On Reza Aslan

by Brian Watson

Recently, Reza Aslan has caused quite a stir by publishing a book on Jesus, titled Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth.  Aslan has been interviewed by several major media outlets.  (It’s interesting that a man who writes an unorthodox view of Jesus is interviewed, while several conservative Christian authors are not.)  I have not read the book and I haven’t paid attention to much of the hype, but what little I’ve seen has raised some questions about the man’s intellectual integrity.

Just this morning, I read “10 Questions for Reza Aslan” in Time.  He says that his biography of Jesus does not use the New Testament as its primary source material.  Then, he claims, “The New Testament is not a historical document. It was written by communities of faith many years after the events that they describe.”  This assertion is left unchallenged.

To say that the New Testament is not historical is question begging.  It’s an assertion backed up by no evidence or argumentation.  The truth is that the New Testament documents (27 different histories or letters) are historical and claim to be so.  The books of the New Testament were written by those who knew Jesus or those who had access to eyewitness testimony.  Luke (the author of the Gospel that bears his name, as well as the book of Acts) begins his history of Jesus this way:

Inasmuch as many have undertaken to compile a narrative of the things that have been accomplished among us, just as those who from the beginning were eyewitnesses and ministers of the word have delivered them to us, it seemed good to me also, having followed all things closely for some time past, to write an orderly account for you, most excellent Theophilus, that you may have certainty concerning the things you have been taught.  (Luke 1:1-4 ESV)

That sounds like an historical account to me.  Now, you can claim that Luke was wrong about certain details, or that the whole Bible is a piece of fiction, but then you better have great evidence to prove those statements.  In fact, Luke proves himself to be a great historian, with accurate knowledge of the Roman Empire.  (For more on historical reliability of the Bible, see what I have written about the evidence for Jesus’ resurrection.)

One might also consider how John begin s the first epistle that bears his name:

That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we looked upon and have touched with our hands, concerning the word of life—the life was made manifest, and we have seen it, and testify to it and proclaim to you the eternal life, which was with the Father and was made manifest to us—that which we have seen and heard we proclaim also to you, so that you too may have fellowship with us; and indeed our fellowship is with the Father and with his Son Jesus Christ.  (1 John 1:1-3 ESV)

The New Testament is a collection of historical documents that report what eyewitnesses have seen, heard, and even touched.  This is history with a purpose, to be sure, but all historical writing is written for a purpose.  And all historical writing is written from a certain bias.  This is true whether it’s Reza Aslan, Paul, John, Luke, or Josephus.

The fact that that the New Testament books were written some 20-65 years after the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus is no bother when you understand that many accounts throughout history were written years after the events they describe.  The number of manuscripts we have of the New Testament are far more than any other ancient historical documents.  And they are far closer in time to the original writings.  (For more details, again, see here.)

What we now of Jesus comes to us primarily through the New Testament.  Other ancient writers, whether Christian, Jewish, or pagan, also report some facts about Jesus, but they are minimal.  (For more information on non-Christian evidence, see my article on the resurrection.)

My guess, without reading the book, is that Aslan has constructed a Jesus who is no different than his contemporaries.

There’s another bit of evidence that Aslan might not be a man of integrity.   He seems to have misrepresented his credentials during a recent interview with Fox News.  I saw the interview, and while I am in now way defending the tactics of the interviewer, I don’t think Aslan came across very well, either.  He kept repeating his credentials and his description of his degrees was misleading at best.   (Here’s another article on the same subject.)

All of this reminds me of a very important point: in order to arrive at the truth, one must be true.  To be an intellectual, one must possess certain virtues, namely honesty.  But honesty isn’t a matter of intelligence or education.  No, it’s a matter of morality, of integrity.  If the author does not have some motivation to be honest, then there is no guarantee that his or her work reflects the truth.

There have been many books written about Jesus that are full of false statements.  I imagine these books will continue to be written.  There is nothing new under the sun.  But let us all, including the media, be more critical of these books and the integrity of their authors’ work.