Who is More Qualified to Write on Jesus?

At this point I think we can agree any topic related to Jesus causes a firestorm.

This weekend a new controversy has sprung up as it relates to Dr Reza Alsan’s interview on FoxNews about his new book Zelaot: the life and times of Jesus of Nazareth. Now I’m not going to comment on his text, however the controversy around his interview has gotten a conversation going. Over at First Things, Matthew J. Franck has put together a post about the challenge of Dr Aslan’s purported credentials. Whether or not Dr Aslan has a PhD which allows him to say he’s a historian is not my point. I generally support the view that to be considered a critical scholar on a subject one needs to have “a terminal degree in the specific field of their inquiry with relevant research and peer reviewed articles published while holding a relevant academic position at an educational institution.”

This definition should enough to begin to answer this question about who is more qualified to write on Jesus. Jesus is popular stuff and if you write a decent book and have the backing of a smoothly operating propaganda machine you should be able to sell some books. Western culture still loves to talk about Jesus.

So, does being a   (insert religious or non-religious moniker)  make one more credible or less credible when it comes to writing on Jesus?

From a position of academic scholarship, so long as someone has a relevant degree and has done quality research to answering a question, however one fills in the blank in the above line doesn’t matter. Academically, a Muslim with a New Testament degree is just as qualified as an evangelical Christian with the same degree to write about Jesus. Now, whether they have done a good job will be determined (not by 24-hour news channels) but by the scholarly community at large.

Scholars submit their work to review (both peer review and review articles) and it should withstand a healthy conversation that is either positive or negative. A writer who isn’t prepared, or willing to do so, isn’t a scholar and isn’t credible.

In our contemporary age, too many of us operate with an approach of suspicion when encountering a sympathetic scholar, or writer, who produces a work about a controversial topic. Surely the convinced Christian has less to offer than the critical atheist when asking historical questions about Jesus. Apparently there is a lack of credibility that comes from being affiliated with the group you’re critically engaging.

Now this might just be a product of our age.

I, for one, welcome Jewish, Muslim, Hindu, Mormon, Buddhist, atheist, and agnostic inquiries into the picture of the historical Jesus developed by orthodox (small “o”) Christians since the establishment of the post-Apostolic church. Let’s get our cards on the table and have a generous conversation. Let’s use the same historical methodology to evaluate all of our leaders by which we evaluate Jesus. Let’s compare the historical Jesus against the historical Mohammed, Joseph Smith, Siddhartha Gautama, and others.

Now, the larger question for Muslim scholar such as Reza Aslan, does he welcome appropriately credentialed Christian scholars to investigate Mohammed?

It’s easy to write a book about Jesus. Dan Brown stole material from another book and now lives in a very large house after writing a very bad book about Jesus. But he’s not a critical, or any kind of, scholar.

The challenge is writing a good book about Jesus that authentically and critically engages the historical scholarship in a quest (no pun intended) to answer the author’s primary question about Jesus. It’s been done, but only in limited form and usually in a manner that doesn’t interview well on the 24-hour newsfeeds.

Finally, we shouldn’t miss the point that Reza Aslan has provided a critical interaction with the theme of resurrection and how it would have reflected a political and religious reality of the historical Jesus. This seems to be, obviously, completely missed by the interviewer. Now that is an interesting topic. One of the challenges Islam brings to Christianity is a denial of the crucifixion. I believe that is one of the more historically established events in antiquity. If Dr Aslan is offering a new perspective, I’d be willing to hear it.

Of course, we must point out that any scholar going on any of the 24 hour news channels (or Comedy Central) shouldn’t expect to be received with any respect for critical nuance. That’s probably more of a statement about the journalistic torpor of our days than a commentary on the failures of scholarship. Long gone are the days when scholars would be interviewed by learned journalists who probed their insights and helpfully developed the discussion. This FoxNews interview is a blight on our culture and the interviewer misses the entire point. Since Foxnews has a history of failing to critically engage scholars, I simply think they don’t have much to offer in this conversation.

So, Who is More Qualified to Write on Jesus?

First, we must consider the qualifications (academically) of an author. No offense to my Christian brothers and sisters, but if you have a high school diploma with no additional undergraduate, graduate, or post-graduate study, you aren’t as qualified to write on Jesus as someone who has those degrees. Also, any of these degrees of collegename.com diploma mill doesn’t qualify you either.

Second, just because someone is a Christian (including us terrible evangelicals) doesn’t mean our opinion is less suitable than a non-believer. If an evangelical has done the work their voice should be heard.

Third, just because someone isn’t a Christian who has the requisite academic work, doesn’t mean they are more worth hearing by the population at large. Critical inquiry demands peer review. It demands the qualified conversation of specialists who can review and consider the piece.

So finally, let those who choose to write on Jesus be subject to the process of answering the question about their credentials and then let their work stand (or fall) on its own.