The scandal of Reza Aslan’s Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth (Random House, July) is not so much in what he says but that so few people have heard it before. Public reaction to the book (especially after Fox News’s interview by Lauren Green—“cringe-worthy,” as several commentators said) demonstrates not only the difficulty biblical scholars face in translating the fruits of their research for nonspecialists but also the necessity of doing so.
That Jesus lived in the very real human conditions of first-century Mediterranean history, that he left no writings of his own, and that the biblical testimonies are not objective eyewitness reporting are axiomatic in biblical scholarship. This is not to say that Aslan’s book offers nothing new. It does, in casting a different angle of light on the revolutionary who was executed in Roman Judea through thought-provoking interpretation of Jesus’ historical context (as a Jew whose God-given land was under heretically foreign occupation) and of particular terms and texts, including the Greek lestes, which Aslan explains as “bandit”—a “zealot” in context. Not everyone will agree with each detail of Aslan’s argument, but it’s hard not to admire the book’s balance of scholarship, sensitivity, clarity of writing, and compelling narrative. Whatever one thinks of Aslan’s Zealot, the response to it highlights our widespread and enduring fascination with the man from Galilee.
“We are in a religion-soaked world entering into a new cycle of interest in Jesus,” notes Mark Tauber, senior v-p and publisher of HarperOne. Judging from new and forthcoming titles, it’s the historical Jesus that continues to dominate the discussion. (Tauber promises that next year Bart Ehrman’s How Jesus Became God, Amy-Jill Levine’s Short Stories by Jesus, and Fr. James Martin’s Jesus will add to the conversation.)
The World of Jesus
Reza Aslan anchors his book in Jesus’ religious and political context, something Selina O’Grady explores broadly and deeply in And Man Created God: A History of the World at the Time of Jesus (St. Martin’s, Mar.). O’Grady escorts readers across countries and continents, through Rome, Egypt, Syria, Judah, Parthia, Babylon, India, and China, circling back to Europe, Rome, Jerusalem, and finally the world of one peripatetic Paul (who has inspired his own spate of books this season; see “Now It’s Paul’s Turn,” in this issue). O’Grady’s engaging narrative illuminates the religiously vibrant and politically complex world that Jesus inhabited.
How ancient systems of empire affected and informed Jesus’ life and the gospel message is a fruitful question for contributors to Jesus Is Lord, Caesar Is Not: Evaluating Empire in New Testament Studies, edited by Scot McKnight and Joseph B. Modica (IVP, Apr. 2013). Following two articles on the topic in general, succeeding chapters focus on individual biblical books. McKnight (profiled in this issue) and Modica conclude, in the volume’s characteristically confessional tone, that despite the historical Roman context, it is finally the kingdom of Satan that the New Testament opposes. “To claim that Jesus is Lord is to place oneself in the servitude of an Emperor of a radically different kingdom—one which has no equal, now and forever,” the editors write.
Craig A. Evans sees a more concrete historical conflict at work in the evolution from a historical Jesus to the Christ, namely “competition between the family of Jesus, on the one hand, and the family of [the Jewish priest] Annas and their aristocratic allies, on the other.” In From Jesus to the Church: The First Christian Generation (Westminster John Knox Press, Feb. 2014), Evans shows that while that conflict proved fatal to Jesus and others, it shaped the generation that distinguished the religion of Jesus’ followers from Jesus’ own religion.
Who Was He?
In the decades following Jesus’ death, people continued to debate his identity and significance. Even among believers, then as now, there was more than one answer to the question. Who Do People Say I Am?: Rewriting Gospel in Emerging Christianity (Eerdmans, Sept.) is Vernon K. Robbins’s effort to show how the canonical gospels tried to tell about the man they believed to be divine, as well as how the other gospels, not finally included in the Bible, witness to the variety of ways that people thought about Jesus. The book’s rich information makes for slow going, but readers will be rewarded with more than passing knowledge of how such noncanonical books as the gospels of Thomas, Judas, and Mary and the Infancy Gospels of James and Thomas shed light on early ideas of Jesus and the shape of an evolving Christianity.
As intriguing as the noncanonical gospels have proven to be, the most titillating questions about the historical Jesus orbit around his sexuality. If a man, how much a man? Anthony Le Donne balances strong scholarship with sensitivity as he lays out the possibilities in The Wife of Jesus: Ancient Texts and Modern Scandals (Oneworld, Nov.). This is an eminently readable book for nonspecialists and specialists alike that contributes to the discussion with clarity and candor even as it challenges readers to ask what it is about ourselves that we might learn from our curiosity and concern.
