Today the Bible History Daily newsletter featured a lecture by Craig A. Evans on Jesus and the exorcists. I’ve posted it here as well. Enjoy!
Today the Bible History Daily newsletter featured a lecture by Craig A. Evans on Jesus and the exorcists. I’ve posted it here as well. Enjoy!
Reza Aslan, Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth (New York: Random House, 2013)
Note: This review will be used by Christianity Today as well.
Reza Aslan’s Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth resurrects the theory that Jesus’ ministry and death are best explained against the background of Jewish zealot movements at the turn of the era. There is little here that is new. The ablest presentation of this line of interpretation was argued by S. G. F. Brandon in 1967. Few followed Brandon then; virtually no one does today. I doubt very much Aslan’s fresh take on it will win a following—at least not among scholars.
Aslan, who is writing for non-experts, describes Jewish zealotry (largely in terms of zeal for the temple and for Israel’s Law of Moses) and surveys some of Israel’s history between the Testaments. He reviews the attempts of a number of men who attempted in one way or another to throw off either the Herodian or Roman yoke and win freedom for Israel. He places Jesus of Nazareth and his following squarely into this history and social setting. Jesus’ proclamation of the coming kingdom of God was a call for regime change, for an end of Roman hegemony over Israel and an end of a corrupt and oppressive aristocratic priesthood.
The regime change that Jesus and his followers anticipated did not take place. Jesus was arrested and executed, along with two other rebels. Not long after—however it happened—Jesus’ followers became convinced that their master had been raised from the dead and that his mission had not been a failure after all. Unlike other zealot movements that ceased after the deaths of their respective founders, the Jesus movement not only continued, even in the face of severe opposition, it flourished, soon reaching large numbers of non-Jews.
This is where it gets interesting. With the conversion of Saul of Tarsus (who becomes the well known Paul the apostle of New Testament letters and the book of Acts), the Jesus movement began to be pulled in two directions. One camp remained loyal to the very Jewish roots of Jesus and his family, while the other increasingly came to view Jesus as a divine figure, a figure very attractive to non-Jews who otherwise had little interest in traditional Jewish thinking and living. It was the latter wing of the Jewish movement that eventually won out, thus creating a new religion, one destined to have the most followers around the world. Ironically, what it became was not what its founder proclaimed or intended. So Aslan contends.
There are numerous problems with Zealot, not least the fact that it heavily relies on an outdated and discredited thesis. But it also introduces a number of its own novel oddities and implausibilities. Aslan has canvassed much of the responsible scholarship in the field, but he does not always choose his options prudently. He often opts for extreme views and sometimes makes breathtaking assertions. I cannot help but wonder if Aslan’s penchant for creative writing is part of the explanation. Indeed, Zealot often reads more like a novel than a work of historical analysis.
Aslan assumes the latest dates for the Gospels and Acts, dating Mark after 70, Matthew and Luke-Acts in the 90s (perhaps later), and John somewhere between 100 and 120. After assigning such late dates he declares that there is no eyewitness tradition (without any engagement with Richard Bauckham’s important work on this subject). The circularity of this reasoning is hard to miss.
Zealot is riddled with errors, probable errors, and exaggerations. Aslan tells us a builder (Greek: tekton) in Nazareth had “little to do” (p. 34). Excavations at Nazareth and nearby Sepphoris suggest otherwise. Being a builder (or “carpenter”) mean that “Jesus would have belonged to the lowest class of peasants in first-century Palestine” (p. 34). Where does this come from? Sepphoris, a major city of Galilee, is said to be “a day’s walk” from Nazareth. Actually, it takes a jogger about 45 minutes. Scholars will be surprised to learn that Jesus ben Ananias (d. 70 CE), mentioned by Josephus, prophesied the “imminent return of the messiah” (p. 53). He did no such thing.
