- Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth
New York: Random House, 2013
- Abrahamic Religions: On the Uses and Abuses of History
Aaron W. Hughes
New York: Oxford University Press, 2012
From Wichita, Kansas (home of the infamous Westboro Baptist Church) to Jerusalem and on to Baghdad, Tehran and Kabul, some of the most pernicious religious sentiments are in evidence and their toxic consequences for peace and tranquility are plain.
In the USA, bellicose in their opposition to teaching evolution in high school biology courses and murderous in their stand against women’s reproductive rights, far-right Christian “fundamentalists” cherish a bizarre version of the Second Amendment to the Constitution of the United States of America, while castigating the First Amendment and utterly ignoring the Sermon on the Mount.
Throughout North Africa, the Near and Middle East, Islamic “fundamentalists” are happy to trade explosive insults and military-grade explosives in a continuing struggle to determine which of several religious traditions will prevail in what is euphemistically called “the Holy Land.” They meet equally unyielding opposition from various enemies including members of their own religion, hard-line Israelis and the ever-present “Great Satan” in the form of the self-same USA.
Meanwhile, throughout Christendom, a religious tradition long fractured into three main factions persists in an on-and-off but never quite successful campaign to achieve minimal ecumenical agreement on some of their differentiating doctrines, dogmas and religious rituals; but, in Belfast, it seems that sectarian violence is increasing once again despite all efforts to encourage Christians to love (or at least tolerate) one another. In the good words of William Butler Yeats, admittedly uttered in another context, “the centre cannot hold.”
One way or another, an increasingly loosely defined two-millennium Christian history of canonical disputes and carnage has managed to slay more members of its own broad community than any attempt at political or religious conquest and domination—though recent estimates of the actual number of aboriginal North, Central and South Americans who perished from overt violence, European-based disease, starvation and neglect in past five hundred years of genocide might require a change in judgement. Whatever the specifics, what have come to be known as the “Abrahamic” religions do not present a uniformly pleasant narrative.
In an odd coincidence, however, just as “holy wars,” “just wars,” jihads—call them what you will—threaten to tear parts of the world asunder, scholars of antiquity have been busy and increasingly successful in cobbling together comprehensible and plausible accounts of the history of ancient Mesopotamia and surrounding lands and of some of its more prominent religious and spiritual figures, the historical Jesus among them.
In the interest of full disclosure, I am not a Jew, a Christian or a Muslim. I am, however, endlessly fascinated with the history and beliefs of these and other religious traditions. My interest, moreover, is multidisciplinary. I approach religion with the benefit of work performed by archaeologists, anthropologists, psychologists, historians and, on a good day, even an occasional philosopher. I do not, however, have a “pony in the race,” which is to say that the “truth claims” of any religion are of little interest to me. From my perspective, religion explains nothing, but religion is something that desperately needs to be explained. Reza Aslan has recently supplied a volume that claims to add to our knowledge. It is certainly worth a look.
In Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth, Aslan carries on from his previous work No god but God: The Origins, Evolution, and Future of Islam (2005). The book on Islam was a prize-winning treatment of the Muslim faith. It was widely admired in all quarters. No less a popular authority than Fareed Zakaria was fulsome in his praise. No god but God is, he said, “a textured, nuanced account that presents a living, breathing religion shaped by centuries of history and culture.” The New York Times called it a “wise and passionate” book. Keeping in mind that wisdom and passion do not always co-exist comfortably, this is quite a commendation. As far as Islam is concerned, Aslan seemed to know his stuff.
The life of Jesus is another matter. It’s not that Aslan lacks wisdom and passion for the fount of Christianity. As a child, he fled the Islamic state of Iran with his family, wound up in sunny California, converted to Evangelical Christianity at the age of fifteen, but re-converted to Islam not long afterward. He therefore has at least a passing personal familiarity with his subject. More importantly, he is a learned man, having collected a BA in religion from Santa Clara University, a Master of Theology degree from Harvard, a Master of Fine Arts from the University of Iowa’s far-famed “Writers’ Workshop,” and a PhD in the Sociology of Religion from the University of California. His doctoral dissertation, by the way, was entitled “Global Jihadism as a Transnational Social Movement: A Theoretical Framework”. He certainly seems qualified to speak.
