Religious Scholar’s Book About the Historical Jesus Exposes Fox News’ Biases

Fox News’ Lauren Green, host of Fox News’ webcast “Spirited Debate,” interviewed religious scholar Reza Aslan this past weekend about his new book: Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth.

If you haven’t seen the interview, it was painful to watch. Lauren Green embarrassed herself and her network by attacking a scholar for writing a book in his area of expertise. It might be the worst Fox News interview ever (and there have been some bad ones).

What Green could not get over was that Aslan is a Muslim. That fact mattered far more to her than a PhD and four degrees (including one in the New Testament) and a fluency in New Testament Greek. What she demanded to know was, where does a Muslim get off writing a book about Jesus?

What Aslan wanted – and tried to make her understand – is that he is a religious scholar. He tried to point out to her that his conclusions about Jesus contradict not only Christian belief but also Muslim belief about Jesus. None of that mattered.

Watch and cringe:

From the moment these words leave Green’s lips, “You’re a Muslim. So why did you write a book about the founder of Christianity?” the interview is all downhill.

Green was being ridiculous. Fox News abounds with Christians who are so-called experts on Islam. No Fox interviewer to my knowledge has ever condemned any of them for being Christians writing about Islam.

From the outset, Green refused to accept Aslan’s findings because they disagreed with her beliefs. She attempted to refute him by citing people who disagree with him, revealing – among many other things – that she knows very little about how academia works.

As Aslan told her, “Of course, in any scholarly discussion of Jesus, as with any scholarly discussion of any ancient figure, there are going to be widespread differences.”

Of course, Aslan revealed he does not understand how conservative minds work when he bothered to mention his 100 pages of footnotes listing his sources as well as every scholar who agrees and disagrees with him. Facts are so…20th century.

In the end, her argument came down to this: that if Christian theologians disagreed with Aslan, then Aslan must be wrong. Belief trumps fact each and every time, after all. She could not wrap her head around the fact that this is a case of the Jesus of belief versus the Jesus of history.

Christianity is not a religion founded by Jesus, but a religion about Jesus, as Bart Ehrman has pointed out:

[I]f Jesus was the apocalyptic prophet that he appears to have been, then the Christianity that emerged after his death represents a somewhat different religion from the one he himself proclaimed. In the simplest terms, Christianity is a religion rooted in a belief in the death of Jesus for sin and his resurrection from the dead. This, however, does not appear to have been the religion that Jesus preached to the Jews of Galilee and Judea. To use a formulation that scholars have tossed about for years, Christianity is not so much the religion of Jesus (the religion that he himself proclaimed) as the religion about Jesus (the religion that is based on his death and resurrection).[1]

Sadly, nobody briefed Hill on the background of the search for a historical Jesus or perhaps she thought her faith would shield her from facts, but the fact is, people have long debated who the historical Jesus was as compared to the figure promoted by the Christology that arose after his execution by the Romans.

For argument’s sake, let’s take a quick look at some of the various ways Jesus has been interpreted by scholars in this century alone [2]:

  • As a Galilean holy man (hasid): Geza Vermes Jesus the Jew (1973), A.N. Wilson, Jesus: A Life (1993). A.N. Wilson, Jesus: A Life (1992).[3]
  • As an eschatological prophet: Michael Grant, Jesus (1977), E.P. Sanders Jesus and Judaism (1985), J.P. Meier, A Marginal Jew (1991), Bart Ehrman, Jesus: Apocalyptic Prophet of the New Millennium (1999), Gary Wills, What Jesus Meant (2006). Note: Gary Wills believes that to tame the gospels in order to put them to humanitarian uses goes against Jesus’ teachings.
  • As a Magician: Morton Smith, Jesus the Magician (1978). Note: Celsus, author of the True Doctrine, agrees: “It was by magic that he was able to do the miracles” (Contra Celsum 1.6).
  • As an innovative Rabbi: Bruce Chilton, A Galilean Rabbi and His Bible (1984).
  • As a trance-inducing psychotherapist: S. Davies, On the Inductive Discourse of Jesus: The Psychotherapeutic Foundation of Christianity. Jesus Seminar (1992).
  • As a political revolutionary: S.G.F. Brandon, Jesus and the Zealots (1967), G.W. Buchanon, Jesus: The King and his Kingdom (1984). This is also the conclusion of Reza Aslan in his Zealot: the Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth (2013). Note: This is how the Romans saw him, as evidenced by his crucifixion.
  • As an Essene Teacher: J. Allegro, Jesus and Qumran: The Dead Sea Scrolls (1986)
  • As a Proto-Liberal Theologian: J.M. Robinson, The Jesus of Q as Liberation Theologian, Jesus Seminar (1991)
  • As a Cynic Sage: J.D. Crossan, The Historical Jesus: The Life of a Mediterranean Jewish Peasant (1991), F.G. Downing, Cynics and Christian Origins (1992), Burton L. Mack, A Myth of Innocence: Mark and Christian Origins (1988), idem, The Last Gospel: The Book of Q and Christian Origins (1993), Note: Burton Mack denies to Jesus any association with Judaism and its apocalyptic mythology. His Jesus comes from a completely Hellenized Galilee.
  • As a Charismatic Prophet: Marcus J. Borg, Conflict, Holiness and Politics in the Teachings off Jesus (1984), idem, Jesus: A New Vision (1987). Note: Borg denies the significance of eschatology in Jesus’ message. In his own words, Jesus “was a charistmatic heatler or ‘holy person,’ a subversive sage who undermined conventional wisdom and taught an alternative wisdom, a social propet, and an initiator of a movement the purpose of which was the revitalization of Israel.” [4]
  • As a Prophet and Messenger of Sophia (Wisdom Prophet): Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza, In Memory of Her: A Feminist Theological Reconstruction of Christian Origins (1983). Note: For Fiorenza, Jesus and his movement challenged patriarchy and were sociopolitical in orientation rather than eschatological.[5]
  • As a Radical Prophet: Richard Horsley, Bandits, Prophets and Messiahs: Popular Movements at the Time of Jesus (1985), idem, Jesus and the Spiral of Violence (1987), idem, Sociology and the Jesus Movement (1989). Note: Horsley places Jesus in the eschatological traditions of Israel but Jesus is a social revolutionary who took the side of the poor against the ruling elite.
  • As Rightful King of Israel and Messiah: James Tabor, The Jesus Dynasty (2006). Tabor’s Jesus “was a political revolutionary who expected nothing less than the violent overthrow of the kingdom of the world.”[6]

