Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Resa Aslan's Historiographical Flaws

            In the middle of July this year, religious scholar Reza Aslan released his book Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth.  The way I heard about it is through an interview gone bad on Fox News. The reporter, Lauren Green, emphasized that Aslan is a Muslim and questioned his motivation about writing a book about the key historic figure of Christianity. The Washington Post and other news agencies caught wind of Green’s interviewing style and called for Fox News to apologize. [1]
                Respectfully, Green is either unaware, has forgotten, does not understand, or adhere to the genetic fallacy which means, according to NT Historian Gary Habermas, “... when one challenges the origin of an idea without actually addressing its facticity.” [2]  Or as Christian philosophers Norman Geisler and Ronald Brooks conclude the genetic fallacy is when the, “…single issue focused on is the source or origin of an idea. The argument demands, ‘Something (or someone) should be rejected because it (or he) comes from a bad source.’ This is an attempt to belittle a position by pointing out its inauspicious beginnings.” [3] In other words, Green was dismissing Aslan’s conclusions not based on academic merit, but mainly because his faith background partly is Muslim (he was a Christian whom I will cover more about below).  This would be like accusing an individual who is a Jew that they are bias when writing a book about Jesus, like the late Jewish NT Historian Pinchas Lapide, [4]  solely dismissing his claims because of the origin of the ideas! (Lapide is often cited by biblical researchers of all stripes as supporting the actual resurrection of Jesus). [5]  Despite questions about Green’s journalistic approach or Aslan’s faith origins, his conclusions in his book about the Jesus of history need to be briefly examined. 
               According to Aslan, before becoming a Muslim, he was a Christian that found Christ at a children/youth camp.[6]  He writes, “The moment I returned home from camp, I began eagerly to share the good news of Jesus Christ…”[7] with about everyone he knew including those who would reject the gospel and, “…threw it back in my face.”[8] Nevertheless, the more he dived into the Scriptures the more he felt himself being pushed away from the Christian faith.  When entering the academic world of religious studies it rammed him into, “…full-blown doubts of my own.”[9]  Aslan accounts his reaction to the comparison to what he had been educated on Christian truths in Church vs. what he was newly exposed too in academia.  He writes:
The bedrock of evangelical Christianity, at least as it was taught to me, is the unconditional belief that every word of the Bible is God-breathed and true, literal and inerrant. The sudden realization that this belief is patently and irrefutably false, that the Bible is replete with the most blatant and obvious errors and contradictions— just as one would expect from a document written by hundreds of hands across thousands of years— left me confused and spiritually unmoored. And so, like many people in my situation, I angrily discarded my faith as if it were a costly forgery I had been duped into buying.[10]
On the other hand, despite being led away from the Jesus of faith, his historical studies brought him closer to the Jesus of history.  Aslan now feels he is more faithful to Jesus of Nazareth vs. Jesus Christ.[11] It seems that part of this faithfulness was to research Jesus in his historical context as a religious scholar. This field is commonly called Historical Jesus studies.            
                  In contemporary times we are in what has been coined the “Third Quest” for the historical Jesus because there has been a renewed interest among religious historians in the Jesus of history. [12] Since the 18th century, the original quest started due to ultra liberal scholars picking and choosing what they wanted from the historical accounts that directly and indirectly mention Jesus (i.e. gospels, Paul’s writings, church fathers, Josephus, etc). On the other side, there were the ultra conservatives that held on to almost every historical interpretation they had about the central historical figure in Christian history canonizing their historical conclusions along the way. Because of these two extremes the original quest or first quest started to soberly examine the historical data from around 1778-1906. The 2nd quest took place in the 1950’s dying off in the late 60’s to early 70’s.[13]
             The third quest started back in the later part of the 20th century which continues to this day.[14]  Aslan does not stand alone in his conclusions within the third quest on what we know about the Jesus of history.  Never the less, as Aslan’s claims that his way of how to interpret the facts is the only way to go about it is greatly mistaken. [15]  There are two reasons for this.
