Just another straw man
OKLAHOMA CITY -- Last July, Lauren Green, Chief Religion Correspondent for the Fox News Channel, did Reza Aslan a big favor: she interviewed him. During the interview, she made it obvious she hadn’t read his book Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth, focusing instead on his status as a Muslim and framing his work as an Islamic attack on Christianity.
After reading the book myself, I can think of many questions Ms. Green could have asked Dr. Aslan, questions that could have sparked a vigorous debate about the nature of Jesus.
She could have asked about the role and function of the messiah in ancient Palestine. Some believed the messiah would restore the Jewish Nation to its former glory under King David who had ruled a united Israel, expanding the nation’s territory to its fullest extent. Others believed the messiah would initiate an apocalyptic age, annihilating the present world to make room for a utopian society where justice reigns supreme under the leadership of a new and righteous king and high priest.
To be clear, the idea of the messiah wasn’t a new one. Messiah means “anointed one,” and there are several anointed figures in The Hebrew Scriptures - mainly kings, prophets, and priests. King David was one such figure anointed by Israel’s last judge, Samuel (1 Samuel 16:12-13). Isaiah refers to Cyrus the Great of Persia as an anointed figure (Isaiah 45:1) when he releases the Jews from their captivity in Babylon, allowing them to restore the temple in Jerusalem.
The messiah was a person given a special divine function, though it did not have to apply to someone without sin (i.e. King David’s affair with Bathsheba) or to someone of Jewish ancestry (Cyrus of Persia). To be sure, the idea of the messiah evolved over time into someone of eternal authority as seen by Daniel’s reference to “the Son of Man” (Daniel 7:13).
Ms. Green could have debated Aslan about the nature of the Son of Man, whether or not this designation is synonymous with the idea of Jesus as the Son of God. She could have asked him why he expresses some doubt on whether the historical Jesus actually claimed to be the Son of God.
Ms. Green could have asked about the nature of a zealot, exploring the significance of the bandit chief Hezekiah who had the audacity to call himself messiah only to find himself captured and beheaded. They could have remarked about how Hezekiah’s fate foreshadows the fate of John the Baptist, which would have opened the door for a discussion about whether or not John the Baptist himself was a zealot. They could have discussed Aslan’s exploration of the possibility that Jesus might have been a disciple of John the Baptist.
She could have debated Aslan about whether or not Jesus was a zealot, pointing out that Jesus had not tried to challenge the Roman establishment through military means, that he had only criticized the corruption of the temple’s money changers. She could have highlighted how his healings had offended the priestly class because they traditionally had sole authority to grant
absolution and expel demons, all for a fee of course. There could have been a discussion about whether or not Jesus had aspirations for kingly rule in a kingdom of this world or in a heavenly kingdom to come. \
Ms. Green could have asked Aslan about the conflict between James (the brother of Jesus) and the Apostle Paul, challenging his assertion that Paul might not have been a real apostle. She could have asked Aslan to explain why Paul’s teachings about the divinity of Christ distressed James and his followers in Jerusalem.
Aslan could have reminded her that many of the epistles attributed to Paul were written before the Gospels and that Paul’s Christology had informed the portrayal of Jesus in all four accounts.
He might have told her that Paul’s teachings prevailed over the teachings of James because Paul had been popular among the Gentile followers of Christ while many of the Jewish followers had been killed during the destruction of Jerusalem and the desecration of the temple.
Perhaps the most poignant evidence of Ms. Green’s neglect in reading Aslan’s book is her missed opportunity to use Aslan’s vivid rendition of the turmoil and sectarian conflict of first-century Palestine as a prop to criticize our present-day politics.
The Jews of the first century held themselves as the exceptional, chosen people of God and that the foreign presence in their land, the infusion of pagan/secular practices was defiling their kingdom and diminishing God’s blessings, invoking God’s wrath. She could have pointed to the succession of reformers and self-proclaimed messiahs as evidence of a society falling apart, drawing parallels to the United States as a nation falling away from the will of God. She could have stated that the fervent seeking of a messiah in the first century has resonance with the anticipated second coming of Christ.
This might have prompted Aslan to rebut her pronouncement of doom with an assertion that all ages seem on the verge of apocalypse, that all people of all times look to the future with angst and often reach into the past for a figure of hope and restoration. He could have reminded Ms. Green that his examination of Jesus’ historical context in no way diminishes his respect for the teachings of Christ handed down through scripture.
Oh yes, what could have been a spirited disputation has been lost to ignorance and intellectual laziness, by attacking a man’s status as a Muslim, by diminishing his academic credentials instead of challenging his ideas.
Well, at least she accomplished one thing: she inspired enough people to buy Aslan’s book to make it a best seller. I bet he’s laughing all the way to the bank.
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