Like me, Aslan is less interested in the theological and metaphysical affirmations of Christianity than in the importance of the historical Jesus. He is chiefly concerned with the Christ that emerges from a careful, evidence-based study of his life as a teacher and leader, his alleged death and resurrection, and the interpretation that Christians apply to both. The historical significance of Jesus is openly accepted. What Aslan tries to do is construct the most accurate possible rendering of the pertinent facts.
It goes without saying that contemporaneous recordings with any sort of empirical support are less than unassailable. We are, after all, trading in mythologies. That said, there are a number of reports of Jesus as a political dissident. It is a fiercely controversial topic. For example, J. M. Roberts (1980, p. 257) summarily concludes: “Emphatically, Jesus rejected the role of political leader. A political quietism was one of the meanings later discerned in a dictum which was to prove to be one of terrible ambiguity: ‘My kingdom is not of this world’” (John 18:36). Aslan, however, is not alone in opting for the story that Jesus was the leader of a nationalist revolt against Rome and was put to death for sedition rather than blasphemy. In addition, there are those who insist that Jesus may not have been a Zealot, but that he nonetheless was an active political figure seeking neither to physically expel the Romans nor to negotiate a continuing agreement under which the Jews would submit to Roman authority in exchange for the right to maintain their Jewish culture and religion; instead they think he sought (though many attribute this ambition mainly to St. Paul) to spread the core of Jewish monotheism throughout the Mediterranean world.
The texts of the synoptic gospels, alas, do not help to clear up the story. Biblical incantations from Jesus’ familiar assertion that he “did not come to bring peace but a sword” (Matthew 10:34) to the admonition to “render unto Caesar that which is Caesar’s” (Matthew 22:21) are all pretty much of a muddle. Aslan discounts any notion that Jesus was the Messiah and argues, instead, that he was a primarily a dissenter against Rome whose followers “went underground” following the destruction of the Jewish Temple and the crushing of armed Jewish resistance at Masada (ca. 73 AD). It’s complicated and much ink has been spilled by people who have made strenuous arguments affirming their own interpretations. Aslan’s is one of many, and not especially original.
Numerous competing interpretations of the life of the historical Jesus have been written by Christian theologians, classical scholars, secular historians and others whose academic qualifications are of uncertain credibility. While it is true that Aslan puts together a thoughtful presentation, he adds little that is new to the discourse. From John Allegro’s much reviled The Mushroom and the Cross (1970), to the several volumes by Barbara Thiering (1992, 1995, 1998), the sadly abandoned Jesus Project, the highly regarded works of Domenic Crossan—my favourite still being The Historical Jesus (1991)—and a number of post-theistic explorers of new theological domains from John A. T. Robinson, a former Anglican Bishop of Woolwich (1965) to John Shelby Spong (2011, 2013), a former Episcopalian Bishop of Newark, the past half-century has witnessed an invigorating debate on the facts of the life of Jesus and the implications of new knowledge about the cultural context in which he lived. Aslan’s is a worthwhile contribution to the conversation.
As interesting as the content of Aslan’s book might be, however, an equally compelling story is the reception it has received, especially in the United States of America. The most widely known instance has been, of course, Aslan’s infamous interview on the Fox News network by Lauren Green. Ms. Green, a former Miss America runner-up with a Bachelor of Music degree in piano performance from the University of Minnesota and now the newly rebranded Fox News “religion correspondent,” admitted that she hadn’t read Aslan’s book, but she did not let that small detail stop her from engaging in a disgraceful display of ill-conceived, ill-willed and ill-expressed Islamophobia. She began the dialogue with this: “You’re a Muslim, so why did you write a book about the founder of Christianity?” It was not an innocent question, but carried the unmistakable connotation: What gives you, a Muslim, the right to discuss this topic?
