As with so many of the characters who appear in the stories surrounding the person of Jesus, Reza Aslan has special knowledge of the motivations and inner workings of John the Baptist.

Aslan writes,

In 28 C.E., an ascetic preacher named John began baptizing people in the waters of the Jordan River, initiating them into what he believed was the true nation of Israel. 49

The shear forcefulness and evident self-confidence of Aslan’s assertion, make it tempting to pass by his claims without stopping to pause and question the content.

Was John the Baptist really initiating Jews “into what he believed was the true nation of Israel”? Where did Aslan get this idea? Upon what ancient texts does he base this conviction?

Aslan goes on to assert that John the Baptist,

promised the Jews who came to him a new world order, the Kingdom of God. And while he never developed the concept beyond a vague notion of equality and justice, the promise itself was enough in those dark, turbulent times to draw to him a wave of Jews from all walks of life. 82

And, of course, in Aslan’s politicized reading of everything to do with the Jesus story, John the Baptist, like Jesus was executed for sedition. Alsan states that when discerning the reasons for John’s death

Alas, the gospel account is not to be believed. As deliciously scandalous as the story of John’s executuion may be, it is riddeld with errors and historical inaccuracies. 81

The “errors and historical inaccuracies” with which the Gospel accounts of John’s death are “riddled” seem to be two. Apparently the

evangelists mistakenly identify Herodias’s first husband as Philip. 81

No evidence is offered for claiming that the Gospel writers were wrong in this assertion. I presume we are simply intended to take Aslan at his word.

The second of the “errors and historical inaccuracies” with which the Gospel writers are charged is that

they seem to confuse the place of John’s execution, the fortress of Machaerus, with Antipas’s court in the city of Tiberias. 81

Due to these grievous errors, in Aslan’s estimation,

The entire gospel story reads like a fanciful folktale. 82

Aslan gives no grounds for politicizing John the Baptis’s message  presumably because it is impossible to find an overtly political pronouncement in the words that are attributed to the Baptist’s preacher.

Matthew states that

John the Baptist appeared in the wilderness of Judea, proclaiming, ‘Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.’ (Matthew 3:1,2)

Matthew does go on to expand John’s message reporting that the Baptizer told his audience they should

not presume to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our ancestor’; for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham. Even now the ax is lying at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not beare good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. (Matthew 3:9-10)

It is a wild leap to extrapolate from this the conviction that John is calling for a new political entity to rule in Palestine no longer under the domination of Rome.

But Aslan is determined that John’s motives were political and that it was his political aspirations that got John in trouble. Aslan explains,

When John the Baptist’s popularity became too great to control, Pilate’s tetrarch in Peraea, Herod Antipas, had him imprisoned and executed sometime around 30 C.E. 49

Aslan appears to be a better authority on the reasons for John’s fate than the unreliable testimony of Mark the Gospel writer who explains that

Herod himself had sent men who arrested John, bound him, and put him in prison on account of Herodias, his brother Philip’s wife, because Herod had married her. (Mark 6:17)

Because Mark’s story fails to support Aslan’s thesis, he automatically disqualifies Mark’s account of John the Baptist’s entire ministry.

According to the Gospel of Mark, John came

proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. (Mark 1:4)

Aslan proposes,

The unmistakably Christian nature of this phrase casts serious doubt on its historicity. It sounds more like a Christian projection upon the Baptist’s actions, not something the Baptist would have claimed for himself – though if that is true, it would be an odd statement for the early church to make about John: that he had the power to forgive sins, even before he knew Jesus. 85

Aslan’s logic here is confusing. Because Mark’s description of John’s teaching sounds Christian it could not have been John’s teaching. But it is unlikely that the church would have put such words in the mouth of John the Baptist because the early church would be unlikely to claim that John “had the power to forgive sins,” a claim that is actually made nowhere in the text.

By Aslan’s logic, it is unlikely that the words of the Old Testament book of Chronicles would ever have been attributed to God by anyone other than a Christian writer either. 2 Chronicles claims that God said,

if my people who are called by my name humble themselves, pray, seek my face, and turn from their wicked ways, then I will hear from heaven, and will forgive their sin and heal their land. (2 Chronicles 7:14)

Aslan never explains why only a Christian preacher could have insight into the nature of repentance and forgiveness.

 

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