Sunday, September 29, 2013

Five myths about Jesus

Reza Aslan, the controversial New Testament scholar, err, Professor of Creative Writing, has been doing some fairly effective promotion of his recent book Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth. One of the more effective promotion pieces has been an op-ed piece in the Washington Post, whose title and content seems purposely designed to increase the buzz: “Five Myths about Jesus”. With a title like that, I pretty much knew what to expect before I read it, and I wasn’t disappointed. I made a snarky post about it on Facebook, and one of my atheist/agnostic friends challenged me to write up a more extended interaction with his claims. This blog post is the result.

I ought to start by acknowledging that Aslan isn’t entirely off-base. As others have pointed out, Aslan isn’t really a New Testament scholar (nor am I), but there’s no doubt that he’s a better historian than certain other popularizers, like Dan Brown – meaning that most of what he has to say, even the most controversial bits, has in fact been defended by reputable scholars. (That’s not really the case with Brown, in case you were wondering; and trust me, you can find the strangest opinions defended by scholars whose reputation has somehow survived.) Beyond that, at least some of what he has to say in this brief op-ed is self-evidently true. But some of it was strange enough that it really called for rebuttal.

This is my take on his five points, ordered from self-evident to highly unlikely.

“Jesus had more than 12 disciples”

Umm, yeah. That’s pretty clear to any reader of the New Testament and is completely uncontroversial. I’m pretty sure I remember being taught this in my second grade Sunday School class. The Greek word for disciple is simply mathetes (μαθητης), which means “learner” or “student”. And lots of folks followed Jesus to learn from him, many in an official or semi-official capacity. Aslan correctly notes that “disciple” is normally distinguished from the term “apostle” (αποστολος), which means something more like “official ambassador”, and denotes a somewhat closer relationship. On a side note, it’s worth pointing out that the term seems to be used somewhat differently in different parts of the New Testament. In the Gospels and in Acts, “apostle” seems to refer strictly to a member of The Twelve. Paul, however, uses the term more broadly, apparently referring to anyone who had received a personal commission from Jesus, including himself in that category, of course, but also folks you’ve never heard of, like Andronicus and Junia.

“Jesus was not an only child”

My Catholic friends might disagree with me here, but this does in fact seem to be the natural reading of the New Testament, which repeatedly refers to Jesus’ siblings. That said, I can’t quite dismiss out of hand the Catholic belief that Mary had no other children. It’s at least possible that James, Joseph, Simon and Judas were step-brothers or cousins – the semantic range of the Greek word adelphos (αδελφος) is not identical with that of the English word “brother”.  And as more than one Catholic scholar has pointed out, it would be a little odd to have the doctrine of the perpetual virginity of Mary become so quickly prominent (it was apparently taught by the middle of the 2nd century, and widely accepted by the fourth) if it was generally acknowledged in the first century that Jesus did in fact have biological brothers. Still, I remain suspicious, and I think the most natural reading of the evidence is that the marriage of Mary and Joseph was fruitful in every expected way.

“Jesus was not born in Bethlehem”

Just looking at it from a purely historical perspective, this one is a little tougher to decide, though I still end up on the other side of the issue from Aslan. He is entirely correct that the early church widely connected Jesus with Nazareth and to a much lesser degree with Bethlehem; he’s also correct that the earliest writers (such as Paul and Mark) don’t in fact connect Jesus with Bethlehem, while the two that do are somewhat later; and he’s equally correct that Micah 5:2 certainly played a role in the desire of Luke and Matthew to tell the story of Jesus’ birth in Bethlehem. (On a side note, I also think that the most likely explanation of the census described in Luke 2 is that Luke got mixed up. Jesus was born some 10 years earlier than the only census in Palestine around that time we know about. It’s not impossible that Luke is describing an otherwise unknown global census, using methods otherwise unknown, but I think the simpler explanation is that this is neither the first nor the last time an ancient historian got his dates wrong.) That said, there’s absolutely no extant tradition that places Jesus’ birth in Nazareth, and there are two (notoriously independent) accounts which place his birth in Bethlehem. It’s certainly plausible that Luke and Matthew independently made up (or relied upon fictional) stories which inaccurately placed Jesus’ birth in Bethlehem. But there are a lot more moving parts and hypotheses in an answer like that, and the simplest explanation of the available evidence seems to me that Jesus was in fact born in the City of David.

“Jesus was not buried in a tomb”

Aslan’s position on this seems highly doubtful to me. It may very well be true, as he claims, that the Romans usually left their crucified victims to rot on their crosses (though I’m not sure of the evidence for this). But it turns out that we actually don’t know know very much about Roman crucifixion practices, largely because the educated and enlightened historians who have told us most about Rome seemed to find the very mention of crucifixion distasteful, and have thus largely left it out of their accounts. But from the few mentions we have, and from the limited archaeological evidence, it’s clear that there were huge variations in how Romans dealt with crucified victims, and the one skeleton of a crucified Jew that archaeologists have found was indeed given a normal burial.

