Friday, August 2, 2013

Zealot - The Book - Debunking the Book's Myths - First of a Series

The controversial book "Zealot - The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth" is generating a lot of heat, but not much light. It's a best-seller because it's controversial, and as a professional book publicist, I know the value of controversy.  However, so much of the controversy here is about the lies the author tells about himself, his academic training and his career.  In addition, much of the controversy here is based on the blatant falsehoods he presents as "fact" in his book.

Considering this, realize that Aslan is a polemicist, rather than an historian.  He is out to "make the case" for his set of beliefs, and is willing to run roughshod over the beliefs of others, as well as over established and documented facts, in order to push his belief.  Yet knowing that polemicists have less credibility than do "disinterested historians," he has, like the wolf, clothed himself in an "academic's" sheepskin of veracity.  As you'll see, he's quite comfortable lying about his own academic training, as well as his current job - the University in California which employs him says he's a professor of creative fiction writing, not of religious history - and he'll continue to lie as long as he thinks the lies will help him sell his ideas to a gullible public.

That these easily-debunked lies nonetheless create controversies which then sell more books, that is almost a side-benefit to the lies.

As a professional book publicist, I believe that honest controversy is good, and an effective way of promoting a book.  However, dishonest controversy is another matter entirely.  Lying to make a buck, distorting history and dishonestly attacking one man and two faiths (Christianity and Judaism) to make a buck - in my opinion, those tactics are just wrong.  Yet, as I see it, those are the tactics embraced by author Reza Aslan.  If you have any interest in the truth, read on, and come back and read more installments of the blog.  Then, don't take my word for it.

Read the book.

However, I'm not suggesting that you enrich this fraud - instead of buying Zealot, check it out from a public library.

Then make up your own mind.

This blog is the first in a series of blogs I intend to write about Zealot.  As I read further into this book,  I will be commenting on its strengths (none yet found, but I'm sure it must have some) and weaknesses (profoundly obvious from page-one of the Introduction).

I invite you to check back to see what I've been able to find, and then check the book out and read it yourself.

As to my own background.  I was many years ago ordained as a Methodist Lay Preacher while studying to be a Methodist Minister; however, Bishop Cannon helped me to see that I didn't have a "calling," and would do better in the private sector than the ministry.  That was the extent of my formal study of religion.

In addition, I have been - though very much "in my spare time" - a published military and aviation historian.  I was first published as such in 1972, while still in college.  My academic minor was in history.  That was enough to help me see that I'm not an academically-qualified historian (nor do I pretend to be).  However, over the past 40 years, I've done more serious study of history than I believe has been done by Reza Aslan, the author of Zealot.  When, as I'll show below (and in further blogs), you make stuff up instead of dealing with history and fact, you don't have to be an historian.

In addition to many dozens of articles on primarily military and political history, I have been an on-camera "historian" on nine History Channel programs, and I was an off-camera screen-credited historical researcher on five of those programs.  Again, this doesn't make me an academically-qualified historian, but it perhaps gives me more background in the practice of presenting accurate history to the public than Mr. Aslan seems to have.

I want to make this clear right now, up front, lest someone say I'm not qualified to critique the book - or, perhaps more accurately, that I'm no more professionally qualified to critique it than Aslan was to write it.

Now let's look at the book's Author's Note, Introduction, and the beginning of the Prologue. These first 50 pages contain many obvious factual inaccuracies, and many obvious biases - some of them clearly anti-Semitic, anti-Christian and quite hate-filled.  In this way, I think the introductory sections probably do an honest job of actually introducing the rest of the book.  The rest of the book appears to be no more historically-accurate, and no more devoid of open anti-Semitism, anti-Christianity and raw hatred, than does the Introduction, Prologue and Author's note.

For most authors, personal faith isn't an issue - but in this case, Aslan makes his supposed belief central to the book.  Though claiming to be a "follower of Jesus," Aslan is also a self-professed Muslim.  He is also the author of the book "No god but God," a faith-driven book, written by a self-professed believer, on the religion of Islam.  Aslan's faith and his earlier book experience, don't mean he can't or shouldn't write about Jesus.  However, it does suggest that his claim to be a follower of Jesus is, at best, fatuous.  As he "deconstructs" Jesus in the rest of this book, you have to wonder, "who or what is he following, if this is what he thinks of Jesus?"

As an aside, I won't even speculate what might happen to a Christian author who wrote a book about Mohammed that paralleled Aslan's "Zealot."   Instead, I'll leave that to your imagination.

To start with his string of fabrications, in the book's introduction (as well as in his many media interviews), Aslan has notoriously mis-represented his academic career as a student, as well as his academic job.  He claims to have studied Religious history.  In fact, Aslan did study religion (but not, as he claims, the history of religion), as well as creative writing and sociology.  Despite those claims, he has not earned any degree in history, not even as a "minor" - yet whenever he goes public, he "hangs his hat" on his non-existent background as a scholar of religious history, and his equally fictitious academic career as a professor of religious history.

