The Washington Post recently published and article by Reza Aslan entitled Five Myths about Jesus.
At one level the article is the “usual fare” from those who wish to discredit the Biblical text and make a little money in the process. Indeed our deconstructionist times love to heap scorn on our Sacred text. Almost no other ancient text receives the scrutiny and cynicism that our Scriptures, especially the New Testament does. I’ll take it as a compliment. Jesus is “public enemy number 1” to the West. Neither Buddhist, Hindu, nor even (strangely) Muslim texts receive such scorn or scrutiny. But Jesus has to go, and one way to accomplish this is to seek to discredit our Sacred Text and subject it to a scrutiny that is extreme, unreasonable, and a standard to which almost no other ancient text is subject. But again, take it as a compliment.
As for Mr Aslan’s article, while there are many specific flaws in his article, the one overarching flaw is a flaw that is common to most 20th and 21st century historical scholars. And the flaw is the hubris that we, some 20 to 21 centuries removed from the events described, somehow know better than the ancients what really happened in biblical times. Never mind that! Yet, Luke, for example, claims to have interviewed eyewitnesses and claims to carefully mapped out the historical events surrounding Jesus:
Many have undertaken to draw up an account of the things that have been fulfilled among us, just as they were handed down to us by those who from the first were eyewitnesses and servants of the word. With this in mind, since I myself have carefully investigated everything from the beginning, I too decided to write an orderly account for you, most excellent Theophilus, so that you may know the certainty of the things you have been taught. (Luke 1:1-4)
Never mind all that, our intrepid author, Mr. Aslan, 21 centuries later somehow knows better than Luke who lived then and walked with the eyewitnesses. He also knows better than Matthew and John, James, Peter, and Jude who all walked with the Lord. He dismisses what they have all written as “shrouded in legend and myth” and couches what he says as reputable “biblical scholarship.”
In effect we are left to choose between someone who lived in the time coterminous with the events described, versus someone who lived more than 2000 years later. I for one, choose those who actually knew Jesus, and witnessed what he did. I further choose others like Luke and Mark who knew and interviewed the eyewitnesses and who wrote in the lifetime of those witnesses, such that had they lied or erred, correction and rejection would have been forthcoming. Yes, I choose the accounts of the actual witnesses whose accounts have been subject to 2000 years of scrutiny and have withstood those fierce winds.
Yet there are those who proudly suggest they now know better, that modernity has been able to somehow assemble a greater command of the fact. This is hubris.
This hubris was common among the so-called “Jesus Seminar,” a gathering of questionable scholars somehow claiming to know what Jesus actually said and did not say. A remarkable pride actually, but a pride not uncommon for us moderns who tend to look askance at ancient times as infantile and far less sophisticated than our own glorious times.
Articles like Mr. Aslan’s, say a lot more about us, than the events they claim to demythologize, or the ancients they disrespectfully dismiss as either mistaken or liars.
As to the particular charges that Mr. Aslan raises, we can answer them rather quickly:
1. He first says, – It is a myth that Jesus was born in Bethlehem: The first Christians seem to have had little interest in Jesus’s early years. Stories about His birth and childhood are conspicuously absent in the earliest written documents…..but prophecies require[d] the messiah, as a descendant of King David, to be born in David’s city: Bethlehem. But Jesus was so identified with Nazareth, Not being born in Bethlehem….Simply put, Luke places Jesus’s birth in Bethlehem not because it took place there but because that story fulfills the words of the prophet Micah: “But you Bethlehem . . . from you shall come for me a ruler in Israel.”
In the world of normal people, the fulfillment of a prophecy is evidence for the veracity of something. But in the twisted world of many Bible “scholars” the fulfillment of prophecy is contraindicative and produces suspicion. Mr. Aslan goes on to cite very questionable and murky histories about the first Century census that dislocated Mary and Joseph. Really what he does is to cite a lack of evidence for such a census. (But of course Luke IS evidence). And Aslan’s argument from silence really proves little or nothing except silence. Census taking was a common thing at the time and there is no reason to doubt Luke’s attesting to it.
He also uses a tired old tactic of saying that if something was not said in the earliest documents, it therefore isn’t true. But this does not follow. I may meet you and tell you nothing of the circumstances of my birth for months or years into our friendship. But it does not follow that I was not in fact born in St. Francis Hospital, Evanston Ill in 1961. Everything is not disclosed at once, it cannot be.
Once again we are simply told to trust our author over the actual source documents in which eyewitnesses were interviewed, eyewitnesses describe the events of Jesus birth. The Gospel states quite plainly that Jesus was born in Bethlehem. Why doubt this? At the end of the day, I would rather trust someone who lived at the actual time of the events than someone 21 centuries removed. Jesus was born in Bethlehem no reason to doubt it.