          The first reason is that he approaches miracles, specifically the resurrection, as events that cannot be verified historically.  He writes, “…the fact remains that the resurrection is not a historical event. It may have had historical ripples, but the event itself falls outside the scope of history and into the realm of faith.” [16]  Aslan, respectfully, seems to not be up to date that the question of, can miracles be investigated in history, is still debated when it comes to historiographical method (philosophy of history).  NT Historian Michael Licona writes:
scholars disagree among themselves whether miracle-claims may be investigated. McCullagh’s canons of historical research prohibit historians from adjudicating on miracle-claims while those of Tucker allow it. Within the community of biblical scholars, the canons of Meier, Dunn, Wedderburn, Theissen, Winter and Carnley prohibit historians from adjudicating on the historicity of the resurrection of Jesus, while the canons of N. T. Wright, Gerd Lüdemann, Raymond E. Brown, Gerald O’Collins, Gary Habermas and William Lane Craig allow it. [17]
Some or most of these names might be unfamiliar, but the point is some key philosophy of history scholars and biblical experts disagree on can miracle claims be investigated that happened in the past. As theologians Paul Rhodes Eddy and James K. Beilby observe, “…virtually everyone in the field today acknowledges that Jesus was considered by his contemporaries to be an exorcist and a worker of miracles. However, when it comes to historical assessment of the miracles tradition itself, the consensus quickly shatters.” [18]
                Respectfully, Aslan’s strong claims that studying a miracle claim, such as the resurrection of Jesus, is beyond where historical Jesus research can go is mistaken.  At best, Aslan can argue that there is no consensus among historians who are in favor of investigating alleged miracles that happened in the past like the resurrection of Jesus.[19]  But Aslan cannot claim to have a standard method that is the most recognized in historical research as Licona points out (quoted earlier).  John Meir (who Licona listed as one that at least leans in the direction that miracles are beyond historical investigation) vividly illustrates the debate on criterion in historical Jesus research.  Meier writes:
Scholars seem to vie with one another to see who can compile the longest list of criteria. Sometimes a subtle apologetic motive may be at work: so many criteria surely guarantee the results of our quest! More sober scholars, instead, are no doubt seeking as many controls as possible over the difficult material. Often, however, what is naturally a single criterion is “chopped up” to create a number of criteria; and what are at best secondary, if not dubious, criteria are mixed in with truly useful ones.[20]

  Even though Aslan is partly right that cetrain historical methods do not allow investigating miracle claims, he is not totally right that historical method has been decided and canonized on the issue of miracles. Time for an idiom; the jury is still out.
          Secondly, Aslan’s credentials as a historian have been less forthcoming. Indeed, he does hold a PH.D in Sociology with the title of his dissertation being, Global Jihadism as a transnational social movement: A theoretical framework, which he completed in 2009 from the University of California, Santa Barbara.[21] Granted, Aslan could have taken PH.D classes in Christian origins, religious history, etc which would have given him the expertise to make modest proposals in historical Jesus research like the historicity of the bodily resurrection of Jesus. However, not to the degree in his latest book on Jesus. For example, before looking more exhaustively at the evidence of Jesus' resurrection, Aslan concludes:
Then something extraordinary happened. What exactly that something was is impossible to know. Jesus’ resurrection is an exceedingly difficult topic for the historian to discuss, not least because it falls beyond the scope of any examination of the historical Jesus. Obviously, the notion of a man dying a gruesome death and returning to life three days later defies all logic, reason, and sense. One could simply stop the argument there, dismiss the resurrection as a lie, and declare belief in the risen Jesus to be the product of a deludable mind.[21b]
Concise Oxford Dictionary defines scholar as, "a specialist in a particular branch of study, especially the humanities; a distinguished academic,” [22] while the Webster says, “a person who has done advanced study in a special field.”[23] Biblical Scholars Vanhoozer, Bartholomew, Treier and Wright point out that being scholarly, “… can describe a group or individual who has developed a specific set of methods, or it can refer to qualities or attitudes of the group or individual.”[24] Aslan has made strides in the realm of sociology of religion with his dissertation (quoted earlier) and other works he has published. However, not directly in the discipline of historical Jesus studies. This seems to show in his unawareness that investigating miracle claims in history has not been decided among scholars in historiography (see reason 1).
           Aslan’s conclusions about Jesus should not be thrown out all together. His writing style flows well and his conclusions about the crucifixion seem reasonable. However, his claims about miracles surrounding the Jesus of history, specifically the resurrection, should be greatly questioned. Not because Aslan is a Muslim, but based on reasons like the two above. Moreover, I pray Aslan himself will take a second and third look at his conclusions based on current historgraphical scholarship when developing later editions. Once he sincerely does this, I think his conclusions will be different about the Jesus of history.

[2] Gary R. Habermas, The Historical Jesus: Ancient Evidence for the Life of Christ (Joplin, MO: College Press Publishing Company, 1996), 125.
[3] Norman L. Geisler and Ronald M. Brooks, Come, Let Us Reason: An Introduction to Logical Thinking (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House, 1990), 107.
[4] Pinchas Lapide (Translated by Wilhelm C. Linss), The Resurrection of Jesus: A Jewish Perspective. Eugene, OR: (Wipf and Stock Publishers, 2002).