With his four degrees including one in New Testament Studies, his fluency in biblical Greek and his more than twenty years of studying Christian origins, Aslan was understandably flummoxed. When the intrepid crusader then accused him of hiding the fact of his Islamic faith, the interview turned from the prosaically vicious to the surreal. Though extreme in its ignorance and insensitivity, the Green episode was not, I am sorry to say, entirely exceptional. Others have done worse. For example, Pamela Geller in a piece for the execrable WorldNetDaily, once housed in Cave Junction, Oregon, called him a “vicious … jihadist operative,” a “seditious hater” and a “subversive lowlife.” She added that Aslan’s title was itself insulting, insisting that the term “Zealot” (the Hebrew meaning of which is “zealous on behalf of God”) was itself “pejorative” and indicative of Aslan’s alleged anti-Christian bias.
I am not often tempted to repeat the slanders of fools lest they somehow benefit from the publicity; but, I will make an exception. The reason is to highlight not merely the necessary contentiousness of Jesus scholarship, but also to bring to light the ferocity and spite that debate over religious matters engenders, even when the questions at issue are those that are addressed by serious scholars and thoughtful critics, not hate-mongers. In an era in which the social media and vitriolic bloggers appear to have a growing influence over public opinion, I think it is important to address such issues rather than to ignore them and allow them to flourish in an increasingly caustic domain of public discourse.
Reza Aslan, after all, has produced a competently written and superficially plausible book. His central thesis is not that of the majority though, for what it’s worth, I am inclined to accept at least a part of it. He casts Christ as a fervent Jewish nationalist with political motives that carried with them both a message of national liberation and economic emancipation for the Roman Empire’s victims among the poor—not exactly an ancient Che Guevara, much less a prototype for the PLO, but also not at all the religious messiah that the Jews anticipated and that subsequent Christians believe they have found.
I am quite prepared to accept a soundly political interpretation of the life of the historical Jesus, but I am inclined to see his strategy as an alternative to the armed insurrection favoured by the historical Zealots. Though the evidence he brings to bear offers few new revelations (so to speak), I am happy to recommend Aslan’s book as illustrative of a one approach to the life of the Christ, upon whom the book has certainly not been closed and about whom we should expect vigorous but not venomous debate for a long, long while.
Perhaps even more contentious than the life of Christ is the analysis of the broad religious heritage with which Christianity is associated. Though of intense interest to a smaller audience, Aaron W. Hughes’ Abrahamic Religions: On the Uses and Abuses of History speaks to a matter that is of both specific thematic importance and of extensive concern to historians regardless of their specialties, namely the purposes to which historical analysis should and should not be put.
The writing of history is similar to the personal act of remembering. Our memories are unreliable at best and confabulist most of the time. We can be assisted by old photographs, diaries, birth certificates, medical and financial records and the parallel recollections of others with whom we have shared experiences; but, the fact remains that our memories are mainly just made up to suit the needs of the moment. Pressed to supply details of events months, years and decades ago, we seldom “get it right.” We mix up chronologies, misinterpret words and events, occasionally recall things that never happened and constantly forget things that did.
This does not imply that we ought not to try to remember things past with as much effort and accuracy as we can muster unless, perhaps, those events are deserving of total repression; it does, however, recognize that even our best, most meticulously painstaking and dispassionately disinterested renderings will fall far short of “objective truth” in the hopelessly unlikely chance that such a truth exists or is in any way available to us. All experience is subjective and it is therefore wildly implausible that our recollections are anything but partial, personal and deceptive even when we are trying hard to remember exactly what, why and how things occurred. Anyone in doubt should learn that “eyewitness” testimony is the least reliable, especially in a criminal trial.
Historians are in the same boat, except that their attempts at affirmatively positivistic, endlessly revisionist or passionately imaginative memory construction are pursued in the hope of rescuing some credible version of events in which they have not (or only rarely) participated. Whether the subject is an individual (as in historical biography) or collective (as in the story of a people or an era), events are sometimes located so deep in antiquity that almost no coherent and comprehensive description, interpretation and explanation is possible. If nothing else, good historians are aware that events in themselves are experienced within a cultural context and cannot properly be discussed in anachronistic, much less atavistic, terms. Reading the past through, in the currently fashionable metaphor, the “lens” of the present is, by definition and of necessity, to misunderstand. People a century, a millennium or, it seems, sometimes even a decade ago did not think as we do, nor did they understand their motives and actions as we interpret them.