Aslan would have us believe that in an interval of one or two years (the time Jesus spent with John the Baptist) Galilee had become “urbanized, Hellenized, iniquitous” (p. 93). Previously it had been a place of family farms and open fields and blooming orchards. Excavations at Sepphoris indicate that even this large, somewhat Hellenized city had not adopted foods and customs contrary to Jewish law and traditions in the time of Jesus. In fact, excavations throughout Galilee have revealed how faithful to the Law of Moses the people were. When Jesus commands the cleansed leper to show himself to the village priest and do as Moses commanded, Aslan thinks “Jesus is joking” (p. 112). The discussion of magic and miracles (pp. 105–9) is confusing and inconsistent.
When transliterating the Greek for the nominative plural “apostles” Aslan gives us the genitive singular apostolou, instead of the expected apostoloi. Aslan assigns Eusebius to the third century, but the Christian apologist and historian flourished in the fourth century (p. 149). Aslan assumes throughout that Jesus and his disciples were illiterate (e.g., p. 171: “they could neither read nor write”; 178: “illiterate peasants from the backwoods of Galilee”). There is no engagement with scholarship that suggests otherwise. We are also told that James the brother of Jesus wore “simple garments made of linen, not wool” (p. 197). But linen was worn by the wealthy (see Luke 16:19), not the poor and simple.
The real problem of Zealot is seen in its exaggeration of the differences between Paul and the original apostles. There is no question that Paul sharply disagreed with Peter and other leaders over the question of the role of the Law of Moses in the lives of non-Jewish converts. But Aslan would have his readers believe that the debate centered on Christology, the divinity of Jesus, rather than on Ecclesiology, life in the Church. But the debate as described in the book of Acts and in Paul’s letters (see esp. Galatians) centers on food laws, sabbath observance, and circumcision, not on the divinity of Jesus (pp. 180–81). Aslan would have done well to consult David Wenham and others who show that claims to the effect that Paul invented Christianity are misguided.
Recent media coverage has drawn attention to Aslan’s Muslim heritage. As he himself explains, he was raised as a nominal Muslim, became a fundamentalist Christian as a teenager, then later abandoned his new faith after being exposed to biblical and historical criticism in his later education. Aslan earned a PhD in sociology and is now a professor of creative writing. I see nothing in his book that reflects distinctive Islamic beliefs about Jesus. The Quran, for example, explicitly asserts that Jesus was not executed but rather one like him (i.e., Simon of Cyrene, who assisted Jesus with the cross) died (see 4:157–58). Aslan contradicts this strange teaching (which apparently originated with the second-century heretic Basilides), rightly emphasizing the reality and brutality of Jesus’ death on a Roman cross.
At points Aslan’s book is informative; it is often entertaining. But it is also rife with questionable assertions. Let the reader beware.
Craig A. Evans
Acadia Divinity College
I received notification late last week that I have been accepted as a doctoral student into Trinity College, Bristol, UK. I will begin this September. Trinity College is in affiliation with the University of Bristol, so if I complete my program my diploma will come from the university. Bristol is located in South West England. I won’t be relocating though since this program allows you to live elsewhere while visiting several weeks a year to earn residency.
Dr. Wenham received his Ph.D. from Manchester University and he has had a long career as a scholar and academic administrator. Currently, he is a part-time tutor. Wenham is a man who has a reputation for connecting the academy to the church. I appreciate this since I find the divide between the two to be quite concerning. Wenham’s scholarly expertise is the Gospels and Paul. Much of his academic career has been spent examining the connection between Paul and Jesus. (Recently I reviewed Wenham’s Did St. Paul Get Jesus Right? The Gospel of Paul, found here.)
Dr. Craig A. Evans is the Payzant Distinguished Professor of New Testament Studies at Acadia Divinity College. He received his Ph.D. from Claremont Graduate University. He is a recognized authority on the Dead Sea Scrolls, the New Testament, and Christian origins. Evans has been producing high level scholarship on these topics for many years now (see his CV!) and I think he is one of the best scholars in the world. I am humbled and excited to be students of these two fine men.
