Thursday, August 1, 2013

Orthodox Priest Critiques Reza Aslan's book, 'Zealot'

I intend to explore this subject myself in an article next week.  Excellent piece by Fr Lawrence Farley about a book Orthodox Christians should be prepared to talk about and refute its main premises.

“Such a thing did not exist in Judaism”
by Fr Lawrence Farley — OCA — 7/31/2013

The words of the title of this post were spoken by Reza Aslan, author of a new book on Jesus entitled, Zealot:  The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth.  Despite his boasting of being “an expert in the history of religions,” Aslan actually makes his living as an Associate Professor of Creative Writing at a local college, so that in writing his book he is writing outside his field and way beyond his competence.  This was apparent when he was interviewed by National Public Radio about his book.  He was asked about whether or not Jesus claimed to be divine and he responded, “Absolutely no.  Such a thing did not exist in Judaism.  In the 5,000-year history of Jewish thought, the notion of a God-man is completely anathema to everything Judaism stands for.”  With this last statement the Jewish adversaries of Jesus in the Gospel for the Sixth Sunday after Pentecost (Matthew 9:1-8) would certainly have agreed.

In that Gospel story, Jesus was in the house of Peter, teaching the crowds, when a paralyzed man was dropped in front of Him.  The size of the crowd around Jesus meant that the friends carrying the paralytic would never be able to muscle their way through the throng to reach Him.  So, they climbed up the outside stairs that were standard in Palestinian homes back then, broke up some of the thatched roof (branches and rushes laid over the roof’s beams and covered with dried mud), and let the man down in front of Jesus.  The whole operation took a lot of perseverance and effort, and showed the greatness of their faith.  Knowing how sin and disaster are intimately tied together, the Lord undertook to heal the whole man, and said the fateful words, “Take heart, my son.  Your sins are forgiven.”

Those standing about knew perfectly well that only God in heaven had the authority to forgive sins.  We on earth could only plead for forgiveness and hope for the best.  With scarcely concealed indignation they whispered among themselves, denouncing the blasphemy.  “For who,” they said, “could forgive sins, but God alone?”

This was not the only time that Jesus scandalized traditional Jewish piety, or said things which were “completely anathema to everything Judaism stands for.”  Jesus not only claimed to have the authority from God in heaven to forgive sins on earth, He also claimed that He would be the One to say who entered the Kingdom and who did not (Matthew 7:21-23).  He claimed that confessing Him before men would bring salvation, while denying Him before men would bring eternal disaster (Matthew 10:32-33).  He claimed to be exempt from keeping the Sabbath, even as God was exempt from keeping the Sabbath, thus making Himself equal with God (John 5:17-18).  He claimed, like God, to be the Lord of the Sabbath (Mark 2:28).  He claimed to be one with God (John 10:30), and to be the great I AM who revealed Himself to Moses at the burning bush (Exodus 3:14, John 8:58).  He claimed that if anyone kept His word, he would never taste death (John 8:52). 

Those are a lot of claims.  No wonder the Pharisees were aghast at it all, for such things indeed “did not exist in Judaism.”  The Judaism which God brought into the world through Abraham and Moses was water to a thirsty world, but here was something even more wonderful.  The water was good, but now God was turning the water into wine.  And He was also keeping His word:  He promised through the prophets long ago, “Remember not the former things, nor consider the things of old.  Behold, I am doing a new thing!  Now it springs forth—do you not perceive it?” (Isaiah 43:18-19).  In Jesus, God was doing a new thing in the world, and Judaism was giving place to the Kingdom.

The proof for the Pharisees that day was plain enough and soon to come.  They were aghast at His claim to have power to forgive sins.  Anyone could say that they had the power; actually having it was something else again.  It was easy enough to say, “Your sins are forgiven,” but how could one know that they were actually forgiven?  In the same way, Christ agreed that anyone could say to the paralytic, “Rise and walk,” but actually making him was arise and walk was something else.  As all the crowd looked at Him, Jesus turned from the Pharisees and faced the paralytic who was lying breathlessly before Him, curled up in a crippled ball on the pallet.  Gently He said to him, “Rise, take up your pallet, and go home.”  Slowly the man uncurled from the pallet, and stretched his limbs, and rose, and stretched his limbs some more, and took up his pallet like one in a dream, and went home.  We may imagine that the stricken crowd this time made way for him.  The departing paralytic was literally walking proof of Christ’s divine authority to forgive sins.

But, it may be objected, we were not there to see the miracle.  How do we know that it actually occurred?  Let’s look for a moment then not just at the controverted miracle, but at the uncontroverted claims.  Everyone then, both Christ’s disciples and His adversaries, agreed that He made astonishing claims.  As far as His adversaries were concerned (according to Jewish sources), Jesus “practised sorcery and led Israel astray.”  As far as His disciples were concerned, Jesus did the works of the Father, and was God in the flesh.  But how do we today decide between those two options?

The magnitude of His claims in fact limits our choices.  As others have pointed out, given such astonishing claims, there are only three sensible conclusions about Jesus:  either Jesus was 1) a lunatic, 2) a liar, or 3) the Lord.  Whatever He was, He was not simply a good man, or a great teacher, or a wise person with valuable ethical teaching, or any of the other patronizing nonsensical estimations made about Him by modern secularists.  Wise and ethical teachers do not claim to be divine; such a thing not only did not exist in Judaism; it also doesn’t exist in the mind of any sane man.  Can we really bring ourselves though to believe that the one who gave mankind the Sermon on the Mount was either a nut or a con-man?  Even secular people are forced to acknowledge the unsurpassed wisdom of Jesus’ teaching, and the revolutionary nature of the love He brought into this hard world.  So, if Jesus was not a lunatic, nor a liar, what can we say about Him?  We can say what those who saw the miracle that day said about Him:  they glorified God, who can indeed given such authority to men.  The paralytic walking through the crowd leaves us with a confession on our lips.  Jesus is Lord, the Son of the living God.