Reading Jesus in Context

Reza_Aslan_-_April_2012-crIn the video below, Robert Wright and Reza Aslan discuss the now famous author’s book Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth. Aslan argues for reading the words attributed to Jesus in the historical context in which they would have been spoken. He reminds us that Jesus was a Jew, speaking to practitioners of Judaism, in the context of the Hebrew scriptures and these scripture’s picture of God. If we want to understand what these words would have meant to Jesus and his immediate audience, we have to place them in the religious world in which he lived. So far so good. Smart hermeneutics. By the way, you can easily find biblical scholars who follow Christian orthodoxy to the letter saying the same thing.

Unfortunately, Aslan goes awry in what he says next: “Everything Jesus said or did has to be understood specifically as coming from a Jew and being about Judaism.” Doesn’t follow, as the logicians say. Reading Jesus in the context of Judaism does not mean that you should read Jesus as speaking about Judaism. Being situated in a world does not mean that you cannot transcend that world. Aslan rightly explains that the Jewish understanding of the messiah was not what Christians mean by the title today, but he wrongly concludes that Jesus couldn’t have introduced a little alterity into the common definition. “If a Jew says ‘I am the messiah” he means the Jewish messiah,” asserts Aslan, seeming to forget that the meanings of religious terms develop over time precisely because influential people use them in new ways.

Judging from this interview, I must say I’m less than impressed with Reza Aslan. He has a sound approach in the historical-critical method, but he doesn’t look to walk that approach with the care that’s needed. Some of his conclusions, at least as presented here, seem plainly fallacious.

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71 thoughts on “Reading Jesus in Context

  1. Well, let’s be honest. Anybody could crib one of a thousand historical analyses of Jesus, regurgitate it, and it would sound unique to 99% of Christians, and overall probably sound fresh to a lot of them. Most of use have probably read quite a few interesting ones, and interesting studies of Judaism.

    Just some of the many I’ve enjoyed are reading the Book of Jubilees, the Gospel of Thomas, parts of the Gospel of Judas, The Hidden Book in the Bible, books on and books on the Dead Sea Scrolls.

    Unlike many scholars who don’t venture far from the accepted norms, my take on the Old Testament is that if your enemy has chariots and you don’t, you’re just fishing screwed, while the central message of the New Testament is that if you fish with Italians, they’ll nail your butt to a cross no matter who your daddy is.

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  2. “If a Jew says ‘I am the messiah” he means the Jewish messiah,”

    I ask out of ignorance: what other messiah would he have been referring to? My impression had been that Jesus presented himself to be the long-awaited messiah of the Jews, and some of those people said “yes, you are” and some said “no, you’re not” and the former we today call Christians and the latter we call Jews. Of course, I say this as a non-Jewish non-Christian.

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    • The Jewish messiah was to be sent by God, not to be Him. To the extent that the historical Jesus ever said or implied that he was God, he was going as far outside the rules as, say, a libertarian messiah who said that he had the power to plan the economy correctly.

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    • Not really. Most Jews, beyond Jesus’ disciples, Paul, and a few others rejected Jesus’ claim as the Messiah. Mainly because he got nailed to the cross by the Romans, which most Jews saw as basically a sign of failure. The Messiah was supposed to restore Jewish sovereignty to Israle and maybe bring about world peace. He wasn’t supposed to get executed. Most of the early Christian were gentiles that were sympathetic to Judaism but didn’t want to buy into the ritual laws. Paul gave them a way to be monotheists without having to be Jews.

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  3. Reza Aslan is correct. Most of what Christ had to say in the Gospels was about his own religion, including the theological disputes within it, excoriating all sides for their insularity, prejudice and ill-will, returning them to Moses and the prophets.

    Jewish eschatology has many different takes on the Messiah. Jesus of Nazareth would hardly be the only claimant to being the Messiah. Matthew 16:13-20 is the clearest description of what was being said at the time.

