• Strange Notions Strange Notions Strange Notions

Five Mythical “Myths About Jesus”

Zealot

Reza Aslan is a professor of creative writing at the University of California, Riverside and the author of the much-talked-about new book, Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth. Aslan recently followed his book with an article in the Washington Post titled "Five Myths About Jesus".

Aslan’s assertions are nothing new in the world of Catholic apologetics, and the fact that he makes them at all should come as no surprise: Aslan is a former Evangelical Christian who now identifies as a practitioner of Islam. Therefore, it is not a stretch to imagine that his own religious background may have some influence on his opinion of the historical reliability of the Gospels. Let's take a look at each of Aslan's five purported myths.

Myth #1: "Jesus was born in Bethlehem."

 
Aslan first claims that Jesus was most likely born in Nazareth, not Bethlehem, because he was known throughout his life as “the Nazarene.” Supposedly, this created a problem for the early Christians because one of the Jewish prophecies about the coming Messiah required him, as a descendant of King David, to be born in the city of Bethlehem.

According to Aslan, the Roman census encompassed only Judea, Samaria, and Idumea, and not Galilee where Jesus’s family lived. He goes on to explain, “Luke places Jesus’s birth in Bethlehem not because it took place there but because that story fulfills the words of the prophet Micah.”

Critics of the Bible have often claimed that there is no record of a Roman census. But as others have rightly pointed out, there is a record of it: in Luke’s Gospel. Critics just don’t want to accept it.

Aslan, on the other hand, does seem to accept that a census happened, only he claims it encompassed a limited area in the Roman Empire. The problem with this is that our record states clearly, "In those days a decree went out from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be enrolled" (Lk. 2:1).

Additionally, Aslan explains, “since the purpose of a census was taxation, Roman law assessed an individual’s property in the place of his residence, not his birthplace.”  However, fellow Strange Notions contributors Jimmy Akin points out:
 

"If you assume it was a census, as many do, then it's going to cause you problems, because there was no census in the appropriate time frame. There was, however, a broad-based registration or "enrollment," that occurred in this period."

 
For more on this, I recommend the article, "Was Christ Born in Bethlehem?" by William Mitchell Ramsay.

Myth #2: "Jesus was an only child."

 
Aslan claims that, contrary to the Catholic doctrine of Mary’s perpetual virginity, Jesus in fact had blood brothers and sisters:
 

"Some Catholic theologians have argued that the Greek word the Gospels use to describe Jesus’s brothers—“adelphos”—could also mean “cousins” or “step-brothers,” and that these could be Joseph’s children from a previous marriage. While that may be true, nowhere in the New Testament is “adelphos” used to mean anything other than “brother.” So there is no rational argument for viewing Jesus as an only child."

 
I’m not a Greek scholar (and neither is Aslan), but he seems to miss the point entirely. He claims that nowhere in the New Testament is the word adelphos used to mean anything other than brother—but that is precisely what is debated.

The New American Standard New Testament Greek Lexicon (NAS) defines adelphos as “a brother, whether born of the same two parents or only of the same father or mother” or "a fellow believer." The fact that this word has various meanings is a rational argument for viewing Jesus as the only child of the Blessed Virgin Mary.

The first definition from the NAS lexicon would support the position that Joseph was an older man who had children from a previous marriage. The second definition serves as evidence that adelphos is indeed used in the New Testament to refer to something other than uterine brother. As a matter of fact, most of the time it is used to refer to something else. St. Paul uses the word repeatedly in reference tofellow believers.

For more on this, I recommend reading ""The Case for Mary’s Perpetual Virginity"" from Catholic Answers Magazine.

Myth #3: "Jesus had 12 disciples."

 
Aslan claims that this myth is based on a misunderstanding of three categories of Jesus’ followers that are spoken of in Scripture as “disciples.” I’m not even sure why Aslan chose to address this. Most Christians I know understand that the term disciple is used interchangeably in the New Testament.

You can usually tell from the context which group of disciples is being referred to. For example, Matthew 8:18 refers to “great crowds around Jesus,” and as Aslan points out, crowds are sometimes referred to as disciples (cf. Lk.14:25-35). But just a few verses later Matthew writes, “And when he got into the boat, his disciples followed him.”  Either this was a massive boat capable of holding “great crowds,” or we can more realistically assume that only a few of those who were present followed Jesus into the boat.

When we talk about the twelve disciples, we mean specifically the twelve apostles. That they are referred to as the twelve disciples comes from the Bible (cf. Matt. 10:1, Matt. 11:1, Luke 6:13, Luke 9:1), but it’s no myth there were twelve of them.

Myth #4: "Jesus had a trial before Pontius Pilate."

 
Aslan claims that Jews generally did not receive Roman trials, let alone Jews accused of rebellion. In the article he explains:
 

"In his 10 years as governor of Jerusalem, Pilate eagerly, and without trial, sent thousands to the cross, and the Jews lodged a complaint against him with the Roman emperor."

 
The truth is that we know very little about Pilate. Jewish philosopher and historian Philo tells us that Pilate was responsible for “executions without trial constantly repeated” (On The Embassy of Gauis, Book 38), but he never specifies the number or manner of executions, and we are not told that Jews never received Roman trials. Our best information comes from the canonical Gospels, and all four agree that Jesus had a trial before Pontius Pilate.

Myth #5: "Jesus was buried in a tomb."

 
Aslan asserts that it is highly unlikely Jesus was brought down from the cross and placed in a tomb after the crucifixion. In his opinion, this would have been “an extremely unusual, perhaps unprecedented, act of benevolence on the part of the Romans.”

I don’t see how this could have constituted an “act of benevolence.” Joseph of Arimathea asked Pilate if he could retrieve the body of Jesus. Pilate agreed, but only after confirmation that Jesus was dead (Mark 15:44). It’s not as though the Romans took the body down themselves and handed it over to the disciples. Joseph was a respected member of the Jewish community (Mark 15:43), and we are not told how he persuaded Pilate to release the body; only that he did.

Aslan also claims it is not very likely that Jesus was taken down and placed in a rock-hewn tomb fit for the wealthiest men in Judea because this would be unlike every other criminal crucified by Rome. This is true, but Joseph was a rich man with the means to provide such a tomb (Matt. 27:57), and he was secretly a follower of Jesus (John 19:38).

Conclusion

 
Aslan’s article (and his book) is nothing more than a rehashing of arguments that have existed for over a century and been answered by countless Christian scholars. If you are seeking a thorough refutation of the idea that the Gospels are not a reliable account of the historical Jesus, I highly recommend reading the series Jesus of Nazareth by Pope Benedict XVI.

Also, Strange Notions contributor Jimmy Akin has produced a great critique of Alsan's book Zealot that you can watch here.
 
 
Originally posted at Catholic Answers. Used with author's permission.
(Image credit: Daily Beast)

Jon Sorensen

Written by

Jon Sorensen is the Director of Marketing for Catholic Answers, the largest lay-run apostolate of Catholic apologetics and evangelization in the United States. He earned his bachelor’s degree in 3D Animation and Visual Communications in 2004 from Platt College, Ontario. Before coming to Catholic Answers, he worked in the automotive industry producing television commercials and corporate video. He has also produced motion graphics for several feature-length films. Follow Jon through his website, JonSorenson.net.

Note: Our goal is to cultivate serious and respectful dialogue. While it's OK to disagree—even encouraged!—any snarky, offensive, or off-topic comments will be deleted. Before commenting please read the Commenting Rules and Tips. If you're having trouble commenting, read the Commenting Instructions.

  • Randy Gritter

    Actually it is good to know if something was extremely unusual. Christians expect Jesus to be unusual in many ways. If what the gospels say about Pilate's action was unusual that is interesting. We should not immediately assume the gospel account is false. It is much more likely that Jesus was seen as special in some way. Was Jesus accused of rebellion? If so, who made the accusation? Was it true? Most believe Jesus did not promote violence.

    There are many reasons to believe Jesus' life and death should have been unremarkable. Yet it was not. The question of why never seems to be asked. They simply add more details to the list of things that are assumed to be faked. But why should anyone be interested enough in Him to fake anything?

    • Max Driffill

      It was unremarkable at the time. No contemporary history mentions it at all. Philo, who said a few things about Pilate manages not to be impressed with the graves spilling forth their dead and those dead wandering around chatting people up. That seems like a noteworthy event that might inspire comment by someone other than Matthew (the author of which was not likely present at the events he describes). Josephus mentions it, but doesn't mention the resurrection, or the other fantastical events of the day (all those dead people coming out of the graves for instance). But neither was he a witness to any of the events, he was born several years after and didn't write these things down until 90-100.

  • Andre Boillot

    I'm very disappoint with the manner in which this piece begins:

    Reza Aslan is a professor of creative writing at the University of California, Riverside and the author of the much-talked-about new book, Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth.

    Say, 'professor of creative writing' seems a light in the resume dept...

