Reading Jesus in Context
In the video below, Robert Wright and Reza Aslan discuss the now famous author’s book Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth. Aslan argues for reading the words attributed to Jesus in the historical context in which they would have been spoken. He reminds us that Jesus was a Jew, speaking to practitioners of Judaism, in the context of the Hebrew scriptures and these scripture’s picture of God. If we want to understand what these words would have meant to Jesus and his immediate audience, we have to place them in the religious world in which he lived. So far so good. Smart hermeneutics. By the way, you can easily find biblical scholars who follow Christian orthodoxy to the letter saying the same thing.
Unfortunately, Aslan goes awry in what he says next: “Everything Jesus said or did has to be understood specifically as coming from a Jew and being about Judaism.” Doesn’t follow, as the logicians say. Reading Jesus in the context of Judaism does not mean that you should read Jesus as speaking about Judaism. Being situated in a world does not mean that you cannot transcend that world. Aslan rightly explains that the Jewish understanding of the messiah was not what Christians mean by the title today, but he wrongly concludes that Jesus couldn’t have introduced a little alterity into the common definition. “If a Jew says ‘I am the messiah” he means the Jewish messiah,” asserts Aslan, seeming to forget that the meanings of religious terms develop over time precisely because influential people use them in new ways.
Judging from this interview, I must say I’m less than impressed with Reza Aslan. He has a sound approach in the historical-critical method, but he doesn’t look to walk that approach with the care that’s needed. Some of his conclusions, at least as presented here, seem plainly fallacious.