The Story Behind the Story: What Happens When Iconoclasm Becomes a Creed

I frowned twice at Lauren Green's infamous Fox News interview with Reza Aslan, author of Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth. Green played the clumsy district attorney in a bad court-room melodrama, accusing him of concealing his religious identity and hinting at sinister intrigue. Aslan deftly parried and forced the prosecutor to withdraw, case lost.

But I was also unimpressed with Aslan's near mantra: "I am a scholar of religions ... I'm a professor of religion, including the New Testament ... a scholar of religions with a PhD in the subject ..."

My reply: So what? I've seen the academic world. Ego often rules. Ideas are stolen. Junior professors tow the party line in hopes of tenure. And Zealot, which portrays Jesus as a nationalistic revolutionary bent on temporal kingship, is one more error-riddled iconoclastic cliché in an era of cheap iconoclastic clichés, as convincing as Dan Brown's The DaVinci Code. The biblical writers, he suggests, covered-up the real Jesus and got away with it.

We've been here before: S.G.F. Brandon promoted a similar theory in 1967 and convinced few. What's more, Aslan misrepresented his book in the interview.

But, on one level, I'm not surprised. I've been skeptical of overly skeptical biblical scholars ever since 1985, just after I scrapped my career in newspaper reporting and enrolled in an evangelical seminary. My learned professors bore degrees from Harvard, Princeton, Yale, Oxford, and Cambridge Universities: No anti-intellectual fundamentalism here. Still, I caught the bug infecting many students in such institutions. I wanted more. Give me freedom, fresh air, imagination, and creativity; let me crawl outside these smothering creedal walls -- if only for a moment. I eagerly checked out Rudolph Bultmann's commentary on the Gospel According to John, ready for modernism's insights.

I was shocked. Without a shred of evidence, the pivotal twentieth-century theologian rearranged the Gospel because he found it confusing. No ancient manuscript supported his theory and he cited no precedent. Silly, gullible me: I thought scholars were similar to good professional journalists, who anchor themselves in known facts. Bultmann brewed a theory out of thin air -- and others walk the same path. For example, many agree that the writers of Matthew and Luke obtained some of their information from a so-called "Q" source ("Q" stands for "Quelle," German for "source"). It's a plausible theory, but some run with it into oblivion: They speculate on entire "Q" communities and "Q" theologies -- all from a hypothetical source, the nature of which is still in doubt.

Where's the scholarly prudence?

To emphasize: While I believe in the resurrection, I get that it's a tough sell. I was prepared for doubt; I was unprepared for unconfirmed historical speculation. It seemed so... unprofessional. Go ahead and call the Fourth Gospel's author a bad writer, Dr. Bultmann. Just don't make things up.

But an undercurrent pulls us away from genuine argument. The critics portray themselves as brave seekers of a historic, de-mythologized Jesus; their challengers are the descendants of Galileo's bullies -- never mind the history of naïve assumptions plaguing the critics themselves: So-called "Higher Criticism" -- which ostensibly seeks to understand the historical meaning, literary form, and authorship of a given text -- took root in Germany in the 19th century, especially at the Tubingen School. One of its leaders, F.C. Bauer (1792-1860), agreed with the German philosopher George Wilhelm Frederick Hegel and imposed a Hegelian grid on biblical interpretation. Not surprisingly, reams of New Testament passages and books landed on the cutting room floor.

Hegel's influence eventually died, but an orphaned Higher Criticism, now known as the Historical-Critical Method, still grew and roamed. It touched some scholars in the United Kingdom, most of whom pruned its radicalism and sensibly employed its more useful tools, and spread across North America. The general public caught a glimpse of radical uses of this method at the Jesus Seminar in the 1980s and '90s: A branch of New Testament critics voted on the authenticity of separate Jesus' sayings, with many marveling at the thumbs-up-or-down approach in determining historicity. Meanwhile, British scholarly giants such as C.H. Dodd, G.B. Caird, I. Howard Marshall, F.F. Bruce, J.A.T. Robinson and, later, N.T. Wright, questioned all the cynicism, noting that few researchers in other disciplines so disparage their primary sources. Interestingly, Robinson was a theological liberal, so he had nothing to gain when he argued for early datings for the Gospels. The late Martin Hengel, a towering German figure in New Testament and Jewish studies until his death in 2009, scolded the more cynical critics from his lectern in Tubingen, of all places.

C.S. Lewis watched from the outside and observed: "There used to be English scholars who were prepared to cut up (Shakespeare's) Henry IV between half a dozen authors and assign his share to each. We don't do that now... Everywhere, except in theology, there has been a vigorous growth of skepticism about skepticism itself."

Yet that undercurrent still pulls: skeptics are "liberal" and "open-minded" (ignore Gerhard Kittel's membership in the Nazi Party); traditionalists are "conservative" and "backward" (ignore 19th-century evangelicals and their political progressivism). We don't want to be like Lauren Green. Aslan was so impressive, so likeable. He was even suave. Besides, he cited his "one hundred pages of notes" and claimed he read a "thousand" other works.

Probe deeper. Zealot, although well-written, is an intellectual embarrassment. Its 53 pages of notes (not 100) do not feature the usual scholarly debates over ancient languages and primary sources. They're short essays steering readers to like-minded thinkers. Aslan's bibliography cites no references to Dodd, Robinson, Marshall, Caird, C.F.D. Moule, C.K. Barrett, and Wright -- the last of whom ably refuted similar theories in a three-volume history of Christian origins. It does not list works by Gordon Fee and Hermann Ridderbos, both experts on the Apostle Paul. They carefully showed his theological links with Jesus and the Apostle James.

John Dickson listed many of Aslan's more egregious errors. I could itemize more: He assures us of a 98 percent illiteracy rate in the ancient world while real experts are not certain (literacy may have been high among Jewish males); he asserts a late dating for the Gospels when that is by no means clear; he cherry picks through his primary sources; he overstates tensions between biblical writers, dismisses Luke as a "sycophant," hacks out chapters and verses, and twists the meaning of passages beyond recognition (I felt compelled to re-read Acts 21:17-26 just to remind myself of what it actually said).

Slice. Dice. Snip. Cut. Paste. Bend.

Behold the real truth. It's obvious. Why didn't we all see it? The Gospel writers connived to bury a zealot beneath pithy turn-the-other-cheek and blessed-are-the-peacemaker sayings, hoping they'd duck Roman persecution. Any passage that doesn't fit the theory is evidence of the intrigue. And it stuck. All were fooled. Ignorant, illiterate Palestinian villagers (Aslan's description) hoodwinked history's most powerful empire. I wonder if the CIA agents who faked that "moon landing" used them as role models.

But here's the punch line: Some, including Dickson, question Aslan's representation of his professional credentials. Why bother? His conspiracy theory is uncomfortably close to the norm in this eccentric corner of the scholarly world, where cynicism has replaced skepticism and injected itself with steroids -- and iconoclasm itself has become the icon.