Wednesday, September 18, 2013

The Historical Record Suggests That Jesus Was Unique

9/18/2013—Last night my wife, Patt, and I went to hear Reza Aslan, the author of Zealot, speak about The Politics of Jesus. Aslan is a very winning figure. He is a very fine speaker and seems to be the kind of person you would want to get to know better. Nevertheless, the actual message he delivered was utterly unpersuasive.

I have not read Zealot yet, but what I heard last night is broadly consistent with what reviewers about the book have said: Aslan presents the Jesus of history contrasted with the Christ of faith. The Jesus of history is not distinguishable from the other would-be messiahs of Jesus's time. Jesus's message was that as Messiah he would reestablish the Jewish Commonwealth, oust the Romans and reverse the position of the poor and the rich. This was not much different from what other, similar leaders of the time said to their followers. Aslan said that as a historian, this had to be his perspective. The choice is between a Jesus who fits in his time and place and a Christ who is unique. It is possible that Jesus meant something different by Messiah than did others and it is possible that his exhortations were meant in a more spiritual vein, but it is not probable.

Aslan was then asked the obvious question: why did the Jesus movement survive when none of the other movements did? Aslan's answer was that the followers of Jesus were buoyed by the ecstatic experience described as the resurrection of Jesus and they then began to reinterpret what it meant to be a Messiah.

This is unconvincing because it puts all the weight on the followers of Jesus and none on Jesus himself. There must have been something in Jesus's message, clearly not fully understood while he lived, that suggested this new kind of Messiah.

The unpersuasiveness of Aslan's position is further shown in his response to the second question: would the Jesus movement have developed differently if the James' center of the church in Jerusalem had not been destroyed by the Romans in 70? Aslan described James as the head of the Jewish movement for Jews that was willing to bring non-Jews into the movement as long as they became Jews and followed Jewish law.

But then Aslan admitted that James did not require circumcision of these converts. Jokingly, Aslan called this a good marketing strategy, which is when I left. What Aslan does not seem to understand is that no Jew in the world at that time outside the Jesus movement would have conceived of becoming a Jew without circumcision. James was already not following the law.

The fact that the Jesus movement immediately turned outward, radically including non-Jews in the community, and creating the Paul's ministry to the Gentiles, which was done on the authority of James, shows that fundamentally the universalization of Jesus and Judaism had already begun and would have continued more or less in the same way had Jerusalem not been destroyed. This universalization is the fruit of the uniqueness of Jesus in the first place.

The uniqueness of Jesus is also shown in the way that he opposed Rome. The dichotomy between a celestial Christ and the political Jesus that Aslan also proposed is simply too stark. Like all other Jews, Jesus did oppose the Roman occupation. But everything recorded about Jesus and everything in the historical record describing the actions of his followers prior to 70, suggests that this opposition was not only nonviolent but grounded in a different understanding of the Kingdom of God. Jesus urged meeting the enemy in love. Again, Jesus is unique. He is not just extraordinary.

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