    /googles "Reza Aslan"
    /clicks wiki link
    /scrolls to 'background'
    /finds:
    -Bachelor of Arts degree in religions from Santa Clara University
    -Master of Theological Studies degree from Harvard Divinity School
    -Doctor of Philosophy in Sociology, focusing in the history of religion, from the University of California, Santa Barbara

    EDIT: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Reza_Aslan

    I wonder if it's in any way misleading to describe him merely as a professor of creative writing?

    Aslan’s assertions are nothing new in the world of Catholic apologetics, and the fact that he makes them at all should come as no surprise: Aslan is a former Evangelical Christian who now identifies as a practitioner of Islam. Therefore, it is not a stretch to imagine that his own religious background may have some influence on his opinion of the historical reliability of the Gospels.

    This is a nasty little piece of insinuation, in my opinion. First, are we to only allow members of the faiths in question to examine the historicity of things - as if this would somehow remove biases? Second, facts are facts. Either he presents good, well supported arguments, or he doesn't. There's no such thing as Christian or Muslim facts. I wish there were a term for attacking a person instead of their positions, and that this site had a policy against such a theoretical term.

    • Agreed. It colors the piece. Sort of like if someone reviewing a William Lane Craig book about the resurrection introduced Craig as "William Lane Craig, a popular debater, has recently published a much talked about book..."

    • Jon Sorensen

      I didn't "merely" describe him as a professor of creative writing. That is, in fact, what he does for a living. If I were being dismissive of him for that reason, I might have stated somewhere in the article that he has no place writing an article like this based on those credentials. I didn't do that, nor do I think that. In fact I believe the opposite to be true; Anyone can write a book on history (or any other topic they want). An author who lacks credentials would probably want to cite sources as often as possible.

      • Andre Boillot

        I didn't "merely" describe him as a professor of creative writing.

        Forgive me, but when the topic is myths about Jesus, and your introduction to the author of those myths is that he's a creative writing professor (leading?), and you fail to mention his three degrees in religious studies...I feel comfortable in my use of the term "merely". That you felt his conversion to Islam had material bearing on "his opinion of the historical reliability of the Gospels", while omitting his education, would seem to vindicate my position.

        An author who lacks credentials would probably want to cite sources as often as possible.

        Really? All this time I thought that was a sign of good scholarship.

        • Jon Sorensen

          I think some credentialed professors can get away without citing other scholars as often as someone without. Sorry if that was unclear. I do think his conversion had a bearing on his opinion. I used to be an atheist, and I would be lying to you if I told you my conversion didn't have a bearing on my opinion regarding other religions. And when I was an atheist, that also had a bearing. I don't think it's as controversial as you do, I guess.

          • Geena Safire

            If you had mentioned his relevant education and his relevant two decades of experience in the field that is the topic of the book, then it might be relevant to mention it. But only maybe. Because, at that professional level, one is considered capable of recognizing one's potential bias and striving to correct for it.

            Take a look at the huge backlash against the Fox News interviewer who did the same thing you did. Read some of the blistering reviews of that interviewer. You will get a good idea of what we are trying to tell you about why this is a bad thing and thus will get you into trouble every time you do it.

          • Jon Sorensen

            There is quite a backlash against Aslan as well by many in the media for supposedly overstating his background in those areas. My purpose was only to address the specific claims made by him in the Washington Post article.

            "Because, at that professional level, one is considered capable of recognizing one's potential bias and striving to correct for it."
            I don't really agree with you, here. I think it's perfectly normal for a Christian, a Muslim, or an atheist to look at the same set of facts and interpret them differently. But it doesn't really matter. What matters are the actual arguments being made.

          • robtish

            "But it doesn't really matter. What matters are the actual arguments being made."

            That's the precise reason we're wondering *why* you bothered to say, "Therefore, it is not a stretch to imagine that his own religious background may have some influence on his opinion of the historical reliability of the Gospels."

            What was your intention by including that?

          • Jon Sorensen

            I already answered this question. It's in the same post you just quoted. One common tactic that Muslims will use in arguing against Christianity is to attack the reliability of the gospels. I work for a Catholic apologetics organization. We see this all the time. It's not that big of a deal. We just answer the objections.

          • Paul Boillot

            So, in your mind, well-respected scholars don't need to have many citations in their works and don't attempt to auto-correct for bias?

          • Geena Safire

            First, Jon, why don't you answer the specifics of the two main criticisms instead of continuing to dance around it?

            Do you acknowledge that you should have listed his credentials and not tried to represent him as only a creative writing professor?

            Do you also acknowledge that you were wrong to cast aspersions on a possible bias due to his faith without also having mentioned his extensive, very relevant curriculum vitae?

             

            Second, you say here "My purpose was only to address the specific claims in the Washington Post article."

            But you didn't indicate that's what you meant to do at the beginning. You introduced the book and then mention the WaPo article and then continued with your article. If you had said, "I intend to address these five..." it would have been clearer.

            In addition, in the conclusion, you write, "Aslan’s article (and his book) is nothing more than a rehashing of arguments..." By saying this, you are saying that you are making a judgement on the book also.

            Honestly, have you read the book completely, including the footnotes and the references?

             

            Third, you write "I’m not a Greek scholar (and neither is Aslan)."

            Actually, Aslan does read ancient Greek and examines the original scriptures and other sources. In fact, his minor at SCU was in Biblical Greek! So, yeah, he kinda is a Greek scholar.

            This is disingenuous of you to imply that his language abilities are as limited as yours. Another ad hominem to add to the list. Or maybe you weren't aware of this because you didn't spend the two minutes of web searching on his background that it took me to find this, and his three degrees, and the titles of his master's thesis and PhD dissertation. Responsible or irresponsible, which is it?

             

            But it doesn't really matter.

            If it didn't matter, Jon, then you wouldn't have written it. And if it didn't matter, Jon, then we wouldn't all be getting on you about it.

            What matters are the actual arguments being made.

            When a dish is served on very dirty plates, it's difficult to give feedback on the meat -- in fact, it's difficult to get that far. The dirty plates do matter.

          • Andre Boillot

            I'll risk Brandon's ire and respond to you.

            Perhaps it's unfair to judge you're intro as compared to the bios accompanying the regular contributors. I can't say for sure how much of Fox News' Islamophobic interview influenced my perceptions - but your mention of the author's religious affiliation (as opposed to his academic expertise on the topic) struck a nerve. Having read a great many articles on SN, and noticing how the author's credentials are almost always presented up-front, it seemed fair to point out the discrepancy.

            However, I didn't see you explain your suggestion of how Mr. Aslan's faith might have any influenced on his opinion of the historical reliability of the Gospels. Maybe if I had, I wouldn't have viewed its inclusion the same way.

          • Jon Sorensen

            I'm not even sure when his conversion occurred. If it happened prior to his studies in religion, it very well might have colored his perception of the evidence, but even if that were the case, I still wouldn't dismiss his arguments out of hand for that reason.

          • Geena Safire

            I still wouldn't dismiss his arguments out of hand for that reason.

            From your introduction: "Aslan’s assertions are nothing new in the world of Catholic apologetics, and the fact that he makes them at all should come as no surprise: Aslan is a former Evangelical Christian who now identifies as a practitioner of Islam. Therefore, it is not a stretch to imagine that his own religious background may have some influence on his opinion of the historical reliability of the Gospels."

            66 words of strongly implied bias in the second paragraph of the article. I'd call that dismissive. You might contend you wouldn't dismiss them out of hand, but you sure want your reader to do so.

            Plus saying, "Aslan's assertions are nothing new" is exactly a dismissal of his arguments.

            Plus saying "he identifies as a practitioner of Islam" instead of "he resumed the Islamic faith of his childhood" or just "is now a Muslim" is an insulting wording, like implying, "Well, he says he practices Islam, no really!" One could say, "Sorensen is a former atheist who now identifies as a practitioner of Roman Catholicism." Do you see the problem?

            Your entire introduction scans in subtext as: "This guy is some California creative writing instructor who somehow thinks he can write religious history. Plus he identifies as a practitioner of Islam, so no surprise that he's anti-Christian and would say anything because of his bias. Ignore this jerk."

            This is called "dismissing him out of hand," "for that reason."

      • Sqrat

        "An author who lacks credentials would probably want to cite sources as often as possible."

        Would it be out of place here to observe that we do not know the credentials of the author of the Gospel of Luke, and that he never cites any sources?

        • "Would it be out of place here to observe that we do not know the credentials of the author of the Gospel of Luke, and that he never cites any sources?"

          But to Luke's immediate audience, he didn't lack credentials. His earliest readers knew he was a companion of St. Paul, a respected physician, and a keen historian. It's for those very reasons they valued his gospel.

          • Sqrat

            If you have compelling evidence of that thesis, Brandon, you should publish it, as it would create quite a stir in the field of Biblical scholarship. It is certainly not a consensus view, and these days doesn't even seem to be the majority view.

