“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 treated as texts that convey something other than “history.” Aslan is not, of course, suggesting that the Gospels themselves are somehow non-historical documents. Clearly, the New Testament Gospels are real documents that emerged at particular times in ancient history. What Aslan is claiming is the existence of a virtually unbridgeable gap between the stories 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 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?
In the first place, 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; it’s quite likely that any Roman records that might have mentioned Jesus would have been destroyed when repositories of records were burned during the Jewish-Roman war.
Aslan complains that few records survive “outside of the New Testament”—but 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. It’s whether or not sources that survive provide reliable reports about Jesus.
Is there a lack of information about the historical Jesus in the earliest Christian sources?
“The first written testimony we have about Jesus of Nazareth comes from the epistles of Paul,” Reza Aslan writes. “The trouble with Paul … is that he displays an extraordinary lack of interest in the historical Jesus” (xxv-xxvi)—and the trouble with making too much of Aslan’s observation is that it misses the point and purpose of Paul’s epistles. Paul’s letters weren’t meant to provide anyone with historical information about Jesus.
Each of Paul’s letters was contingent, occasioned by a specific set of situations and problems in a particular church, and addressed to people who already knew about Jesus. Paul’s purpose was not the proclamation of a message but the application of a previously proclaimed message in a particular community of faith. Expressing concern that Paul’s letters include little biographical information about Jesus would be like a law student complaining because the author of a case study in constitutional law failed to include a biographical sketch of James Madison.
Perhaps more important—even though providing biographical data about Jesus was never the purpose of Paul’s epistles—the epistles of Paul still manage to provide far more information about the historical Jesus than Aslan admits. Here’s what these epistles reveal regarding beliefs about the historical Jesus among first-century Christians:
- Jesus was born into a Jewish family descended from King David (Romans 1:3; Galatians 4:4). This descent was “according to the flesh,” revealing that Jesus was no spiritual phantasm or angelic demigod.
- By the midpoint of the first century, the sayings of Jesus were being memorized and circulated as authoritative guidelines for Christian communities (Romans 14:14=Mark 7:19; 1 Corinthians 7:10-11=Mark 10:11//Matthew 19:9//Luke 16:16//Matthew 5:32; 1 Corinthians 9:14=Matthew 10:10//Luke 10:7; 1 Corinthians 11:23-25=Mark 14:22-24//Matthew 26:26-28//Luke 22:19-20).
- Jesus had twelve close followers as well as brothers who were well-known among early Christians (1 Corinthians 9:5; 15:5).
- Jesus was sentenced to death in a particular location during a particular prefect’s political administration (1 Timothy 6:13*).
- Jesus was crucified and buried (1 Corinthians 1:22-23; 2:8; 15:3-4), was afterward seen alive (1 Corinthians 15:3-6), and was taken up into the heavens (1 Timothy 3:16*).
Even if we knew nothing more than what Paul wrote to people who already knew about Jesus, we would still possess virtually every essential assertion about the Jesus: he was a Jewish teacher descended from David whose life was sufficiently memorable that his teachings were still being circulated two decades after his death; he was crucified in a region ruled by Pontius Pilate; beginning three days after his death, numerous persons testified that they saw him alive again after which he was said to have vanished into the sky. These historical claims about Jesus are the same claims that form the framework of the New Testament Gospels. Even if these assertions were all that we knew about the historical Jesus, the chasm between Jesus as described in these early Christian letters and Jesus as he is described in the New Testament Gospels would not be nearly as vast as Reza Aslan pretends. Clearly, Aslan’s claim that Paul displayed “an extraordinary lack of interest in the historical Jesus” is an overstatement at best.
Did the authors of the New Testament Gospels intend to write historical documents?
As further evidence for his claim that a vast chasm stands between the Jesus of history and Jesus as described in the Gospels, Reza Aslan classifies the New Testament Gospels as documents anonymously assembled by authors who never planned to provide “historical documentation” (xxvi-xxviii). “These are not eyewitness accounts of Jesus’ words and deeds recorded by people who knew him,” Aslan claims. “They are testimonies of faith composed by communities of faith and written many years after the events they describe” (xxvi). An even more sweeping expression of this same sentiment may be found in a text from Jesus Seminar fellow Stephen Patterson: “Historical critical scholars of the Bible have maintained for more than a century that the Gospels are not history, and in fact were never intended to be read as such.”