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    • Sufism — probably not. It’s easy to see commonalities with both Buddhist and Hindu mysticism, insofar as they all believe in self-abnegation, the divine spark and the striving for unity with the divine — but that’s also true of every other mystical tradition, including Gnostic Christianity and Judaism which certainly influenced Muhammad.

      But Sufism arose in a rich stew of faiths. There’s a tradition of Sufism in Syria which says its mystics were converted from Christianity. Much easier in those days, the Gnostics weren’t so big on the Trinity and the rest of Christianity had been giving them hell on this subject.

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      • Well, I was listening towards the end of the video when Aslan described what the Sufi’s thought about the oneness of God and I was thinking that that was more or less the same thing Shankara said about God too. Is this kind of Pantheism something all these mystical traditions converge to or are there exceptions?

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      • I am biassed. I’ve known Sufis for too long to sum them up. There’s something roughly akin to vidhya in Sufism, which they would call ijazah. And like Advaita Vedanta, they hold with an esoteric transmission of belief through gurus, which the Sufi would call qutb, a manifestation of perfected man. In this, they carry over the Jewish doctrine of the lamed vavnik, holy men who exist upon the earth, whose existence is unknown even to them.

        In my bias, I have concluded all useful religions rise to the same asymptote and there are no exceptions. Advaita Vedanta is one such faith. I might add, I don’t view Hinduism as any unified thing: the only metaphor for Hinduism is the stupa, a hierarchy of gods, rising into the abstractions of the trimurti, Brahma, Vishnu, Shiva and suchlike who are almost beyond contemplation: vaishnava seems to me either a very late addition to Hinduism or a coexistent faith, much as Shinto and Buddhism have interoperated for years.

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  4. If we want to understand what these words would have meant to Jesus and his immediate audience, we have to place them in the religious world in which he lived ******** Unfortunately, Aslan goes awry in what he says next: “Everything Jesus said or did has to be understood specifically as coming from a Jew and being about Judaism.” Doesn’t follow, as the logicians say.

    Not having read Aslan’s book (and for some reason, the video isn’t showing in the OP), I need a little clarification on exactly what your objection is here. Is Aslan claiming that placing Jesus in context necessarily leads us to know that Jesus was speaking as a Jew about Judaism? Or is he arguing that after having placed Jesus in context and having studied his words, he has come to that conclusion about Jesus? The first is a non-sequitur, but the second is not necessarily one, depending on Aslan’s logic and evidence.

    I imagine part of what’s implicated in these types of questions is whether and to what extent we can identify what “Judaism” meant ca. 30 c.e. Was there a central authority, were there competing authorities? What did the Jewish hermeneutic tradition at that time see as “in bounds” and what did it see as outre or non-Jewish?

    I’m too ignorant of Judaism, both as it is now and as it was then, to really know the answers. I’ve heard of the Sanhedrin, but I don’t know if they were just one group of many that claimed authority, and even if they were the sole authorities, I’m sure there were factions among them. I know of the texts of the Old Testament (I keep forgetting if that is what is meant as the Torah…..maybe I need to get a copy “Judaism for Dummies”), but I don’t know how they were interpreted.

    Depending on the answers to these and similar questions, I think it’s possible for someone like Jesus to make many of the claims attributed to him, or for people like his disciples to make many of the claims they did about him, and yet still be within the Jewish tradition of that time. I admit that LeeEsq is probably right that once Jesus worship turned to gentiles, it might have become a different ballgame, and did so very quickly, with Paul’s letters excusing people from the rituals.

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    • PC I share your opinion of the excerpt you quote. What Cupp intends to express is not at all clear. Either stance seems clear when separated but tied together as they appear is murky. One can’t even argue against Cupp, as his position is unknown.

