This is the guy who won the publicity lottery a while ago when some numbskull Fox commentator (who is, unaccountably, their religion correspondent) couldn’t get past the fact that Aslan, a Muslim, wrote a book about the historical Jesus. Fox followed by stirring up all manner of bullshit controversy around the book, and sales skyrocketed. Fox probably doesn’t care either way, and just saw an opportunity to shout “LOOKOUT! MUSLIMS!” at its sadly credulous base again, so I guess everyone’s a winner here.
Anyway, Aslan’s book is actually pretty NON-controversial outside of rabid fundie circles. His entire point, which is made abundantly clear several times, is that he’s seeking evidence and analysis about the historical Jesus only. He’s not interested at all in matters of faith, in Jesus’ divinity, or in the religious implications of his research; he’s just gathering together what scholars generally agree on regarding this particular exceedingly influential resident of first century Palestine.
The resulting book is a treasure, and one that I think nearly anyone with more than a passing interest in Christianity should probably read — believer, agnostic, and atheist alike, because it’s fascinating. Aslan places the events of Jesus’ life in the historical context that is typically missing from Sunday School. What were the geopolitics like in Palestine 2,000 years ago? How did Rome treat the area? Who had power and influence? We know Jesus was crucified; what did that mean, in the world of that era? And when the gospels and other New Testament books get written — and by whom? That the gospels were likely not written by their titular apostles is no longer an even remotely controversial statement, but what may surprise many readers is the sort of “doctrinal drift” that occurs as one moves from the earlier gospels to the later ones — possibly, in Aslan’s view, to render a revolutionary movement into something more palatable to Rome.
Also covered in detail is the ascension of the former Saul of Tarsus — better known by his post-conversion name Paul — as the effective head of the faith. How’d that happen, when those who actually traveled with Jesus were still around?
Aslan provides the missing backdrop, and does it in a compulsively readable style. I can’t overstate this, but most people in churches learn in a silo; I certainly did. There’s “Christian” publishing, and then there’s everything else, and never the twain shall meet. Additional historical texts and sources are almost never introduced in religious instruction, at least not in the mainline Southern Baptist church of my youth; it’s sola scriptura all the way down. Aslan’s book provides more context in a few hundred pages than I got in 20 years of church instruction.
Moreover, the latter third of the book is given over to notes and sources, lest ye think this “dangerous mooslim” is simply trying to tear down Christianity with his book and interpretations (he’s absolutely NOT doing that, I assure you). I’m sure some folks at very conservative seminaries and “bible colleges” may take issue with some of what he says, but the broad academic response to the book has been (mostly) “yeah, that’s pretty much what we’ve been saying for years.” Aslan just puts it in an accessible format.
I don’t mean to say it’s all settled fact, obviously, or that Aslan’s sources and analysis are the only ones possible. Obviously, there’s little we know to be absolutely true, in a historical sense, about the life of Jesus, beyond his crucifixion (which, according to Aslan, tells us quite a lot). Much is extrapolation and conjecture, or is based on accounts written long after the fact (e.g., the gospels themselves). But Aslan’s book does provide an excellent opportunity to start a conversation about that context both within and outside communities of faith, and that’s a very good thing.