“The more I probed the Bible,” Reza Aslan declares in the introduction to his bestseller Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth, “the more distance I discovered between the Jesus of the gospels and the Jesus of history” (xix). The result of this discovery—at least in Aslan’s estimation—is that the New Testament Gospels should be seen as texts that convey something other than “history.”
Aslan is not, of course, suggesting that the Gospels themselves are somehow ahistorical documents. Clearly, the New Testament Gospels are real documents that emerged at particular times in human history. What Aslan claims here is the presence of a nearly unbridgeable gap between the story the Gospels tell about Jesus and the actual events of history. “The gospels are not, nor were they ever meant to be, a historical documentation of Jesus’s life,” Aslan writes. “They are testimonies of faith composed by communities of faith and written many years after the events they describe” (xxvi). In Zealot, Aslan sets out to repair this supposed breach with a reconstruction that identifies Jesus as the ringleader of a popular movement that the Romans perceived as potentially revolutionary. After a Jewish rebellion that resulted in the destruction of Jerusalem in the year 70, Christian leaders scrubbed Jesus’ reputation and declared him divine. As a result, “the gospels tell us about Jesus the Christ, not Jesus the man” (xxvi).
My focus in this post is not Reza Aslan’s placement of Jesus within a first-century zealot movement. Aslan’s claims are—despite the publisher’s dust-jacket declarations of “a fresh perspective” on Jesus—nothing new. Most of Zealot merely regurgitates a reconstruction similar to the one found in S.G.F. Brandon’s 1967 book Jesus and the Zealots, some of which represented refinements of Robert Eisler’s 1929 work about the meaning of Jesus’s kingship. Zealot provides “a fresh perspective” on Jesus only if last month’s lettuce can be considered fresh produce when it’s dropped in a new bag.
What I want to examine more closely is the method and assumptions that Reza Aslan maps out in his Introduction. As it turns out, Aslan’s separation of “the Jesus of history” from the portrait of Jesus provided in the New Testament isn’t fresh or unique either. Martin Kahler made a similar distinction a little more than a decade before Henry Ford’s first Model T rolled out of a factory in Detroit; nineteenth-century critical scholars functionally followed this distinction at times, even if they didn’t explicitly say so.
Over the past few decades, however, this distinction between the Jesus of history and the Christ of faith has migrated from ivory-tower lectures into the more democratic playground of popular novels and non-fiction works. This distinction is also one that is, despite its growing popularity, plagued with significant problems.
Mind the Gap: How Much Distance Really Stands Between the Jesus of Faith and the Jesus of History?
So what about this supposed “distance between the Jesus of the gospels and the Jesus of history,” this gap between “Jesus the Christ” and “Jesus the man”? Is it reasonable to set aside the Gospels so quickly as historical documents? And what evidences does Aslan offer to sustain such a supposition?
Is there a lack of early information about Jesus outside of the New Testament?
“Outside of the New Testament,” Aslan claims, “there is almost no trace of the man who would so permanently alter the course of human history” (xxv)—and there is some truth to this claim. Bart Ehrman files a similar complaint when he points out that Jesus doesn’t appear in “any non-canonical pagan source until eighty years after his death.” As a result, nearly all of the earliest written information about Jesus comes not from pagan or non-Messianic Jewish contemporaries but from people and communities that followed Jesus.
But why should this fact surprise us?
Prior to newspapers and the modern myth of neutral sources, the earliest accounts of people’s lives almost always emerged from personal interest and eyewitness experiences. This is true not only of Jesus but also of military and political leaders who were far more famous in their own day than Jesus was in his. It’s particularly true when it comes to the surviving records about Jesus because any Roman records that might have mentioned Jesus would have been destroyed when the repository of records was burned during the Jewish-Roman war.
Who else, other than persons who professed allegiance to Jesus, would we expect to provide the first records about a wandering Jewish teacher from a province that was widely regarded as the armpit of the Roman Empire? The question that matters most isn’t whether the earliest sources of information about Jesus emerged among communities that followed him or from pagan sources. It’s whether or not sources that survive provide reliable reports about Jesus.