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    • Pierre – His framing of the argument in the video indicates the former, but he may have argued the latter as well in his book. He does not say that the evidence leads him to conclude that Jesus should be interpreted as a Jew writing about Judaism. He doesn’t refer to evidence at all. Having listened to him argue this point elsewhere, I get the sense that he takes context too far. Specifically, he seems, in what I’ve seen and heard, to view context as a singular totality: Jesus wrote in a Jewish context, the Gospel writers, especially John, in a Roman one. This framing doesn’t account for the meeting of contexts or transcending one’s own world. If his book has a more nuanced argument, his way of speaking, in more than one instance, clouds this nuance.

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      • Kyle,

        Thanks for clarifying.

        I really don’t know much of the scholarly investigations into the topic. (My knowledge of history begins sometime around 1890, when the Sherman Act was passed.) If I did know more or were inclined to study the topic, I imagine my bias would be more toward privileging context and being skeptical of any person’s ability to transcend that context. That doesn’t mean I necessarily agree with Aslan (because I haven’t read him, etc.) But I find of what I understand of his argument congenial to my biases.

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  5. Holy crap! A critique of Aslan’s book that is NOT focused on his own faith? IMPOSSIBLE!

    I think all of this begs the question… What did Jesus actually say? We have a handful of things, written centuries after his death, indicating what others say he said. Not necessarily the most reliable sources.

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      • It is my understanding that the Gospels were not written down for centuries and had lived as oral traditions until that point. The names attributed to them are not the actual men who put pen to paper. Am I wrong in that regard?

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      • Mark was written about 70 A.D., right after the fall of Jerusalem, IIRC.

        Matthew, Luke, and John are undoubtedly older, but there’s debate as to “by how much”.

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      • The argument that Mark was the 70’s, Matthew around 80, Luke around 85, and John around 120 was the dominant argument when I was in school, but I always suspected that Matthew was the closest to Jesus because Matthew was the most Jewish, then Luke written in response to Matthew, and then Mark written as an amalgamation of both. (And that’d move Matthew up to 70ish, Luke to 75ish, and Mark to 80ish.)

        That theory also has the benefit of not requiring a Q document… but I haven’t argued this point in more than a decade.

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      • Titus sacked Jerusalem, not Vespasian. Vespasian was making ready to sack Jerusalem in 66 when Nero died and Vespasian went back to Italy to Win It All. Capable Son Titus came back and finished the job in 70. It’s confusing; as was the style at the time, the father and eldest son had the exact same name and the suffixes “Senior” and “Junior” would only have been used while both were alive.

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      • I always thought that the explanation I got in Bible studies made sense: Mark was a reporting, Matthew was a sales document to the Zionists, Luke was a sales document to the Gentiles, and John was an attempt to actually formulate a belief document.

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      • If I’m not mistaken, the only Gospel testament that is thought to have been written with direct input from eye witnesses is Mark, the author of which was supposed to be close to the disciple Peter. The rest were written relying on Mark, the oral tradition (some of which may have traced back to eye witnesses — Luke suggests this, at least), and the hypothetical list of Jesus’ sayings (Q, which I see Jaybird has rejected). But it’s been forever since I read about this. You know, when I was back in the “obsessed with religion” stage of atheism.

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      • I *MIGHT* be okay with the existence of Q, but then you need an M? And an L? Are there theories that require *FEWER* documents for which we have no evidence other than we need them for our theory to be right?

        There’s the http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Griesbach_hypothesis (which is cool) because it makes more sense to me that Mark was written using Luke as a source than Luke using Mark as one. Or it used to. Back when I was smart.

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      • I don’t recall the name of the Gospel written in the 90s. It was the one where Jesus said “If thou wilt be perfect, go and sell that thou hast, and invest in high tech.”

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      • I will definitely be looking for opportunities to work “Rock it, you turkey!” into conversation.

        Also, I think the 90’s Gospel Mike is thinking of is The Gospel of Gretzky: Jesus Was Way Cool.

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  6. There’s a feeling of shenanigans when it comes to one particular trick of language.

    Assuming a god, and assuming that he is Our Heavenly Father, and assuming that we are all children of Him (or whatever gender you feel like using because it’s 2013), then it makes sense to say that we are all children of God.

