Two Recent Books about Jesus Compared

 

Reza Aslan. The Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth. New York: Random House, 2013.

 

Jay Parini.  Jesus: The Human Face of God. Seattle: Lake Union, 2013.

 

2013 saw the release, accompanied by considerable news coverage, of two very different books about Jesus. The difference is immediately noticeable from the tone of the titles. The first claims to be an accurate portrayal of “the historical Jesus”. But Aslan’s reading of that history, portraying Jesus not just as a religious fanatic, but as fire-brand political revolutionary, would seem to undermine any Christian belief. In contrast, the second book, while it hardly overlooks the historical aspect, in fact, examines the data almost as intently as the first, is manifestly a statement of faith. So how explain the difference?

        Despite Azlan’s birth in Iran, both authors came to their present views from a similar early or at least adolescent life experience. In his teens, while growing up in California as a refugee from the Ayatollahs’ “Islamic Republic”,   Aslan became an evangelical Christian. On the other hand, Parini, born in Pennsylvania, grew up as the son of an ex-Catholic who had become a Baptist minister. And while both claim to have been devoted to their Christian beliefs, both apparently began to lose their faith in this more fundamentalist type of Christianity as they made their way through all the stages of higher education, Aslan with a master’s degree in theological studies and a Ph.D in sociology, and Parini with a Ph.D. concentrated in the fields of history and literature. Both became proficient enough in Greek to read the New Testament in its original language. And both apparently have read much of the original literature connected with the much publicized “Quest for the Historical Jesus” that has been going through a series of sensational ups and downs since the late 18th century.

        The effect of all this learning is quite evident in both books. Aslan’s book, although it avoids footnotes, has, at the end, in addition to an immense bibliography on the subject (so huge that one is tempted to doubt that could he have possibly read them all) an appendix where he discusses the thinking and some of those authorities leading to his conclusions in each chapter.  Perini’s book, although not academic in style (Parini is also a novelist and a poet) does have some footnotes that not only cite various authorities and their works by title, pages numbers, etc., but also occasionally go on to explain finer or disputed points. Not only that, Parini’s book, while only about half as large as Aslan’s, contains an excellent final chapter that sums up the whole history of the Quest, starting the with the 1774-1778 anonymous publication of Hermann Reimarus’s attacks on the veracity of the Gospels, on up to the latest revival of the Quest sparked by the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls and the various “Gnostic” gospels in the mid 20th century. 

        Yet despite this similarity of educational background and study of the historical Jesus, Aslan has returned to his ancestral Islamic identity — although in the rather liberal Sufi form — while Parini has remained a member of the Episcopalian Church most of his adult life (perhaps seeing it as more akin to his father’s ancestral Catholicism?).  So, in effect, we see the same quest for the historical Jesus leading to diametrically opposite results. How explain this?

        The probable explanation, it seems to me, must begin with a list of what, despite two and a half centuries of the on-going Quest, has been established about the historical Jesus. It is probably safe to say that all or most of the historians would agree on the following:

 

A. That Jesus existed.

 

B. He most certainly was from Nazareth in Galilee, and that his supposed birth in Bethlehem of Judea is probably, considering all the discrepancies between the two accounts, only a pious legend.

 

C. That he had established a reputation, both among his followers as well as his enemies, for seemingly miraculous cures and other wonders.

 

D. That he preached the immanent arrival of something he called “Kingdom of God”.     

 

E. That he was executed by order of the Roman Procurator of Judea, Pontius Pilate.

 

F. That his followers claimed that God had raised Jesus from the dead and that he would soon return from heaven to be vindicated and to usher in the full reality of the “kingdom” that he proclaimed.  

 

Other than the above general agreements, it seems that all the rest is up for grabs, the Questers themselves being, as they say, “all over the map.”  Among the most notable disputes are those concerning whether or not Jesus really considered himself to be the Messiah, who he meant by the mysterious title “Son of Man” (himself or someone else?) and, what did he really mean by “The Kingdom of God” or (as in Matthew and John) the “The Kingdom” of Heaven”?

And it is here that I think Aslan and Parini most sharply part company, with Aslan holding that Jesus did claim that he was the Messiah, plotted the ousting of the Roman occupiers of the Holy Land, and as a result, suffered an altogether predictable fate, and that his disappointed followers faked his resurrection, claiming that he soon would return from heaven to set things straight.  But of course that last part didn’t happen back then, nor has it happened yet. Therefore, however well-intentioned he might have been, essentially Jesus was a fraud. Aslan’s thesis is, of course, nothing new. In fact, having listed Reimarus’ title in his bibliography, his scenario if not quite word-for-word, seems straight out of Reimarus’ “Fragments”— a thesis which Parini, in his final chapter, sums up more succinctly, having already mentioned Aslan. 