The point here being that there are many possible historical Jesus’ in addition to the Jesus of belief (and even all those don’t agree!). Some might say that any of those listed above are more likely than the one subscribed to by Lauren Green based on the observed and endlessly repeated evidence that dead people stay dead.

The interview has created a bit of a firestorm on the twittersphere and CNN’s Leone Lakhani looked at some of them, pro and con.

CNN’s Piers Morgan later interviewed Aslan about his Fox News interview and Aslan allowed that he felt embarrassed by having to trot out his academic credentials throughout the interview.

He also told Morgan, “I completely understand where Lauren Green is coming from. I kind of feel bad for her. I mean, the truth of the matter is that when you write about religion like I do, you’re writing about something people take very seriously, and I understand that a lot of people, whether its Muslims or Christians or Jews or what have you, feel sometimes that academics like myself are attacking their faith, attacking their very identity.”

It was clear from the interview that like many conservative Christians, she is afraid of the historical Jesus. But Aslan told Morgan that his is not a book even about Christianity, let alone an attack on it. As he pointed out, Jesus was not a Christian, but a Jew, making it a book about Judaism.

Lauren Green in her interview tried to expose Reza Aslan’s supposed biases but in the end, she revealed only her own. And certain against all her hopes and expectations, she managed to make Aslan’s book a best seller. The New York Times observes, “On Friday, “Zealot” was in the No. 8 spot on, the nation’s biggest seller of books; by Sunday, it had hit No. 1.”

As Aslan said, “I’ll be perfectly honest — I’m thrilled at the response that people have had to the interview. You can’t buy this kind of publicity.”

That some Christians like Green don’t like the idea of a historical Jesus should hardly come as a surprise. Those same Christians don’t even like the Jesus of the New Testament. They just like having his name to conveniently attach to their own preconceived notions and bigotries.

My own footnotes to be ignored by those who find facts uncongenial:

  1. Bart Ehrman, The New Testament (New York: Oxford University Press, 2004), 276.
  2. This list is based on categories suggested by Paul Rhodes Eddy, “Jesus as Diogenes? Reflections on the Cynic Jesus Thesis” JBL 115 (1996), 449-469.
  3. For Anglican scholar N.T. Wright’s highly critical review of Wilson’s book see N.T. Wright, Who was Jesus? (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1993), 37-64.
  4. In “Portraits of Jesus in Contemporary North American Scholarship,” HTR 84 (1991), 1-22 Borg examines not only his own views of Jesus but several of those others mentioned here, including Sanders, Fiorenza, Horsley, and Mack.
  5. See also Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza, “Jesus and the Politics of Interpretation,” HTR 90 (1997), 343-358, where she argues “that historical Jesus research is a critical practice and process that must continually attempt to re-envision on historical-critical grounds our knowledge about Jesus and the discipleship community that carries his name.” Gerd Ludemann’s evaluation (Primitive Christianity, 88) is that “The theological zeal behind this book is at least as absolutist as the patriarchalist exegesis of primitive Christianity and modernity which Schüssler Fiorenza attacks.”
  6. James Tabor, The Jesus Dynasty (NY: Simon and Schuster, 2006)., 161-162.

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