We should maintain that if an interpretation of any word in any religion leads to disharmony and does not positively further the welfare of the many, then such an interpretation is to be regarded as wrong; that is, against the will of God, or as the working of Satan or Mara.

Buddhadasa Bikkhu, a Thai Buddhist Monk

Friday, October 18, 2013

Reflections on "Five Myths About Jesus"

Reza Aslan has become a "known quantity" in American religious circles, partly for his book, Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth and partly because of his infamous interview on Fox News.  Recently, he wrote an opinion piece for the Washington Post entitled, "Five myths about Jesus," which comments on what Aslan seems to consider to be some of the more questionable beliefs Christians hold about Jesus.  The title is provocative, but the actual "myths" are only myths mostly in the sense that they are not factual—according to Aslan.  These myths, so-called, include:
  1. Jesus was born in Bethlehem;
  2. Jesus was an only child (this one is for Catholic readers);
  3. Jesus had only twelve disciples;
  4. Jesus was actually tried by Pontius Pilate; and
  5. Jesus was buried in a tomb.
Number Three seems innocent enough.  The Twelve were not Jesus' only disciples, a fact that is clear from the gospels.  Aslan, unfortunately, does not explain why this otherwise minor point is actually rather important, which is that Jesus numbered women among his disciples.  Women followers "sat at his feet" as only disciples did, and they travelled with him as did the male disciples.  Thus, the fact that Jesus had more than twelve disciples is controversial only because of who some of those disciples were.

Number Four is controversial only for Catholics.  We Protestants have no trouble with the idea that Jesus had at least four brothers and some number of sisters.

Numbers Five and Six, on the other hand, clearly contradict statements in the gospels that Jesus was tried by Pontius Pilate (see Luke 23:1-25) and that he was buried in a tomb (Luke 23:50-56).  In both cases, Aslan reasons that Jesus did not have a trial and was not buried in a tomb because that was not the way things were done in those days.  Pilate would not have wasted his time on a Jewish criminal-traitor, and part of the shame of crucifixion was that the crucified were denied a proper burial.  This, frankly, is the kind of reasoning that drives historians nuts.  If there is one thing that the study of the past proves, it is that very frequently things do not happen the way they should have.  There are always extenuating circumstances, exceptions, and unexpected events—were that not the case, no underdog would ever win and most football games would not have to be played.  To say that it is unlikely or even highly unlikely that these two events could have taken place says exactly nothing because the actual study of the past depends on documentary evidence not suppositions.  I'm not saying that Aslan is wrong.  Maybe there was no trial and no burial.  But maybe there was.  Historians hate to truck in maybes because they get us nowhere when it comes to knowing what actually did happen.  Aslan himself admits that it is remotely possible that Pilate met Jesus and that Jesus might have been buried in a tomb.  He just doesn't think either event was likely.  He apparently has not heard of the concept of a "black swan event."

So, this leaves us with Number One.  Jesus wasn't born in Bethlehem.  Aslan is probably correct, and this is hardly something new.  Mainstream biblical scholars have long held that "the birth narratives" do not recount actual historical events and were written, among other things, to prove that Jesus was indeed the messiah.  Now, again, we have to say that in a strict historical sense Jesus could well have been born in Bethlehem.  Lacking sufficient documentation, we do not know one way or the other.  If I had to bet the farm, however, I would bet that he wasn't.  One reason is the silence of Mark and John on the point.  Another is the point that Aslan makes, which is the birth narratives really do read as if they were crafted to prove that Jesus was the messiah.  A third reason is that they also function to introduce the main themes of the two gospels that contain those narratives, Matthew and Luke.  Still, lacking the documentation to demonstrate where Jesus was born, all we can trade in is probabilities.  And, again, actual events have a way of ignoring probabilities.

This article, frankly, carries little weight.  It is mundane at points, overly speculative at others, and offers nothing that is new more generally.  If it had been the Rev. John or Joan Doe who submitted it, it is hard to believe that the Washington Post would have published it.  One wonders who the audience was for this piece.  "True believers" are not likely to see it in the Post, which a part of the "liberal lamestream media."  More progressive Christians are not going to be shocked.  Non-religious, non-theistic "nones" may take some comfort in it, but at best it only confirms what they already think—namely, that religion is mostly a bunch of myths.  Aslan can do better than this—and has.