Reza Aslan's 5 myths about Jesus: A response
By Joel Allen
On September 26th, the Daily Republic ran a Washington Post opinion piece by Reza Aslan. The piece sought to discredit the New Testament portrayals and the consequent Christian understandings of Jesus. In the piece he identified five key myths about Jesus: 1) Jesus was not born in Bethlehem, 2) he was not an only child, 3) he did not have 12 disciples, 4) he was not tried before Pontius Pilate, and 5) he was not buried in a tomb; thus his corpse was likely eaten by dogs. In his estimation, the gospels are largely based on legends and myths.
Before I address these claims, let me say that I first became aware of Aslan when I saw him interviewed by Piers Morgan on CNN about his new book Zealot. In the CNN interview he claimed that virtually nothing could be said with certainty about Jesus’ life. We only know, claims Aslan, that he was 1) born a Jew, 2) started a Jewish movement and 3) was crucified as a state criminal.
This is preposterous to my way of thinking. We know, as historians, much more about Jesus than this! For starters, we know he preached in parables, he preached about the Kingdom of God, he prayed to God as ‘Abba’ (Father), that he associated with the outcasts of society, that he predicted the destruction of the Jerusalem temple and that he saw himself as the climax of Israel’s history. It is commonly accepted that the gospels are written in the genre of ancient biography which sought to convey the central goals and importance of the person in view. We have four biographies of Jesus’ life which date from a generation or so after his death. This cannot be said about Alexander the Great; the oldest surviving biography of his life was written by Diodorus Siculus almost 400 years after Alexander’s death in 323 BCE! It also could not be said of Tiberias—the Roman emperor when Jesus was crucified for whom no biography survives.
Aslan dismisses the gospels as of little substance because of their religious interest. This is simply a false choice. Just because the gospels want us to believe that Jesus is the Christ does not mean they are uninterested in the substance of who Jesus was. New believers would have wanted to know the truth about Jesus and they did not like being lied to any more than we do. Granted, ancient standards for writing biography were not as strict as modern ones. But well-respected scholars (Richard Bauckham and N.T. Wright come to mind) have written convincingly that the gospels intended to convey the historical Jesus.
I have two basic critiques of Aslan. First, Aslan writes with an almost fanatical skepticism. Even the agnostic New Testament scholar Bart Ehrman believes much more can be said about the historical Jesus than Aslan. For instance, Ehrman agrees with much of what I wrote above that is ‘known’ about Jesus. Second, Aslan writes as if his opinions are mainstream and commonly accepted. I just mentioned several influential scholars who would profoundly disagree. I could name many more.
A few quick comments about Aslan’s myths. I will focus only on three. In objection number 3, Aslan claims Jesus did not choose 12 disciples. While his explanation was opaque, apparently, the number was arrived at because of the importance of the number 12 in Israel’s history (12 tribes). This just doesn’t make sense. The calling of 12 disciples is in every layer of historical tradition where we would expect it. Also, early Christian writings place absolutely no intellectual weight on the fact that Jesus chose 12 key disciples. Their disinterest makes it unlikely that the twelve were retrojected back onto the historical Jesus. It makes much more sense to say that Jesus intentionally chose 12 inner disciples because he saw himself as recreating Israel from the ground up with 12 new tribes.
In objection 4, Aslan claims that the NT portrayal of Pontius Pilate is flawed; Pilate in other historical sources is absolutely brutal on the Jews yet in the gospels he is a weak-willed governor who is strong-armed by the Jews. Yet there is a very good historical explanation for this. Pilate dealt with Jesus toward the end of his time in Judea. He was at this time in a terribly weakened political position. He was a protégé of Sejanus, a political operative in Rome. Sejanus had just been executed for sedition which put Sejanus’ associates into dire circumstances. Pilate knew he could no longer behave as brutally as in the past and the gospels portray this weakened man trying to salvage his career by keeping everyone happy. By giving Jesus a hearing, he honored Jesus’ followers while doing the bidding of those seeking Jesus’ death.
This explains myths 4 and 5. Pilate allowed Jesus’ body to be buried in Joseph’s tomb because he knew it would be outrageous for a beloved teacher to be desecrated and eaten by dogs as was typical after a crucifixion. Pilate is desperate to minimize all offense knowing Tiberias was only too willing to sack him as one of Sejanus’ operatives. Sejanus’ execution for sedition was in October 31 CE which makes these events align perfectly.
A few closing words. While there are historical questions to be raised about the gospels, it is clear to me that the gospels provide a solid-enough foundation for Christian faith. Aslan describes a huge chasm between the Jesus of history and the Christ of faith. But scholars of much greater stature than Aslan have, at least for me, shown that the Christ of faith and the Jesus of history are dynamically inter-connected. Even so, the evidence doesn’t interpret itself. If someone approaches it with a jaundiced eye, they will find unending justification for unbelief. But if we approach the gospels with intellectual goodwill, we encounter the Jesus of history still calling us into discipleship.
Joel Allen is an assistant professor of religion and philosophy at Dakota Wesleyan University in Mitchell.