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NPR Still Not “Getting” Religion

It has been obvious for some time that the media “just doesn’t get religion.” Some writers are better than others, and every so often an actual expert in the field will be given a platform on a mainstream media outlet, but taken as a whole, things are still pretty bad. NPR continues this trend with its latest reporting on Reza Aslan’s new book Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth. A second version of essentially the same interview was run the next day, to make sure, apparently, that it received proper exposure. In these interviews, NPR introduces its audience to a nice summary of 20-year old scholarship, the kind that hasn’t exactly grown finer with age.

The Claims of Reza Aslan

Dr. Aslan makes a number of statements which come across as ridiculous to those with even the barest familiarity with current academic work on Jesus and 1st century Judaism. For instance:

So for the Christians, they had a very obvious choice here: They could maintain their connections to their Jewish parent religion and experience the same wrath of Rome that the Jews were experiencing — of course the Christians’ experience of the wrath of Rome would come a little bit later — or they could refashion the story of Jesus [and] make him, frankly, less Jewish — make responsibility for his death on the shoulders of the Jews, and not on the Roman Empire.

Yes, the “less Jewish” Jesus. That’s certainly all the rage these days. Does Dr. Aslan, or NPR for that matter, expect the audience to have not heard of N.T. Wright? The Jewish Jesus may or may not possess the attribute of omnipresence, but he is quite literally everywhere when it comes to the academic world. There are titles like Rabbi Jesus or Judaism in the New Testament. Or how about the earlier and more foundational authors Daube, Davies, and Jeremias? Not to put too fine a point on it, but seriously guys?

Other issues are somewhat more complex, but nevertheless oversimplified by NPR’s interviews. Dr. Aslan says:

If you’re asking if whether Jesus expected to be seen as God made flesh, as the living embodiment, the incarnation of God, then the answer to that is absolutely no. Such a thing did not exist in Judaism. In the 5,000-year history of Jewish thought, the notion of a God-man is completely anathema to everything Judaism stands for. The idea that Jesus could’ve conceived of himself — or that even his followers could’ve conceived of him — as divine, contradicts everything that has ever been said about Judaism as a religion.

It is certainly true that “high Christology” is a challenge to our understanding of 1st century Judaism. This is, however, also not news. Religious scholars and even Christian scholars have been keenly aware of this for the last 200 years, and probably since the Renaissance and Reformation (if, indeed, not from the 1st century itself). Scholars are now fully aware of the diversity of views regarding the divine manifestation on earth, including the “two powers” school of Judaism, the concept of “divine humanity” in the Jewish liturgy, and the angelomorphic christology of 2nd Temple Judaism.

These are somewhat obscure and, it should be admitted, not completely orthodox by some standards. But there are much more accessible works available on this “early high christology,” notably that of Larry Hurtado and Richard Bauckham. Dr. Hurtado summarizes the evidence for this “early high christology” in this post. In another place, quoting Andrew Chester he says, “The understanding of Christ as a divine figure, therefore, is unmistakably clear in Paul’s writings, and can be seen as potentially going back to pre-Pauline tradition.” He also highlights the significance of applying the title of kyrios to Jesus.

Regarding the challenge of monotheism Hurtado writes:

In the next section, Chester addresses the topic of “monotheism and intermediary figures.”  Noting that for scholars such as Casey “monotheism ” is “specifically a constraining force” (i.e., Jews such as Paul simply could not have treated Jesus as divine, no matter what his epistles may appear to reflect), and for others such as Bauckham “monotheism” has “exclusive force” (= “an absolute divide between God and all created reality”), and granting that, though these views are “impressive, logically and methodologically,” they are also “problematic.”  Casey’s position is “untenable,” and Bauckham’s “a completely black-and-white picture” that insufficiently takes account of the more “variegated and open-ended” Jewish traditions of the time.  Chester agrees with me (and others) in judging that what I have called ancient Jewish “principal agent” traditions likely did afford earliest Jewish believers initial conceptual resources for accommodating Jesus next to God.

And so while there is a legitimate academic conversation on this matter, Dr. Aslan’s presentation of it is either woefully unfamiliar with the state of contemporary research or simply dishonest.

Regarding the authorship of the New Testament, Dr. Aslan writes:

Almost every word ever written about Jesus was written by people who didn’t actually know Jesus when he was alive. These were not people who walked with Jesus or talked with Jesus. These were not people who ate with him or prayed with him.

And also:

In the year 66 [common era], [a Jewish revolt resulted in] actually throwing Rome out of the Holy Land and keeping them at bay for three and a half [to] four long years. Of course, in 70 CE the Romans returned and ended up destroying Jerusalem, burning the temple to the ground, slaughtering hundreds of thousands of Jews and scattering the rest to the winds. …

What I think is important for Christians to understand is that every Gospel story written about Jesus of Nazareth was written after that event, this apocalyptic event which for Jews signaled the end of the world as they knew it.

