Sunday, August 11, 2013

Reza Aslan's "Zealot": Poor

I am usually glad to see a book about Jesus in the news. Even if the book is controversial or erroneous, it still might lead the curious to read more, and better, books about the life of Christ; and in time, they might even have an encounter with the real thing. All to the good.

So I don't have any problem in principle with the attention being paid to Reza Aslan's Zealot. I am a little puzzled, though, why this undistinguished book should be the next big thing. The author is a professor of creative writing, and not a known authority about the subject he deals with. His overall thesis is a nothing-new retread of S. G. F. Brandon's Jesus and the Zealots (1967), long since dismissed by specialists in the field.

The author also, it must be said, has not really done his homework. Anyone is free to frame a revisionist theory about anything, but to be convincing, the historical data must be clear and accurate. But Aslan often gets the facts wrong.

It would be tedious to go through and enumerate such misstatements in Zealot. There are a lot. However, I will give a couple of examples that might easily be missed by lay readers, but which stand out like a sore thumb to specialists. The first example has to do with the Temple tax. Introducing his account of the story of the cleansing of the Temple (Mark 11:15-19 and parallels), he says:
The money changers play a vital role in the Temple. For a fee, they will exchange your foul foreign coins for the Hebrew shekel, the only currency permitted by the Temple authorities. The money changers will also collect the half-shekel Temple tax that all adult males must pay to preserve the pomp and spectacle of all you see around you: the mountains of burning incense and the ceaseless sacrifices, the wine libations and the first-fruits offering, the Levite choir belting out psalms of praise and the accompanying orchestra thrumming lyres and banging cymbals. Someone must pay for these necessities. Someone must bear the cost of the burnt offerings that so please the Lord.
The tone of contempt is obvious. Reza Aslan does not have a high opinion of Jewish worship. However, what I want to point out here is that his sneer about "foul foreign coins" and the "Hebrew shekel" is mistaken. The Jewish authorities were not allowed to issue "Hebrew" coinage in the era of the Roman occupation of the time of Christ; there was no such thing as a "Hebrew shekel." In fact, the approved currency for paying the Temple dues was the Tyrian tetradrachma -- itself a "foul foreign coin" bearing the image of the god Melqart. The Tyrian coin had a higher silver content than equivalent coins from other mints.

This might not seem to be a major mistake, but anyone who is at all familiar with the political scene in first-century Judaea would know about the privileged position within Judaism of the Tyrian coinage. That Reza Aslan does not is simply a small token of his overall ignorance of the period.

My second example is drawn from the area of literature. In the course of discussing the writings that came from Hellenistic Judaism, Aslan says:
Unlike their brethren in the Holy Land, Diaspora Jews spoke Greek, not Aramaic: Greek was the language of their thought processes, the language of their worship. They experienced the scriptures not in the original Hebrew but in a Greek translation (the Septuagint), which offered new and originative [sic] ways of expressing their faith, allowing them to more easily harmonize traditional biblical cosmology with Greek philosophy. Consider the Jewish scriptures that came out of the Diaspora. Books such as The Wisdom of Solomon, which anthropomorphizes Wisdom as a woman to be sought above all else, and Jesus Son of Sirach (commonly referred to as The Book of Ecclesiasticus) read more like Greek philosophical tracts than like Semitic scriptures.
It is uncontroversially true that Hellenistic Judaism was influenced by Greek thought, and that in some instances this led to "new ways of expressing their faith." However, the two examples given are misconceived. The Wisdom of Solomon is indeed influenced by Platonism and Stoicism, but the image of "Wisdom as a woman to be sought above all else" comes straight from the Hebrew Bible, particularly from the Book of Proverbs (ch. 8), not from any Greek tradition.

The example of Jesus son of Sirach (or Ben Sira) is an even worse example. It was not written in the Diaspora, but in the Holy Land, in Hebrew (the Hebrew text is still preserved in part), and only translated a generation later by the author's grandson into Greek. It most emphatically does not read like a Greek philosophical tract. I suspect that Aslan has not even opened either one of these books, and that his information comes from secondary sources which he has misunderstood.

Clearly someone who is capable of making such elementary errors about the basic facts is not to be trusted as an authority on ancient religions. By all means, read about Jesus. Start with the Gospels. But Zealot can be crossed off your list as a reliable source of information.