And on what basis does Reza Aslan—and, if Patterson is to be believed, every “historical critical scholar…for more than a century”—brush aside any possibility that the New Testament Gospels include eyewitness testimonies about events that happened in history?
One of the first proofs that Aslan provides is a passing observation that at least some of the Gospels seem to have been stitched together from a patchwork quilt of sources. This rather self-evident observation has nothing to do, however, with whether or not the Gospels provide accurate historical information about Jesus. The author of the third New Testament Gospel pointed out in his own prologue that his work pieced together a variety of earlier sources (Luke 1:1-3).
But what about Aslan’s claims about the nature of the Gospels themselves? Were the New Testament Gospels really written “many years after the events”? And were these documents anonymous amalgamations that no one ever intended to serve as records of real events?
Were the New Testament Gospels really written “many years after the events”?
Reza Aslan stresses the gap of “many years” between Jesus and the New Testament Gospels. In truth, this gap of four decades or so is not atypical by ancient standards; if anything, it’s briefer than the usual gap between the time of the events and the time that the earliest surviving account was composed. Seven accounts of the life of Alexander the Great were written in the lifetimes of the eyewitnesses—but not one of these seven accounts survives today. The earliest surviving account was penned around 50 BC, nearly three hundred years after Alexander’s death.
Ancient historians such as Thucydides, Polybius, Josephus, and Tacitus made it clear that history was best written while eyewitnesses remained alive. The authors of the New Testament Gospels followed this venerable pattern of placing pen to paper at a time when some of the eyewitnesses were still available. Some of the earliest fragments of New Testament Gospels are second-century copies found in Egypt, far from their points of composition, suggesting that these Gospels must have been completed well within the lifetimes of first-century eyewitnesses.
Is Reza Aslan correct that “the gospels are not, nor were they ever meant to be, a historical documentation of Jesus’ life”?
The author of Luke’s Gospel clearly and explicitly stated his intent to produce a historical document, drawing from the accounts of “those who from the beginning were eyewitnesses and ministers of the word have delivered them to us” (Luke 1:2). The term translated “delivered” in particular in Luke’s prologue refers to a faithful rendering of oral history and eyewitness reports (compare Josephus, Contra Apionem 1:49-50; Vita, 361). John’s Gospel uses different terms but makes much the same point regarding eyewitness testimony (John 21:24).
The testimonies in these Gospels may be true or they may be false—but they were clearly planned and presented with the provision of eyewitness testimony as part of their purpose.
Were the New Testament Gospels “anonymous”?
Reza Aslan provides no proof for his claim that the New Testament Gospels were anonymous. Most likely, his presumption is based on the frequent observation that titles may have been missing from the most ancient manuscripts of these Gospels. Once titles began to appear in the texts themselves in the second and third centuries, these titles took a variety forms: the title on one manuscript might read “According to John,” for example, while another might sport the longer name “the Gospel According to John.” And so, the reasoning goes among some scholars, the original documents must have been anonymous, and the titles were added later to make the texts seem more authoritative by connecting them with well-known figures from the early church.
Let’s consider carefully what we would probably find in the New Testament manuscripts and fragments if titles were indeed fabricated a century or more after the texts began to circulate: By the time titles began to be added to the Gospel manuscripts, these texts had already spread throughout the Roman Empire, from Rome to Asia Minor and even as far south as Egypt. If copyists had fabricated names and titles for the Gospels at this time—remember, the texts were already scattered throughout the known world!—the result in the manuscripts would be different authors listed on different copies of the same Gospel. One copy of the Gospel known to us as “the Gospel According to John” might have had the name Andrew on it instead of John, while another copy of the same text from another region might have been dubbed with Peter’s name, still another might bear Phillip’s name, and so on.
And yet, that’s not even close to what actually survives in the manuscript evidence.
Once titles begin to appear in the manuscripts, the literary forms of the titles vary slightly from one manuscript to another, but the same four authors’ names—Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John—are always connected to the same four Gospel texts without exception. And Asian fails to mention the rather significant fact that no anonymous manuscript of the New Testament Gospels has yet been discovered. To be sure, some early fragments of these Gospels have deteriorated to the point that it is no longer possible to know whether or not they were originally titled—but every ancient manuscript that has survived sufficiently intact to know whether it had a title bears the name of the traditional author.