Again, this is not to say that the writers of history should throw up their hands and switch to poetry or cookery books. Indeed, I am at one with Santayana in thinking that those who fail to remember their history are doomed to repeat it; in fact, I’d push it a step farther and say that those who don’t learn the lessons of the past are condemned not merely repeat previous errors, but to make a bigger botch of things the second time around. Said Marx (1978): history occurs twice, first as tragedy, second as farce.
It’s not, moreover, that we haven’t tried, but our reconstructions of history are prone to use for contemporary purposes that fundamentally deform and denature the past. Sometimes patriots, working-class heroes and garden-variety romantics self-consciously attempt to present an historical record intended to fill us with pride and to encourage us to praise those who were allegedly responsible for bringing us into our present condition. Anyone who uses the word “celebrate” to fix the agenda of efforts at recollection is surely caught fatally in this seductive trap. Such endeavours are embarrassing at best and dangerous when guns are put in the hands of the celebrants and a handy enemy is at hand.
In the alternative, there are those who, often with some sincerity casually mixed with hubris, try to disclose inexorable scientific laws of human cultural development. Marx at his most naïve, Engels at his most reverential and “vulgar Marxists” in their most tiresome moments fit this bill. Again, the opportunities to turn such beliefs into a justification for slaughter are abundant. The same is true of any and all “reductionists,” who see the key to understanding in some common pattern of development, whether the critical element in cultural evolution is said to be technological change, genetic adaptation or any one of a catalogue of definitive factors used to explain past, describe the present and predict the future.
The lesson we must learn from historiographers, therefore, is modesty, not the wholesale repudiation of meaning and the renunciation of intelligible order. We must not imagine the task the historians to be futile or nihilistically relativistic. It is enough that we should proceed with the utmost caution, resist the temptation to come to conclusions and be prepared for outbreaks of unrelieved contingency in any exploration of the past. Above all, we must not take ourselves and our passion for knowledge too seriously. In doing so, we are well advised to listen to critics from all sides. It is, after all, easy to start with a conclusion and to dig up evidence supporting it while burying data that undermine it. We must be open and inviting to those who critique us and our conventional ideas. Received wisdom is no wisdom at all, but simply residual sloppiness and sloth.
Aaron Hughes is a critic. We should pay attention.
Hughes is here to teach us a lesson. I earlier unapologetically used the phrase Abrahamic religions without even the benefit of “scare quotes.” Hughes has a lesson for me too. The target of his polemic is the concept of an Abrahamic religion itself. He believes that it is a monstrous distortion that not only misrepresents the past, but is also used opportunistically to fulfill a contemporary political agenda that is “just made up.”.
Abrahamic Religions is composed of several parts. Hughes provides an ample, impressive and thoroughly helpful genealogy of meanings for “Abrahamic.” He discusses older uses of the term as a rhetorical club with which Jews, Christian and Muslims (each claiming to be the only legitimate bearer of the mantle of Abraham) beat each other up. He also describes how, in the past century, the figure of Abraham has become less a cherished founder to whom these competing religions sought to lay exclusive claim, but more of an overarching symbol from whom all might draw sustenance and support.
The contest over which claimant possessed the most persuasive case for the right to the Abrahamic inheritance has recently been suppressed by the idea that all three, in a dazzling display of putative ecumenism, have discernible ties to the antique patriarch. A favourable result would be that, just maybe, the family squabble about over best pedigree might finally be laid to rest as partisans for all sides realized that they have significant similarities. This new embrace of a shared ancestor might even help staunch the wounds of centuries of discord and form part of a communal spiritual experience, thus removing the necessity for Kalashnikov rifles and Scud missiles from the arsenals of the familial followers of this everlasting god.