BIBLIOGRAPHY: Reza Aslan, Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth (Random House, 2013). For reliable background on the period, the lay reader might enjoy F. F. Bruce's New Testament History. Those who want to read an objective, non-religious book about the historical Jesus could start with E. P. Sanders' The Historical Figure of Jesus. I also recommend Raymond Brown, Questions and Answers on the Bible.

Saturday, August 03, 2013

Wierzbicka on Jesus

I've recently enjoyed reading Anna Wierzbicka's What Did Jesus Mean? (Oxford, 2001). I hadn't realized that Wierzbicka, who is a well-known linguist, was interested in religion and the Bible, but in fact she is a practicing Catholic. In this book she applies some of the insights of her Natural Semantic Metalanguage (NSM) to discussing the Sermon on the Mount and some of the parables of Jesus.

Although I enjoyed the book and indeed found it edifying, I think that ultimately it has not satisfied either of the two groups whom it should have interested most, that is, semanticists and New Testament scholars. From the standpoint of semantics, the problem is that in this book her NSM approach is not deployed to do what is does best, that is, break down the meaning of individual words and expressions and restate them in terms of the "semantic primitives" that W. and her colleagues have postulated to lie at the core of every language. Instead, she uses the same primitives, which she calls here "universal human concepts," to exegete various New Testament texts. Whatever the merits of NSM (I think it has many as a heuristic method), I doubt that it is best used to paraphrase English translations of the Bible.

New Testament scholars probably did not take the book very seriously, because its method is so different from standard commentaries on the NT. Wierzbicka's "reductive paraphrase" approach is alien to the guild and in my view the NSM is insufficiently explained in this book -- W.'s primitives are only given in an endnote on pp. 465-466. Also, although she writes in respectful dialogue with mainstream NT scholars, especially the Jesus Seminar (of which she is not a great admirer), she also without discrimination cites lay or devotional writers like William Barclay or R. C. Sproul.

But my main beef with the book is that W.'s main strength as a linguist -- her ability to analyze nuances of meaning in different languages -- is absent in this book. She does not, it seems, know Greek, Aramaic, or Hebrew, although she sometimes cites other scholar's comments on these languages. This is a great lack, and she overall confines herself to discussing the English translations. (When she doesn't the results are sometimes disastrous. In ch. 2, footnote 2 (p. 466) she says that, of two Hebrew words meaning "poor," aniim is "older" and from "the verb root ny" while anawim is from "the verb root nwm." I presume that it is Wierzbicka's unnamed informant who has produced these dire misstatements. In fact, /ʕaniy/ is from the root /ʕny/, while /ʕanaw/ is from /ʕnw/, two roots connected etymologically.)

This concentration on English, combined with the deployment of NSM as a tool of conceptual simplification (instead of semantic explication) results in some paraphrases that are problematic. For instance, her paraphrase of "kingdom of God" is "living with God." The English verb LIVE is an "exponent" of a semantic primitive in NSM, presented as the opposite of DIE. However, English "live" is polysemous, with at least 3 meanings: (1) to be alive (not dead), (2) to dwell, (3) to conduct one's affairs, follow a certain routine (e.g., "he lived a life of ease"). The expression "living with" normally activates the meaning "dwell," not the meaning "be alive" -- which, I presume, is what W. means in her paraphrase, although at times she seems to be thinking of meaning 3 (and meaning 3 is not an NSM prime, as far as I can tell).

In fact, W.'s understanding of "kingdom of God," as in much of her understanding of Christianity, seems to be more a restatement of an old Harnackian view of Christianity: brotherhood of man, fatherhood of God (without the gender-exclusive language), the presence of God in the soul of the individual. This results from her use here of the NSM primes as lowest common denominator concepts instead of compositional units of individual word senses.

On the other hand, no translation of "kingdom of God" can be worse than the Jesus Seminar's "God's imperial rule."

But I still recommend this book. Although it is not the best introduction to NSM, it may lead readers to explore some of Wierzbicka's other, more rigorous, writings, which are well worth exploration. Plus, although I've criticized her overall approach, she has many insights into the texts she deals with, and an edifying belief in their power to improve the world.

BIBLIOGRAPHY: Anna Wierzbicka, What Did Jesus Mean? Explaining the Sermon on the Mount and the Parables in Simple and Universal Human Concepts (Oxford, 2001). A better introduction to the NSM approach is Wierzbicka's Semantics, Culture, and Cognition: Universal Human Concepts in Culture-Specific Configurations (Oxford, 1992).