ZEALOT: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth
Random House, 2013
296 pp., $27.00
Jesus as a Jewish Jihadist
In his New York Times #1 best seller for nonfiction, Reza Aslan portrays the historical Jesus as a zealot who preached sedition against Rome. According to Aslan, Jesus' message of God's kingdom promised the overthrow of Rome, the expulsion of all foreign elements from the Holy Land, and the Jews' world-wide political dominance under Jesus' kingship. Though he himself did not take up arms, he said he came not to bring peace on earth, but the sword; and he told his disciples to arm themselves with swords for the coming conflict. Since the Jewish hierarchs who controlled the temple served as lackeys to the Romans, Jesus' cleansing the temple challenged not only the hierarchs' authority, but also that of the Romans. Hence his crucifixion as "The King of the Jews" counted as the execution of a messianic rebel. But the kingdom of God as Jesus envisioned it did not come. In fact, even the nearly successful Jewish rebellion against Rome in ad 66-73 collapsed under the onslaught of Roman power. As a result of these embarrassments and the influx of non-Palestinian Jews and non-Jews into the Jesus movement, the historically human Jesus of zealotic rebellion was transformed into the fictitiously divine Christ of a peaceful, heavenly kingdom.
Aslan works from what he regards as the "only two hard historical facts" known about Jesus, viz., that he was a Jew who led a popular Jewish movement in 1st-century Palestine and that Rome crucified him for doing so. Beyond these, Aslan relies mainly on the 1st-century Jewish historian Josephus' record of various rebellious movements of Jews from shortly before Jesus' birth through the destruction of Jerusalem and the temple in ad 70 to the rebellion led by Bar Kokhba in the 2nd century. Add a basically Marxist analysis of 1st-century Palestinian economy, and you have Aslan's thesis in a nutshell: Jesus was a proletarian Jewish jihadist who like present-day jihadists of the militant sort wanted, at the cost of his own life if necessary, to rid sacred territory of the ungodly and impose divine rule the world over. It helps this comparison—mine, not Aslan's—that he was born in Iran, grew up a nominal Muslim at first, converted to evangelical Christianity during his teens in Northern California, lost that faith during his higher education, returned to Islam (minus its usual denial of Jesus' crucifixion), and has written also on jihadism.
Despite the dust jacket's claim that this thesis is "entirely new" and "fresh," it dates back in its essentials to Hermann Samuel Reimarus (18th century) and includes the more recent notables Robert Eisler (1929, 1930, 1931) and S. G. F. Brandon (1967). Though Aslan repeatedly appeals to his "two decades of ['rigorous'] scholarly research into the New Testament and early Christian history" and "exhaustively" details this research in notes at the end of his book, he is not a New Testament scholar or ancient historian comparable in learning to a wide variety of heavyweights who over the years have discredited the revolutionary thesis. To his credit, nevertheless, he has read widely in secondary scholarly literature (yet only in English), including some of a conservative evangelical stamp. Also to his credit, he admits that "[f]or every well-attested, heavily researched, and eminently authoritative argument made about the historical Jesus, there is an equally well-attested, equally researched, and equally authoritative argument opposing it." Despite a contrary promise, however, opposite points of view go largely unaddressed even in the supposedly exhaustive ending notes; and the dogmatism, bordering sometimes on bombast, with which Aslan states his own views will unfortunately leave on a popular readership misimpressions of certainty.
One can appreciate a number of Aslan's observations, such as the following (among others): The progressive demotion of John the Baptist in favor of Jesus from early to late New Testament literature. The lack of ancient debate over the actuality of Jesus' exorcisms and miracles. The purpose of the exorcisms and miracles to manifest God's kingdom on earth. The variety of messianic expectations in 1st-century Judaism(s). The tracing to Daniel 7:13 of Jesus' self-designation "the Son of Man." The gradual easing of Pontius Pilate's guilt in later New Testament literature. Development of the Zealot Party not till after Jesus' career. The possibility that Christianity may have influenced pagan mystery religions rather than vice versa.
Among Aslan's pronouncements lacking solid evidence are that David hid from King Saul at Masada. That during the first century "[c]ountless prophets, preachers, and messiahs tramped through the Holy Land." (Excluding John the Baptist and Jesus, Aslan identifies only ten.) That John the Baptist taught Jesus the Lord's Prayer. That John Mark was from the Diaspora. That Matthew wrote in Damascus and Luke in Syrian Antioch. That Jesus was born "some time between 4 b.c.e. and 6 c.e." (Most scholars of all stripes say sometime prior to 4 b.c.) That without exception, victims of crucifixion had attached to their cross a plaque inscribed with their crime. That Stephen's martyrdom made permanent a division between Hebraistic and Hellenistic Christians.