About a week ago, a reporter asked me to comment on the Reza Aslan dust-up. I told the reporter that I had not read Aslan’s book, and I thought that would be the end of that. Nevertheless, he still wanted my comments, so I agreed to talk narrowly about the infamous interview, which I did watch. Even though my academic specialty is New Testament studies, I still haven’t read the book, and I don’t have any plans to do so. Why?
We have to make our priorities when we read, and not every book that comes down the pike is worth the time. You have to have some ability to distinguish the wheat from the chaff even before deciding to read a book straight through. Sometimes you make the decision based on a quick perusal of the table of contents and the introductory chapter. At other times, you do it by reading reviews or watching an interview with the author. My decision not to read Aslan’s book was due to the latter.
After listening to Aslan’s interview, it became very clear that his book was a retread of material that has appeared in numerous works over the last century. It would be a reconstructed Jesus that attempts to get behind the canonical accounts rather than listen to them. As I told the reporter,
Aslan is selling a historically reconstructed Jesus, not the Jesus that appears on the pages of scripture. And that’s the bottom line here. The author doesn’t take the testimony of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John as reliable eyewitness testimony.
It’s not that I don’t read works that disagree with my own perspective on the reliability of the gospel accounts. I do (see here and here). Nevertheless it’s hard to justify setting aside time to read a work that is breaking no new ground. And apart from an awkward interview, I don’t think anyone would even be talking about the book. It is unremarkable.
Ross Douthat’s review of the book sealed the deal for me.
Aslan’s book offers a more engaging version of the argument Reimarus made 250 years ago. His Jesus is an essentially political figure, a revolutionary killed because he challenged Roman rule, who was then mysticized by his disciples and divinized by Paul of Tarsus.
The fact that Aslan’s take on Jesus is not original doesn’t mean it’s necessarily wrong. But it has the same problem that bedevils most of his competitors in the “real Jesus” industry. In the quest to make Jesus more comprehensible, it makes Christianity’s origins more mysterious.
In other words, there’s nothing new here. We’ve heard all of this before from scholars whose credentials are not in question.
Until the Fox News interview, there has been no buzz about this book among actual New Testament scholars. And it’s easy to see why. So no, I haven’t read the book, and I still don’t plan to.
[If you want to read a really helpful review by a New Testament scholar, I recommend the one by Gary Manning Jr. It's really well done.]