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The Problem With Reza Aslan’s Book About Jesus

Posted By Robert Spencer On July 30, 2013 @ 12:21 am In FrontPage | 262 Comments

The Leftist media is in an uproar over Reza Aslan’s recent interview on Fox News — see the Huffington Post’s account here. Many people have sent me tweets and emails skewering Fox’s supposed inconsistency for giving Aslan trouble for writing about Jesus as a Muslim but welcoming me writing about Muhammad as a Christian.

This is not actually the case, but I am getting so many emails about this that I thought I’d make it clear: I have no problem whatsoever with Reza Aslan writing about Jesus as a Muslim. I do not believe that one has to be a Muslim to write about Islam, or a Christian to write about Christianity, or a Hindu to write about Hinduism.

I did put up one Jihad Watch post that touched on the fact that his Muslim religion was not being mentioned in the media, but my emphasis was on his dishonesty, as well as his links to the bloody mullahs of the Islamic Republic of Iran. On July 25, I posted this: “Liberal media love new Jesus book Zealot, fail to mention author is Muslim — and member of lobbying group for Iranian mullahs,” commenting on a Fox News commentary by John S. Dickerson. In his article, Dickerson noted: “Media reports have introduced Aslan as a ‘religion scholar’ but have failed to mention that he is a devout Muslim.” This is true. In this NPR interview a section entitled “On his religious affiliation” has Aslan responding, “I wouldn’t call myself a Christian…” and going on and on from there, but he never gets around to mentioning that he is a Muslim.

That’s not exactly an honest answer when the question was put to him directly, and so I thought Dickerson’s piece had merit. The emphasis of my post, however, was on Aslan’s affiliation with a lobbying group for the Iranian mullahs and other unsavory connections to jihadists and Islamic supremacists, and the general fact that the mainstream media overlooks Aslan’s superficiality, numerous errors of fact, and obnoxious demeanor because he reflects their ideological perspective.

What’s more, in the notorious Fox interview, Aslan lied about his scholarly credentials. Matthew J. Franck explains in First Things that it was Aslan, not Fox’s Lauren Green, who steered the interview into a discussion of himself rather than of the book:

In fact, it is Aslan who immediately turns the interview into a cage match by reacting very defensively to Green’s first question. And here is where the misrepresentations begin. For roughly the first half of the interview Aslan dominates the exchange with assertions about himself that seem intended to delay the substance of the discussion:

I am a scholar of religions with four degrees including one in the New Testament . . . I am an expert with a Ph.D. in the history of religions . . . I am a professor of religions, including the New Testament–that’s what I do for a living, actually . . . To be clear, I want to emphasize one more time, I am a historian, I am a Ph.D. in the history of religions.

Later he complains that they are “debating the right of the scholar to write” the book rather than discussing the book. But the conversation took that turn thanks to Aslan, not Green! By the final minute he is saying of himself (and who really talks this way!?) that “I’m actually quite a prominent Muslim thinker in the United States.”

Aslan does have four degrees, as Joe Carter has noted: a 1995 B.A. in religion from Santa Clara University, where he was Phi Beta Kappa and wrote his senior thesis on “The Messianic Secret in the Gospel of Mark”; a 1999 Master of Theological Studies from Harvard; a 2002 Master of Fine Arts in Fiction from the University of Iowa; and a 2009 Ph.D. in sociology from the University of California, Santa Barbara.

None of these degrees is in history, so Aslan’s repeated claims that he has “a Ph.D. in the history of religions” and that he is “a historian” are false. Nor is “professor of religions” what he does “for a living.” He is an associate professor in the Creative Writing program at the University of California, Riverside, where his terminal MFA in fiction from Iowa is his relevant academic credential. It appears he has taught some courses on Islam in the past, and he may do so now, moonlighting from his creative writing duties at Riverside. Aslan has been a busy popular writer, and he is certainly a tireless self-promoter, but he is nowhere known in the academic world as a scholar of the history of religion. And a scholarly historian of early Christianity? Nope.