            Bart Ehrman writes, "The reason for thinking that 'Luke' was Paul's traveling companion is that in four passages of Acts, the author uses the first-person plural 'we.' These 'we passages' (e.g., Acts 16:10-16) have been taken to suggest that the author was with Paul for those particular incidents. Other scholars have noted, however, that the passages begin and end remarkably abruptly. Moreover, the author never says anything like 'I then joined Paul and we did this or that.' Why the abruptness? It is now widely thought that the author was not Paul's companion but that one of his sources was some kind of travel diary that he uncovered in his research and that used the first-person plural."

            In short, the claim that "Luke" was a traveling companion of Paul is widely considered to be quite doubtful. If it is not even true, then "Luke's" immediate audience could not have "known" that that is what he was.

            What are they saying in Catholic seminaries about "Luke" these days? Are seminarians taught that he was certainly a traveling companion of Paul, that he probably wasn't, or something in between?

          • Jonathan Brumley

            Ignatius Catholic Study Bible says this about the Gospel of Luke:
            "Early manuscripts of the third Gospel are titled 'According to Luke' (Gk. Kata Loukan). The earliest Christians unanimously ascribed the work to Luke, a Gentile physician and companion of the Apostle Paul (2 Tim 4:11; Philem 24). Several Church Fathers, such as Irenaeus, Tertullian, and Clement of Alexandria, assert Luke's authorship of the third Gospel, and an anonymous list of NT books, called the Muratorian Fragment (A.D. 170), also attaches his name to it. There is thus no reason to doubt Luke's authorship of this Gospel, since the tradition is virtually uncontested in early Christianity."

            Paul also mentions Luke among his uncircumcized companions in Col 4:14 as "Luke the beloved physician".

          • Sqrat

            Given that the earliest known claims that the author of the Gospel was "Luke" the traveling companion of Paul date from a century after the gospel was believed to have been written, there is ample reason to question the identity of "Luke".

            Moreover, the identification of the author of the gospel as a traveling companion of Paul by people such as Irenaeus -- and yourself -- was made precisely on the basis of what Paul supposedly wrote in Colossians. However, it is believed by many modern scholars of the New Testament that Colossians was a forgery and was not written by Paul at all.

            But even if Paul did write Colossians, there is no assertion in that letter that "Luke the beloved physician" was also a gospel writer. As I have noted elsewhere, differences between what was written in Luke-Acts and what Paul himself wrote in letters that are universally acknowledged to be genuine certainly call into question whether the author of Luke-Acts was either a traveling companion or disciple of Paul.

          • Jonathan Brumley

            The case against Pauline authorship of Colossians is based on some perceived differences in style and theology. I'm personally not too impressed by scholars who build a big case based solely on differences in style or ideas. A person's writing style can change somewhat over a person's lifetime or even based on a person's mood that day, and a person's ideas develop over time in response to context and circumstances. This is certainly true of a man like Paul who traveled and was influenced, certainly in language and ideas, by many cultures with different dialects, different ideas, and different expressions of speech.

            The case for Pauline authorship of Colossians is the notable presence of Pauline themes (themes also in Ephesians), the similarity to circumstances described in the letter to Philemon, and the positive evidence that this letter was acknowledged as genuine by multiple people who knew people who knew Paul - such as Irenaeus (who was a disciple of Polycarp, who was a disciple of John).

      • josh

        "An author who lacks credentials would probably want to cite sources as often as possible."

        I think I understand Christian logic now: since the Gospel authors don't cite sources, they must have had good credentials. QED atheists!

        • Sqrat

          And if I may go so far as to appropriate some of Mr. Sorensen's language, "It is not a stretch to imagine that the author of the Gospel of Luke's own religious background may
          have had some influence on the historical reliability of his gospel."

          • josh

            I see that my comment has been deleted. Luckily, Sqrat said essentially the same thing above.

          • bbrown

            Yes, but let's look at that background.........Luke was a physician, an empirical guy who would have wanted very firm evidence of the reality and truth of the claims of Christ in order to believe them and then to commit his life to them. Luke clearly was utterly convinced that Christ was God.

          • Sqrat

            That argument might carry a bit more weight if you could establish (1) that "Luke" was indeed the traveling companion identified by Paul as "the beloved physician" and (2) that Paul's use of the term establishes the fact that said traveling companion was indeed a "physician" as we now understand the term. I have already addressed point (1) elsewhere but will reiterate that the dominant current view is that the author of the Gospel of Luke was probably not Paul's traveling companion. As for point (2), it seems to have been widely accepted for the better part of the past hundred years that Paul's description of his traveling companion (who was, again, probably NOT the gospel author) really meant only that he was educated, not that he was actually a medical doctor. Perhaps it has been more widely accepted outside of Catholicism than within it, but I really can't say. And even if he was a medical doctor, that would not by itself establish that he was an empiricist (though he very well might have been). On all of these points, I'm guessing, "your mileage may vary." If that is the case, so be it.

            I certainly agree that the author of the gospel was a committed member of the Jesus movement. That is one reason why I'm not overly inclined to take everything he says at face value. But as to whether he was "utterly convinced that Christ was God" -- well, can you cite chapter and verse from "Luke's" gospel that would establish that as an incontrovertible fact?

          • Jonathan Brumley

            As to whether Luke was utterly convinced that Jesus was God, I doubt anyone would say that Luke's understanding of the Jesus was _exactly_ equivalent to the understanding articulated at Nicaea. Rather we have Jesus referred to as Son of God and as the Christ who is destined to be king of the kingdom of God.

            "Son of God" comes from Luke's account of the Transfiguration, where a voice from the cloud says "This is my Son, my Chosen; listen to Him!"

            The title "Son of Man" is used multiple times (referring to Daniel 7).

            Luke in many instances quotes Jesus referring to the "kingdom of God", which has come near. And then near the end of the gospel the thief on the cross says this - "Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom".

          • Sqrat

            As to whether Luke was utterly convinced that Jesus was God, I doubt anyone would say that Luke's understanding of the Jesus was _exactly_ equivalent to the understanding articulated at Nicaea.

            That's precisely my point. A close reading of Luke's gospel does not point to the conclusion that the author was a believer in what would only much later become Christian trinitarian orthodoxy.

            The title "Son of Man" is used multiple times (referring to Daniel 7).

            Specifically, Daniel 7:13. The online New International Version translation of the Bible contains the following footnote regarding that verse: "The Aramaic phrase bar enash means human being. The phrase son of man is retained here because of its use in the New Testament as a title of Jesus, probably based largely on this verse." In other words, that particular translation of that verse is a retrospective imposition of phraseology onto the verse based on Jesus' later use of the term "Son of Man." See http://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=daniel%207 version=NIV

          • Jonathan Brumley

            It would be quite a leap to conclude that Luke was _not_ a believer in "what would later become Christian trinitarian orthodoxy". If Luke was indeed a disciple of Paul, then his theology was certainly Pauline, and Pauline/Petrine/Johannine Christianity is the mainline ("catholic") form of Christianity which developed into Christian trinitarian orthodoxy.

            Without evidence for a discontinuity or rupture in thought between the apostolic era and Nicaea, the most compelling explanation is that the trinity developed as a synthesis of the ideas presented by the Pauline/Petrine/Johannine tradition. Luke's understanding of the relationship between the Father and the Son was maybe not as clear as the understanding discerned and articulated at Nicaea. Or maybe he was pretty clear about it, but simply didn't articulate it formally in his gospel. Either way presents no problem from a Catholic point of view.

            One of the major themes of the four gospels is Jesus asking this question: "Who do you say that I am?" In the gospel according to Luke, as in all four canonical Gospels, Jesus (as portrayed) intentionally obscuring his identity over and over again. He never answers directly, rather he leaves it up to his hearers to come to their own conclusion. We have a man who worked miracles, forgave sins, fulfilled Messianic prophecies, was proclaimed to be "Son of God", and rose from the dead. But where does that leave us? How did this "Son of God" man jive with the Jewish belief in one God? It's a big question now and was a big question then - so at least for mainline Catholic Christianity, the question was resolved at Nicaea.

            The thought on Son of Man is that the Aramaic phrase "bar enash", was rendered by Luke, in Greek, as "huios (tou) anthropou", in English "Son of Man". Here's an interesting article on this subject - http://www.goarch.org/ourfaith/bar-enosh.

            Luke throughout his gospel portrays Jesus as fulfilling prophecies from the Hebrew scriptures, so it would be consistent with the rest of the gospel to interpret "huios (tou) anthropou" / "bar enash", a title used multiple times, as fulfilling some significant prophecy. Which prophecy? The best theory I've heard is that it fulfills Daniel 7. Do you have a better idea?

          • Sqrat

            If Luke was indeed a disciple of Paul, then his theology was certainly Pauline, and Pauline/Petrine/Johannine Christianity is the mainline ("catholic") form of Christianity which developed into Christian trinitarian orthodoxy.

            If "Luke" was a disciple of Paul, then he was a disciple of Paul. However, if he wasn't a disciple of Paul, then he wasn't a disciple of Paul.