What this demonstrates is that it’s highly unlikely that the New Testament Gospels ever circulated anonymously. The earliest readers and copyists of these texts knew who wrote them. These traditions were known and passed on from one community of Christians to another whenever the Gospels were shared and copied, perhaps through oral tradition or more likely in some written form. As a result, even if copyists began to include names in the manuscripts later, there was never any doubt about which authors’ names belonged with which Gospels.
Papias had spoken personally with eyewitnesses of many events in the Gospels, and his information about the origins of Mark’s and Matthew’s Gospels still survives today. He wrote these words in the early second century, referring back to his recollections from the first century:
Mark, having become the translator for Peter, wrote down accurately what he remembered. It was not, however, in exact order that he related the words or works of Christ. For Mark neither heard the Lord nor accompanied him. Afterward, he accompanied Peter, who accommodated his instructions to his hearers’ needs but with no intention of giving a polished narrative of the Lord’s sayings. … Matthew put together the Lord’s sayings in the Hebrew language, and each one interpreted them as best he could.
Similar descriptions of the origins of Luke’s and John’s Gospels have survived in the Muratorian Fragment and in the writings of Irenaeus of Lyons.
The New Testament Gospels may or may not always have had titles written on the manuscripts themselves, but these documents never circulated anonymously. If they had circulated without the readers knowing where and how each Gospel originated, it would have been impossible for the same authors’ names to have appeared on the same Gospels without exception throughout the Roman Empire when titles began to be copied with the rest of the text.
The Jesus of the New Testament Gospels Is the Jesus of Eyewitness Testimony
Reza Aslan sweeps aside all of these possibilities over the space of a few paragraphs and concludes that only two historical facts about Jesus can be declared with certainty: “the first is that Jesus was a Jew who led a popular Jewish movement in Palestine at the beginning of the first century C.E.; the second is that the Romans crucified him for doing so” (xxviii). To reduce the historical data about Jesus to these two facts, however, Aslan must ignore everything that the authors of the New Testament Gospels suggest about their compositions, as well as all that the earliest witnesses to these texts understood them to contain and to convey. Categorizing the Gospels as non-historical enables Aslan to declare himself a “devoted follower of Jesus of Nazareth” even as he rejects every truth that the earliest Christians understood their texts about Jesus to teach (xx). This is convenient for the development of his thesis but disastrous for any fair-minded reading of the historical evidences.
It’s no wonder then that, in an opinion editorial about religion for CBS News, Reza Aslan suggests that religion isn’t primarily about what you believe; instead, “it’s about who you are as a human being—how you see the world and your place in it.” Perhaps this is true for some religions. It is not so for Christian faith. From the earliest decades of faith in Jesus Christ, Christians have made the radical claim that how you see the world and your place in it is shaped by what you believe about particular past events. If Jesus did not emerge from a tomb in history, how you see the world and your place in it as a follower of Jesus is irrelevant, because “your faith is empty” (1 Corinthians 15:17).
Is it possible that the authors of the New Testament Gospels testified falsely or that other early Christian writers made false claims about the origins of the Gospels?
Of course it is—but Reza Aslan never bothers to refute any of these early witnesses to the character and content of the New Testament Gospels. In fact, Aslan never engages them at all. In Zealot, he simply and conveniently sidesteps the earliest available data about the Gospels and declares that what the Gospels and Paul’s letters describe is something other than “the Jesus of history.”
What the New Testament Gospels reveal is not, however, a fictionalized Jesus of faith or even a stripped-down Jesus of history but a “Jesus of testimony.” Despite Aslan’s claims to the contrary, it’s clear not only from the New Testament Gospels themselves but also from the writings of early church leaders that the authors of the New Testament Gospels intended their testimony to be taken as historical truth and that their testimony was traceable to eyewitnesses.
How did this post help you to understand better the historical foundations for Christian faith? What would you say to a friend who recently read Zealot and found the book convincing? Which portion of Reza Aslan’s argument seems most reasonable? Which claims seem most questionable?
For a simple introduction to the eyewitness origins of the New Testament Gospels, take a look at my book and video series How We Got the Bible; for a more comprehensive treatment, Richard Bauckham’s Jesus and the Eyewitnesses is unparalleled. For further discussion of the supposed anonymity of the New Testament Gospels, see this post by Scot McKnight and The Case for Jesus by Brant Pitre.
* In my estimation, the arguments against Pauline authorship of the Pastoral Epistles are insufficient to assert a non-Pauline origin for these letters with a high degree of confidence; however, even if Paul did not originate these letters, they still represent first- or early-second-century testimony from persons closely associated with the apostle Paul.