Parini, on the other hand, believes that the “kingdom” that Jesus kept talking about really was an interior state — thus “within you”, although Parini occasionally translates it as “within reach” or “within your grasp”, which brings it closer to the “among you” in most contemporary translations. And Parini does admit that even such an interior conversion might eventually have social or even political repercussions. If so, this explains why his enemies, who were not so much the Pharisees, with whom Jesus quarreled over finer points of Jewish piety, but the Sadducees, who had been totally co-opted into being collaborators by the Romans, were able to twist all this into a plot to do Jesus in.  Nevertheless, Parini remains firm in his faith that God raised Jesus from death, not in the kind of resuscitation that fundamentalists portray, but into a higher level of existence beyond the veil of death. Not only that, he believes that God was in Jesus’ life, as well as his self-sacrificing death (for surely Jesus knew where his fate lay); thus Jesus is for us, “the human face of God” who enters into our own suffering. In other words, Parini remains a Christian at heart, even if no longer a fundamentalist.

Aslan, on the other hand, in adopting Reimarus’ views — although altering them somewhat to make Jesus look more well-intentioned. (Reimarus seems to have thought Jesus was deliberately leading people astray, not simply self-deluded.)  Thus Aslan would also seem to have ended up rejecting the traditional Islamic view of Jesus as a great prophet who, according to the Qu-ran, really never did die (Surah 4:157-58) and who will come again to be vindicated by God at the end of time, the “Time of the Resurrection” of the living and the dead (Surah 3:55).

        I mention this last point, even Muslim beliefs on the subject, to underline what I feel is the most vulnerable point, not of Aslan’s views, but of Parini’s presentation and of Christian belief about Jesus even today.  If Jesus actually did see himself as the mysterious “Son of Man” and predicted his imminent return of before “this generation” had “passed away” (Mt 24:35; Mk 13:30; Lk 21:32), then not only the criticism by Reimarus, but even more, the resurrection of this same issue by Albert Schweitzer over a century ago raises a serious question that still has to be answered.

        Although Parini doesn’t explicitly say so, it appears that he has adopted the solution offered by most New Testament scholars, which is that this promise, embedded as it is in what appears to be a prediction of the destruction of Jerusalem, was never actually made by Jesus, but was attributed to him by the evangelists after Jerusalem was destroyed by the Romans in the year 70. However, because this destruction of Jerusalem obviously did not occasion the return of Jesus as the victorious Christ, successive generations of Christians, ignoring the “this generation” part of the prediction, began reinterpret these prophesies in the synoptic gospels as predictions of the end of the world, with the memory of Jerusalem’s destruction as a kind of cinematic “preview of coming attractions” — or in this case, of future horrors.

        If this is the case, then it fits in well with Parini’s “mythic” view of the Bible and religion in general. Myth, or more exactly mythos in the original sense of the word, means a sacred story, or as he says, “legend”, the meanings of which are far deeper than the words when taken literally. Hence, in Parini’s book, efforts such as those of the so-called “Jesus Seminar”, where a group of scholars takes votes on what they regard to be what Jesus actually said or did — as contrasted to what he only might have, or even definitely didn’t — is described as just being the latest form of “biblical fundamentalism”.

        In general, I have no objection to Parini’s approach, in fact I have long subscribed to the pop-definition of myth as being “truth that never happened”. For example, contrast the story of Adam and Eve with very real problem of what theology has called “Original Sin”. Evolution has pretty much wiped out any possibility of taking that story literally. Yet the same knowledge of evolution gives us a very good reason, as well as a deepened explanation, of our inherited tendencies to act perversely.  It also might explain how Jesus, despite Christian belief that he was truly God’s Son, if he was also truly a human being, might still labor under what the Anglican bishop and scholar, N. Thomas Wright — whom Parini obviously admires — termed a “foreshortened view” of future events, namely, the parousia or “Second Coming”.

        On the other hand, the problem remains where to stop in what Parini calls the “remythologisation” of our religious understanding. It may be very well, and even necessary, given the conflicting evidence, to see the infancy stories of Jesus in the gospels of Matthew and Luke as beautiful legends that express the meaning of the coming or even — to borrow the language of John’s gospel — the “incarnation” of God into our world. 

But then, at the other end of the story, how deal with the resurrection of Jesus from the grave?  Parini reminds us that what is described is much more than a mere resuscitation, as John’s gospel claims Jesus did for Lazarus. In fact, even St. Paul, in one of his letters, is careful to go out of his way to speak of a new “spiritual body” (1 Cor 15:44).  Nevertheless, he had already warned the readers of the same letter that unless we rise, then neither has Christ been raised, and if that is the case, rather than being a cause for hope, our faith is to be pitied (1 Cor 15:12-19).   

 

 

R. W. Kropf    1/20/2014