Apologetics: Jesus of Faith, Jesus of History, or Jesus of Eyewitness Testimony?

by Timothy Paul Jones

“The more I probed the Bible,” Reza Aslan declares in the introduction to his bestseller Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth, “the more distance I discovered between the Jesus of the gospels and the Jesus of history” (xix).

The result of this discovery—at least in Aslan’s estimation—is that the New Testament Gospels should be treated as texts that convey something other than “history.” Aslan is not, of course, suggesting that the Gospels themselves are somehow non-historical documents. Clearly, the New Testament Gospels are real documents that emerged at particular times in ancient history. What Aslan is claiming is the existence of a virtually unbridgeable gap between the stories the Gospels tell about Jesus and the actual events of history.

“The gospels are not, nor were they ever meant to be, a historical documentation of Jesus’s life,” Aslan writes. “They are testimonies of faith composed by communities of faith and written many years after the events they describe” (xxvi). In Zealot, Aslan sets out to repair this supposed breach with a reconstruction that identifies Jesus as the ringleader of a popular movement that the Romans perceived as potentially revolutionary. After a Jewish rebellion that resulted in the destruction of Jerusalem in the year 70, Christian leaders scrubbed Jesus’ reputation and declared him divine. As a result, “the gospels tell us about Jesus the Christ, not Jesus the man” (xxvi).

My focus in this post is not Reza Aslan’s placement of Jesus within a first-century zealot movement. Aslan’s claims are—despite the publisher’s dust-jacket declarations of “a fresh perspective” on Jesus—nothing new. Most of Zealot merely regurgitates a reconstruction similar to the one found in S.G.F. Brandon’s 1967 book Jesus and the Zealots, some of which represented refinements of Robert Eisler’s 1929 work about the meaning of Jesus’s kingship. Zealot provides “a fresh perspective” on Jesus only if last month’s lettuce can be considered fresh produce when it’s dropped in a new bag.

What I want to examine more closely is the method and assumptions that Reza Aslan maps out in his Introduction. As it turns out…

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Reza Aslan and “the Jesus of History”