Janet Carroll
Janet Carroll asked:

How does our present image of Jesus of Nazareth differ from the historical Jesus portrayed in this book?

Greg According to Aslan, the present image of Jesus is the “Jesus the Christ” figure that was pretty much the invention of Paul. It is notable that the apostles who actually knew and followed Jesus during his ministry vehemently condemned Paul and his teachings about Jesus.

Paul had the last laugh because the reality of the “historical Jesus” was that of a zealot who opposed both Roman rule and the Temple, and preached an impending arrival of a new Kingdom on Earth that he would rule, overthrowing the established order and restoring Judea to Jewish hegemony. This was the Jewish expectation of anybody claiming to be the Messiah.

Once the Romans razed Judea and destroyed the Temple, which occurred before some of the canonised Gospels were written, this view of Jesus became highly inconvenient. It was better for the early Christians if Jesus could be painted as somebody who was not a political opponent of Rome; to do otherwise was to invite persecution. So the Jesus message evolved into a Kingdom not of this world, and a man who did not preach violence or Jewish exclusivity, and did not oppose Rome. The evolution of Jesus’ image can be clearly traced chronologically; the later the Gospel, the more the Jews tend to be blamed for Jesus’ execution, for example. Aslan shows that these later images were post facto Pauline inventions, and not at all what Jesus’ own words indicate.
Barbie McConnell Reza Aslan approaches the gospels as a Muslim, accepting the passages that affirm the Jesus of Islam, who is regarded as a venerable prophet, and waving off passages that declare Jesus is the Messiah. It promised to be a compelling, even respectful argument, made by a scholar. If the book is written as an academic piece what it lacks are the customary references and sources that would undergird and source the argument. Reza claims to have included those in notes. Support for an argument of this kind would belong in the body of the text and is not to be found in his notes either. Referring to the third chapter and Reza’s first arguments, we find broad references to similar works with virtually no primary sources. If we give Reza a pass as an academic and read the book as an opinion piece—as Reza asserts he has to do for lack of sources—we find problems. Reza’s criticisms are constructed in the way Reza suggests the stories of the gospels themselves are constructed: necessary fabrications resulting in contradictory assertions that become illogical conclusions.

Reza’s thesis is that Jesus was made into the spiritual Savior of the world many decades after his birth in an effort to create—out of whole cloth—Christianity. Reza’s first argument, presented in the third chapter, “You Know Where I Am From” is that the narrative of Christ’s birth is impossible. He offers the explanation that the nativity is a construct meant to accommodate prophesies, beliefs and hopes.

Reza does this by saying there ‘is no corroborating evidence’. However, Reza has already asserted that there is no virtually no evidence either way, that it is a miracle we have any record of Jesus at all. In spite of this, he confidently uses the gospels as his primary source and maintains that they are indispensable to him. Two of the gospels corroborate the birth narrative and the other two remain silent. Reza explains the gospels are written many decades after the death of Jesus by groups of individuals who accept the Apostles. All of that means that two of Reza’s four primary sources, compiled by groups of people, not just one author, all still agree, after decades, on the birth narrative and have zero detractors. No primary sources deny the narrative. In a courtroom, that would be called corroboration. If the gospels themselves are not legitimate sources, then Reza has no book, so that we must assume they are what he presents them as: legitimate, central and indispensible to the argument.

Reza, however, finds the gospels indispensable only when they speak of a Jesus that he has accepted. Reza amends Luke’s nativity with apology, and asserts several problems. He claims that Quirinias (not Caesar) called for a tax, a ‘registration’ by Reza’s own interpretation from Greek, so that we understand it as a census. Beyond that Reza makes the point that Nazareth would have been outside Quirinias’ provinces of Samaria, Idumea and Judea, concluding that Joseph in Nazareth would have been excluded. He goes on to associate a census with a tax based on appraised property, making the point that men would have to be, physically, in their primary residence to have an assessment made and would not have traveled. He then calls the narrative a lie, but not. Reza claims that Luke did not grasp the difference between fables intended to communicate truths and actual occurrences. He claims Luke had no conception of historic fact, nor would he have understood the word ‘history’. He does this after also saying that Luke knew exactly what he was doing. The passage is contradictory.

On all these points there rest puzzles. The phrase ‘that all the world should be taxed’ (rather ‘registered’ by Reza’s interpretation) sounds like a phrase that would come from Caesar. Rome was his World. Most significantly, Reza’s use of the word ‘registered’ as opposed to ‘taxed’ makes a good deal of room for this idea: Caesar was counting potential soldiers. Reza’s explanation that Judea had just been, in the wake of a quelled rebellion, made an official Roman province makes the conclusion perfectly logical. It would be something expected. Caesar having men return to the city of their birth to be counted makes sense if Caesar is trying to assimilate Hebrews that had just been made official citizens of his empire by strategic and tactical political appointments. Being a Jew was about birth, and if a man’s birthplace had become part of Rome, he is a citizen of Rome and all Roman men would have a potential military obligation. This was about turning loyalty. Reza had, at this point in his argument, already firmly asserted that Rome found it much easier to assimilate Hebrews than to maintain authority as an occupying force. Those details provide a reasonable confidence that Joseph was probably traveling to the city of his birth to register as a citizen of Rome and a potential conscript, while simultaneously—inconveniently for Reza’s argument—fulfilling prophesy.