[5] European NT scholar NT Writght mentions Lapide as having a robust view in favor of the bodily resurrection of Jesus.  He writes, “The Jewish writer Pinchas Lapide has declared that he believes Jesus of Nazareth was bodily raised from the dead. Indeed, he believes this far more solidly than many would-be Christian theologians.” N. T. Wright, The Resurrection of the Son of God, Christian Origins and the Question of God (London: Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge, 2003), 721.  Philisopher Norman Geisler writes, “Pinchas Lapide is a late-twentieth-century Jewish rabbi and biblical scholar who, without converting to Christianity, supports the Christian belief that Jesus of Nazareth rose bodily from the grave. His conclusion supports a crucial link in the Christian apologetic—that of Christ’s resurrection.Norman L. Geisler, Baker Encyclopedia of Christian Apologetics, Baker Reference Library (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 1999), 414; Resurrection expert and NT Historian Gary Habermas says,“ After his detailed study of the sources, Jewish scholar Pinchas Lapide concluded that Jesus actually rose from the dead, appearing to his followers soon afterward!”  Gary R. Habermas, Evidential Apologetics, ed. Stanley N. Gundry and Steven B. Cowan, Five Views on Apologetics, Zondervan Counterpoints Collection (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2000), 112.
[6] As far as I can see he does not mention his age of conversion.   
[7] Aslan, Reza (2013-07-16). Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth (Kindle Locations 70-75). Random House Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.
[9] Ibid
[10] Aslan, Reza (2013-07-16). Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth (Kindle Locations 75-89). Random House Publishing Group. Kindle Edition; What Aslan claims (I have modest doubts) he was taught about inerrancy is, in my estimation, to wooden.  Biblical scholars William W. Klein, Craig Blomberg, and Robert L. Hubbard definition of inerrancy is more restrained. They write, “…the Bible is a trustworthy communication by Spirit-guided interpreters and is true in all it intends to teach. Its statements convey what is factual given its literary conventions; its record is faithful and reliable. This includes all its individual parts as well as its overall message.”William W. Klein, Craig Blomberg, and Robert L. Hubbard, Introduction to Biblical Interpretation (Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson, 2004), 146;  Theologians James Draper and Kenneth Keathley offer this brief definition of inspiration with some about inerrancy writing that the, “…Bible is accurate in all that it says and that it will not deceive its readers theologically, historically, chronologically, geographically, or scientifically. In other words, it may contain approximations, it may use figures of speech, it may use the common language of the day, but whatever it says, the Bible says it accurately.” James T. Draper Jr and Kenneth Keathley, Biblical Authority: The Critical Issue for the Body of Christ (Nashville, TN: Broadman & Holman Publishers, 2001), 101–102.
[11] Ibid; I am wording this from Aslan’s perspective.  My views on the doctrine of the Incarnation are beyond the bounds of this review.
[12] Joel B. Green, Scot McKnight, and I. Howard Marshall, eds., Dictionary of Jesus and the Gospels (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1992), 326.
[13] Ibid, 335-337
[14] Kevin J. Vanhoozer, Craig G. Bartholomew, et al., eds., Dictionary for Theological Interpretation of the Bible (London: SPCK, 2005), 356.
[15] Aslan is well educated and has great experience in religious studies. However, he is not a professional historian.  Granted I am not a historian either, but I have read about what philosophers of history (aka historgraphical studies) have to say about how to do history.  This is like reading the conclusions of a general surgeon on surgery of the brain vs. a neurosurgeon.  Now I do not throw out the general surgeons conclusions out the window just because the neurosurgeon has more experience in brain surgery.  However, the general surgeon’s conclusions on brain surgery should be modest and backing up his conclusions from those who are experts in the field like other neurosurgeons.  Aslan’s is the general surgeon in this occurrence whose findings are beyond modest.  Therefore, his conclusions, in part, conflict with what the historiographers (neurosurgeons) are debating about. 
[16] Aslan, Reza (2013-07-16). Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth (Kindle Locations 2744-2752). Random House Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.
[17] Michael R. Licona, The Resurrection of Jesus: A New Historiographical Approach (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2010), 181
[18] Paul Rhodes Eddy and James K. Beilby, The Quest for the Historical Jesus: An Introduction, ed. James K. Beilby and Paul Rhodes Eddy, The Historical Jesus: Five Views (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2009), 38–39.
[19] Not that counting heads makes a fact true, but that a sizeable amount of scholars hold to a certain position because there are good reasons to believe it. 
[20] John P. Meier, A Marginal Jew, Rethinking the Historical Jesus: Volume One, The Roots of the Problem and the Person (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1991), 168.
[21]  Accessed 8/12/2013
[21b] Aslan, Reza (2013-07-16). Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth (Kindle Locations 2719-2723). Random House Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.
[22] Catherine Soanes and Angus Stevenson, Concise Oxford English Dictionary (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004).
[23] Inc Merriam-Webster, Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary. (Springfield, MA: Merriam-Webster, Inc., 2003).
[24] Dictionary for Theological Interpretation of the Bible, ed. Kevin J. Vanhoozer, Craig G. Bartholomew, Daniel J. Treier and N. T. Wright (London; Grand Rapids, MI: SPCK; Baker Academic, 2005), 756; See also Walker, Charles A. "A Scholar Is What A Scholar Writes: Practical Tips On Scholarly Writing." Journal Of Theory Construction & Testing 7, no. 1 (Summer2003 2003): page 6 first paragraph. Academic Search Alumni Edition, EBSCOhost (accessed August 12, 2013).

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