For a while, largely thanks to the inspired actions of Pope John XXIII (by far my favourite pope … so far), it seemed that the notion of reconciliation might have some practical value. If nothing else, in the West, the phrase Abrahamic religion is less exclusionary than “Judaeo-Christian” and, according to Hankins (2013), “after the events of September 11, 2001, Abraham became primarily a sign of peace and hope in response to religious militancy.” After all, contrasted with non-Abrahamic religions such as Hinduism and Buddhism, the three traditions stemming from Abraham worshipped more-or-less the same god (Yahweh, Jehovah, Allah—call him what you will). They all spoke of a “covenant” with the deity and of the importance of personal responsibility for individual behaviour and belief. They all worried and wondered about the final judgement, paid tribute to the same gallery of ancient prophets and considered themselves co-founders of what we are pleased to call civilization.
Aaron Hughes, however, insists that these commonalities are misleading. He believes that concrete historical differences trump theoretical theology and no number of venerated prophets, commonly held concepts and similar eschatological expectations can cover up the evolving cultural distinctions and discrepancies that separate each of the three from others. According to Hughes, pretending that acceptance of related attitudes toward prayer and salvation can bring such diverse histories into a sort of harmony is both a distortion of history and a false premise for future relations. So strident is Hughes in his argument that it seems he’d like to expel the phrase from our language lest it cause any further misunderstanding and hazardous confusion.
Almost as useless as contemporary terms such as “liberal” or “conservative” to identify sets of political convictions that mean entirely different things to different people in different times and different places, Hughes argues that the word “Abrahamic” is an empty vessel. It belongs in the Humpty-Dumpty school of lexicology, where words mean only what we wish them to mean and thus meaning itself is dissolved.
What’s more, by conflating only the most general and conjectural elements of Judaism, Christianity and Islam, Hughes contends that we render ourselves intellectually incapable of comprehending the origins, foundations, justifications, substance and complexity that describe and define the three discrete religions as they truly are. Whatever the common features in the myths of origin, Hughes believes that the price of association in the opportunistic interest of reconciliation is too high. It is an exercise in denial. It won’t work and it might lead to worse. Exactly what might be worse, however, is withheld.
Embedded in his critique is a concern with modern liberal scholarship. In the Americas, we are familiar with “liberal guilt,” which some of the less compassionate members of our society say is at the root of efforts to make amends to former slaves, survivors of the genocide of aboriginal peoples and all others who, at one time or another, were subjected to discrimination, harassment, oppressive socio-economic conditions and cultural or physical genocide. It is closely associated with the also damaged notion of victimization. It wishes to dispense with false debts, abandon false hopes, face reality as it is, and move on.
In this case, the suspicious goal of liberal historians is not so much a matter of making amends for past injury as providing the basis of future cooperation. This, for Hughes, is the misuse of history. It is inventing a convenient and reassuring past in order to support a political agenda for today. It’s not that Hughes is eager to see traditional hatred and religious wars continue unabated, but that he objects to faking the history that would be needed to promote an enduringly tolerant and peaceful alternative. He doesn’t want a sanitized historical narrative. He prefers the harsh and unabashed truth to therapeutic falsehoods.
The problem, of course, is that Hughes is emphasizing discontinuity, diversity and differences that can easily be identified in the separable histories that go back to Islamic, Christian and Judaic origins 1500 years ago, 2000 years ago and an indeterminate earlier period when the Israelites put together an identifiable and enduring tribal society. Where some see the outline of a pattern that could yield settlement of traditional disputes based on divergent interpretations of a common myth of origin, Hughes sees a betrayal of scholarly values. He will have none of it.
On one level, I am sympathetic. A robust and relentless search for the truth, past and present, is surely the essence of the academic project and the test of the historian’s contribution to the discipline. At the same time, however, those who see diversity and not commonality are surely imposing their values on the data as much as those who see commonality in spite of apparent diversity. It’s not exactly a matter of seeing a glass half-full or a glass half-empty; but, it is a matter of competing interpretations, and the conclusions that are drawn by examining social relations through different lenses are always problematic.
