Monday, August 05, 2013

Reza Aslan

THE NOW INFAMOUS INTERVIEW of Reza Aslan by Fox News presenter Lauren Green has had the Biblioblogosphere all abuzz for the last couple of weeks. If you haven't seen it yet, here it is:

I've been following the story, but haven't had time until now to post on it. Briefly, Professor Aslan has published a book on the Historical Jesus. Ms. Green handles the interview badly by belaboring the fact that he is a Muslim and wondering why a Muslim should have any interest in Jesus. Professor Aslan gets the better of the interview overall, but he in turn embarrassingly belabors his own credentials (if you need to mention more than once that you have a Ph.D., you've lost the frame) and makes claims about their relevance to the subject matter of the book which have not gone undisputed.

I have not read the book, but such reviews as I have seen indicate that it says nothing new or particularly interesting, covering well-traveled ground and reaching conclusions that are somewhere between debatable and outdated. To be fair, it is exceedingly difficult these days to write a book about the Historical Jesus which doesn't share these flaws. The ground is simply too well covered by experts already and our very limited sources simply cannot tell us much more about Jesus than they already have.

Here are links to reviews by novelist Naomi Alderman in The Forward: Separating Jesus the Man From the Myth and by (well-known to PaleoJudaica) literary critic Adam Kirsch: Jesus Was a Rebel and a Bandit. What Made Him Also the Christian Son of God? Aldeman's evaluation is very positive and Kirsch's positive but with qualifications. Of special interest are reviews by two biblical scholars: Greg Carey: Reza Aslan on Jesus: A Biblical Scholar Responds; and Anthony LeDonne: A Usually Happy Fellow Reviews Aslan’s Zealot – Le Donne. Both are highly critical and Le Donne's is brutal.

As for Professor Aslan's credentials as a biblical scholar, Matthew J. Franck has a detailed evaluation of his claims: Reza Aslan Misrepresents His Scholarly Credentials. In Did Reza Aslan Lie about His Credentials? - Le Donne Anthony LeDonne regards Franck's post to be "motivated by religious distrust" and indirectly rebuts part of it in the discussion that follows. In what follows he quotes some criticisms from Stephen Prothero on Facebook and a defense from the supervisor of Aslan's dissertation, Mark Juergensmeyer, and then concludes that indeed some of Aslan's claims in the interview are problematical:
What Prothero says about his expertise in NT Studies still stands. I have now read the book and I can say (without question) that Zealot is not written by an author conversant with the field of NT studies or Second Temple Judaism more generally. More on this point in the coming days.

As to the credentials issue, where Aslan might be in the biggest danger of falsehood is in his claim to be a teacher of religious studies, or that he does this "for a living". He is not a religious studies instructor in the traditional sense of that title. A colleague of his from Riverside has confirmed this for me.

No doubt, he overplayed his credentials, but there is a difference between setting the record right and tearing a colleague to shreds.
Buzzfeed also collects some of Professor Aslan's more acerbic tweets: Author Attacked By Fox News Is Actually Kind Of A Jerk On Twitter (strong language warning). I realize that the tweets are doubtless selected from a much larger output, but still. Call me old fashioned, but I think this kind of rhetoric fails to show scholarly dignity. But here's an interview with the Boston Globe in which he speaks in a more scholarly mode.

There is much more in the blogosphere about the whole episode and about Professor Aslan's book. Returning to the issue that started the whole episode, I can say with confidence that having Muslim scholars do original work in New Testament studies is something most New Testament specialists would welcome. There was a time in the early 90s when it was PC to think that only those "within the tradition" should publish scholarly work in any given area of religious studies. I thought then and still think that this idea is unhelpful and corrosive. Muslim scholars should publish on Christianity, Christian scholars on Judaism, and Jewish scholars on Islam. And fill in all the rest of the permutations. And, of course, add agnostics, atheists, etc. In the first place, we as historians and historians of religion are all following the same scholarly approach, which at least aims for objectivity in its results, so there is scope for considerable agreement. In the second place, scholars coming out of different religious traditions will start with somewhat different assumptions, interests, and focuses, and are likely to see avenues worth following up which those "within the tradition" or from other traditions might miss, even though the latter would recognize the importance of those avenues once pointed out.

If this little episode causes us to think in a constructive way about what we are doing as scholars and how each of us can contribute, some good will have come of it.

UPDATE: The story has now found its way into the New York Times: Return of the Jesus Wars (Ross Douthat).

UPDATE (6 August): The book is reviewed in the NYT by Dale B. Martin: Still a Firebrand, 2,000 Years Later: ‘Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth’. The review concludes:
By profession, Mr. Aslan is not a scholar of ancient Judaism or Christianity. He teaches creative writing. And he is a good writer. “Zealot” is not innovative or original scholarship, but it makes an entertaining read. It is also a serious presentation of one plausible portrait of the life of Jesus of Nazareth.
UPDATE: Another review, by Charlotte Allen in the L.A. Times: Reza Aslan's 'new' take on Jesus: The controversy over his book about Jesus' life misses the point.