Sept. 29, 2013
A while back I posted some thoughts on the controversy over Reza Azlan’s book on Jesus. More specifically my subject was the dust up over an appearance Azlan had made on Fox News, purportedly to discuss his book, which had quickly devolved into a confrontation over ‘why a Muslim would want to write a book about Jesus anyway!’ My most forlorn sigh was at the offered analogy of the Fox News host —’it’s like why would a Democrat write a book about Reagan!’ My core point back in July was that whether or not the scholarship and reasoning were arguable we should see some merit in hearing out views of dissent and skepticism, differing perspective —that this pluralism in public consideration was a central concept in our political culture. We were all in trouble if we forgot that. I promised I’d have more to say about the substance of Azlan’s book once I read it.
‘Zealot, The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth’ finally showed up at my local library last week. Now, having read the book, I can finally report…
First, I have to note that despite Azlan’s many protestations back when he was being interviewed on Fox that he was a PhD, the book is decidedly and deliberately not an academic endeavor. He does include extensive notes in the afterward of his book, but these aren’t at all carefully annotated to specific points of argument within his own text. They generally describe that he has read extensively on the subject. In the course of his own narrative on ‘the life and times’ of Jesus he has the troubling habit of stating his conclusions rather than his reasonings, often with his points being presented as ‘obviously true’ and those that don’t fit his schema —when he acknowledges them at all— as ‘straining credulity.’
The territory Azlan travels, the landscape between the historical Jesus of Nazareth and Jesus Christ isn’t new or uncharted. He noticeably hasn’t charted any new features. There’s not a lot of revelatory fact to his argument, just one rather narrow bone of contention: All that stuff about the meek and the poor, loving your neighbor, even your enemy —Azlan insists Jesus was only talking about Jews, not about any larger reality or cosmic truth. The kingdom he spoke of was literal and political, not metaphysical. He was one of a number of zealot messiah types among the Jews, one protagonist among many in the internal struggles of what he repeatedly refers to as the “Jewish cult.” To forward this argument, Azlan claims he has stripped aside the unverifiable and arrived upon what Jesus himself ‘must have been thinking —what must have been his motives.’ Yet in arriving upon this mind, I notice, Azlan leaps back and forth with some agility, between the concepts of a Jesus who was an unschooled illiterate peasant tradesman and a Jew whose utterances and actions had to be framed in a deep and nuanced understanding —Azlan’s understanding— of what in Jesus of Nazareth’s time were already ancient and esoteric sacred texts and traditions. Whether you’re a believer or not, this just strikes me as logical fallacy.
As someone who does believe, or at best tries, what I found odd in Azlan’s argument ultimately, was that he does unto Jesus what I was trying defend him against back in July. He invents what a Jew as some typified being would have to think, what his motivations would have to be, and then sets out what he is willing to recognize as facts to verify that invention.
Ironic, you have to admit.
Maybe that’s just the way God planned it.