In the UK a student begins the dissertation process immediately. My proposed dissertation is “Jesus the Spirit-Baptizer: Messiah, the Spirit, and the Juxtaposition between Jesus and John the Baptist in the Context of the First Century”. I have been fascinated with early Jewish and Christian pneumatology for a while now, especially after reading John R. Levison’s Filled with the Spirit (who has become a friend and an important mentor is recent years). I realize that I think of the holy S/spirit through the lens of Christian doctrine (which isn’t necessarily bad, but it can be anachronistic) to the neglect of how spirit language would have been used in the first century, both during the time of Jesus and as the Jesus movement evolved.
Similarly, the figure of John the Baptist is not given adequate attention. This is not to say that there are not fabulous books on John. Recently I had been reading through Joan E. Taylor’s The Immerser: John the Baptist within Second Temple Judaism and Robert E. Webb’s John the Baptizer and Prophet, but there is far more to say about John in my opinion. John is one of the most important figures for the early Jesus movement and all four Gospels and the Book of Acts have something to say about his identity, which means he remains a problematic figure into the late first century, at least. Whenever these works juxtapose Jesus and John the appeal is to Jesus’ identity as the one who will baptized or has baptized with S/spirit. Why? Why does this make Jesus greater than John? Does this solidify Jesus’ identity as the Messiah while disqualifying John from that title? Would this point have been readily received by the earliest readers? My goal is to answer questions such as these and many more.
Now, I am aware of the debate between studying in the US or the UK (or elsewhere). I know there are good reasons for both, but let me say that the two most important factors for me were (1) with whom I would study and (2) what I would study. Trinity College allowed me to study with Wenham and Evans and my proposal was accepted. Aaron White who is a student in the program I am joining has written a nice piece explaining the other important advantages/disadvantages of the program and I think he does a fine job at summarizing the matter so I will point you toward it: Advantages/Disadvantages to Long Distance PhDs.
A parting plea: pray for me! I’m nervous to say the least. I know the job market post-graduation is ugly. I don’t know what the future holds in that regard. I do know I want to do this though and I have the support of those closest to me. That makes me excited.
“Jesus states, ‘All authority on heaven and earth have been given to me” (v. 18). Reference to being given authority in heaven and on earth recalls the Son of Man in Dan 7:13-14, who in heaven was given ‘authority’ and authority later claimed ‘on earth’ (cf. Matt 9:6, ‘the Son of Man has authority on earth’; Matt 21:23, ‘By what authority are you doing these things, and who gave you this authority?’; Matt 7:29, ‘he taught them as one having authority’). The heavenly authority of Jesus is such that he even commands angels (cf. Matt 16:27, ‘the Son of man is to come with his angels in the glory of the Father’; 24:31; 25:31, ‘the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him’).
“The ‘authority’ here in Matt 28:18 probably alludes to the authority granted to the ‘Son of Man’ in Dan 7:14: ‘And royal authority was given to him…his authority is an everlasting authority’ (NETS). The risen Jesus can speak of his authority ‘in heaven’ because that is where the authority was granted –in heaven and in the very presence of God. The claim to have authority ‘on earth’ recalls Jesus’ earlier demonstration that he indeed does possess this authority, which he announced on the occasion of healing the paralyzed man (cf. Matt 9:6, ‘the Son of Man has authority on earth’).”
Quite the imagery: the Son of Man figure receives authority from the Ancient of Days and authoritatively commissions his disciples to make disciples of all the nations. In Daniel 7 the Son of Man figure is given the Kingdoms. Jesus has been given the Kingdoms, so he instructs his disciples to inform the Kingdoms that there has been a change. This seems to be underpinned by Psalm 2 as well where God choses his King and the nations prepare their defense against him, yet in this Gospel the King expects his disciples to find loyalist among the nations who will declare their allegiance to the King.
