I’m actually writing this Sunday night for Tuesday morning; I don’t think I’ll have time to get to a post until late, what with it being the first official teacher work day (hah!) and Parent Night happening and all that, and I want to make sure some sort of post happens. So have a book review, combined with some fun nostalgia.
(EDIT: Whoops! Shit, posted it immediately. Oh well. I’ll come up with something else for Tuesday, I guess.)
As many of you already know, Alternate Universe Me has a Ph.D by now and is a Hebrew Bible scholar at some terribly prestigious university with an insanely high tuition rather than a math teacher at a high-poverty public school. I managed three majors and two minors in college; two of the majors were Religious Studies and Jewish Studies and one of the minors was Near Eastern Languages and Cultures; one of my two Master’s degrees is from the University of Chicago’s Divinity School. One of my tattoos is in Hebrew. (And yes, I can read it; my cardinal rule of tattooing is that you never, ever, ever tattoo yourself in a language you can’t read– I’m looking at all of you idiots with Chinese characters that you think mean “Strength” and actually mean “Dim Sum” or “Stupid Cracker” tattooed on your arms or the small of your backs.)
I washed out when I realized that not only was a Ph.D in Religious Studies one of the longest doctoral programs known to the human race, but that I really wasn’t actually all that interested in trying to do independent research in a subject that people had been studying intensively for two and a half millennia. Dissertations in Biblical studies tend to be… slightly more specific than I’m interested in. And, I reasoned to myself, since what I was interested in was learning about this stuff, well, there wasn’t really much of a reason to keep paying beaucoup tuition for that. I can read on my own, right?
Fast forward (checks date on diploma) thirteen years, and I’ve barely read a single thing on the topic of religion since then. Maybe a half-dozen books. Something like that. So that’s how well that plan went. If you’re one of my friends who actually has a Ph.D in some branch of religious studies, keep in mind that I’ve been out of the game for over a decade, so my recollection of the bleeding edge of scholarship isn’t exactly precise. I’m reviewing this as a relatively well-informed amateur, for whatever that’s worth.
All that said: Reza Aslan is a goddamned genius. I’m of the school of thought that he knew exactly what the hell he was doing when he went on Fox News and absolutely bewildered the interviewer with the unbelievable, does-not-compute mindfuck that an honest-to-God-Moozlim actually done wrote sumpin’ ’bout Jeebus. Note that I haven’t watched the interview; I lost enough IQ points just reading about it, but if you like stupid go ahead and click. Aslan’s book may be the shortest “historical Jesus” work I’ve ever seen, actually, and doesn’t even actually spend all of its pagecount on Jesus himself– there are several chapters exploring the revolutionary/political environment he grew up in at the beginning and several chapters on Paul and James at the end, so really only about the middle 50% or so of the book is specifically about Jesus’ life. That said, he manages to pack quite a lot of stuff into those pages, and does so without lapsing into the sort of impossible specificity and detail that these sorts of books are known for. I can’t vouch for the rightness of his claims, necessarily, but I didn’t find much that I disagreed with– he certainly isn’t terribly interested in getting into details of translation very often (there is very little Greek, Aramaic, or Hebrew in the book, and everything is transliterated into Latin characters) and all of the footnotes and endnotes are in the back, not interrupting the text. This is a book for the type of people who watch Fox News or react to stupid things that happen on Fox News, not people who are already in “the biz,” so to speak.
Best thing I can say about it? It made me remember why I enjoyed being in a field that consumed most of my intellectual space for most of my twenties; it’s been a while since I regretted leaving grad school. That’s the best thing I can say about it. If you’re interested in the historical Jesus, this isn’t a bad place to start; I can move you onto other titles afterwards. Thumbs up.