Similarly, Andrew T. Lincoln allows a what’s-the-big-deal question to hover throughout his Born of a Virgin? Reconceiving Jesus in the Bible, Tradition, and Theology (Eerdmans, Nov.). He takes readers through the origins of and scriptural basis for belief in Mary’s virginity, asks how such early Christian conceptions as original sin and Jesus’ fully-human-and-fully-divine nature affected Christian commitment to the doctrine, and notes the challenges our knowledge about reproduction and DNA pose. Finally, Lincoln encourages believers to consider new ways to think about the old creeds.
Defending the Faith
How to manage faith-challenging information and its logical conclusions is an inevitable result of historical Jesus research. Joseph A. Bessler’s A Scandalous Jesus: How Three Historic Quests Changed Theology for the Better (Polebridge, Apr. 2013) provides a history of historical Jesus research and shows how those efforts are themselves historic, as they’ve “created a series of profound social, political, and theological impacts that have continued to shape and reshape our world.” Following a detailed overview of key players and moments in the trajectory of historical Jesus research, Bessler admits discomfort with what its implications do to the “ ‘old’ mainline churches,” but is finally optimistic about embracing “models of faith that go beyond official claim of right belief and supernaturalism.”
Others are less optimistic. Roger Lundin, editor of Christ Across the Disciplines: Past, Present, Future (Eerdmans, Oct.) sought contributors for the book who “strive to cultivate the life of the mind for the sake of the Body of Christ.” He explains, “[T]he chapters... become more confessional and apologetic in tone, as they set out to sketch specifically Christian responses to modern intellectual practices and thought.” Naturally, some contributors come across as suspicious of knowledge that might undermine received Christian theology and tradition, as for example John Webster: “Curiosity happens when intellectual activity is commanded by crooked desire.” Others seek new ways to manage discomfiting information. Katherine Clay Bassard describes a kind of “redemption” that “does not seek to rewrite the ‘facts’ or ‘truth’ of history but to reinvest those truths with new meanings and significance.”
It’s understandable that some scholars respond to historical Jesus research with anxiety and defense; after all, the stakes are high. Michael F. Bird’s Jesus Is the Christ: The Messianic Testimony of the Gospels (IVP, Mar. 2013) seeks to reclaim an original messianic message for the gospels. For “[w]here the claims of messiahship are denied or threatened, there emerges a Christology, a Jesus, different from the one received in the gospel and in the four Gospels!” Bird’s explanation of how the Greek christos evolved into a proper name will surely put off readers who know the term as a title, and not everyone will agree with how Bird defines Jesus’ messiahship. Others will applaud Bird’s efforts to clear what they perceive as a scholarly slight against Jesus as the Christ. It’s hard to imagine that anyone will disagree that Jesus’ messiahship is crucial to Christian theology.
Still others will keep looking for ways to integrate the fruits of a rigorous and open-minded intellect with the dynamic nature of a living faith. David Crump’s Encountering Jesus, Encountering Scripture: Reading the Bible Critically in Faith (Eerdmans, May) displays such an effort. Crump writes of a revelatory moment when after struggling to reconcile the academic with the spiritual, it hit him: “If my Christian faith had led me to a true relationship with Jesus Christ, then the Christ I now know by faith is the true Jesus of history.” While it borders at times on the mystical and is self-consciously tautological, Crump’s argument for the coexistence of reason and faith bears an appealing tone of authentic personal encounter, humility, and confidence.
Novelist and poet Jay Parini wrestles less mightily with the scholarship than with how whatever we might hear or know of Jesus (from biblical portraits to modern archeology) can make sense outside of literalist readings and traditional Christian paradigms. In Jesus: The Human Face of God (New Harvest, Dec.), Parini writes of what he calls “the gradually realizing kingdom of God,” which is neither hostile to scholarship nor anxious about belief. “Most crucially, [Jesus] wished for us to experience a change of heart... a deepening into fundamental layers of awareness that transforms and transports us, brings us into contact with profound realities.”
Honest scholarship admits its limits and is more powerful for it. In Zealot, Aslan writes that after Jesus’ death “something extraordinary happened. What exactly that something was is impossible to know. Jesus’s resurrection is an exceedingly difficult topic for the historian to discuss.” What we do know is that it wasn’t the end. Whatever one believes or doesn’t about Jesus the man or Jesus the Christ, we can be sure that our questions about him will continue to invigorate hearts and minds, generating many thoughtful books in the years to come.