            The reason why one might reasonably question whether he was a disciple of Paul is that, in Acts, Luke takes certain positions that are different from the ones that Paul takes in the genuine Pauline letters, among them the assertion that there was no difference of opinion between Paul and Peter about things like whether one should share meals with Gentiles (who did not follow kosher practice). Luke also makes certain claims about what Paul did that, again, are different from what Paul says in his own letters. For example, In Galatians, Paul says that after his conversion, he went to Arabia, then to Damascus, and only a few years later, to Jerusalem -- where, Paul states emphatically, he met only with Peter and James. But according to "Luke," Paul went to Jerusalem right away after his conversion, and met with other apostles in addition to Peter and James.

          • Jonathan Brumley

            The post-conversion account of Paul in Galatians and Luke's account in Acts can be harmonized. This link shows one way these accounts can fit together:

            https://www.apologeticspress.org/apcontent.aspx?category=6&article=782

            Just speaking from memory here about the conflict between Paul and Peter. It was not a difference in opinion about whether Jewish Christians _should_ share meals with Gentile Christians. Rather, the conflict was that Peter didn't practice what he preached, and Paul called him out on this.

          • Sqrat

            It's fun to engage in harmonization. For example, you can try harmonizing the birth narrative of Jesus in Luke with the birth narrative of Jesus in Matthew. You end up with quite a story.

          • Jonathan Brumley

            I agree, and find these "puzzles" fascinating. The census Luke describes in chapter 2:1-2 is a particularly good example.

      • David Nickol

        An author who lacks credentials would probably want to cite sources as often as possible.

        Again, this is unfair. Reza Aslan wrote a popular book, not a scholarly work. John P. Meier's volumes in the series A Marginal Jew are very heavily sourced. Pope Benedict XVI's volumes in Jesus of Nazareth—which you recommend—are very lightly sourced, with no footnotes but rather some in-text references and a general bibliography. Aslan did not at all lack credentials to write the kind of book that he wrote. What's interesting is that these disputed "myths" are—to the best of my knowledge (not having read the book)—peripheral or irrelevant to the argument of the book that Jesus was a "zealot."

        The book received a rather favorable review in The New York Times from Dale B. Martin, who says,

        Actually, Mr. Aslan is too credulous when reading the Gospels and Acts of the Apostles. He is rightly skeptical about some passages, like the birth narratives. But he uncritically accepts as fact many other passages, like precisely what Jesus is supposed to have said at his trial before the high priest and full Sanhedrin. In many cases regarding Jesus, as well as Paul and James, Mr. Aslan takes as accurate deeds and sayings most critical scholars would question.

        • Jon Sorensen

          Your critique would hold more weight if my blog post was about his book, but it's not. I was commenting on his article in the Washington Post, and that comment of mine was in response to a question about scholarly works. Jimmy Akin's video is about his book (which I linked to).

      • robtish

        It's hard not to see this as disingenuous. Presumably, when introducing Aslan, you would use the credential most relevant to your article. After all, you could have truthfully introduced him as, "Reza Aslan, whose wife first name is Jessica," But you did not, because it's not relevant. And we as readers accept your omission of Jessica, because we implicitly understand and trust that you will focus on relevant information.

        But by introducing him as a creative writing professor, you imply that this is his primary relevant credential, and of course, it's not. This is why we consider your introduction factually true but misleading (misleading with facts is a common rhetorical strategy!) and we see your description of him as dismissive.

      • I don't think you were purposefully trying to bias us against Reza, but that's the way it was initially interpreted by several readers, myself included. In the future, it might be best to list an author's most relevant credentials before reviewing his or her work.

      • Joseph R.

        Jon,

        I'm surprised some people are making such a big fuss about how you introduced Aslan.

        I think it's more than fair for one to introduce the author of a book one is about to review with the same information that is very likely to be given on their business card. Neither Aslan's academic history or the reputation of the respective institutions are in question.

        If leaving out his credentials unfairly reduces him to "merely" a professor of creative writing, then including it unfairly elevates him to the level of expert. At least in the former we know that he is gainfully employed.

        ...But then maybe your super secret motive for telling us about his occupation is because you want to convince your readers he doesn't really have the free-time to be writing books that are well-researched, and we are to just dismiss him on those grounds!? Or maybe we should just stop trying to guess at your ulterior motives since it's better to just ask you why you didn't include his credentials, in order that we take the conversation down a rabbit trail of arguments why his credentials were relevant!

        Therefore, it is not a stretch to imagine that his own religious background may have some influence on his opinion of the historical reliability of the Gospels.

        I definitely agree that it is not a stretch. Along these same lines it is fair for readers to presume anybody's opinion on the reliability of the Gospels is also influenced by their religious (or lack thereof) background. This is why I'm thankful that you did not imply, suggest, or otherwise insinuate anywhere that Aslan's opinions should be dismissed because of his current religion.

        • Andre Boillot

          Joseph,

          I definitely agree that it is not a stretch. Along these same lines it is fair for readers to presume anybody's opinion on the reliability of the Gospels is also influenced by their religious (or lack thereof) background.

          Just to be clear, you view the author's conversion back to Islam (apparently his earlier conversion from Islam to Christianity wasn't didn't rate a mention) as being more relevant to the discussion than the years of academic study on religion he did?

          I would suggest scrolling through the short author bios listed on the various articles here at SN, and tell me whether or not you feel they tend to highlight the qualifications of the authors with respect to the topics they write about. You might then wonder why Mr. Aslan was introduced to us as a Muslim professor of creative writing, in a piece titled "Five Mythical “Myths About Jesus”".

          https://strangenotions.com/contributors/

          • Joseph R.

            Just to be clear, you view the author's conversion back to Islam (apparently his earlier conversion from Islam to Christianity wasn't didn't rate a mention) as being more relevant to the discussion than the years of academic study on religion he did?

            Yes, for the same reason you and I would prefer to learn about teeth from a dentist. It's just that his academic studies are not in question, and they would say nothing about the titles of his theses and dissertations. Though I can definitely see merit in Jon skipping the whole conversion thing as well. I give him a pass since he never mentioned to accept or reject Aslan's arguments on either of those grounds.

            I think you're right as far as the credentials of the contributors to this site goes, but I suppose if Aslan were to write a guest post then they would include any of the credentials he wanted.

            If Jon said Aslan's arguments are to be accepted/rejected because of his current religion, or to accept/reject them because of his academic credentials, then Jon would be guilty of a logical fallacy, and we would be justified in bringing it to his attention. Right now, I don't see where Jon made the fallacy, so feel free to correct me.

        • Geena Safire

          including [his credentials] unfairly elevates him to the level of expert

          Unfairly? Aslan has three degrees in religion and the history of religion, including a PhD, plus he reads ancient Greek and Aramaic, plus he has 20 years of experience in the field and two published books. Even Pope Francis doesn't have a PhD.

          What credentials would it take to convince YOU that someone is an expert, Joseph?

          • Andre Boillot

            I don't know how I missed that. Apparently nobody at SN is worried the contributors will unfairly be viewed as experts.

          • Andre,

            Alright, alright we've beaten the horse pretty good here. I've counted no less than 11 comments by you in this thread, and not one of them engages any of the actual claims made by Aslan or Jon.

            Perhaps we can get the dialogue back on track?

          • Andre Boillot

            Brandon,

            I get it, I get it, I'm not allowed to respond when directly addressed. EDIT: for winkyness ;)

            I think I've made a grand total of 3 comments on this thread that weren't in direct response to comments addressed at me. Two of those were legitimate concerns with how the material was being presented, and I felt like I presented both of those in a civil manner.

            I'll refrain from initiating anymore discussion on that topic, though I won't muzzle myself in terms of responding to comments addressed to me.

          • Joseph R.

            I think I missed something. Would you mind explaining why one should be convinced that someone else is an expert before determining whether their arguments are true or false?

          • Geena Safire

            Let's say you have a broken bone.

            Some guy in your office gives you a suggestion of what to do.

            And your doctor, with a decade of medical training and many years of experience, suggests you do something else.

            I guess you could consider them both to be valid opinions and consider both their ideas equally, evaluating them on their merits to the best of your medical understanding.

            Or say some woman posts on a bulletin board at the coffee shop that she can teach you everything you need to know about Nietzsche, because she took a correspondence course and aced it and she's really in tune with his energy.

            And a highly reputed university offers a course on Nietzsche taught by a professor who has a PhD in Philosophy with a dissertation on German counter-Enlightenment philosophers, speaks German fluently and has read Nietzsche in the original.

            I guess you could consider them both to be valid sources of education. I mean, why should you want to be convinced that someone is an expert before determining whether they might have more to offer?

            Or one person publishes a book on Catholic catechism because he finds it an interesting topic. And another person publishes a book on Catholic catechism who is a woman religious who has a master's degree in divinity, and whose book has received a nihil obstat and an imprimatur.

            I guess one book is as good as another, and they are both based on the same catechism, right? Their arguments are just as likely to be serious and well considered and valid, right?

             

            That is not to say that expertise is everything. Arguments stand or fall on their merits, and not because any person with credentials said it.