Again, while this is standard fare for the older liberalism, it hardly takes into account the full range, or even most of the full range, of academic work on the topic. Bishop John A. T. Robinson’s Redating the New Testament was first released in 1976 and argued that the entire canon was written prior to AD 70. Though his views did not fully carry the day, Bishop Robinson is not typically regarded as a fundamentalist. John Wenham’s Redating Matthew, Mark, and Luke argues for a mid-50s date for the gospels. Most recently is Richard Bauckham’s Jesus and the Eyewitnesses: The Gospels as Eyewitness Testimony, the thesis of which should be obvious.

Also, it should be noted, that as important as the destruction of Jerusalem and the temple was, it is not presented as the defining experience of Christianity in the New Testament. Rather, the undisputed holder of that position would be the Resurrection. It was the experience of Easter which so changed the “Jewish” followers of Jesus and pointed them towards their eventual “Christian” path. But to admit this would likely require one to admit that 1st century Christians actually believed that the resurrection literally happened, something which is likely unattractive to Dr. Aslan.

NPR’s Responsibility

Now is it really fair to make such a fuss over Dr. Aslan’s words? Isn’t he just functioning as a popularizer? This is a book promotional, after all. But that isn’t how it is presented by NPR (and it’s likely not how Dr. Aslan views his work, however unfortunately). Instead they describe Dr. Aslan as a “religious scholar” whose early evangelical indoctrination could not withstand the challenges of university-level research. In fact, when you click on the link to Zealot, you are taken to another page which explains that the book is “meticulously researched.” Even under the mood of objective reporting, NPR is sending a message with these interviews. It just happens to be mostly false.

A meticulously researched book by a credible religious scholar ought to take most of the names mentioned above into account, understanding their challenges to the proposed critiques and engaging with them in some detail. While there is some (very scanty) mention of Wright, Dunn, and Chilton, mostly a partial concession of diversity of views on a various subpoint, there is no extended interaction with the arguments that they make, and there is simply no mention at all of Bauckham, Hurtado, and so many other important contemporary scholars of early Christian and 2nd Temple Judaism. Zealot simply is not a high-powered academic work. It is functionally a summary of the work of other scholars (of the Jesus Seminar perspective) whose work has come under considerable challenge over the last 20 years. Only nowhere is the existence of this challenge admitted.

NPR ought to have some awareness of this reality. When it comes to other kinds of news, they pride themselves on putting out a high quality product with moderated editorializing. Yet when it comes to religion, the bar is considerably lowered. If NPR really were familiar with the state of academic Christianity– and do note that I’ve been referencing scholars from a variety of academic institutions with very different personalities and backgrounds– then something like Dr. Aslan’s book simply would not be presented as cutting-edge or even impressive. The interviewer would have asked pointed questions which highlighted the obvious challenges to the book’s claims, and altogether more scrutiny would have been applied in the interest of intellectual honesty and academic accountability. But none of this happened, and it is quite likely that the lack of journalistic integrity on display here is not out of bad motives but rather sheer inability. NPR is out of its depth in discussions of religion, so much so that they do not themselves know how to judge the quality of the scholarship.

The Historical Jesus

It would be easy enough to respond to what’s been written here with a simple tu quoque. This is all just the bitter response of an Evangelical Christian, smarting under the rebuke of a differing academic point of view. After all, this site is called The Calvinist International. Who can take Calvinists seriously? Well, except for Marilynne Robinson of  course. But still, isn’t this all just sour grapes? Hardly.

As mentioned above, N.T. Wright is a fairly well-known name in New Testament scholarship. Actually that’s an understatement of massive proportions. N.T. Wright is currently one of the hottest items on the market when it comes to New Testament studies, especially Christian origins. While his work is certainly not above all critique, and while the mere mention of his name is not in itself a decisive argument, it seems reasonable that leading journalists would be aware of his stature in this field and incorporate that factor into their reporting.  Also as already mentioned, Dr. Aslan’s work is essentially in line with that of “the Jesus Seminar.” Dr. Wright has written very critically of this historical and ideological methodology. A good introduction would be this essay, but we can also quote from his article The Historical Jesus and Christian Theology:

The quest for the historical Jesus began as a protest against traditional Christian dogma, but when the supposedly ‘‘neutral” historians peered into the well, all they saw was a featureless Jesus. Even when scholars decided that other biblical figures—John the Baptist, the evangelists, Paul, the “Q” people, and so on—were at home in a richly-storied and symbolic world. Jesus himself was not allowed to act symbolically, to criticize his contemporaries, to think theologically, to reflect on his own vocation, or to evoke any of the various meta-narratives with which his Jewish world was replete. At this point objectivist historiography begins to eat its own tail; it has now decided that it dislikes the taste, which is hardly surprising.

Notice that the Jesus which NPR is now reporting about as news was being described as dreadfully passé, and this is in 1996. 17 years ago, the Jesus Seminar was thought to be outdated and no longer challenging or even very credible.

Bruce Chilton is not typically associated with conservative American evangelicalism, at least not in the way that such a description is used by the media. Dr. Chilton is a mainline Episcopalian who is active in Jewish-Christian dialogue and has taught at the most prestigious universities in the world. He too believes that the work of the Jesus Seminar was a failure. He also believes that those who are attempting to continue its methodology have failed to learn their lesson.

