Thanks to (possibly in reaction against?) a prejudice-confirming, cringe-inducing interview on Fox News Aslan’s book has ascended to the top of bestseller lists, which are usually less interested in Jesus than they are in life lessons gleaned from dogs.
If not for the viral Fox News interview and the author’s own Muslim biography, Aslan’s book might have disappeared with nary a notice like the many that have come and gone before it.
I think this most certainly would’ve been its fate. I say this because, unlike the Fox ‘journalist’ who interviewed Reza Aslan, I’ve actually read his book.
And while his arguments may be challenging for Christians and the questions raised by them good ones,
Aslan essentially regurgitates 19th century German historical-biblical criticism that first posited and then went down the rabbit-hole searching for the ‘real’ Jesus of history behind the propagandized Jesus of faith put forward by the authors of the New Testament.
It’s a happy coincidence that Karl Barth can enter this conversation through 2 different doorways- 3 if you want to talk about how Barth, author or the Barmen Declaration, would feel about the jingoism frequently on display on Fox News.
Karl Barth’s theological program, first in his commentary on Romans and later in the CD, was an explicit attempt to disavow the 19th century German theological and biblical scholarship mentioned above, which Barth had inherited as a student near the turn of the century.
Barth had seen firsthand, in the capitulation of the Church to the Kaiser in WWI and in the horrors committed by German ‘Christians’ in WWII, the devastating effects of searching for a Jesus of history rather than submitting to the Jesus of faith. If the root sin beneath all sins is idolatry- our wishing to fashion a god in our image- then Barth believed constructing a portrait of the ‘historical Jesus’ had proved a fatal temptation.
Before anyone gets too excited about Zealot, I think Barth would caution that historical Jesus conjectures made possible the Nazis’ de-judaizing Jesus which made possible their dehumanizing of Jews.
One of arguments- asides really- in Aslan’s book is that the New Testament’s portrayal of Jesus as possessing the power to perform miracles is hardly a novel conceit. Jesus of Nazareth was certainly not the only miracle worker in 1st century Palestine, Aslan argues. Jesus’ ability to perform miracles, he says, does not prove or even imply his divinity, a status later believers attributed to Jesus.
Aslan is correct in his assessment that Jesus was only one among many miracle-workers in Palestine.
In his suggestion that the New Testament does not present Jesus as uniquely singular miracle worker, Aslan is not only wrong he proves to be a shabby read of scripture.
Illustrating the adage that there’s nothing new under the sun, Karl Barth in §11.1 serves up a solid rejoinder to arguments like Aslan’s.
Just think, Barth writes, that the oldest Christian confession- older even than any part of the NT- is ‘Jesus is Kyrios.’
Consider that Jews, for whom the first commandment was sacrosanct and the reason behind centuries of suffering, would, within the first generation of disciples, call anyone but God ‘Lord.’
Jews had routinely irked Caesar’s ire for refusing to call him ‘lord.’
But quickly after Good Friday many took to calling Jesus ‘Lord.’
As Barth writes:
‘…it cannot possibly have happened unawares and unintentionally that this word (kyrios) used to translate the name of God Yahweh-Adonai was then applied to Jesus.’
Aslan notes that later believers attributed to Jesus claims Jesus himself did not make for himself; however, Aslan fails to mention that those believers would’ve been breaking the first and overarching commandment by doing so…unless something (like a Resurrection) had convinced them that this Jesus and Yahweh were one and the same.
Barth then turns to a miracle stories to illustrate this point.
The Gospels’ miracles stories do not suggest Jesus’ divinity by pointing to his ability to perform miracles. They do so by what is said in the miracles stories.
Take the healing of the paralytic in Mark. The story turns not on Jesus’ wonder-working but on a dispute about who has the power (ie, authority) to forgive sins.
To the Pharisees’ consternation, Jesus claims authority that belongs to God alone. The Pharisees, it should be pointed out to Aslan, accuse Jesus of what?
Ignoring their outrage, Jesus forgives the paralytic and heals him. The actual miracle here, Barth notes, is a secondary feature to the story.
The act of the miracle, Barth writes, is meant by the author as a visible confirmation that ‘the word spoken is God’s Word’ and, I would continue the logic, that the one who spoke that word is God.
“This is the meaning of the miracles ascribed to Jesus (and expressly to his apostles too…) and it marks off these miracles, however we assess them materially, as at any rate something very distinct amid the plethora miracle stories in that whole period.”