            On the other hand, training and expertise are valuable and important, especially in matters of scholarship. If some random person claimed Jesus wasn't born in Bethlehem because she heard someone say it on the History Channel, I wouldn't give it a second thought.

            However, if a scholar of Aslan's deep background makes such a claim, even if I were a Catholic apologist, I wouldn't dismiss it based on a short newspaper article. I would go to the book and study why he made that claim and which sources he referenced before making a serious effort to refute it in print.

      • Paul Boillot

        " An author who lacks credentials would probably want to cite sources as often as possible."

        No, you've got it backwards.

        Citing sources shows that you know what you're talking about, have done research, and aren't just....making it up as you go.

    • Erick Chastain

      This guys credentials are pretty unimpressive given what he was signaling in the interview. Jerry Coyne (famous atheist evolutionary biologist and no friend of the Church) wrote an article about it: http://whyevolutionistrue.wordpress.com/2013/08/14/whats-the-story-with-reza-aslan-his-jesus-book/

      • Andre Boillot

        Regardless of what you think of his credentials (I don't put any extraordinary weight on them), my point was that I thought they were more relevant than his current position and faith (or at least as relevant), and that by failing to note these credentials Mr. Sorensen might be biasing the audience against Mr. Aslan.

        How people choose to characterize others can have a great deal of influence. For example, your characterizing Mr. Coyne as an "atheist evolutionary biologist and no friend of the Church" was presumably done in an attempt to make his views of Mr. Aslan more appealing to me.

        • Erick Chastain

          Incorrect. I was trying to communicate that Jerry Coyne doesn't have pro-Christian bias. That is relevant of course for anyone who is calling out Reza Aslan on his outright lie about his credentials. Anyhow, Reza Aslan is trying to not sound like a crackpot by his promotion of his non-existent credentials, so it is relevant to a discussion of him. Not his work, which stands by itself (though which I would not take as seriously as a work by a historian who specializes in 1st century Palestine, from a practical standpoint of being skeptical and not having the time to check all sources of every book).

          • Andre Boillot

            "Incorrect. I was trying to communicate that Jerry Coyne doesn't have pro-Christian bias. That is relevant of course for anyone who is calling out Reza Aslan on his outright lie about his credentials."

            I would think that simply presenting the facts about the credentials in question would be quite sufficient, and infinitely more relevant than somebody's opinion of Christianity at large.

            "Anyhow, Reza Aslan is trying to not sound like a crackpot by his promotion of his non-existent credentials, so it is relevant to a discussion of him."

            Non-existent? I mean, I get taking exception to how he choose to describe his PhD (which as far as I can tell was in Sociology, with a focus on the history of religion) or his faculty status, but the guy essentially has three degrees in religion. He sounds like a blow-hard or attention seeker, not somebody that paid for an online degree in astrology and is now claiming to be an expert in something.

          • Erick Chastain

            indeed, I agree with your assessment that he is a blow-hard and attention seeker.

  • Andre Boillot

    I haven't read the book yet, so I don't know how well documents Aslan's claims are, but it's worth pointing out that Mr. Sorensen is responding to the WaPo article, which does not contain any citations. It would have been far more interesting to see a response to the book, and addressing the presumable sources for his arguments.

  • David Nickol

    Myth #1: "Jesus was born in Bethlehem."

    According to John P. Meier in A Marginal Jew: Rethinking the Historical Jesus, p. 216, Volume 1,

    While Jesus' birth in Bethlehem cannot be positively ruled out (one can rarely "prove a negative" in ancient history), we must accept the fact that the predominant view in the Gospels and Acts is that Jesus came from Nazareth and—apart from Chapters 1-2 of Matthew and Luke—only from Nazareth. The somewhat contorted or suspect ways in which Matthew and Luke reconcile the dominant Nazareth tradition with the special Bethlehem tradition of their Infancy Narratives may indicate that Jesus' birth at Bethlehem is to be taken not as a historical fact but as a theologoumenon, i.e., as a theological affirmation (e.g., Jesus is the true Son of David, the prophesied royal Messiah) put into the form of an apparently historical narrative. One must admit, though, that on this point certitude is not to be had.

    • Sqrat

      Aslan's position appears to be identical to Meier's. In an interview, Aslan declared,

      And so the gospels of Luke and Matthew, and only Luke and Matthew, bring up various ways to get Jesus’ family out of Nazareth into Bethlehem so that he could be born there but, again, as I constantly remind people, by no means did Matthew and Luke actually think that Jesus was born in Bethlehem. The stories that they write about in order to explain how he was born there are quite obviously legendary. They’re mythological, they’re not historically factual. And they’re not meant to be read in a historically factual way. They were meant to put forth a much deeper truth, which is that Jesus is the Messiah, the anointed one, the successor of David.

      It's not clear to me why Aslan is confident that Matthew and Luke did not intend their birth narratives "to be read in a historical factual way," but clearly it is all but impossible that both of them could be historical and factual. If one is historically true, then the other must be historically false, and vice versa. That both are historically false seems entirely plausible.

    • This is little more than conjecture, and Meier's strained "may" betrays this fact, as does the final sentence in the excerpt you quoted.

      • Sqrat

        I would certainly agree that "they did not mean for it to be taken literally" usually sounds more strained and conjectural than "they simply got it wrong" or "they simply made it up out of whole cloth."

        I am reminded of the scene from Monty Python's Life of Brian:

        "I think it was 'Blessed are the cheesemakers.'"

        "Aha, what's so special about the cheesemakers?"

        "Well, obviously it's not meant to be taken literally; it refers to any manufacturers of dairy products."

  • David Nickol

    Myth #2: "Jesus was an only child."

    John P. Meier, in A Marginal Jew: Rethinking the Historical Jesus, Volume 1, pp. 331-332, says,

    In the NT there is not a single clear case where "brother" means "cousin" or even "stepbrother," while there are abundant cases of its meaning "physical brother" (full or half). This is the natural sense of adelphos in Paul, Mark, and John; Matthew and Luke apparently followed and developed this sense. Paul's usage is particularly important because, unlike Josephus or the evangelists, he is not simply writing about past events transmitted to him through stories in oral or written sources. He speaks of the brother(s) of the Lord as people he has known and met, people who are living even as he is writing. His use of "brother" is obviously not determined by reverent, decades-long Gospel tradition whose set formulas he would be loath to change. And Paul, or a close disciple, shows that the Pauline tradition knew perfectly well the word for "cousin" (anepsios in Col 4:10). Hence, from a purely philological and historical point of view, the most probably opinion is that the brothers and sisters of Jesus were his siblings. This interpretation of the NT texts was kept alive by at least some Church writers up until the late 4th century.

    • Peter Piper

      Sorenson is only claiming that the `brothers' of Jesus were half-brothers, which is consistent with this quote.

      • David Nickol

        Sorenson is only claiming that the `brothers' of Jesus were half-brothers, which is consistent with this quote.

        If Joseph had children by a previous marriage, would they have been the half-brothers and half-sisters of Jesus, or the step-brothers and step-sisters of Jesus?

        • ziad

          I would argue half-brothers, since Joseph is Jesus' adoptive dad.

          Also, The bible does mention the relationship of two of the four people that are named as brothers of the Lord. The following is taken from Catholic.com

          "n Matthew 13:55-56 four men are named as brothers (adelphoi) of the Lord: James, Joseph, Simon, and Jude.

          In John 19:25 we read, "Standing by the foot of the cross of Jesus were his mother and his mother's sister, Mary the wife of Cleophas, and Mary of Magdala." Cross reference this with Matthew 27:56: "Among them [at the cross] were Mary Magdalene and Mary the mother of James and Joseph, and the mother of the sons of Zebedee." We see that at least two of the men mentioned in Matthew 13 were definitely not siblings of Jesus (although they're called adelphoi); they were Jesus' cousins--sons of their mother's sister."

        • Peter Piper

          Technically, I think it would have to be step-brothers and step-sisters. But a bunch of stuff in the gospels (for example the genealogies) is written as if Joseph were the biological father.

  • David Nickol

    Aslan’s article (and his book) is nothing more than a rehashing of
    arguments that have existed for over a century and been answered by
    countless Christian scholars. If you are seeking a thorough refutation
    of the idea that the Gospels are not a reliable account of the
    historical Jesus, I highly recommend reading the series Jesus of Nazareth by Pope Benedict XVI.

    I have Aslan's book, but have not read it yet. I also have the three volumes of Pope Benedict's Jesus of Nazareth. I may think differently when I read Zealot, but it seems to me it is unfairly dismissive to say it is "nothing more than a rehashing of arguments that have existed over a century and been answered by countless Christian scholars." Aslan's background is sufficient to justify his writing of such a book—which is a popularization of historical Jesus scholarship rather than a scholarly work itself.

    Off the top of my head, I don't remember reading anything substantial about his myths #3 and #4, but unless my memory is failing me, John Dominic Crossan in The Historical Jesus: The Life of a Mediterranean Jewish Peasant suggests that the disciples were unlikely to have obtained the body of Jesus after the crucifixion.

