As Matt Franck notes, Aslan’s PhD dissertation focuses on the rise of jihadism in the twentieth century. But what about the content of his research and its value to scholars? Are Aslan’s critics unfairly attacking him for his background just because he doesn’t have the right degrees or the most impressive publication list?
I’ve read the dissertation, and can report that it uses no historical methods or archival research. It solely focuses on the events and movements of the twentieth century, with the exception of one ten-page summary of the life and times of medieval Muslim theologian Ibn Taymiyyah. In the fields of sociology and political science, it seems like a rather unremarkable piece of work (it’s also unusually short for a PhD dissertation, at about 130 double-spaced pages. Dissertations usually run into the hundreds). It also seems likely that much of the research was later published for a popular audience (along with the usual current events punditry) as Aslan’s book Beyond Fundamentalism. Absolutely nothing in the dissertation gives any indication that the author has any interest in, much less qualifications for, New Testament scholarship.
Aside from content, Aslan’s claim that he is a scholar at all is questionable given the publishers of his books. A Google Scholar search for Aslan’s bibliography shows the author’s trade books (as opposed to books from university presses, the standard for scholarship), newspaper articles, blog posts, and lectures. He has a couple of articles in a “current affairs journal” (normally called a newspaper). His single citation from an academic press is for a forthcoming chapter in an Oxford University Press book The Oxford Handbook of Religion and Violence—a volume edited by his dissertation advisor at UC-Santa Barbara. Literally the only remotely academic article he’s published was a 2003 piece in an obscure UCLA law journal on the sociology of stoning in Islam. Again, Aslan has no scholarly work that would qualify him as an expert in New Testament studies by the standard practices of that field.
What about Aslan’s claims to have various degrees in religions from prestigious universities? These claims are at least true, but presented in a way that would mislead the average viewer. The fact that he studied at Harvard is a lot less remarkable than it sounds, for example. Harvard’s PhD programs in sociology, history, or philosophy would place Aslan in an elite scholarly class. But the Divinity School is notoriously easy to get into (selectivity around 50 percent, as opposed to < 5 percent for those PhD programs). (His most prestigious degree, for those keeping track, is actually his MFA from Iowa, which is in fact the top program in the country.)
Moreover, Aslan claims to be an expert in New Testament Greek. Now, I can’t find any evidence directly disputing this claim except this: at most, he studied Greek as an undergrad and for a couple of years at Harvard Divinity School. Greek scholars have PhDs requiring the language and spend decades working in it. Moreover, New Testament scholars also read Syriac, Aramaic, and Latin. Aslan’s TV claim to Greek knowledge is designed to browbeat the interviewer and hoodwink viewers, but would probably be laughed at in scholarly circles.
The only piece of work that I’ve been able to find anywhere where Aslan shows a scholarly interest in Christianity is his undergraduate thesis, “The Messianic Secret in the Gospel of Mark,” for which he won an award. While this establishes at least a modicum of interest, it hardly qualifies Aslan as a New Testament scholar.
I don’t mean to dismiss the error of the Fox News reporter. She seemed to think that Aslan was unqualified because he was a Muslim, which it turns out is just about the only thing about him that does not disqualify him as a New Testament scholar. In the end, though, she and Aslan were engaging in the same game—the construction of an identity to qualify or disqualify the author’s point of view, rather than focusing on arguments or hard-won qualifications.
To Aslan’s credit, initial reports suggest that he has done a good job writing an engaging and well-researched summary of recent scholarship on the Historical Jesus, weighted naturally to his preferred school of thought. And to some extent, he was correct to say this is what he does for a living: he writes popular books on religion that validate the views of his audience.
But he is hardly a scholar by any internal academic definition of that word. If you want to read about the Historical Jesus, check out a real scholar.
Jonathan Askonas is an MPhil student in International Relations at the University of Oxford. Previously, he studied international relations at Georgetown University, graduating summa cum laude in 2013. He usually writes for Fare Forward, a Christian review of ideas.