Dr. Chilton writes:

When I attended meetings of “The Jesus Seminar,” I found the overall standard of discussion high, and often stimulating. But I was an isolated – more often than not unique – advocate of searching out the connections with Judaism implicit within the Gospels. Yet the director of the Seminar, Robert Funk, frequently repeated a principle, and his insistence encouraged me to persist. He often quoted Norman Perrin’s advice that an assertion about Jesus in the Gospels cannot be evaluated in historical terms until we have evaluated the history of the traditions of which that assertion is a part. Any consistent pursuit of that approach, of course, would eventually necessitate analysis of the Aramaic connections of the Jesus tradition.

In various presentations at meetings of the Seminar and in its journal, I called attention to signs of Aramaic antecedents in the language of the Gospels and to indications of sources behind the Gospels, both written and oral. On the whole, however, my Judaic approach did not find much resonance within the majority.

Two factors played into that response. The first has to do with the sociology of graduate education in the field of New Testament and early Christianity, which has notoriously skimped on the study of Semitic languages, although Aramaic and Syriac, as well as Hebrew, were clearly major languages of Christianity alongside Coptic, Greek, and Latin until at least the time of the rise of Islam. The second factor was more specific to the Seminar: a pronounced preference for a Greek Jesus over an Aramaic Jesus. That preference was reinforced by fashion within the Seminar and a few other circles, which has since been contradicted directly by archaeological work, to describe Galilee as an urban and Hellenistic environment, where Greek was mostly spoken.

He continues:

Although the issue of the place of Aramaic in the study of Jesus never emerged as a contentious topic within the Jesus Seminar, it became increasingly plain by the beginning of the ’nineties that serious linguistic work would have to be conducted outside that setting. I regretted acknowledging this was the case, but as I did so, my interest in the work of the Seminar inevitably waned. At the same time, the Seminar’s Hellenistic bias in the use of archaeological evidence and anthropological analysis was becoming increasingly obvious within the discipline of New Testament study. Jesus’ cultural setting had clearly been misjudged in much of Seminar’s deliberations during the ’eighties, and today its findings are widely recognized as being idiosyncratic.

An incautious treatment of sources was bound to emerge in the Seminar. Unlike the careful discussion that typically preceded votes by Fellows on what was authentic and what was not, voting itself was often a scrappy affair. Despite its overall and undeniable success, the Seminar’s membership shrank within a few years to approximately 80 more or less active members. This shrinkage of the total number of Fellows, together with a sporadic attendance at meetings that resulted in changing interpretative principles from season to season and year to year, exacerbated one of the Seminar’s most persistent weaknesses. Although its founding ethos stressed the importance of open, public debate among professional participants, publicity prior to and during meetings often set up findings well in advance of discussion, with results that distorted, not only the conduct of the Seminar, but the way in which its findings were reported. For example, Fellows were known to deny to the press that Jesus had ever prayed; he was portrayed as a Cynic philosopher despite evidence to the contrary that was always overwhelming; and Galilee has been treated as an urban, non-Jewish environment despite archaeologists’ findings to the contrary. Added to all these factors, the drive for results sometimes led to a retaking of votes, both within a given meeting, and from meeting to meeting, producing the effect of a push-poll in an election campaign.

These are damning criticisms. Have things gotten better since then? Dr. Chilton does not believe so:

The challenge for “The Jesus Project” is to learn from the mistakes of “The Jesus Seminar.” I have contributed work to the Project, but I cannot so far report any great signs of progress…

The Committee for the Scientific Examination of Religion has put its reputation on the line in sponsoring “The Jesus Project,” but so far amateurism, special interest advocacy, and a lack of critical focus have undermined a commendably earnest intent. Anyone who has followed the work of “The Jesus Seminar” should have learned long ago that Fundamentalists are not the only partisans who permit their wishes to cloud what they see and that it takes more than a declaration of “objectivity” to acquire the discipline of reasoning from evidence, both textual and archaeological. But I gave the Seminar time, and I can see no reason not to hope that genuine exchanges of insight and a deepening of knowledge might emerge from the so far conventional proceedings of “The Jesus Project.”

The point of this brief examination of high-profile criticism of “The Jesus Seminar” and its children is to show that such work is not taken very seriously today, particularly by experts in New Testament and 1st century studies. A significant number of academics regard it as an outright embarrassment. And yet NPR seems to have little awareness that such is the case. Given the ubiquitous criticism available, one would think that some push-back or skepticism would accompany their treatment of Reza Aslan’s Zealot.

What we get instead feels like marketing.

By Steven Wedgeworth

Steven Wedgeworth is the associate pastor of Faith Presbyterian Church in Vancouver, British Columbia. He writes about theology, history, and political theory, and he has taught Jr. High and High School. He is the founder and general editor of The Calvinist International, an online journal of Christian Humanism and political theology, and a Director for the Davenant Institute.

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