    In his five myths, I don't think Aslan said anything that demonstrable untrue, although many of them may be debatable, and of course the Catholic Church relies on "Tradition" in asserting the perpetual virginity of Mary, so for Catholics it is not a matter of what the Bible says about the brothers and sisters of Jesus. If you are a believing Catholic, then presumably you accept that the Church can't be in error on this point, but if you are not a committed Catholic, you will weigh the evidence differently.

  • Geena Safire

    I was under the impression that "Strange Notions" was going to represent respectful scholarship. I've had issues with other articles here, but this one takes the cake.

    Dismissing Aslan's twenty years of religious scholarship and professional work by identifying him as "a professor of creative writing" is either unpardonably ignorant for the "Director of Marketing for Catholic Answers" or intentionally deceptive, both of which are unacceptable.

    Author Jon Sorensen's academic background is a "bachelor’s degree in 3D Animation and Visual Communications in 2004 from Platt College, Ontario." This is not an educational background that evidences deep religious scholarship. In fact, Platt College is a for profit institution, accredited by the Accrediting Commission of Career Schools and Colleges, mainly offering certificates and associate's degrees in graphic design, information technology and paralegal, with just two bachelor's degrees.

    In contrast, Aslan received his bachelor's degree in Religion from Santa Clara University (a Jesuit institution and ranked 72 by Forbes of best universities) magna cum laude in 1995, his Master of Theological Studies from Harvard University in 1999, and his PhD in Philosophy of Sociology from UC Santa Barbara in 2009. His master's thesis was "The Messianic Secret in the Gospel of Mark" His PhD dissertation was "Global Jihadism as a Transnational Social Movement: A Theoretical Framework," clearly a religious study. Plus, along the way to his PhD, he was working professionally and wrote a book "No god but God: The Origins, Evolution, and Future of Islam in 2005.

    But even if Sorensen's credentials don't light a candle to Aslan's, that doesn't mean he isn't allowed to write a commentary on Aslan's book, assuming he read it seriously, following the footnotes and references, in order to understand the sources and evidence for his assertions and conclusions.

    But this isn't even a serious book report. Sorensen is commenting on an article that Aslan wrote subsequent to the book. That's like using Cliff Notes to write a term paper on War and Peace. It's bad scholarship and it's bad journalism and it's bad apologetics.

    The main thrust of this article, the entirety of its scholarly argument on each of the five points, is essentially, "Nuh uh, the Bible says it, I believe it, that settles it." Except for Myth #2, because of the Catholic contention regarding Mary's perpetual virginity, in which case it disputes what the Bible actually says for what it could possibly be interpreted as meaning.

    • Octavo

      "Nuh uh, the Bible says it, I believe it, that settles it."

      That's the best summary of this article I've read.

      ~Jesse Webster

    • Geena, I find it ironic that in a long 400-word comment, complaining about ad hominem attacks, you spend almost the entire space commenting on the two claimants' credentials instead of engaging *any* of their points. Thus you've commited the same error you accuse others of committing.

      To top it off, you conclude by summing up Jon's article like so: "Nuh uh, the Bible says it, I believe it, that settles it."

      I suggest you re-read our Commenting Policy which discourages this sort of unfair representation. Such a juvenile, simplistic reduction of what Jon said is unnecessary and does nothing to promote fruitful dialogue.

      If you'd like to engage Jon's actual points, we certainly welcome your feedback. But if you're not interested in serious dialogue I suggest commenting elsewhere.

      • Octavo

        You may consider "the Bible says it, I believe it, that settles it" to be juvenile, but where I'm from, that's said with absolute seriousness and conviction.

        • Octavo, I didn't say that the claim itself was juvenile, but that the simplistic reduction was.

          And I'm not aware Jon violated the comment policy.

          • Octavo

            "it is not a stretch to imagine that his own religious background may have some influence on his opinion of the historical reliability of the Gospels."

            I am pretty sure that if I said something like this regarding a scholar's christian background, you'd tell me to read the comment policy or comment elsewhere.

            ~Jesse Webster

          • robtish

            I have to agree. This is an ad hominem tactic.

          • I wouldn't. Jon is not dismissing or rejecting the author's claims because of his background, he's merely suggesting why he might hold then. He nevertheless goes on to explicitly refute the claims.

          • David Nickol

            He nevertheless goes on to explicitly refute the claims.

            I certainly don't think he refutes Aslan's claims that the statements are myths.

            The best one can do to counter the statement that Jesus was not an only child is argue that the references to the brothers and sisters of Jesus are possibly not references to other children of Mary. There is nothing in the Gospels that says Mary bore only one son and no daughters. The doctrine of the Perpetual Virginity of Mary is a matter of Catholic dogma based on Tradition, not a fact attested to by the Gospels.

            There is no way to prove Jesus was born in Bethlehem. Matthew and Luke both claim this is so, but their accounts of the birth of Jesus are incompatible.

            I don't know what the arguments are against there being 12 apostles, but one could certainly imagine that Jesus had an inner circle of followers that oral tradition turned into "the Twelve." I don't see any point in claiming that there weren't 12 apostles. It makes absolutely no difference if there were 10 or 13. The Gospels say very little about any of the apostles other than Peter and Judas, and after the resurrection, most of them are never mentioned. It should not shake anyone's faith to find out there were, say, 14 apostles instead of 12.

            Aslan is writing as a historian, not as a believing Christian. There is no reason he should approach the Bible as interpreted by the Catholic Church or Protestant believers either.

      • Geena Safire

        Brandon, I am interest in serious dialogue. That was what I was criticizing about this article. It is not serious dialogue.

        First, with regard to ad hominem

        (From your comment to Octavo below) "And I'm not aware Jon violated the comment policy."

        From Wikipedia on Argumentum Ad Hominem:

        " 'Ad hominem Circumstantial' points out that someone is in circumstances such that they are disposed to take a particular position. 'Ad hominem circumstantial' constitutes an attack on the bias of a source. This is fallacious because a disposition to make a certain argument does not make the argument false."

        Jon Sorensen: "it is not a stretch to imagine that his own religious background may have some influence on his opinion of the historical reliability of the Gospels."

        Classic ad hominem circumstantial.

        Also from that Wikipedia entry:

        "Halo Effect: Ad hominem arguments work via the halo effect, a human cognitive bias in which the perception of one trait is influenced by the perception of an unrelated trait. ...
        People tend to see others as tending to be all good or tending to be all bad. Thus, if you can attribute a bad trait to your opponent, others will tend to doubt the quality of their arguments, even if the bad trait is irrelevant to the arguments."

        Jon Sorensen: "Reza Aslan is a professor of creative writing at the University of California, Riverside."

        This statement, since creative writing is not generally considered to give one a strong foundation in religious scholarship, is clearly intended to discredit Alsan, especially since Sorensen didn't mention his extensive and extremely-relevant educational/professional credentials. This is also an example of "damning with faint praise."

        From the commenting rules and tips: "Ad Hominem: ...
        He blasts the opponent's ... education, background, [or]
        motivations."

        Sorensen did exactly these.

        He blasted his very relevant education by not mentioning it.

        He blasted his very relevant background by not mentioning his two decades of professional experience in the history of religion.

        He tried to denigrate his credentials by mentioning only his current position.

        And he called into doubt his credentials by inferring that his faith might have swayed his thinking -- made more significant by, again, not having mentioned his education and experience.

        How can you, Brandon, say you are unaware that Sorensen violated the ad hominem part of the comment policy?

        • Jon Sorensen

          "He blasted his very relevant education by not mentioning it." That's a stretch. I never said his arguments in the article should be dismissed out of hand for those reasons. If that were the case, my blog post could have been much shorter.

          • robtish

            Jon, you can moot this whole discussion by merely saying, "You're right, I should have introduced him by mentioning his most relevant credentials. Now let's talk about the substance of the piece."

          • Jon Sorensen

            Or you can just comment on the substance of the piece.

          • robtish

            Seriously? At some point, refusing to acknowledge an error is worse than the error itself.

            Meanwhile, I'd say it's fair of us to comment honestly on any aspect of the work you've offered up. Including your framing of the topic.

          • Jon Sorensen

            "Meanwhile, I'd say it's fair of us to comment honestly on any aspect of
            the work you've offered up. Including your framing of the topic."

            Absolutely. You'll get no argument from me there.

    • cminor

      You know, religion is a broad subject, and it's quite possible to hold advanced
      degrees in it without knowing much about Christianity. Based on what I've read
      about Aslan's background, I would expect him to know about as much as the
      average Evangelical youth-group trained young adult (that is to say, some key
      verses and rules for behavior, and not much else) and given the cv you offered
      above I'd expect him to have a good working knowledge of the Gospel of Mark at
      least (which may or may not include both sides of the argument for its validity
      or study of any of the rest of the NT) but there's nothing beyond the master's
      thesis to suggest that he ever took a serious scholarly look at Christianity as
      a subject of study afterward (or possibly, before). In fact, his cv reads more
      like that of an Islamic scholar than anything else. Furthermore, a stack of
      religion degrees don't guarantee knowledge of history, culture, or
      archaeology--and from what I've been reading elsewhere about this guy's work,
      there's room to question his.

