In his new book, Zealot, Reza Aslan claims that his unbiased, objective, historical scholarship proves that the real Jesus was a violent revolutionary bent on retribution and holy war. This conclusion is exactly the opposite of the results of the unbiased, objective, historical scholarship of someone like J. D. Crossan, who says the real Jesus was a non-violent Cynic philosopher.
It all depends apparently on which unbiased, objective, historical assumptions and method you choose to start with. That governs which parts of the gospels you decide are “historical fact,” and which you can discard as “later fictional additions.” If you start off your unbiased, objective, historical research with the entirely subjective set of biases and procedures demanded by historical science, then you will identify as “historical” whatever those biases predetermine. Aslan and Crossan have the same method; they just make different initial decisions about the criteria for what is and isn’t “historical.” Hence, the results: one “true, historical Jesus” looks like a vague flower-child, and another looks like a Taliban fighter.
In the end we get a product that claims to be “true,” “objective,” “unbiased,” and “historical,” but which is really just what we end up with when we force a text through that particular set of arbitrary filters. That’s all. We are left not with the “true, historical Jesus,” but with Crossan’s Jesus, Aslan’s Jesus, Meier’s Jesus, or any of the other attempts at this project, going back to Strauss in the 19th century, or further back to Thomas Jefferson. Jefferson famously took a razor to the gospels and sliced out everything that did not seem reasonable to him. And so it has been ever since. Scholars use whatever sophisticated methodology they choose in order to extract from the gospels the Jesus they want, and leave the rest as the fictional additions of later writers.
I believe it was Robert Funk who said “beware of finding a Jesus congenial to you,” and then spent the last part of his career finding, and publicizing, a Jesus congenial to him.
My hope is that Aslan’s book will open some eyes, especially among “progressives” who are most prone to be tempted by such shiny objects. There is no “objectivity” in this work; everyone approaches it with a bias expressed in their methodology. More importantly we need to lose the hypothesis that the “Jesus of history” and the “Christ of faith” are two different figures who can be cut apart and examined separately. The New Testament only gives us Jesus Christ. Everything in the New Testament is presented through the powerful lens of the resurrection. There is and can be no reliable methodology which can be applied to extract the “historical Jesus” from this unified, though multifaceted, portrayal. To attempt it results only in a body which has been severed into two incomplete and dead pieces.
The Quests for the Historical Jesus were Modernist projects based on Modernist values and assumptions. These are not only the faith in objectivity and the identification of the historical with the true, two things we now know are wrong. But at least as important is it rooted in the veneration of the expert, the “scholar”, the (almost exclusively) white male scientist who is above all and the measure of all. It should not surprise us then that the Jesuses these people dream up bear a marked resemblance to their creators’ fantasies about themselves. Every new Jesus tells us more about the desires and fears of the scholars involved, than about Jesus.
As James Cone points out in his new book, The Cross and the Lynching Tree, if you want to know the real Jesus find him among his poor, courageous, and victimized followers, not among the safe and the privileged, the tenured and the published.