The "Quest for the Historical Jesus" and other Pointless Activities

Reza Aslan, whose work I was not previously aware of, has written a book entitled Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth.  This book, and Mr. Aslan, has attracted attention as the result of an embarrassing interview conducted by Fox News, in which the interviewer attempted to confront Mr. Aslan with the revelation that he was a Muslim, a fact which was never in question and not particularly relevant to the topic at hand.  However, beyond the controversy, the book is yet another example of the "Quest for the Historical Jesus," which becomes a fashionable topic in the broader culture every few years or so.

I have not read Mr. Aslan's book, but I listened to an extended interview he did with Cenk Uygur of The Young Turks.  Mr. Aslan's thesis, at least based on the interview, is that Jesus must have been a political revolutionary (hence the title "Zealot") because he claimed to be the Messiah, and the Jewish people of Jesus's day interpreted the Messiah to be a political revolutionary.  According to Aslan, all of the stuff in the Gospels about Jesus explicitly not being a political revolutionary was added later in order to justify the failure of Jesus to bring about the overthrow of the Romans--the equivalent of a six year old saying "oh, yeah? well, I didn't want that toy anyway." 

I am sure his book is more nuanced than what he was able to communicate in the interview, but on first blush this seems pretty facile.  Why couldn't Jesus (or anyone else, for that matter) have advocated a vision of being the Messiah that was different from the commonly excepted wisdom of the people of his time?  It's not like there are no examples of historical figures challenging the assumptions of their day.  Moreover, wouldn't it stand to reason that if someone did advocate such a distinctive view of things, it would make it more likely that he would stand out from all of the other folks claiming to be the Messiah at the time, and thus be remembered/followed?  Occam's razor would seem to apply here.

None of this really matters, because the real issue here is that the entire premise of Mr. Aslan's book is flawed.  The quest for some "historical" Jesus that is distinct from Christianity is a silly and impossible task.


Here is what we know about Jesus of Nazareth from a historical perspective.  We have account from Josephus, the Jewish chronicler of the events surrounding the destruction of the Second Temple, that mentions that Jesus existed, was crucified, and that a movement developed in Palestine that claimed to follow his teachings.  We have the Gospels (or, if you really want to be picky, the just the Synoptics) that were written between 20 and 50 years after Jesus's death that paint a relatively consistent picture of Jesus's life and teachings.  And you have the letters of Paul, written either contemporaneously to the Gospels or 10 to 20 years earlier, which show a robust theology of Jesus in which the main claims of Christianity are already developed (i.e. that he was the Messiah, he rose from the dead, etc.)  Before that, we have no concrete "historical" evidence whatsoever.  While you can certainly do history about Jesus's era, I don't see how you can do any kind of history about Jesus that doesn't rely on the New Testament.  There simply isn't anything else to rely on.

And, even if you could, what would be the point?  If Mr. Aslan is correct about who Jesus was, why would anyone care about one political agitator among many in a remote corner of the world 2000 years ago?  If your argument is "well, he's relevant because his followers turned all of this into Christianity," aren't the followers relevant, and not Jesus?  If (as some argue) Paul essentially invented Christianity, then we really only care about Paul.  Jesus becomes simply the canvas on which Paul painted his picture, but it just as easily could have been any other 1st Century Palestinian Jew.  He becomes an interchangeable part.

So, why are folks so insistent on trying to find the "historical" Jesus?  At the end of the day, the point of all of this historical Jesus stuff is to try to find an intellectual high-ground to tell Christians that they are wrong.  It is, of course, fine not to believe in Jesus, or to reject the religions(s) that have developed in his name.  But that is a philosophical/religious debate, and so not really resolvable according to the rules of our society.  These folks want to go a step further--they want to show that Christians are incorrect in a way that has traction in the broader culture and score a "real win."  If someone can show that the history behind Jesus is flawed, then that's something that actually counts.

If you look at the various attempts to find the "historical" Jesus, you will find that all their conclusions really have in common is the assertion that Christianity is basically wrong.  Take the last big "historical Jesus" event that made it to the popular culture--the Jesus Seminar.  Former Church of England bishop and scripture scholar N.T. Wright has a comprehensive take-down of the project from a scholarly perspective, but I would point out the "conclusion" that the Jesus Seminar comes to with regard to the nature of the "historical" Jesus is 180 degrees opposite of the result Aslan reaches.  Here's Wright's summary of the Jesus Seminar's conclusions:

[The Seminar] focusses on the portrait of Jesus as a “traveling sage and wonderworker"(p. 128). Sayings can be assessed according to whether they fit with this. The Fellows, or at least their spokespersons in this volume, somehow know that Jesus is a “reticent sage who does not initiate debate or offer to cast out demons, and who does not speak of himself in the first person” (p. 265). On this basis they feel able to make judgments about sayings which, since they make Jesus do some of these things, cannot be his. As a reticent sage, Jesus “did not formally enlist followers” (p. 284); he used secular proverbs, having “perhaps acquired his knowledge of common lore from itinerant philosophers who visited Galilee while he was growing up” (p. 287). He does not, however, quote the Hebrew scriptures very often (pp. 376, 380), so that when we find such quotations attributed to him, they almost certainly come from the early church, which, unlike Jesus, was very concerned to understand his work in the light of the scriptures.

As a reticent sage, Jesus did not, of course, predict his own death (pp. 94, 208, and very frequently); still less did he refer to himself in any way as Messiah or Son of God (pp. 75, 312, and regularly).

In other words, the defining characteristic of Aslan's historical Jesus was that he believed himself to be the Messiah; the defining characteristic of the Jesus Seminar's historical Jesus was that he did not believe himself to be the Messiah.  All they have in common is that each of them (in opposite ways) thinks that Christianity is wrong about Jesus.  It certainly looks like a conclusion in search of a rationale.

Again, I have no problem with people who reject the claims of Christianity or Jesus in the Gospels.  And I have no problem with trying to understand the historical context of Jesus and the emergence of the Christian church--in fact, I think it is a great thing.  But the person of Jesus is intimately and unavoidably entangled with the Christian church.  If you have issues or objections to that person, then make them.  Don't hide behind pseudo-history to make your point.

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