He pretends to be a student of history, though he has no degrees in history, and does not hold a job as an academic (or any other kind of) historian.  Those facts are easy to find online, from disinterested third parties.

He also claims to be a professor of religious history, but that is also not based on any facts I could find.  Clearly, his online biography suggests otherwise:

  • "He is an Associate Professor of Creative Writing at the University of California, Riverside ..." - a position that, rather than focusing on religion or history, involves teaching creative fiction writing (which seems oddly appropriate, given the liberties he's taking with the truth in Zealot).
  • He is also "a Research Associate at the University of Southern California Center on Public Diplomacy" - a position that involves diplomacy, and has nothing to do with religion or history.
  • Finally, he is "a contributing editor for The Daily Beast," a liberal online political/activist 'zine produced by Newsweek Magazine, now itself little more than another liberal online 'zine.  Here, he may (or may not) write about matters historical, but writing for a political web zine doesn't make you an historian, let alone (as he claims) a professor of history.

So much for his claims to credibility.  That's all they are - claims - with no credibility to support them.

Now to the book (at least to the Author's Note, the Introduction and the Prologue), a section of 50 pages in which the author tries to justify what will follow.

The book (I'm reading it now), is so far filled with a combination of "cooked facts," inaccurate dates, ugly slams at Judaism, and a pervasive bias that the author almost naively tries to explain away in his Introduction.  Like so many who set out to deceive, he's first deceived himself, thinking that people will not be able to see through him, or his series of blatant distortions.

Let's look at a few of them.

The easiest to demonstrate (and to debunk) are his assigned dates for the first writing of the four canonical Gospels, which are the primary source for any facts on the life of Jesus of Nazareth.  In evaluating his assigned dates, let's compare them to the dates assigned by real academic religious historians.  These include the traditional dates assigned by primarily German biblical scholars from the 19th and early 20th centuries.

They also include those dates assigned by more modern academic religious scholars, many of these scholars aligning themselves with the academically-grounded skeptics from the Jesus Seminar.

Finally, these dates include the not-to-exceed date assigned by the prominent liberal theologian, bishop and the author of Redating the New Testament, John A.T. Robinson.  Because of the seismic shock-waves that thundered through the Jewish and Christian communities following the destruction of Jerusalem, Robinson is sure that if the books were first written after 70AD, they'd have to reflect this awful and total destruction of God's Own Temple.

 In 70 AD, "Christians" were still considered to be members of a Jewish denomination, rather than a separate religion.  Robinson makes a solid and well-reasoned case that, after Rome overcame the Zealot rebellion in 70AD - then razed and burnt Jerusalem, after first slaughtering hundreds of thousands of its Jewish and Christian residents - the Gospels, if written after 70AD, would have had to include allusions to that destruction.  These are notably absent in the Gospels.

Given that three groups of solid historians have ascribed their own dates to the writing of the Gospels, let's look at how accurate Aslin is, at least when compared to these generations of true and credentialed academic theological historians.

70-71 AD
65-68 AD
Early 50s – Early 60s AD
Before Rome’s Sack of Jerusalem, 70 AD
90-100 AD
70-80 AD
50s AD
Before Rome’s Sack of Jerusalem, 70 AD
90-100 AD
80-85 AD
59-63 AD – and Acts of the Apostles, by the same author, must have been completed before 62 AD
Before Rome’s Sack of Jerusalem, 70 AD
100-120 AD
90 AD
50s-70s AD or “No later than 85 AD”
Before Rome’s Sack of Jerusalem, 70 AD

Since Aslan, the self-proclaimed historian of religion, did study at Harvard Theological Seminary (though he clearly did not study religious history), presumably he knows about these various dates ascribed by real academic religious historians to the writing of the four Gospels.  Since his own assigned dates are so far askew from any of those dates, both dates given by traditional (mostly German) and modern (skeptical) academic scholars, this dramatic "miss" cannot have been an accident.

Aslan knew what he was doing, and he distorted history itself - history established by generations of the kinds of scholars he pretends to be.  To execute that blatant distortion of the facts, there must have been a conscious and well-reasoned excuse for this gross and intentional deception.

That reason is obvious.  On pages xxvi and xxvii of the Introduction to his book, Aslan makes the case that since the Gospels were written so far after Christ's death on the cross, they must of necessity be non-historical, or perhaps even anti-historical.  Yet both Robinson and the academic skeptics from the Jesus Seminar put the writing of all of those Gospels well within Jesus's own generation.  Mature adults who'd witnessed and experienced Jesus in the flesh - as adults - were still alive in the thousands during the decade of the 50s and 60s AD.  They, as leaders of local communities of the still aborning Church clearly embraced these Gospels, rather than denouncing them as inaccurate.  That timely embrace, which seems to validate the veracity of the Gospels, is clearly why Aslan tries to move the dates back. He did this, in the case of the Gospel of John, by two generations, the better to cast doubt on the historical accuracy of those books.