Craig A. Evans delivered a sermon on Mark 2:1-12 at New Minas Baptist Church as part of a series titled, “Christmas in Question”. He addresses the historicity of the person of Jesus, the reliability of the Gospels, what this text says about Jesus, and how we should think about Jesus in a world where novel ideas about his person swirl about us every day.
You can listen to it here.
In my recent entry “Three hermeneutical paradigms to use when studying the doctrine of the virgin birth” I referred to the use of Isaiah 7:14 in Matthew 1:23 as “awkward”. I was questioned about this, and I tried to provide my rational in response, but I think I may have found a more articulate way of saying what I was aiming to say. In Craig A. Evans’ Matthew (NCBC) he represents the view I hold and he frames things quite well. I have decided to reproduce it here.
As Evans completes his commentary on the infancy narrative he writes:
“At this point, we may inquire more closely into the question of historicity. Some commentators have suggested that the various components of the infancy narrative were produced through theological and typological interpretation of the scriptures of Israel. According to this line of thought, early Christian interpreters and apologist combed through the scriptures looking for clarification of the significance pf the life, ministry, and death of Jesus. Various texts, or ‘prophecies,’ were identified, which in turn created narratives. Understood this way, the infancy stories of the miraculous conception (Matt 1:18-25), the birth in Bethlehem and the inquiry of the magi (Matt 2:1-12), the flight to Egypt (Matt 2:13-15), and the murder of the infant (Matt 2:16-18) are not actual events in history but theological and midrashic creations.”
I should pause here to comment that Evans is not denying that the church studied the Scriptures to understand the meaning of Jesus. What he is denying is that in doing this there were a variety of obscure passages plucked from the text for no apparent reasons and applied to Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection. When it comes to these aspects of the infancy narrative of Matthew it seems quite odd that these passages would be chosen. Evans explains:
“All of this is possible, of course, but the evidence for it and the logic behind it are not as compelling as some think. It is not at all clear that the prophecy of Isa 7:14 would have given rise to a story about a virginal conception. There is no history of interpretation that anticipates either a miraculous conception or a messianic identity of the child in Isaiah 7. Neither was there an expectation that the Messiah was to be born of a virgin. Indeed, had the conception and birth of Jesus been conventional, one wonders why anyone would have introduced a story involving a divine conception. Such a story would have created difficulties, for in Jewish circles it could have been viewed in terms of pagan mythology, in which a god produces a child through intercourse with a mortal woman. It is more likely that Mary’s conception was indeed unexpected and unusual, and given the outcome– the amazing power of Jesus demonstrated in his public ministry and his astounding resurrection following his passion– the claim of his conception bu an act of the Holy Spirit of God becomes plausible.”
In other words, there was a tradition about the uniqueness of Jesus’ birth that informed Matthew’s exegesis of Isaiah rather than the text of Isaiah inspiring Matthew’s tradition about the uniqueness of Jesus’ birth. There is no need for a divine messiah, and even if someone thought messiah to be divine, there is no evidence that anyone thought this was possible through a virgin birth alone. Of course, the more skeptical readers of Matthew will not find this argument convincing, but I admit that it is an argument like this one that has caused me to pause when I hear people speak of Matthew creating a virgin birth story. Even if Matthew was being apologetic in defense of Mary’s reputation wasn’t an appeal to Joseph as Jesus’ legitimate father an easier answer than a virgin birth?
Evans concludes his thoughts with the following:
“It is probably better to see the tradition of Mary’s unusual conception and the belief that it was of God’s Spirit as generating an appeal to Scripture, not the Scripture generating the story of Mary’s immaculate conception. In other words, Isa 7:14 was understood to explain the irregularities surrounding the conception and birth of Jesus. The prophecy of Isaiah not only foreshadows the unusual conception of Jesus but places in into the context of Israel’s history, in which God’s saving work is revealed.” (p. 63)