I've been reading and writing books about historical Jesus for more than 30 years. Every now and then a volume or project comes along that catches the imagination of the public, sells well, and generates much discussion. Think of the Jesus Seminar or The DaVinci Code. Works like these have the same features: they present a "fresh" take on Jesus, tell you the Gospels cannot be trusted, appeal to what certain scholars say about the Gospels, pick and choose from the data they contain, and then tell us the Jesus of history was either a prophet (a dime a dozen), a miracle worker (a dime a dozen in the ancient world), someone whose goal was to overturn Rome (a goal that failed), or some combination. The disciples, faced with the dilemma of failed hope, went cosmic and created a resurrected Jesus (an idea with no precedent). Then they convinced the world it was so with the now-created Christ Jesus.
Reza Aslan and those like him claim the Christ of the church is a very different figure than the Jesus of history. The really creative theological work came later from his disciples, they say. These creative disciples were even willing to die for the fabricated rescuing of this lost hope. It's a great storyline for a culture that often doesn't want to hear about unique religious claims, but it's hardly a credible story to explain the origins of the Christian faith and the history tied to Jesus.
Into this genre fits Aslan's Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth. Though a well-written narrative with relevant first-century background to the Jesus history, the book rejects the Gospels and relies on one side of the scholarly conversation. So what Aslan presents as likely history is really but one debated reconstruction of who Jesus was and is. It's just one picture of how Jesus of Nazareth got to be the Christ of God.
When I read these popular works, I don't see a new portrait of Jesus, but one using old theories to argue the Jesus of history is different from the Christ of the Gospels.
In Aslan's case, I see a mix of John Dominic Crossan and S. F. G. Brandon's works on Jesus—putting the carpenter from Nazareth far more in a social and political realm than in one focused on spiritual needs as well.
What seems new and revealing, then, is really one presentation among many. Such presentations have been out there for some time—and on some points for a few centuries. The excitement about a fresh take on Jesus is more hype than substance.
To reach his portrait, Aslan assumes the Gospels are more about constructive theology than history. Note the common skeptical "either/or" wrapped up in this construct. We cannot entertain the possibility that theology and history go together. We cannot understand that what motivated the disciples to face death was a set of unique claims. Perhaps what Jesus taught motivated them to proclaim the good news about Jesus to a skeptical and often hostile audience. Why else would this Jesus movement that theoretically works with common themes from the ancient world go to a place none of those other religious or political movements ever went?
Aslan sees Jesus' miracle-working as a common feature of the period. On this topic he correctly acknowledges that everyone at the time saw Jesus in this light. Everyone agreed Jesus was performing startling deeds. Even Jesus' opponents noted his reputation as a wonder-worker, and the Jews who rejected him claimed his power was malevolent but real. But Aslan leaves out key details of the debate over how to interpret these works.
Aslan's appeal to Apollonius of Tyana ignores the fact that sources for his work come from more than a century later and that some of his miracles are described in ways that make his actions less than miraculous. For example, when Apollonius is said to raise someone from the dead, his biographer suggests he actually recognized the person wasn't yet dead.
Aslan also fails to note a key distinction in the portrayal of how Jesus heals versus other miracle workers of the period. Rather than using some formula of special words or prayer to invoke God or the gods to heal, Jesus in most miracles acts directly, showing himself to be what sociologists have described as a "bearer of numinous power" rather than a mere mediator of or petitioner for it. Though such discussions about the uniqueness of Jesus' miracles exist in scholarly literature, you would never know it based on Aslan's one-sided presentation.
Despite the attention Zealot has received, Aslan's ideas merely represent another modern reconstruction of Jesus. Rather than being fresh and new, it merely reflects the longstanding debate between those skeptical about the Gospels' portraits of Jesus and those who see them as complementary pictures of Jesus as he was and is.
There are good reasons to suspect the Jesus of history was directly responsible for being confessed as Christ. It was zeal for Jesus' person that drove the earliest disciples to preach him as unique. This is something the disciples not only thought about but also experienced—even to the point of being willing to die for what they knew to be true. Zeal for Jesus arose from his own claims about what God was accomplishing through him.
This is an excerpt from Dr. Darrell Bock’s article which originally appeared on The Gospel Coalition: When Scholarly Skepticism Encounters Jesus Christ
About the Contributors
Dr. Bock has earned recognition as a Humboldt Scholar (Tübingen University in Germany), is the author of over 40 books, including well-regarded commentaries on Luke and Acts and studies of the historical Jesus, and work in cultural engagement as host of the seminary’s Table Podcasts. He was president of the Evangelical Theological Society (ETS) for 2000–2001, writes for the Christianity Today’s Places and Space series, and serves on the boards of Wheaton College, Chosen People Ministries, the Institute for Global Engagement, and Christians in Public Service (CIPS). His articles appear in leading publications. He is often an expert for the media on NT issues. Dr. Bock has been a New York Times best-selling author in nonfiction and is elder emeritus at Trinity Fellowship Church in Dallas. When traveling overseas, he will tune into the current game involving his favorite teams from Houston—live—even in the wee hours of the morning. Married for over 40 years to Sally, he is a proud father of two daughters and a son and is also a grandfather.