The Historical Jesus

greek on papyrus

My younger daughter says, “What do you think of that new book about Jesus called ‘Zealot’ where Jesus turns out to be nothing more than a political revolutionary?”

Typical family conversation in our home.

I’ve heard of it of course.  I’ve even seen the author interviewed. His name is Reza Aslan, and the book’s title is Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth. A FOX News interviewer gave him a hard time for being a Muslim and writing about Jesus, an interview that gave off more heat than light, but was probably great for sales.

“I haven’t read it,” I say.  “I don’t have much use for these searches for the historical Jesus.  They never amount to anything.”

“Really,” she says, genuinely surprised.  “Why don’t you blog about that?”  It had never occurred to me that anyone would be interested.  I thought everyone knew the history.

Peeling back layers of tradition and getting to the person who lived and taught and died in first century Palestine sounds like a noble and worthwhile thing to do – and plenty of scholars over the years have attempted it – but the consensus seems to be that the search doesn’t go anywhere.

But my daughter was right.  Most people don’t know that.  They hear or read about the publication of a book like “Zealot,” and they’re not quite sure what to think.  It’s easy to understand why someone would conclude that it’s nothing more than the work of a Muslim trying to smear Christianity.

I don’t know what Aslan’s intentions are, but his claims to have a Ph.D. in the history of religions and to teach the history of religion are false.  He’s an associate professor in the creative writing program at the University of California, Riverside.  Nowhere in the academic world is he known as a scholar in the history of religion.

That’s all troubling – and tends to undermine the authority of the claims he makes – but what’s really important to know is that all of these searches for the Jesus of history (as opposed to the Christ of faith) have one thing in common.  They make Jesus look a great deal like the person who set out on the search.

Albert Schweitzer famously wrote (in his own Quest for the Historical Jesus, published in 1906) that Jesus “comes to us as One unknown” and that the searches are “often pale reflections of the searchers” themselves.

John Dominic Crossan, who has given the search more than one try himself, finally concluded that most researchers will “do autobiography and call it biography.”

I won’t be reading “Zealot.”

About Doug

I have been a writer ever since fifth grade when I won second prize in a “prose and poetry” contest. I am also a Presbyterian pastor, and for several years toward the end of my career I lived and worked in Zürich, Switzerland. I am now retired and live just north of Holland, Michigan, along the lake.

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6 Responses to The Historical Jesus

  1. lizzy October 4, 2013 at 11:05 am #

    Thanks for throwing a bone to us non-theologians once in a while!! 🙂

    • Doug October 4, 2013 at 11:22 am #

      Thanks, sweetheart.

  2. Jim Brazell October 4, 2013 at 12:24 pm #

    Doug, thanks for taking the time to post those comments. I suspect you speak for many.

  3. Georgia Hamilton October 7, 2013 at 8:17 pm #


    Thanks for this blog; I’m epecially appreciative of the fact you exposed the writer as not being authentic. I must confess I’m often taken in by titles intended to “shock” rather than report truths. Have a blesed week and give my regards to Lizzy!


  4. Bruce chapman October 11, 2013 at 9:34 am #

    Doug’s of course spot-on, reflecting the excellent training he & I both received as Princeton seminarians, but demonstrating as well his pastoral wisdom & knowledge now boring into its third decade. Good stuff!
    I’m dancing with Zealot of late, however and appreciating the text for what it is–an extened historic narrative read (& written or created, too, perhaps) with a willing dose of suspended diisbelief.
    Zealot’s merit may abide in its capacity to stimulate a fresh conversation about the very matter that Doug identifies, namely, the qualitative differences between the Jesus of history & the Christ of faith.
    Those differences & their implications for modern, thoughtful faith appear to me at or near to the center of our ecclesiastical malaise today and a growing impediment to evangelism. I believe our failure to introduce historical-critical methodology, for example, as tools for nurturing a more convivial church and peaceful world continues to handicap mature faith development among Christians and to move the church to greater irrelevancy.
    To its credit, and discounting any particular shortcomings, Zealot opens substantive ground toward a more generally faithful and authentic witness. Indeed, it could be a primer for our “coming clean” about Christianity.

    • Doug October 11, 2013 at 10:05 am #

      Bruce, thanks for this. And thanks for your perspective, which deepens and freshens mine. Having read it again after reading your thoughtful comments, I realize that I was abrupt – and, as always with blogging, going for the dramatic finish. The truth is, if I were still in an academic setting, as I was a few years ago, I think that Zealot might have made for an interesting book study – for all the reasons you suggest. In a parish setting like mine, I find that the search for the historical Jesus is upsetting and not particularly helpful. So, I used a sledgehammer, when a something more subtle might have been in order.

      Grateful, as always, for our three-decade-old friendship!

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