In the end, we need to benefit from Hughes’ opinions, but we need not excoriate those who see opportunities in small tokens and partial truths. We do not need to emphasize only that which stresses and thereby runs the risk of legitimizing ongoing conflict. No major human event, tradition or example of transformative change is subject to a single explanation or understanding. The fall of the Roman Empire, the rise of a literate culture, the European conquest of the Americas, the English Civil War, the upsurge of feminism in the twentieth century and the origins and implications of electronic communication and the computer are all apt topics for study and for ongoing struggles to come to grips with essentials and fundamentals. Their histories remain intensely contested.There is no excuse for covering up the facts or suppressing an unpopular description, analysis or explanation of any noteworthy historical datum. At the same time, it is the nature of the human project that we will highlight certain elements of the past and present them according to our ideological/philosophical and practical interests. In the process, there may be some value in reclaiming what has been lost or stolen, or what has merely strayed. Whether the idea of Abrahamic religions is a legitimate representation of a common tradition or a grotesque distortion of enduring difference is likely to remain unresolved. I am left to wonder, however, if certain signs and symbols from near or distant history might not justifiably be made the focus of attention today. I have in mind a certain letter written by the Arab Prince Feisal (1919) to future US Supreme Court Justice and active Zionist, Felix Frankfurter in the wake of World War I, when the victorious Allies arguably betrayed both Arabs and Jews and set the Near East down the path to hideous and seemingly endless conflict when another path was briefly available.
Paris Peace Conference
March 3, 1919
Dear Mr. Frankfurter:
I want to take this opportunity of my first contact with American Zionists to tell you what I have often been able to say to Dr. Weizmann in Arabia and Europe.
We feel that the Arabs and Jews are cousins in having suffered similar oppressions at the hands of powers stronger than themselves, and by a happy coincidence have been able to take the first step towards the attainment of their national ideals together.
The Arabs, especially the educated among us, look with the deepest sympathy on the Zionist movement. Our deputation here in Paris is fully acquainted with the proposals submitted yesterday by the Zionist Organisation to the Peace Conference, and we regard them as moderate and proper. We will do our best, in so far as we are concerned, to help them through: we will wish the Jews a most hearty welcome home.
With the chiefs of your movement, especially with Dr. Weizmann, we have had and continue to have the closest relations. He has been a great helper of our cause, and I hope the Arabs may soon be in a position to make the Jews some return for their kindness. We are working together for a reformed and revived Near East, and our two movements complete one another. The Jewish movement is national and not imperialist. Our movement is national and not imperialist, and there is room in Syria for us both. Indeed I think that neither can be a real success without the other.
People less informed and less responsible than our leaders and yours, ignoring the need for cooperation of the Arabs and Zionists, have been trying to exploit the local difficulties that must necessarily arise in Palestine in the early stages of our movements. Some of them have, I am afraid, misrepresented your aims to the Arab peasantry, and our aims to the Jewish peasantry, with the result that interested parties have been able to make capital out of what they call our differences.
I wish to give you my firm conviction that these differences are not on questions of principle, but on matters of detail such as must inevitably occur in every contact of neighbouring peoples, and as are easily adjusted by mutual good will. Indeed nearly all of them will disappear with fuller knowledge.
I look forward, and my people with me look forward, to a future in which we will help you and you will help us, so that the countries in which we are mutually interested may once again take their places in the community of civilised peoples of the world.
If it wasn’t proof of past familial ties, it at least offered the possibility of future political cooperation. It is no betrayal of the past or of the historian’s mission to reclaim small gestures, hoping that the wisdom they contain can make our future both more generous and more secure.
Allegro, J. 1970. The Sacred Mushroom and the Cross: A Study of the Nature and Origins of Christianity Within the Fertility Cults of the Ancient Near East. London: Hodder & Stoughton.
Aslan, R. 2005. No god but God: The Origins, Evolution, and Future of Islam. New York: Random House.
Crossen, D. 1991. The Historical Jesus: The Life of a Mediterranean Jewish Peasant. San Francisco: HarperCollins.
Feisal. 1919. Feisal-Frankfurter Correspondence. Retrieved from http://www.jewishvirtuallibrary.org/jsource/History/FeisalFrankfurterCorrespondence.html.
Hankins, D. 2013. Review of Aaron W. Hughes, Abrahamic Religions: On the Uses and Abuses of History. H-Judaic, H-Net Reviews. August, 2013. Retrieved 1 September, 2013 from http://www.h-net.org/reviews/showrev.php?id=37982.
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Howard A. Doughty teaches political economy at Seneca College in Toronto.