Reza Aslan’s Zealot, a second-rate rehashing of discredited theories



Reza Aslan is no Bible scholar, and it shows.

Zealot reads like every low-budget ‘historical Jesus’ documentary ever made. Reza Aslan seems to say that you can trust hardly anything in the Gospels (except the particular points the author wants to twist to make his own points) because they were written decades after Jesus lived—so you should believe what he writes nearly 2,000 years later.

Aslan has a Ph.D. in sociology of religion and he is an associate professor of creative writing at the University of California at Riverside. But what he claims to be, and what he is demonstrably not, is a “scholar of religions with a Ph.D. in the subject”.

It seems that every author of a ‘reinterpreting Jesus’ book has to prove his credentials by showing how he was a former evangelical. Aslan shares his story of his conversion as a teenager at youth camp. But like thousands of other former Christians, an intellectual journey led away from the faith that he had embraced. “In college, where I began my formal study of the history of religions, that initial discomfort soon ballooned into full-blown doubts of my own” (xix). Of course, there are many Bible scholars in academia whose faith was only strengthened by their studies, but they don’t become media darlings and we don’t hear as much about them.

Aslan argues that Jesus, like other revolutionaries in His time, was an anti-Rome political figure who preached a message of liberation from Caesar. It was only later when Paul came along that Jesus became a peace-loving spiritual leader. This thesis has been put forward and refuted multiple times, as Larry Hurtado demonstrated:

Aslan argues that Jesus, like other revolutionaries in His time, was an anti-Rome political figure who preached a message of liberation from Caesar.
Let’s track backward chronologically through some of the various prior appearances of this particular zombie. We can start with Jesus and the Zealots: A Study of the Political Factor in Primitive Christianity, by S. G. F. Brandon (Manchester University Press, 1967). Brandon was a respected scholar and presented what is still probably the best scholarly attempt to proffer the idea that Jesus was (or aspired to be) a political revolutionary.
… But the “granddaddy”-predecessor of them all, perhaps, was the 18th century figure, Hermann Samuel Reimarus, whose manuscript on Jesus as failed revolutionary lay unpublished for a number of years until Lessing discovered it. …
… in each successive presentation, this idea has been engaged patiently by scholars and shown to be variously selective in the data … and inconsistent (or incoherent) in method. The result in each case is that the idea was dust-binned as a failure, and scholarship gets on with trying out and critically testing ideas and evidence. And the general public goes on to other fads and fashions.1

Aslan has read a fair bit of secondary literature, but cherry-picks it to make his own points. His complete lack of training in exegesis shows. It will suffice to show a few of the laughable errors he commits. First, when writing about the Temple cleansing scene, Aslan says that it would have been a capital offense: “After all, an attack on the business of the Temple is akin to an attack on the priestly nobility, which, considering the Temple’s tangled relationship with Rome, is tantamount to an attack on Rome” (p. 75). Later he asserts, “Even the slightest threat to the Temple would instantly arouse the attention of the priestly and Roman authorities. Several things make this interpretation impossible:

  1. It is “a great crowd with swords and clubs, from the chief priests and elders of the people” (Matthew 26:47)—Jews—who arrest Jesus, not Romans. He is tried first by the Sanhedrin, not by the Romans.
  2. They needed false witnesses to accuse Jesus of a capital offense (Matthew 26:59). Apparently cleansing the Temple—which Jesus actually did—was not a capital offense.
  3. Even with the false testimony, the only charge they could come up with was blasphemy—not a crime under Roman law, especially when Romans had contempt for Jews and what they viewed as their odd little superstition.
  4. Pilate was able to see that Jesus was innocent (Luke 23:4; 13–15), and crucified Jesus only to avoid a riot (Mark 14:14–15).
  5. The Romans had nothing but contempt for the Jews. Even the crucifixion narrative betrays this (e.g. John 19:19ff).

This is not a minor slip; this is sloppiness indicative of the quality of the entire book. He says a woodworker in Jesus’ day would have had little to do. Even without making the correction that tekton often can indicate some sort of stonemason as well as carpenter, most scholars believe that the construction in nearby Sepphoris would have meant steady work for artisans like Joseph and Jesus.

He has a similarly wrongheaded approach to Jesus’ pronouncement on taxes. He argues that when Jesus says “Give to God what is God’s”, Jesus means the land of Israel (p. 77). Only someone profoundly ignorant of all the testimony about Jesus and the formation of Christianity (which after all is a Jesus movement) could make such a profound misinterpretation. In fact, in John 18:36 Jesus specifically says, “My kingdom is not of this world”—twice! Furthermore, nowhere in early Christianity is there the slightest hint that this is a land-oriented faith. Centuries later when it becomes centered around a location, it is Rome and a few other influential cities that become bases for the faith, not Jerusalem.

In a breathless tone, Aslan conveys old, stale, and discarded theories about Jesus of Nazareth as if they are news.

Incomprehensibly, Aslan thinks that when Jesus tells the healed leper to present himself to the priest, he is joking: “His command to the leper is a jest—a calculated swipe at the priestly code” (112). No one who understands Jesus’ views of the OT law would say such a thing; Jesus was being absolutely serious. But Jesus was challenging the religious establishment of his day. The Jews had certain ‘Messianic miracles’ in their tradition that they believed only the Messiah could do—casting out a mute demon, giving sight to someone born blind, and healing an Israelite leper. They believed that God had reserved these miracles as identifying signs of the Messiah; so it is not an accident that Jesus performed all three of these specific miracles. When Jesus healed the leper, the leper would need to go to the Temple, and the priests would have to go through the steps outlined in Leviticus 14. But it would also be something that had never occurred before, and it would cause the religious authorities to investigate Jesus to see if He really was the Messiah, since He did the miracle.

The dust jacket on the book claims that it is “meticulously researched”. There is a several-pages-long bibliography (not impressive for the length of the book), but he does not cite sources in a helpful way. After the text of the book there is a “notes” section which among other things talks about sources, but it is very hard to tell where a certain claim in the text may have come from.

In a breathless tone, Aslan conveys old, stale, and discarded theories about Jesus of Nazareth as if they are news. Anyone who studies in this area will be bored well before the end of the introduction. Unlike the viral Fox News interview would seem to imply, there is also nothing particularly Muslim about his writing about Jesus (unlike the Quran, Aslan does believe that Jesus died on the cross and was buried, though he does not claim to know what happened afterwards). Better versions of this idea have been presented, decades ago, and thoroughly refuted. The attention Zealot is getting is completely undeserved.

Published: 1 October 2013

References and notes

  1. L. Hurtado, “Zombie Claims” and Jesus the “Zealot”, 15 August 2013, larryhurtado.wordpress.com/2013/08/15/zombie-claims-and-jesus-the-zealot. Return to text.