    Which would make me one of God’s sons.

    So given all those assumptions, if someone asks me if I am God’s son, I might answer affirmatively.

    You say “we’re all the children of God” and everybody is calm and collected because that’s part of the plan. You say “and that means that I am the son of God” and EVERYBODY LOSES THEIR MINDS.

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      • Yeah, but if you’re running around yelling “we all deserve to be happy!” and, occasionally, point out “I deserve to be happy”, then you’re, like, not obviously saying something that is *THAT* far out there.

        I also wonder if “your sins are forgiven” wasn’t intended as “you might not know this but God has already forgiven your sins, go now with that knowledge” rather than “I forgive you your sins.”

        If he meant the former, it’s one heck of a disservice to interpret it as the latter… though, I suppose, there are folks who would have so much of a particular mindset that the former just would never, ever occur to them. The only interpretation they’d have for “your sins are forgiven” would *HAVE* to be “…because I just forgave them”.

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      • “Your sins are all forgiven.”

        “Yay, Jesus forgives all of our sins!”

        “Hold on, that’s not what I meant.”

        “You mean, you don’t forgive us?”

        “Of course I do, but …”

        “Yay, I was right. Jesus did forgive all of our sins!”

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      • Very true… which makes one ask the question “why didn’t Paul mention that?”

        I submit: because that wasn’t the version with which he was familiar… and he was familiar with people who were there. He heard their version from them and was repeating that version.

        By the time we get to the Gospels, they’re written through the lens of Romans rather than Romans being written through the lens of the Gospels.

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      • As I grow older I’m coming more and more affirmatively around to the idea: Paul was crazy.

        I wanted to say basically the same thing this morning, Patrick, but the context wasn’t quite right and I didn’t want to offend.

        Now, however, I’m gonna hit you with a big +1.

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      • The greatness of a prophet can be measured by the idiocy of his disciples. And his critics. Feel free to criticise Paul and Christianity. Jesus, too. I just consider the sources and enjoy a little private laughter. Considering the millions of people who’ve believed in this stuff, whose lives have been changed for the better thereby, the millions of people they’ve helped in the spirit of Jesus Christ — what good things have Christ’s critics ever done in the world at large? Very little that I can see.

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      • The greatness of a prophet can be measured by the idiocy of his disciples.

        Given the general idiocy level of humanity, this makes for an awful lot of great prophets :)

        Feel free to criticise Paul and Christianity. Jesus, too.

        Eh, for what it’s worth there’s a lot more to criticize with the good Gentile converter, and Christianity-as-embedded-in-historical-formal-churches, than their is in Christianity in theory or Jesus. Jesus was a pretty righteous dude.

        I just consider the sources and enjoy a little private laughter. Considering the millions of people who’ve believed in this stuff, whose lives have been changed for the better thereby, the millions of people they’ve helped in the spirit of Jesus Christ — what good things have Christ’s critics ever done in the world at large? Very little that I can see.

        Well, Blaise, there are millions of people that have been helped in the spirit of Mohammad, or by the meditations of the Buddha, or by Scientology for that matter (for some definition of “helped”, anyway).

        That doesn’t make any one of them, in particular, automatically worthy of veneration. Shoot, there’s plenty of people with small minds who are helped by spirit guides in the same manner as a placebo helps the sick.

        Paul was a very interesting dude, from what I can infer from limited historical data. But I wouldn’t put him anywhere near Jesus on the “righteous dude” scale.

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      • That’s entirely correct. Muslims are charitable. Buddhists and Hindus have advanced terms for the worst (and best) parts of human nature which English, for all its formidable vocabulary, hasn’t quite gotten to yet. Religion is easy to dismiss as so much bunk — feel free to do so. Rationality only goes so far. I consider myself a rational man, a man who believes in the healthy doubt which gave rise to the scientific method.