Beyond that, the Gospels indicate (what is already a historical probability) that in ordering the Roman soldiers to break the legs of the condemned, Pilate was doing his best to avoid giving undue offense to the Jews, who believed that allowing someone to remain hanging on a tree on a Sabbath and a holy day was offensive to God. This lends credibility to the idea that Pilate would not have insisted on Jesus’ hanging  on the cross until he rotted.

In addition, the story of the empty tomb goes back to the very earliest layers of oral and literary tradition, being found in all four gospel accounts, most notably Mark. There are, of course, enough variations in these accounts that it’s quite difficult to trace back exactly what happened that Sunday morning. (For instance, who precisely were the women that found the tomb empty?) Nevertheless, it’s difficult to claim that the empty tomb story is fictional through-and-through, as it’s not at all the sort of story that the early church would have invented. Among other things, the various gospel accounts, for all their differences, are each premised on the acknowledgement that nobody actually saw the Resurrection happen; and second, each of them admits that women – who generally weren’t allowed to give testimony in court – were the ones who found the empty tomb. This is not the story you’d make up out of whole cloth, but it’s exactly the sort of story you’d tell if you had no alternative, because everybody knew that’s what had happened.

“Jesus never had a trial before Pontius Pilate”

There’s no doubt that this is the weakest of Aslan’s five points.  In fact, I’ll confess that I neither understand his reasoning on this one, nor am I aware of any evidence for his purely historical claims, and consequently I hardly know where to begin. But I’ll start with the obvious. We have four largely independent accounts of a trial of Jesus before Pilate from the 1st century (five if you count 1 Timothy 6:13, eight if you add in the various passages from Acts, and even more if you want to move past the existing gospels and back to Q, L and M). Even Josephus’ description of Jesus’ death implies a significant degree of personal attention by Pilate to this matter. In fact, we have precisely zero literary or epigraphical evidence for any other scenario. This agreement of numerous independent sources raises the bar quite high for any claim that Jesus did not in fact have a trial before Pilate.

But even if the bar were much lower, Aslan’s arguments would fail to make it over the top.  Aslan’s primary argument is that:

In his 10 years as governor of Jerusalem, Pilate eagerly, and without trial, sent thousands to the cross, and the Jews lodged a complaint against him with the Roman emperor. Jews generally did not receive Roman trials, let alone Jews accused of rebellion. So the notion that Pilate would spend a moment of his time pondering the fate of yet another Jewish rabble-rouser, let alone grant him a personal audience, beggars the imagination.

But I simply don’t know what the evidence is for Aslan’s claim that Pilate “eagerly, and without trial, sent thousands to the cross”. Certainly both Josephus and Philo record that Pilate could be angry, vindictive and unjust; both record Pilate undertaking actions that virtually brought the Jews to revolt; and Josephus specifically records Pilate ordering two different massacres (and staying his hand at another). However, neither author was writing without biases of their own; and beyond that, so far as I can tell, nowhere in any ancient author does it say that Pilate had thousands of Jews put to death, let alone crucified or put to death without a trial. I’m willing to be corrected on this, but my tentative conclusion is that Aslan is simply making shit up. (If it turns out that I’m wrong on this, let me know, and I’ll update this paragraph – but the only real sources for Pilate’s career that we have are Philo and Josephus, and I’ve checked both. If Aslan is using their accounts as his basis for this paragraph, let’s just say that he’s making claims against Pilate that go significantly beyond what Pilate’s two harshest Jewish critics have to say.)

But even if Aslan has evidence for this that I’m not aware of – let’s say that there’s some other account of Pilate executing thousands of Jews after an insurrection that didn’t make it into the Antiquities – that’s entirely beside the point for how Pilate would act when confronted with one particular teacher whom the Jewish leadership desperately wanted dead. Remember, these are precisely the Jewish authorities with whom Pilate has had extremely frosty relations. I can’t imagine Pilate – during a crowded and emotional Passover in Jerusalem, of all things – simply allowing a popular Jewish rabbi to be put to death without asking that rabbi a few pointed questions. What if he could hold him hostage, and use his release as a stick (or his execution as a carrot) in some tricky upcoming negotiations with the high priest? What if this rabbi had brought a few thousand armed followers down from Galilee for the festival? Putting the wrong Jew to death at the wrong time, as Pilate discovered quite early in his career, could have sparked an all-out conflagration. Pilate would have to have been radically more shortsighted and foolish than the scheming politician painted by either the Gospels, Josephus or Philo not to simply want to know what the hell was going on in his province.

Other than my friend on Facebook, I can’t imagine anyone who would actually be interested in my opinion on Reza Aslan’s opinions about the historicity of the Gospel accounts of Jesus' life and death – but there you have it.

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