Elizabeth Castelli: Reza Aslan—Historian?

tags: The Nation, religion, Christianity, history of religion, Jesus Christ, historical Jesus, Reza Aslan, Elizabeth Castelli



Elizabeth Castelli is the Ann Whitney Olin Professor of Religion at Barnard College.

The “most embarrassing interview Fox News has ever done,” in which anchor Lauren Green challenged the legitimacy of author Reza Aslan for writing Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth, seemed to be popping up everywhere on social media last week. The absurdity of the spectacle was multifold: Why—why?!—would a Muslim want to write about Jesus, Green kept asking, as though a nefarious plot to undermine Christianity were somehow afoot. Meanwhile, Aslan made a show of insisting that he possesses not only the academic credentials and but also the professional duty to do so (“My job as a scholar of religions with a PhD in the subject is to write about religions”). The story was quickly framed as a battle between the right-wing Islamophobes of Fox News and Aslan, the defender of intellectual life and scholarship....

Aslan’s claims concerning his academic degrees have led to some confusion: he uses the term “historian of religions” at times, “historian” at others. To people unfamiliar with the intellectual histories involved, the first term may not resonate. “History of religions” derives from the nineteenth-century German university context where the Religionsgeschichtliche Schule [history-of-religions school] sought to place the phenomenon of religion—especially in its archaic and ancient iterations—in social and cultural context. It has since become the name for a particular disciplinary approach to the study of religion, most often associated in the United States with the University of Chicago and the University of California at Santa Barbara, where Aslan earned his PhD in sociology. To the extent that he did coursework in the UCSB Religious Studies department, he can certainly lay claim to preparation in the history-of-religions approach. Although this approach was influential on the study of the New Testament and early Christianity in the first two decades of the twentieth century, it has had little impact in the decades since.

Aslan’s broader claim to working as a historian, however, is another matter. Frankly, he would probably have been cut a good deal more slack by specialists had he simply said that he was working as an outsider to the field, interested in translating work by scholars of early Christianity for a broader audience. But his claims are more grandiose than that and are based on his repeated public statements that he speaks with authority as a historian. He has therefore reasonably opened himself to criticism on the basis of that claim....



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