        Just don’t forget these prophets didn’t ask us to venerate them. Jesus never demanded worship of his disciples and never criticised anyone else for their beliefs. If his idiot followers have done so, credulous lumps that they were and are, the prophets gave us something reason never did: the faith to transcend the silly to-and-fro of our own lives and our own concerns. Christ condemned his own religion for its lack of charity and its lusting after power.

        Paul isn’t Jesus Christ and said as much in Romans and Corinthians. I don’t trust the opinions of those who haven’t read the Bible enough to know that much about Paul and his message to the world at large, or the context in which he wrote: a sect of Judaism which believed Jesus Christ was the Messiah. They hadn’t asked to be separated from Judaism, Judaism rejected them and Paul had persecuted them on the orders of the Jewish authorities. Paul and Peter had initial reservations about preaching the gospel of Jesus Christ to non-Jews but he came around to it on the basis of what we know in the book of Romans.

        I find all this jejeune rattling of pebbles in gourds about Paul Was an Idiot just a little funny. You wouldn’t dream of saying such things about anyone else’s faith. You’re certainly not saying it about Islam or Buddhism, both of which are well-larded with magical tales. I don’t discount what others believe, insofar as it produces good results in their lives and in the lives of others. I have an abiding respect for Sufi Islam, for it approaches God in a spirit of joy and wonder. I admire Hinduism for its ancient truths embodied in its gods of creation, of sustaining, of wisdom, of its sheer vastness. Buddhism for its essential truths about the nature of existence. I don’t have any respect for Scientology: it’s a religion which abuses its followers and tries to run their lives. Nor do I have much respect for much of animism, scaring the wits out of people. Lots to dislike in every religion, my own included. But I reserve the bulk of my contempt for those who think they’re going to fill in the emptiness of their own souls with the cold comforts of Reason. To reason is to doubt. Hope is embodied in faith, faith in each other, all the evidence to the contrary.

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      • I reserve the bulk of my contempt for those who think they’re going to fill in the emptiness of their own souls with the cold comforts of Reason.

        Funy thing, I stopped feeling emptiness in my soul when I reasoned that there was no soul. So you’re right in a way–I didn’t “fill” the emptiness with reason, I simply excised it, and my life has been much richer since I set aside the pointless striving after myths.

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      • Ever felt love? If you have, you’ve got a soul. See, love doesn’t work on some quid-pro-quo: I’m sure I don’t have to tell you this. Love believes in the beloved, usually without much evidence for it and often when the beloved is grumpy and not particularly lovable. But that’s when people need love the most. Again, it’s so obvious, I feel like an idiot saying such a thing. You have children, you have a wife, you know all this.

        If you can feel it for a person, you might be able to extend yourself as far as understanding all humans need love. Take it one step farther, really take a step out there — and you’ll conclude love is an act of faith, not an act of reason.

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      • Good poetry, bad theology. Being able to love others proves nothing about the existence of a real soul in the Christan sense.

        I might as well say, “of course I’ve got soul; I really dig James Brown.” It’s true for certain values of the word “soul,” but not the Christian value of the word.

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      • Sixteen years of Catholic school, Blaise. I’m fairly aware of what Paul did and didn’t claim, I’ve read the letters well enough to understand a good chunk of the man’s thinking, and I know enough of his history as Saul as detailed in Acts and what the historical record implies regarding his upbringing and background. I’m not a Biblical scholar, by any means, but I’m hardly uneducated on the topic.

        For the record, I’m pretty sure that numerous religious figures were what I would call crazy; that’s not necessarily even pejorative since I don’t claim to be a stellar example of morality myself so my judgment of their behavior is of value to myself and doesn’t need to be valuable to anyone else.

        Paul had a good number of extremely charitable ideas and deserves credit for them, but he was a particularly flawed man and there’s no disservice to him to recognize that fact… as you rightly point out, he claimed no divinity himself.

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      • The soul is considerably more complex than some chattel Dr. Faustus could sell to Mephistopheles, that much is true. I don’t much like what Christianity has done with the concept of the soul, simplifying that curious article to something you can Give to Jeezus.