2. He says Jesus had brothers, Despite the Catholic doctrine of His mother Mary’s perpetual virginity, we can be certain that the historical Jesus came from a large family with at least four brothers who are named in the Gospels….Even the 1st-century Jewish historian Josephus refers to Jesus’s brother James….Some Catholic theologians have argued that the Greek word the Gospels use to describe Jesus’s brothers — “adelphos” — could also mean “cousins” or “step-brothers,” and that these could be Joseph’s children from a previous marriage. While that may be true, nowhere in the New Testament is “adelphos” used to mean anything other than “brother.” So there is no rational argument for viewing Jesus as an only child.
Note that he says “it may be true” that adelphos can mean cousin. But then he simply rejects it with a circular logic that the New Testament never uses the term this way. But how can he know this without the full genealogy of each adelphos of Jesus? Again we are simply asked to believe something because he and scholars he agrees with say so.
And, while this issue has been much debated among Christians for some 500 years, it was not widely debated prior to that. Early Christians, less remote from the events of the New Testament, had no trouble accepting that Mary had no other children or that adelphos could mean cousin.
Further, if Jesus was a member of a large family as Mr. Aslan asserts, we have some puzzling things that take place in the Gospels. For example, Jesus seems to find it necessary to entrust his mother to the care of John, a non-blood brother. Strange thing if they were other brothers on the scene. Further, Mary’s question to the angel “How shall this be since I know not man?” while mysterious, does seem to imply that Mary did not anticipate having children at all let alone Jesus. However one wants to interpret her question, it does remain a puzzling inclusion in the text if, in fact, she had many children.
But the bottom line is, the Church received from antiquity the teaching that Mary remained a virgin before during and after the birth of Christ. Why should you or I believe our intrepid author, 21 centuries later, simply because he overrules with those in the scene, and what subsequent early centuries attested to?
3. His third “myth” that Jesus did not rally have twelve disciples is trifling, and I won’t even spend time on it. You can click through to the article using the link above to read his point.
4. He denies that Jesus was tried before Pilate: 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.
So once again we are being asked to deny the evidence of four Gospels, several more references in the Acts and Epistles, and the evidence of most early Creeds. Why? Because Reza Aslan says so. Again I choose the massive evidence of the First Century documents over Mr. Aslan’s mere assertion that it seems unlikely.
Further his argument does not address the facts. Pilate attended with concern to the “Jesus matter” because he feared a riot. It was Passover and about a million Jews where in the and around the city. The concern for the riot got his attention. This does not “beggar the imagination” that Pilate might have sought to quell a riot and a “rabble” led by the High Priest himself.
5. Finally he denies that Jesus was buried in a tomb saying The primary purpose of crucifixion was to deter rebellion… the criminal was always left hanging long after he died; the crucified were almost never buried. Because the point of crucifixion was to humiliate the victim and frighten witnesses, the corpse would be left to be eaten by dogs and picked clean by birds of prey. The bones would then be thrown onto a trash heap….[not] in an extravagant rock-hewn tomb fit for the wealthiest men in Judea.
But Mr. Aslan omits two important facts. First it was Passover, and for this reason, the Romans deferred to requests that the bodies not be left out. Secondly, the burial in the tomb was favor to a wealthy and likely powerful man, Joseph of Arimathea.
Thus, however unlikely Mr. Aslan thinks the facts, they are reasonably explained to any reasonable listener.
We end where we began: the need for seculars and other non-Christians (I think Mr Aslan is Muslim) to debunk and try to disarm Christ and his Church. Why this need? Why do they seem to fear the untamed Jesus of Scripture? Were they as secular or as unconvinced as they say, they would not exhibit such need and passion to undermine him, they would just ignore us. But why the need to destroy, to undermine, why the passionate intensity? Does anyone passionately attack other religious traditions, to include Protestantism?
The answer seems clear enough to me, and I am complimented by it. Namely this, that Christ and His Church are public enemy # 1. Any read of history shows that we are not going away and that we have endured, even thrived in every upheaval. Civilizations and empires have come and gone in the age of the Church, nations have risen and fallen, heresies and silly theories have come and gone. And here we are, obnoxiously still standing foursquare against secularism, unbelief, Islamic Terrorism, and every error, every doctrine of demons. Strike us and we just get stronger, the blood of martyrs soaks into the ground and becomes seed.
The “Five Myths” column is a collection of either tired old theories, or simply claims that lack any basis other than Mr. Aslan pridefully says so. The Washington Post is just showing its true colors in publishing such stuff. But long after the Post is gone, (and it seems to be fading fast) the Church will still be here, perhaps suffering, perhaps thriving, but here, always here, by Christ’s promise. It isn’t human power, its God-power.
Attacks like these are ultimately a compliment and my mind drifts back to an old gloss: “Methinks thou dost protest too much.” ….Why is that?
And to my brethren in the ranks of the faithful: Keep Calm and Viva Christo Rey!