But Aslan, while he blithely distorts documented historical facts to suit his own fairly obvious purposes, also makes the most outrageous opinion-based statements as if they were facts.

For instance, many Christians believe, as an article of faith, that the Bible (in its varied translations) is essentially the truth, handed down by God through the generations.  This is a matter of faith, and it is obviously impossible to prove - but it is equally impossible to disprove beyond doubt.

Yet Aslan says that he had a "sudden realization that this belief is patently and irrefutably false."

However, here's a tricky fact about beliefs.  Beliefs are not "facts," subject to proof or disproof.  They are beliefs, matters of the heart and of the soul.  Aslan may himself believe that the truth of the Gospels - something that hundreds of millions of Christians believe as an article of faith - is somehow a false belief.  That is his right - as it is every man and woman's right.

However, to boldly claim that this belief is "patently and irrefutably false" gives new meaning to the terms "hubris" and "arrogance."

A legitimate academic historian would find a more even-handed way of suggesting that there were some who believed in the Gospels' accuracy, and there were others who did not.  But Aslan is a polemicist, not an historian.

And, though he denies it, he is a polemicist who is strongly influenced by his Islamic faith, as well as by their Qu'ron-based institutional hatred of Jews and Judaism.

Aslan makes it almost too easy to establish this built-in hatred and bias.

On the first page of his Prologue (P.3), Aslan refers to the ancient and established Jewish religion as a "Jewish cult."  He then goes on to claim-without-proof that, at the time of Jesus, this "cult's" temple devotions were a kind of profit-making scam, an organized rip-off of the blindly-faithful Jew-in-the-Street. Worse, this godless scam had been callously run by generation after generation of Jewish high priests, who pocketed 10 percent of the proceeds and called this a tithe.  No proof, just this hateful, hurtful allegation.

It was almost as if he was trying to paint the Jews of Jesus' day - especially the temple priests - as nothing more than money-grubbing merchants without a shred of real faith.  But then, Aslan seems to reason, who needs faith when you're shilling for what is, after all, only a highly-profitable false-god cult.

Aslan says straight up that Judaism was, in the time of Jesus, nothing more a rip-off-artist's cult - and, presumably, so it remains today.  A cult.

But what does it take to be a cult? At what point does a "cult" graduate into being "a religion?"

Recall that, at the time of Jesus, Judaism was already one of the world's oldest religions.  At the time of Jesus, King David was a thousand years in his grave, and those who patriarchs and leaders who came before him (Abraham, Jacob, Joseph, Moses, Joshua and many others) were far older still.   At the time of Christ, Judaism had been an established and functional religion longer than today's entire history of Aslan's own faith, Islam.  Yet who dares to call Islam a cult because it is, at 1,400 years old, "too new" to be a real religion?

And "cult" also implies an exceedingly small group, rather than a large and sustained movement.

However, beyond those millions of Jews who lived in Palestine and the Levant at the time of Jesus, there were also several million other faithful Jews, who were living out the first (and peaceful, voluntary) diaspora.  Vibrant Jewish communities were scattered broadly around the "Middle Sea" basin and the entire Middle East, from Alexandria to Greece, from Persia and Turkey to Rome itself.

Yet this "historian" chooses to dismiss those millions of Jews sharing a millenniums-old faith as merely members of "an ancient cult."

Clearly, this professor of creative writing knows how to load words and phrases with emotional baggage, the better to sell his less-observant readers a fact-less confabulation of hate, distortion, calumny and speculation.

Before I wrap up this first in a series of critiques of Zealot, The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth, let me encourage all of you to check the book out of the library, then read the "Author's Note." As you do, ask yourself if his description of his brief brush with Christianity doesn't sound like a childish rant, one written by a person who, as a child, had immaturely embraced a new faith solely to fit into a new country and culture.  However, as soon as that faith was challenged (as all mature faiths are challenged, every day in most cases), he abandoned it. Then he turned on it.  And, convicted by his own words, he has been trying to hurt that now-abandoned faith as it had once hurt a scared immigrant 15-year-old boy who was just trying to fit in.

Please, if you care about this author's motives, read his "Author's Note" yourself.  Don't take my word for his motivations, decide for yourself. 

BTW - one final note.  As I've mentioned, this book has an "Author's Note," an "Introduction" and a "Prologue" ... Aslan literally spends 50 pages trying to explain and justify himself and his work before he actually starts his book.  This reminds me of Shakespeare's Queen Gertrude, in Hamlet, who famously says, "The lady doth protest too much, methinks."

Check back soon for my next set of analysis of Reza Azlan's "Zealot - The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth."