Monday, March 28, 2016

Resurrection: Is Reza an Expert in Judaeo-Christian History?

Elijah & the Widow's Son
Reza Aslan, famous for being questioned on Fox News, answered why a Muslim such as himself would choose Jesus as a topic for a book: “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.” [emphases mine]

Matthew Facciani posting to thinks that critics are being too rash in dismissing Aslan's expertise.  He writes, "What really matters is what area your research is in (i.e. your [PhD]dissertation)." 

What is the actual case about Reza Aslan's expertise?  In First Things, Matthew J. Franck writes after taking a very close look at Aslan's qualifications: 
. . . 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.”
I have a BA, MA, and PhD in the history of Western Religions so yes, again, I am an ACTUAL expert in Judaism.Reza Aslan doesn't seem to have taught any classes on the New Testament.  His PhD dissertation was specific to Islam.  Yet his tweet to @matanlurey pictured here seems to suggest that his sociology degree in jihadism that is somehow based on the History-of-Religions school of thought entitles him to claim (along with his two lesser religion-related degrees) expertise as a historian of all three Western Religions: Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. 

That is indeed very impressive.  A case in point:  Aslan said some interesting things about in response to an interviewer's question:
You argue that it’s the story of resurrection that really set Jesus apart. What made resurrection such a novel idea?
Well, it simply doesn’t exist in Judaism. The idea of an individual dying and rising from the dead absolutely has no basis in five thousand years of Jewish history, scripture or thought.
So, that’s the thing: No matter what you think about the resurrection, the thing that’s kind of fascinating from an historical perspective is that there is simply no Jewish context for it. 
Christians know that there is a scene documented in the Book of Acts that speaks of some Pharisees siding with Paul the Apostle against the sect of Sadducees because they couldn't dismiss out of hand the idea of an individual being resurrected.  Similar statements appear in the gospels concerning the Pharisees.   Let's dig a little deeper.


Fundamental belief of Judaism?  Let's look at
A basic tenet of the Jewish faith is the belief that those who have died will again be brought to life. In fact, Techiat HaMeitim, "Vivification of the Dead" is one of the thirteen cardinal principles, or "foundations," of Judaism.  . . . In this dark and imperfect world, we cannot yet behold and enjoy the fruits of our labor. But in the Era of Moshiach, the accumulated attainments of all generations of history will reach their ultimate perfection. And since "G‑d does not deprive any creature of its due," all elements that have been involved in realizing His purpose in creation will be reunited to perceive and experience the perfect world that their combined effort has achieved.   . . . 

The article goes on to describe the "centrality of the Resurrection to the whole of Judaism".  The Online Jewish Encyclopedia says this about the Pharisees:

Josephus ("B. J." ii. 8, § 14; "Ant." xiii. 5, § 9; xviii. 1, § 3) carefully avoids mentioning the most essential doctrine of the Pharisees, the Messianic hope, which the Sadducees did not share with them; while for the Essenes time and conditions were predicted in their apocalyptic writings. . . .  But it was not the immortality of the soul which the Pharisees believed in, as Josephus puts it, but the resurrection of the body as expressed in the liturgy (see Resurrection), and this formed part of their Messianic hope (see Eschatology).

And this about the Resurrection:
As a matter of fact, resurrection formed part of the Messianic hope (Isa. xxiv. 19; Dan. xii. 2; Enoch, xxv. 5, li. 1, xc. 33; Jubilees, xxiii. 30).  

It's not looking to great for Aslan as an expert.  But if we look at the text of Zealot, we see that the importance of the word "individual" for him when he said "an individual dying and rising from the dead" for him to claim "there is no Jewish context for it":
To be clear, this was not the resurrection of the dead that the Pharisees expected at the end of days and the Sadducees denied.  . . .  This was a lone individual, dead and buried in rock for days, suddenly rising up and walking out of his tomb of his own accord, not as a spirit or ghost, but as a man of flesh and blood.  . . .  But the concept of an individual dying and rising again, in the flesh, into a life everlasting was extremely rare in the ancient world and practically nonexistent in Judaism.   And yet what the followers of Jesus were arguing was not only that he rose from the dead, but that his resurrection confirmed his status as messiah, an extraordinary claim without precedent in Jewish history. Despite two millennia of Christian apologetics, the fact is that belief in a dying and rising messiah simply did not exist in Judaism. 
Like so many passages in Zealot, this has that "don't you feel silly for being a Christian" vibe which reflects his bitter disillusionment he speaks of in the Author's Note.  In order to explain away any Resurrection theology as a pagan contrivance, he uses the argument above to dissociate the resurrection appearances of Jesus from any Messianic hope.  Yet the two ideas were linked in the Jewish context of the day, but we're still supposed to think that pagan theology was brought in because a man who resurrected himself, not resurrected through the anointing of another man as for Elijah and Elisha, had no significance in terms of the disciples' Messianic hopes. 
Elijah and Elisha both, prophets to the Northern Kingdom where Jesus later grew up, both displayed the anointing of the Spirit of Elohim by resurrecting individuals that had stopped breathing for a long time.  (Elisha, who had been granted a "double portion" of the anointing on Elijah, displays this power in death through his dead bones.) These are outstanding precedents in the "Jewish context" and they show that resurrection is not limited to a final and universal event.  Aslan even calls Elijah "the paradigm of the wonder-working prophet." Why isn't individual resurrection considered part of the paradigm?

Also playing into this dissociation is that Aslan's use of "Christ" to signify the divine Jesus as opposed to Jesus the man distracts from the fact that "Christ" is not simply a Christian epithet.  "Christ" is Mashiach/Messiah in the language of the Jewish Diaspora.  The only precedent it seems Aslan will accept is a clear prophecy in the Tanakh of "a dying and rising messiah."  What else can he mean by a historical precedent for a resurrected Messiah.

A concept that pops up a lot in the New Testament is "first-fruits." This is implicit in the cursing of the fig tree, and is applied in a different way in terms of the Resurrection and of the salvation and anointing that Peter, James, Paul, and John understood to available through the resurrection power of their Mashiach.  Even the time of Pentecost had significance of an early harvest before autumn harvest, and this significance becomes important in the Book of Acts.  There is a theme of first-fruits in the early church, and the idea of a Messiah who exhibits the first-fruits of Messianic Resurrection Hope by laying his life down and taking it back up does not seem like it would require resorting to paganism to explain. 

Is Aslan merely ignorant of this, or is he ignoring evidence that contradicts his talking points?  Is all this because he is an amateur when it comes to these details, or is this because having acquainted himself with these details they don't serve the non-academic purpose he details in the Author's Note to Zealot ("to spread the good news of the Jesus of history with the same fervor that I once applied to spreading the story of the Christ")?

Those wanting to look more into this might be interesting in Pinchas Lapide's book The Resurrection of Jesus: A Jewish Perspective in which he describes, though he was not a Christian, why he thought Jesus was actually resurrected and why that was consistent with the Tanakh and his Jewish faith.

Elijah raises the dead.

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