        Paul wasn’t crazy. The book of Romans, which I remain convinced you haven’t read, or if you have, you ought to read it again — lays out the matter of the soul and the need for grace with brutal clarity. Merely going through the motions, doing what the Law says we must, this is grossly insufficient for enlightenment. We are still faced with the consequences of evil and no philosopher, ancient or modern, has managed to get past the matter of sin. They all deflate like so many badly-baked soufflés when they get to the nature of sin. The secular world squeals endlessly about hypocrisy in the faithful, tries to point fingers at hypocrisy — but it’s really the concept of Sin which aggravates them.

        Faith is required, the faith which can see beyond mere sins and consequences, beyond religiosity and good works and all that crap. I simply must return to the transcendent nature of love itself, it’s the one proof for the soul nobody can deny. In the same way a bouquet of flowers won’t atone for infidelity, mere religiosity won’t atone for sin.

        More is required. Psychotherapy and counselling attempts to get to the bottom of a given problem, identify its source, bring the patient to a moment of resolution where he’s reconciled to his past. Thereafter, the patient can go on with his life. To be sure, he’s still the same person he was before — but now he’s not living in the shadow of his past, wrapped around the axle of his failures.

        Though salvation by grace might seem to be some silly theological construct, it’s the only way anyone overcomes his past, learns to live in the present with hope for the future. Romans say all have sinned and come short of the glory of God. This does not mean we are vile worms, though many’s the moron who’s preached that doctrine from the pulpit. It means we are not perfect and cannot be perfect. It also implies we are all in the same boat, that only by seeing beyond our failures can we ever keep that boat from swamping. Only when we’re humble enough to see ourselves as imperfect — and our fellow man as imperfect — our wives and parents and children and all the other people in our lives as imperfect — can we ever hope to become enlightened people.

        Romans 7 says we belong to each other. I take great hope in that statement, that it’s okay to be a fallible human being. Striving for enlightenment isn’t an easy process.

        This is not crazy talk. Yes, it comes from the distant past, the Roman world, but I don’t care if you believe in Jesus or Paul or not. I’d almost rather people didn’t proselytise, Christianity demands the most rigorous and ruthless analysis of the human condition of any of the world’s religions. It’s not for everyone. If you don’t have a sin problem, stay the hell away from Christianity. It’s brutal. It demands that you believe you’re a sinner but it offers more hope than any of the others — it says your sins have been forgiven, that you can be freed from the past, that in that freedom lies the duty to your fellow man. All quite sensible to me, if not to you.

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      • [Christianity] demands that you believe you’re a sinner but it offers more hope than any of the others — it says your sins have been forgiven, that you can be freed from the past, that in that freedom lies the duty to your fellow man.

        And if anyone disagrees, kill ’em!

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  7. ““If a Jew says ‘I am the messiah” he means the Jewish messiah,” asserts Aslan, seeming to forget that the meanings of religious terms develop over time precisely because influential people use them in new ways.”

    I haven’t read the book, but I suspect that this is deeply uncharitable to Aslan’s (the lion from The Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe?) argument.

    Aslan is arguing, I think, that the meaning of terms is determined by how the community of speakers and listeners were accustomed to using those terms. So, if it is known that “blizzbazz” was always interpreted to mean wine in the time that book X was written, if the word “blizzbazz” occurs in book X, then it means “wine.” After all, why would the authors of book X use the word “blizzbazz” to refer to bread if no one reading the term was used to using “blizzbazz” to refer to anything but wine. (The only exception would be if the authors explicitly stipulate to their readers that “blizzbazz” has a new, stipulated meaning, but this new stipulated meanding would have to be explcitly stated in the text.)

    So, if the term “messiah” was used in such and such a way in the community of the authors of the books of the New Testament, then they meant the term the way that others in that community would have understood it, which is (according to Aslan the lion) to refer to such and such a character from Judaism.

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