't been for those meddling Romans.  Oh, and James was the real leader of the early church, because authority in religious movements always has to do with kinship.

If you're a serious scholar of the Bible, it's hard not to want to tear your hair out while reading Zealot.
But nothing, nothing made me more personally frustrated with the book than its view of Christian nonviolence.

So to that in more detail, I will go next.