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Jesus: Two Contrasting Studies

In the following post I discuss two recent books on Jesus. The first is the much hyped Zealot, The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth by Reza Aslan. The second is The Wife of Jesus, Ancient Texts and Modern Scandals by Anthony Le Donne, which, while garnering less media coverage, is, in my opinion, a better book. Both, however, offer valuable and interesting information about the historical times in which Jesus lived, and, in Le Donne’s book, about the shifting cultural mores influencing how Jesus has been viewed in the centuries since his death.

Would I recommend The Wife of Jesus, Ancient Texts and Modern Scandals by Anthony Le Donne? Yes!

Would I recommend Zealot, The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth by Reza Aslan? Metza metz, or, in Italian, mezzo mezzo, i.e. half and half. Historically fascinating, but distorted by the author’s agenda.

Zealot, the Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth by Reza Aslan is a detailed and informative history about Jesus and the times in which he lived. Aslan does a good job synthesizing his extensive research and dramatizing the complex socio-economic realities at the beginning of the first century in what would now be Palestine, from the politics of the Roman Empire to the inner workings of the Jewish Temple. In an NPR Interview on November 1, 2013, Aslan said, “My attempt wasn’t necessarily to blaze new ground in the study of the historical Jesus…(it) was to make that research appealing and accessible to a broad, general audience.” In this respect, the book succeeds.

Zealot, however, seeks to do more than tell the story of the historical Jesus for a popular audience. Aslan re-envisions Jesus as a violent revolutionary and a fanatical ideologue.  In interviews Aslan acknowledges that there are scholars who both agree and disagree with his interpretation. Reading Zealot, however, and not being a bible scholar myself, I was unable to tease out the facts from the author’s own agenda. Instead of acknowledging his own inevitable biases, Aslan stridently defends his point of view based on his multiple degrees and undisputed years of scholarship. Even the most well educated historian, however, is the product of his or her cultural and personal biases, and to ignore this, especially when one is arguing a revisionist view of history, is problematic.

Anthony Le Donne, in The wife of Jesus, Ancient Texts and Modern Scandals, takes a different approach. “We who live in the wake of Christendom have leveraged Jesus’ legacy for a variety of causes and reasons” (4), he writes. “…every choice that a historian makes to emphasize a particular story, figure, or detail is a neglect of many others in the periphery” (38). Le Donne recognizes that Jesus is an archetype upon whom we project our own views. Rather than insist on history as absolute fact, he takes into account the many ways our interpretations of these facts are informed by culture and the conscious or unconscious value system we apply. “Our portraits of Jesus,” he writes, “are constantly shifting, adapting, and evolving to suit our agendas and ideals” (69).

While the tone of The Wife of Jesus is thoughtful and balanced, the writing in Zealot is often aggressive and off-putting. In the early days following Jesus’ death, for example, when a nascent Christianity was developing, Aslan describes early believers as a “gaggle of hirsute men and ragged women huddled beneath a portico in the Temples’ outer court” (164), and Stephen’s speech in the Book of Acts as a “long and rambling diatribe” (168). Aslan may be attempting to bring history alive, but his choice of language is dismissive and condescending. These value judgments are laced throughout the book, but rather than acknowledge the ways in which his scholarship is affected by personal opinion, Aslan hides behind his edifice of academic qualifications. Because of this covert use of language to sway opinion, I found myself questioning my own visceral response to the book. As a recent student of Christianity through the Episcopal Church, surely I, also, brought my own undiscovered biases to my reading.

Aslan’s family fled the Iranian Revolution and emigrated to the United States from Tehran in 1979. When he was fifteen Aslan converted to evangelical Christianity, reverting back to Islam the summer before he started college. Reading Zealot, I couldn’t help but wonder if there mightn’t be some residual hostility or even bitterness towards the only form of Christianity with which Aslan has had a personal, faith based experience.

He is frank in describing his own disillusion with the Christian fundamentalism that he had embraced in his teens. “When I went to university and began studying the New Testament in an academic environment and discovered immediately as everyone who does so discovers, that far from being literal and inerrant, the Scriptures are figurative and full of the most obvious and blatant errors and contradictions, that notion of Evangelical Christianity no longer made sense to me” (NPR Interview 11/1/13).

This is an example of perfectly reasonable sentiments were it not for the subtly inflammatory words Aslan chooses. What he describes as “blatant errors” in the Bible could also be described as a way of constructing reality at a time in history when meaning was defined differently, and people were less fixated on scientific fact. Undoubtedly the Bible is a difficult, contradictory, paradoxical text whose truths might be more spiritual than literal, but describing the writings of the Bible as “blatant errors” diminishes a piece of literature that has captivated generations of writers, artists, spiritual seekers and historians, influencing culture and religion throughout the world.

The Wife of Jesus does a far better job of exploring the fascinating fluctuations of how Christianity’s own interpretation of Jesus has changed throughout history, depending on the mores and values of society at any given time. While Zealot is valuable for the historical context it provides, The Wife of Jesus is a more satisfying exploration of Jesus as a complicated archetype who reveals a great deal not only about the changing face of Christianity, but about ourselves.

In The wife of Jesus, Ancient Texts and Modern Scandals, Le Donne asks whether or not Jesus was or could have been married. He explores this question through an examination of history, including Christian thought and views on sexuality, from Augustine to Aquinas to the present. It’s fascinating to learn how Mary Magdalene has been portrayed at different times, including in contemporary depictions such as Scorsese’s The Last Temptation of Christ or Dan Brown’s fictitious The Da Vinci Code. Mary Magdalene is also an archetype who exists both as a real, historical figure, and as a symbol upon whom we, as a society, project our shifting values. “At each turn,” Le Donne writes, “Mary Magdalene reflected the debates and agendas of those who imagined her” (67).

Le Donne explores various texts that did not make it into the final version of the New Testament, such as the Nag Hammadi Library, a collection of Coptic texts unearthed in 1945 in Upper Egypt, as well as fragments that have purportedly been discovered but about which there are serious questions of authenticity. Le Donne thoroughly explores various scenarios by which Jesus might or might not have been married, but ultimately, rather than pin down a concrete answer to the question, he uses it to examine society’s developing views of sexuality as they have been projected onto Jesus. “If we are to be honest and avoid the arrogance of creating Jesus in our own image,” he writes, “a healthy suspicion of ourselves is warranted” (90).

21 Comments Post a comment
  1. Aslan is a professor of creative writing, not an historian.

    Le Donne leave the question open? That speaks volumes of his agenda.

    January 21, 2014
    • Thanks for commenting, Michael. In terms of Aslan’s education, he holds a Bachelor of Arts degree in religions from Santa Clara University, a Master of Theological Studies degree from Harvard Divinity School, and a Master of Fine Arts degree from the University of Iowa’s Writers’ Workshop. Aslan also received a Doctor of Philosophy in Sociology, focusing in the history of religion, from the University of California, Santa Barbara (Wikipedia).

      In terms of Le Donne’s book, he ultimately argues that Jesus was probably celibate, based in part on the scripture passages you reference in your blog post, as well as additional scripture passages and texts. Le Donne does, however, present a variety of contrasting, legitimate perspectives on the question.

      Clearly you have very strong views on the subject, which, as a question of faith, you are entitled to. Thankfully we live in a time and place where a plurality of views is tolerated and, in many circles, embraced. To claim that it is “heresy” for someone to hold views different from your own is indeed unfortunate. The bible is a fascinating, often paradoxical text that reflects, among other things, the historical context in which it was compiled.


      January 21, 2014
  2. Thank you for sharing this dual review! I haven’t read Aslan’s book yet, but I greatly enjoyed Le Donne and I think you did a good job of describing his project. Your comments about Aslan’s book sound like those of many others I know who have read the book.

    January 21, 2014
    • Thanks, Brian! Writing about Le Donne’s book was easy, since I found the book fascinating and balanced. Writing about Aslan’s was more difficult, as I felt the need to keep checking my own responses. It was challenging to pinpoint quotes that would accurately represent something as ephemeral as tone, so I’m glad there are others who see it the same way, as I would be loathe to fall into the Fox News camp!

      January 21, 2014
  3. Kathleen #

    I enjoyed this book review and it encouraged me to read “The Wife of Jesus” by Le Donne. Your review was intellectually balanced and offered the reader an outside branch of theological research and pedagogy written. My reaction is rotating around my strict insulated Catholic upbringing where there was only one story told about Jesus. And hearing the Nuns At St. Gregory’s making us repeat their words and that one story.

    January 22, 2014
    • Thank you so much for your comment, Kathleen. You offer a powerful example of how stifling religion can be if there isn’t space to question and explore. While it’s true that faith, ultimately, cannot be proven, I do believe it should be able to withstand genuine inquiry. Peace to you:-)

      January 22, 2014
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