  • Fr.Sean

    Excellent summary Jon, would you mind forwarding this to the ppg.

  • Andre Boillot

    Also, Strange Notions contributor Jimmy Akin has produced a great critique of Alsan's book Zealot that you can watch here.

    While this isn't aimed specifically at Mr. Sorensen, it should be noted that Mr. Akin's review also goes down the ad hominem route of dimissing Aslan as a creative writing professor, as well as what some could consider an attempt to mislead the listener by stating that Aslan "doesn't stop to cite sources". A brief look at the table of contents for the book reveals over 50 pages of notes and citations, and a 10 page bibliography.

    http://www.amazon.com/Zealot-Life-Times-Jesus-Nazareth/dp/140006922X

    • "While this isn't aimed specifically at Mr. Sorensen, it should be noted that Mr. Akin's review also goes down the ad hominem route of dimissing Aslan as a creative writing professor..."

      As far as I'm aware, neither Jon nor Jimmy base their critiques on the fact that Aslan is a creative writing professor. It was only mentioned as a bit of relevant information. It's not used as the foundation of any of their points.

      • Andre Boillot

        Brandon,

        At best, given that his conversion to Islam was deemed "relevant information", it calls into question what the two authors regard as relevant.

        When talking about a work on the historicity of Jesus, you don't mention that the author is a Muslim professor of creative writing, while omitting three degrees in religious study if you're being intellectually honest.

      • Andre Boillot

        Brandon,

        Are you honestly telling me you didn't find Akin's phrasing of "doesn't stop to cite sources" to be misleading?

        • I didn't say that. I only responded to your accusation that Akin "dismissed" Aslan because he was a creative writing professor. This is demonstrably untrue.

          • Octavo

            It is certainly not self evident to me that it is demonstrably untrue.

          • Andre Boillot

            Please demonstrate.

          • It's demonstrably untrue because examining Jimmy's video (and the text article version) reveal no explicit or implicit dismissal. The video itself demonstrates no such rejection.

            If he did dismiss Aslan on the basis of his credentials, he would spend time engaging his actual points.

          • Octavo

            "In keeping with Aslan's background as a creative writing professor though, it's written largely in a casual narrative style that doesn't stop to cite sources mount arguments or consider alternative viewpoints. It reads rather a lot like historical fiction"

            This is a perfect example of "poisoning the well" of discourse.

          • Jon Sorensen

            Have you ever read Aslan's book? That is exactly how it reads, and is done on purpose by Aslan. It's written in narrative form like historical fiction.

          • Octavo

            I only looked through it in a bookstore, so I withdraw my complaint. I still think you engaged in an unworthy ad hominem when you suggested that his scholarship was swayed by his religious background.

            ~Jesse Webster

          • Jon Sorensen

            I understand where you are coming from Jesse, but that blog post was originally written by me for a Catholic audience who would understand that, because he is a Muslim, it's no surprise he would attack the reliability of the Gospels. That is a common tactic in Muslim apologetics. You guys aren't going to read that the way it was intended, and for that misunderstanding, I apologize. I still stand by everything I wrote.

          • Geena Safire

            That is a common tactic in Muslim apologetics.

            But Aslan is not a Muslim apologist!

            He's a distinguished, degreed scholar of the history of religion.

            That's one of the main points of contention, Jon, and you still don't get it. You ignored his credentials and dismissed him because of his faith as just some apologist.

            In his PhD dissertation and in his book "No god but God", he was clearly anything but a Muslim apologist. And you would have discovered this fact quite easily if you didn't cling your erroneous stereotype that Muslim = Muslim apologist.

            Also, you would have discovered that Aslan does not make any comment on the resurrection because he respectfully considers that not a historical issue but an issue of faith.

            His isn't "attacking the reliability of the Gospels." He is a scholar of history examining the evidence from original sources and coming to a different conclusion regarding Jesus.

            You guys aren't going to read that the way it was intended

            No, we aren't because what you intended was factually false.

          • David Nickol

            . . . . because he is a Muslim, it's no surprise he would attack the reliability of the Gospels. That is a common tactic in Muslim apologetics.

            On the one hand, it goes without saying that a Muslim is going to approach the Gospels differently than a Christian. If Aslan took the same view of the Gospels as Pope Benedict XVI, then undoubtedly Aslan would be a Christian and not a Muslim. But I think you go way too far here, coming close to implying (or outright implying) that Aslan is a Muslim apologist and his book is a work of Muslim apologetics. In reality, it is book about the historical Jesus, and it's popular history, not apologetics.

            Anyone who writes a book about the historical Jesus is not going to accept the Gospels as "reliable" historical documents, and that is necessary because they aren't reliable historical documents. If they were, there would be no quest for the historical Jesus. The Gospels weren't written to be historical documents. This does not mean they are fictitious, but it does mean that anyone who approaches them as a conscientious historian is going to question (not "attack") their reliability when it comes to historical matters. Even Benedict, who maintains that the Jesus of the Gospels is the "historical Jesus," grapples with discrepancies among the Gospel accounts.

          • David Nickol

            It's written in narrative form like historical fiction.

            Narrative history is perfectly respectable, and it is illegitimate to imply that a work of narrative history is somehow less reliable or credible because it is written in narrative form.

            I have only read parts of Zealot, but it seems to me it is not "written in narrative form like historical fiction."

          • Andre Boillot

            I will give Akin the benefit of having at least mentioned one of Aslan's three degrees in religious studies - even if I feel that there's an odd emphasis on the 'sociology' part of Aslan's PhD. Incidentally, it's a PhD in Sociology with a focus on the history of religion - not in the sociology of religion.

          • Andre Boillot

            From Akin's video:

            "The book quickly shot to the top with Amazon's bestseller list. it's billed as a biography of Jesus of Nazareth. In keeping with Aslan's background as a creative writing professor though, it's written largely in a casual narrative style that doesn't stop to cite sources mount arguments or consider alternative viewpoints. It reads rather a lot like historical fiction"

            No, this surely doesn't set the tone or bias the listener.

      • robtish

        Do you believe it's NOT significant that the OP introduced Aslan as a creative writing professor *without mentioning any of his other credentials* ? Do you believe such an introduction will NOT subconciously influence readers about what follows? Do believe it was appropriate for the author to introduce Aslan using Aslan's least relevant credential to the topic at hand?

  • Geena Safire

    it is not a stretch to imagine that his own religious background may
    have some influence on his opinion of the historical reliability of the
    Gospels.

    And a Christian author's current religious convictions wouldn't have an influence on his opinion regarding that? Particularly, perhaps, if that author's employment is in marketing for a Catholic apologetics organization?

    This contention is specious. And this same baseless argument about Aslan was at the core of the most embarrassing interview Fox News has ever done.

    In addition, this post focuses on his religious beliefs and Completely Fails To Mention Aslan's deep and extensive religious education and professional experience.

  • David Nickol

    He claims that nowhere in the New Testament is the word adelphos used to mean anything other than brother—but that is precisely what is debated.

    This is a little unfair, since I think it is understood that what Aslan meant is that aside from the passages that refer to the brothers and sisters of Jesus, none of the other uses of adelphos in the New Testament mean anything other than "brother" (or "half brother"). When it is not clear in an Old Testament or a New Testament passage how a word is being used, exegetes look at how the word is used elsewhere. It would be bizarre to include the disputed passage in the survey of how the word is used, since the whole point is that the disputed passage is disputed and needs to be clarified by looking at all other uses of the word.

    I noted in another message that I thought it was unfair to say Aslan's book is "nothing more than a rehashing of arguments that have existed for over a century and been answered by countless Christian scholars." I'd just point out that on the question of the brothers and sisters of Jesus, it is a Catholic doctrine that is being questioned. There are many Protestants—including Protestant scholars—who do not believe in the perpetual virginity of Mary.

    So it is not accurate to say that Aslan is "rehashing" arguments that Christian scholars have answered, if it is meant that all Christian scholars disagree and have disagreed with Aslan. Christian scholars have answered both "yes" and "no" to the question of whether Jesus had siblings that were the children of Mary.

    • Peter Piper

      The mistake you mention in your first paragraph is not isolated. The OP includes another very similar mistake near the start:

      Critics of the Bible have often claimed that there is no record of a Roman census. But as others have rightly pointed out, there is a record of it: in Luke’s Gospel. Critics just don’t want to accept it.

  • Jon,

    Thanks for your review. It is clear, both from your arguments and the following comments, that assertions 1-4 at least are controversial. There is no consensus amongst relevant historians over whether 1-4 are true or false. Further, none of them is especially relevant to the question of whether Jesus was the Son of God. I am therefore content to remain agnostic about the truth of assertions 1-4.

