On Weekend Edition Sunday, NPR's Rachel Martin helped Daily Beast editor Reza Aslan promote his new biography of Jesus, who posited that there is a "chasm between the historical Jesus and the Jesus...taught about in church." As proof of this supposed gap, Aslan claimed that "there is actually no statement of messianic identity from Jesus" in the Gospel of Mark.
Aslan has it wrong. Jesus actually affirmed that he was the Christ (the Greek word for Messiah) in Mark 14: 61-62: "Again the high priest asked him...Art thou the Christ the Son of the blessed God? And Jesus said to him: I am. And you shall see the Son of man sitting on the right hand of the power of God, and coming with the clouds of heaven." Even NPR pointed out Aslan's false statement in a correction on Monday, but Martin, a former religion correspondent for the public radio network, didn't catch his error during the segment.
Martin introduced Aslan by noting that "when religious scholar Reza Aslan was 15, he went...to an evangelical Christian camp. And it was there that he heard the story of the Gospel and of Jesus Christ. It was a profound experience for him, and he immediately converted to Christianity. But later, when he went to college and starting looking at the Bible as an academic, he started having doubts." She continued with a clip of Aslan making his "chasm" assertion about the historical Jesus and the Jesus of Christianity, and asked him to explain what he meant.
The author replied, in part, by pointing out the Romans' destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple in A.D. 70, and issuing the following advice to Christians:
REZA ASLAN: What I think is important for Christians to understand is that every Gospel story written about Jesus of Nazareth was written after that event – this apocalyptic event – which for Jews, signaled the end of the world as they knew it. And that matters, because not only is the context in which Jesus lived important in understanding who he is, but the context in which the words that we have that were written about him...is also important in figuring out how this marginal, illiterate, uneducated Jew from the low hills of Galilee, who was executed as a state criminal, ultimately became known as God incarnate.
"Illiterate" and "uneducated"? In the same Gospel of Mark that Aslan spotlights as an example, Jesus' apparent learning is hinted at in the very first chapter: "And they entered into Capharnaum, and forthwith upon the sabbath days going into the synagogue, he taught them. And they were astonished at his doctrine. For he was teaching them as one having power, and not as the scribes." (Mark 1: 21-22) More explicitly, the son of Joseph reads a passage from the Book of the Prophet Isaiah during a visit to the synagogue in his hometown of Nazareth, as recounted in Luke 4: 16-21.
Later in the segment, Martin asked, "I wonder if there is another detail that you could share with us from your research – something about Jesus, his life, his growing up – that might run counter to popular conceptions of him." The Daily Beast editor answered with his erroneous claim about the Gospel of Mark:
ASLAN: Oh, there's so much. The first Gospel – the Gospel of Mark, which was written in around 70 or 71 CE – is unusual in that there is actually no statement of messianic identity from Jesus in it. From the beginning of the Gospel to the end of the Gospel, at no point does Jesus ever actually say, I am the Messiah. On the contrary, he keeps denying it when other people claim the Messiah for him. This is a phenomenon that scholars refer to as the 'Messianic Secret', and I think it's the key to sort of getting at something that is almost inaccessible to us. We know how Jesus' followers viewed him. We know how Jesus' enemies viewed him. But we don't know how Jesus viewed himself.
Actually, the Gospel of John points out that Jesus viewed himself as God: "Jesus said to them: Amen, amen I say to you, before Abraham was made, I am." (John 8:58). Of course, "I am" is how God answered Moses in the burning bush with regard to his name, and that is why the people in the Temple "took up stones to cast at him" after he gave that answer.
John's Gospel, and the Bible in general, clearly isn't enough for Aslan, as outlined earlier in the interview:
ASLAN: I think that these Scriptures are inspired by individuals who in a moment of metaphysical contact with the divine spirit, have been able to communicate something about God to us. But I also recognize, as a historian, that...this is sacred history. It's not history in the way that we would think about history as a collection of observable and verifiable events and facts....the main source that I use is the world in which Jesus lived – first century Palestine....you can use the Gospels, the New Testament, to sort of fill in the holes, as long as you make sure to test the claims of the Gospels through the lens of the history that we are familiar with.
NPR has a knack of promoting the latest fad trying to cast doubt on orthodox Christianity. Back in November and December 2012, the network boosted Irish novelist Colm Toibin's short story "The Testament of Mary", which turns the biblical account of the Virgin Mary on its head by depicting her as an angry woman, who states that her son's crucifixion wasn't worth it. Four months later, after Toibin's work was adapted for Broadway, All Things Considered boosted the play version by bringing on Irish actress Fiona Shaw, who played Mary in the short-lived production.