What about that Ph.D.? As already noted, it was in sociology. I have his dissertation in front of me. It is a 140-page work titled “Global Jihadism as a Transnational Social Movement: A Theoretical Framework.” If Aslan’s Ph.D. is the basis of a claim to scholarly credentials, he could plausibly claim to be an expert on social movements in twentieth-century Islam. He cannot plausibly claim, as he did to Lauren Green, that he is a “historian,” or is a “professor of religions” “for a living.”

Here again, the problem is Aslan’s dishonesty. I don’t care about his scholarly credentials. Even if everything he had said about his degrees had been true, it would confer on his book no presumption of accuracy or truth. I am constantly assailed for lacking scholarly credentials, but as it happens, when it comes to writing about religion I have exactly the same credentials as Aslan, a B.A., Phi Beta Kappa, and an M.A. in Religious Studies. His other two degrees are in other fields.

But anyway, it doesn’t matter: there are plenty of fools with degrees, and plenty of geniuses without them. My work, and Aslan’s, stands or falls on its merits, not on the number of degrees we have. Aslan’s pulling rank on Lauren Green and starting to reel off (inaccurately) his degrees was a sign of insecurity: it implied that he didn’t think his book could stand on its merits, and had to be accepted because he had a lot of degrees. And in fact, his book doesn’t stand on its merits. Marvin Olasky notes in World Magazine:

Aslan states as fact, not theory, that “the gospels are not, nor were they ever meant to be, a historical documentation of Jesus’ life. These are not eyewitness accounts of Jesus’ words and deeds. They are testimonies of faith composed by communities of faith written many years after the events they describe.” That’s what theologically liberal commenters propose, but Aslan either skipped or banished from his consideration the theologically conservative half, which states that Matthew, Mark, and Luke reported eyewitness accounts and emerged during the lifetimes of other eyewitnesses.

And indeed, there is no scholarly consensus that the Gospels were not meant to be historical or eyewitness accounts. Whether or not they really are historically accurate is a question that has been debated for centuries and will be debated until the end of time, but Aslan’s claim that they were not “ever meant to be a historical documentation of Jesus’ life” is false on its face. Luke’s Gospel begins: “Inasmuch as many have undertaken to compile a narrative of the things which have been accomplished among us, just as they were delivered to us by those who from the beginning were eyewitnesses and ministers of the word, it seemed good to me also, having followed all things closely for some time past, to write an orderly account for you, most excellent Theophilus, that you may know the truth concerning the things of which you have been informed.” (Luke 1:1-4)

That sounds like a document that wants to be taken precisely as “a historical documentation of Jesus’ life.” So does John’s Gospel when it says, “He who saw it has borne witness — his testimony is true, and he knows that he tells the truth — that you also may believe” (John 19:35) and “This is the disciple who is bearing witness to these things, and who has written these things; and we know that his testimony is true” (John 21:24). Again, whether these claims are true or not is another question, but the fact that the claims were made at all completely refutes Aslan’s claim. As a scholar of the New Testament he thus stands as incompetent or — here again — dishonest.

Likewise his statement in the NPR interview: “I do not believe that Jesus is God, nor do I believe that he ever thought that he was God, or that he ever said that he was God.” In the Gospels, Jesus takes upon himself the name “I am,” the Holy Name of God according to Exodus 3:14, at least four times: see Mark 6:50, Matthew 14:27, John 6:20, and John 8:58. Aslan may, as a practicing Muslim, believe that the Gospels have been corrupted and that Jesus never actually made these statements, but not even to note that they (and others) exist is, yet again, dishonest.

And that’s the problem with Aslan’s book: not that he is a Muslim, but that he is not an honest man or a reliable scholar, no matter how many degrees he has. But after all, as his prophet said, “War is deceit.”

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