    Assertion 5 seems to find at least a weak consensus view among relevant historians, at least to my understanding. So I tentatively accept that Jesus was buried in a tomb. I am happy to be corrected on this assertion.

  • cminor

    Re Myth #5: The Givat 'ha Mivtar excavations turned up an ossuary containing the bones of a crucified man from the Roman period (probably 4th C.) Users of ossuary burial tended to be well-off; the poor buried their dead in pits and remains would not last long. Thus it's unsurprising that well-preserved remains identifiable as cruciati are extremely rare. The example above is identifiable only because a Roman spike remained lodged in his heel on his removal from the cross.

    While the Romans may not have cared about leaving bodies out to rot, it would have been unthinkable to observant Jews (if you remember your Antigone from high school lit, it was for most of the ancients.). Deuteronomy, in fact, prohibits leaving a dead cruciatus up overnight. I don't see why anyone should find it surprising that family members might be willing to risk association with individuals regarded as enemies of the state in order to give them a proper burial. If, as Scripture states, Joseph of Arimathea was a disciple (or, as tradition holds, a kinsman) of Jesus it would be expected that he would use what influence he had to obtain the body. As Pilate doesn't seem to have had any special interest in making an example of Jesus, there's little reason to assume he would have objected.

  • Miguel

    Well, i am not an scholar, but I have read some books. So do as I did, and get more information on the issues. What I want to say is:

    1-On the "brothers and sisters" issues; according to the scholars, noly the gospel by Luke -and the Acts- are "real greek" in the New Testament, or at least among the canonic Gospels. Everything else is a "deffective greek", sometimes called "neotestamentarian greek", since it is not even koine, but. again, Luke. As a matter of facts, the other canocical gospels are mostly considered "servile translations" from SEMITIC TEXTS -Matthew and Mark in aramaic and John in hebrew- since the grammatical constructions and the idioms are not from greek, but have striking paralellism with semitics language.

    And so' In the Old Testament there are several accounts of a man calling his wife "sister" -one of the patriarch and the lover in "Chant of Chants", and as far as I know, "brother" was -the semitic equivalent, off course- a semitism to refer to any close male relative; even the spouse. So, since the Gospels reflects a semitic enviroment, full of semitical persons -even if with a few others, non semitic- it would be senseful to espect the usage of semitisms, and therefore, to have the words "brother" and "sisters" loosely used.

    2- On the process. Why should Pilatus grant the "benefit", or the legal procedure, of a legal process or trial, when he used to order the execution of jewish summarialy? Pilatus is described as a "jews-hater", and in fact rejected to spend time in Jerusalem, rather living in Caesarea Maritima, a city near the lake/sea of Galilee, whcih was -the city- a greco-makedonian foundation, and didn't house any jew or their customs.

    Nevertheless, the was the roman governor (I think the title was "procurator"2, but I am not sure) and was menat to inhabitate in Jerusalem dring certains occasions. Especially the jewish religious festivals, very probable "scene" for nationalistic efervescense... and rebelions. to whcih the jews were quite prone, at least the middle and low classes.

    So, if we assume the gospels as at least relatively accurate, we could concede that the jewish religious authorities had decided to get rid of him. But, and this is extra scripturical knowledge, they -the jewish- couldn't perform death penalty, since the romans always took those "capacities" (sorry, english is my second language) alongside the military ones, form the captured territories. So the Sanedrim needed the sentence from Pilatus.

    And Pilatus was in a crossroad. His missions was to keep order in a sensitive province, near to the partian empire and the important egiptian province. And he had then a possible religious agitation, the most dangerous in Israel. so I think it is reasonable to assume he had good reasons to make a process or its likeness, for the "Jesus' case".

  • As a side note, there is good evidence that Jesus did not speak Greek, so parsing the Greek for his actual words can be tricky. The use of "adelphos" can be explained by the use of Hebrew and Aramaic. There is no word for cousin in Aramaic or Hebrew. As such, the word for brother was used. The word brother is used in four ways by Holy Scripture. It is used to denote a relationship that can either be by nature, race, kindred, or affection. An example of nature, would be the biological brothers of Peter and Andrew. An example of race, would be all Jews referring to each other as brothers (Deut. 15:12). An example of kindred, would be those within a tribe, clan or family such as Abraham referring to Lot(actually a nephew) as brother (Gen. 13:8). An example of affection, would be Paul writing to the Church in Corinth(1 Cor. 5:11).

  • RE: #5

    "Jews are so careful about funeral rites that even malefactors who have been sentenced to crucifixion are taken down and buried before sunset"
    -Josephus (The Jewish War 4.317).

  • RE: #2
    If Jesus was NOT an only child, then He would have entrusted his mother to his next oldest brother for care as was Jewish custom. Instead, He entrusted Mary to John at the foot of the cross, of whom we know by the gospels was not related.

    • robtish

      Your first statement assumes Jesus will necessarily follow Jewish custom, but the whole point of Christianity is that Jesus is different from any Jew (or human) who came before.

      • cminor

        "I come not to abolish the Law but to fulfill it." Scripture doesn't suggest that Jesus was anything but an orthodox practitioner, personally. He'd have been easier to dismiss if he'd been a renegade.

  • RE: #1
    The record of the census may not exist today, but this record did exist at the times of both Tertullian and Justin Martyr (before the sacking of Rome) as they both quote the government census records that still existed in pagan Rome.

    • This would be good independent evidence that Jesus was born in Bethlehem. but this may only be convincing to most historians if Tertullian and/or Justin Martyr directly referenced Jesus's entry in the census as well as providing reasons it was really Jesus's entry (maybe it was well-known at the time; Mary pointed out it was her handwriting, etc.?). After all, maybe Mary and Joseph and Jesus were very popular names, and so might occur on both the census in Bethlehem and Nazareth multiple times.

      Can you cite where Justin Martyr and Tertullian quote these census records, referring to Jesus?

  • The author here pretty much grants the gospels as being historically accurate and reliable, but isn't that the whole issue Reza is pointing out, that the gospels are not indeed historically accurate and reliable?

  • Doug Shaver

    The word "myth" has several meanings. The one that seems relevant in this
    context seems to be approximately "something lots of people believe that either is known to be false because of contrary evidence or is rendered improbable by lack of evidence." I don't agree that all of Aslan's five myths are actual myths in that sense.

    I have been an atheist most of my life, but not all of it. I was a Protestant Christian for roughly a dozen of my younger years, about half of them as a fundamentalist
    evangelical and the remainder as a liberal modernist. More recently, since the
    early days of the World Wide Web, I have spent much time debating Christians,
    mostly evangelicals, about their beliefs.

    Herewith my comments on Aslan's article.

    1. Jesus was born in Bethlehem.

    As an atheist, I have no dog in any fight over where Jesus was born. His birthplace has no bearing on whether he could have been the son of God. But the gospels
    constitute our only source of biographical information about him, and two of them say he was born in Bethlehem. The birth narratives in both Matthew and Luke, as written, do contain grounds for reasonable doubt in the mind of anyone not committed to inerrancy, but that doesn't make "born in Bethlehem" a myth in the usual sense. The belief that Jesus was born in Bethlehem could be a mistake -- I believe it is -- but being a mistake doesn't make it a myth.

    2. Jesus was an only child.

    I think Aslan is getting silly here. Yes, lots of people believe this, but nearly all of them are Roman Catholics. Most Protestants believe he had at least one brother,
    named James, who became the leader of the church in Jerusalem after Jesus died.
    So do most non-Christians, for that matter, at least in those parts of world where Christianity is the dominant religion. Check out any debate on Jesus' historicity, and you'll see even atheists arguing: But Paul said James was his brother, so he had to exist!

    3. Jesus had 12 disciples.

    Aslan's argument here is nothing but a semantic quibble, and a petty one at that. I've never met anyone who thinks that in singling out those twelve for special mention, the gospel authors meant to suggest that Jesus had no other disciples.

    4. Jesus had a trial before Pontius Pilate.

    In a general way, I agree with Jon on this one. There is no way that this belief is without good evidence. It could well have been true that Pilate routinely killed Jews
    without benefit of trial, but it does not follow that he always did. I do regard the gospel accounts of the trial as implausible, but I cannot infer from that, that there was no trial.

    5. Jesus was buried in a tomb.

    Aslan calls this "an extremely unusual, perhaps unprecedented, act of benevolence on the part of the Romans." It would have been unusual, yes, but we know from Josephus that it was not entirely unprecedented. I do regard the tomb burial as
    improbable, but not for lack of evidence. I just think the evidence is insufficient. And that makes this belief, like the birth in Bethlehem, a mistake and not a myth.

  • cpsho

    Myth #2
    Was Mary Ever-Virgin?
    Was Blessed Mary, ever-virgin? Was Mary a virgin before she conceived
    our Lord Jesus? Was she a virgin during the pregnancy? And was she a
    virgin after the birth of our Lord Jesus? Did she deliver other children
    after our Lord Jesus?
    .
    Read more: http://popeleo13.com/pope/2014/05/20/category-archive-message-board-41/#more-369