Reza argues that all the world stopping and whole families uprooting themselves, traveling away from home to be taxed an assessment on their total property is preposterous. It is easy to agree, it would be an interpretation of scripture that makes no sense. First of all, only men were asked to travel to the city of their birth, by Reza’s own interpretation, to ‘register’ rather than to be taxed. There is no Roman record of a tax. Secondly, Reza has implied, prior to this point, that taxes had to have been set figures, ones he maintains were oppressive considering the expected level of poverty among Nazarene farmers. Reza links this particular oppression to Jesus’ motivation for fomenting rebellion. Reza’s argument was that the taxes were excessive to the degree that a farmer would have to part with half his increase to meet them. If that was true, taxes were not proportional assessments on property, but set amounts disproportionately affecting the poor, so that the argument that Joseph’s property could not have been assessed in Judea becomes irrelevant. Perhaps Joseph did not actually own land. The poverty in which Jesus was raised does not suggest it. Another possibility is that he did own land, it was assessed and he ordered to go to Judea to pay a tax, perhaps the only trusted authorities in the wake of the rebellion were in Judea and the tax was a way to assert authority. However, it seems more likely that it was not a tax at all. Reza's Greek translation would suggest it is not, a point difficult to miss, unless you are determined to.

The ridiculous of ‘all the world being taxed’ suggests that it probably wasn’t. It begs the observation that something different was going on. If Caesar considers Rome to be ‘the world’ and if his goal is to dissolve and reabsorb a Hebrew nation looking for a Messiah, declaring a census on ‘all the world’ highlights his singular authority. Caesar considered himself divinely appointed and Rome accepted this. Reza’s point that only Quirinias, governor of Judea, Samaria and Idumea declared a census only adds plausibility to the alternative explanation that Caesar is assimilating Hebrews. No other area was in rebellion; no other area would need to be assimilated. No one else would need to register.

And if all that is true and Joseph was traveling to Judea to register for the draft, in the wake of a suppressed rebellion with the accompanying palpable fear of Rome then we have to ask the question, why on earth would he take Mary? Why not leave her at home, with the women of her village to deliver their first child? Why would it be critical that he not miss that particular birth? Why would she agree to go? Why would they not allow themselves to be apart? The gospels assert that at that point they were two of three people on earth (Elizabeth) who understood who they were and who this child was. If we dismiss out of hand those implications it becomes difficult to use the gospels at all, to discover Jesus of Nazareth.

Reza has an additional problem. He accepts the prophetic mantel of Jesus and the Apostles. In short, they cannot be liars. He solves that problem by presenting as self-evident the idea that Luke, being accustomed to the weaving of fable into history, would have thought it acceptable. Reza goes farther down that thread claiming Luke did not, in fact, distinguish between truth and fable, history and stories, while simultaneously maintaining that Luke would have known he was creating a spiritual tale and would have thought it perfectly acceptable. Beyond that obvious contradiction, the implication is that none of Reza’s sources were firmly grounded in reality, something that normally would strip all narrative of credibility, not just the parts Reza wishes to dispel. Furthermore if the authors of the gospels have fabricated the narrative, why not conveniently have them residing in Bethlehem, to begin with?

There is a third and more difficult problem: this was a people decimated by their enemy, brutally betrayed by their own, living under an occupying force sent by an Empire. It would be more likely that life was so heavy and onerous that people had lost the capacity to imagine. Reza emphasizes over and over that even the mention of a Messiah would be called sedition, a crime punishable by crucifixion. It was not the stuff of fables; it was the stuff of life and death, written, Reza himself imagines, at the most dangerous time for someone to fabricate a Messiah. And that is the fourth obstacle, why risk your life for a folk tale?

This first argument then, is so problematic that it leaves the expectation of disappointment in the sturdiness of any argument to follow. They will likely assume the same course. Ironically enough, Reza’s spiritual attachment to the prophet Jesus seems to have been the biggest obstacle for the academic. It would seem that man cannot, in fact, serve two masters and that Lewis was right, either Jesus was who he said he was, or he was a madman, and nothing in between.
Image for Zealot
Rate this book
Clear rating

About Goodreads Q&A

Ask and answer questions about books!

You can pose questions to the Goodreads community with Reader Q&A, or ask your favorite author a question with Ask the Author.

See Featured Authors Answering Questions

Learn more