Wednesday, March 5, 2014

The Inadequate Scholarship of Reza Aslan

I recently started reading Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth by Reza Aslan. It is one of those books that I had wanted to get around to reading, particularly after having seen the San Francisco Opera production of Mark Adamo's The Gospel of Mary Magdalene. There may be weaknesses in the historical record for events in the Middle East in the first century, but it is hard not to be fascinated with that period.

I was quickly impressed by Aslan's talent as a storyteller. He is particularly good as establishing context for the events he wishes to describe. Much of his language goes into providing the reader with a sense of place, whether the place is in the Temple in Jersusalem or backwater Nazareth. Nevertheless, since I do a lot of scholarly reading, I have had a fair amount to trouble sorting out how much of his storytelling is grounded on authoritative sources and how much was created for the sake of literary impact.

Because he confines his notes to the end of the book as a series of paragraphs, rather than numbered items called out by specific phrases in the main text, his approach to establishing authority never rises about the level of casual. This leads me to worry that it is more inadequate than should be acceptable. Consider his description of the priests of the Jerusalem Temple. He devotes a rich paragraph to describing their elaborate attire, including the breastplate with twelve precious stones, one for each of the tribes of Israel. He then describes the urim and thummim as "a sort of sacred dice made of wood and bone that the high priest carries in a pouch near his breast and through which he reveals the will of God by casting lots."

His notes for the chapter in which his appears never cite a source for this. Since I had always held to the verse in Exodus that associates the urim and thummim with the breastplate, I have to say that I find the Wikipedia page a more useful source than Aslan. Indeed, even Aslan's concept of revelation is a bit of an overstatement, since, if the use of the urim and thummim were used for any sort of divination, it apparently never involved anything other that establishing guilt or innocence.

Zealot tells a good story. Most likely it is a synthesis of other stories, perhaps with a bit of inference added. I happen to be one of those readers who likes to know which "men behind the curtain" played a role in the creation of this story!

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