History or creative writing?

This week sees Reza Aslan, author of Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth, speak at the Sydney […]

This week sees Reza Aslan, author of Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth, speak at the Sydney Writers’ Festival. Aslan is a professor of creative writing, so his appearance makes good sense.

Less compelling will be his widely publicized historical claim that Jesus was essentially a Jewish ‘zealot’, a nationalistic revolutionary with ambitions to oust the Romans—for which he got himself executed.

I have written elsewhere about what I see as the historical flaws in his argument (in a regretfully pompous article I wrote for the ABC). Here I just want to make a more general observation about the mismatch between Aslan’s writing and how history, as an academic discipline, ‘works’.

In Jens Schröter’s magisterial From Jesus to the New Testament, this German classicist, biblical scholar, and philosopher of history lays out how the New Testament guild ought to be guided by the very latest scholarship on what history is and how it is done. He stresses the necessity of a recursive relationship between historical ‘data’, things like written sources, archaeology, and so on, and historical ‘imagination’, the ability to stand back from the data and paint a plausible portrait of an event or person from the past. His point is that we are not doing history unless we are doing both. History cannot be the mere assembly of artifacts, but nor can it be the freewheeling creation of narratives, unwilling to be corrected by the data.

Reza Aslan has provided a highly plausible narrative: given the conditions of unrest in first-century Palestine, it is entirely likely that a Jewish teacher would emerge with visions of a military victory over Rome to establish an earthly reign for Israel’s Lord. Moreover, the universalistic aspirations of Jesus in the Gospels, and his frequent talk of the coming ‘kingdom of God’, fit this picture perfectly. Thus, readers of Zealot are moved along by great writing and creative interweaving of historical sources and biblical material. Professor Schröter would applaud the imaginative dimension of Dr. Aslan.

The problem is: Reza Aslan’s Jesus is a plausible, imaginative construct that refuses to stand corrected by the data, in the truly recursive way history must be practised.

While Aslan will gladly accept Jesus’ mention of ‘bringing a sword’ and being crucified as ‘king of the Jews’, for example, he will interpret the ‘love your enemy’ material (found across all of the earliest sources: Q, Mark, L, Paul) as attempts to ‘cover up’ the real revolutionary message of Jesus. At this point, we have stopped doing history as it is understood by classicists, ancient historians, and most biblical studies specialists.

Leaving aside the considerable list of historical quibbles I might have with Reza Aslan’s work, I submit that what he is doing does not fit with Jens Schröter’s widely accepted description of what history actually involves.


Dr John Dickson is a founding direct of the Centre for Public Christianity. He is an Honorary Fellow of the Department of Ancient History, Macquarie University, and he teaches a course on the Historical Jesus for the Sydney University Department of Jewish Studies.

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