ZEALOT: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth
Random House, 2013
296 pp., 28.00
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.
Despite doubting the historicity of all but Jesus' leading a popular movement and being crucified for doing so, Aslan bases his reconstruction time after time not only on Mark and a hypothetical Q as our earliest documents, plus the grid of Jewish revolutionism, but also on other materials, including John's Gospel (strikingly). Sad to say, the reconstruction is riddled with factual errors—some significant, others insignificant.
According to Aslan, for example, Matthew and Luke are "the only two evangelists" who mention Joseph, Jesus' father. (But Joseph is mentioned also in John 1:45; 6:42.) "[T]he building boom in Jerusalem and the completion of the Temple" ended "shortly before Herod's death." (The sanctuary proper reached completion a whole decade and a half before Herod's death, while construction of the out-buildings and courts and the building boom lasted for more than six decades after the death of Herod.) "Nazareth was just a day's walk from … Sepphoris." (Make it about an hour's walk.) The Samaritans worshipped God "in their temple on Mt. Gerizim." (Not during Jesus' time, for their temple had been destroyed in the 2nd century BC.) "Jesus replaced the costly blood and flesh sacrifice mandated by the Temple with his free healings and exorcisms." (Why then did he instruct his disciples to prepare a Passover meal, which included a lamb sacrificed at the temple?)
Luke had no idea of what we mean by "history." (Why then does he appeal to eyewitnesses?) Crucifixion entailed "the nailing of the hands and feet to a crossbeam." (The feet too? Only in the case of a contortionist.) John's Jesus is "an otherworldly spirit without earthly origins." (But he "became flesh," had a mother named Mary, had his rib cage pierced and his corpse given a sumptuous burial, and upon his resurrection told Mary Magdalene to let go of him and invited doubting Thomas to touch the nail- and spearprints in his body.)
"[T]he earliest manuscripts we have of the gospel of Mark end the first verse at 'Jesus the Christ.' " (Wrong! Most of the earliest manuscripts add "the Son of God.") For lack of interest, Mark writes "nothing at all" about Jesus' resurrection. ("He's been raised" and "there [in Galilee] you'll see him," spoken at Jesus' empty tomb, trumpet resurrection, as in three passion-and-resurrection predictions earlier in Mark.) "[A]nyone who reads Mark in the original Greek can tell that a different hand wrote the final eight verses [of Mark 16]." (True only of the twelve verses following Mark 16:1-8.)
Greek was "[t]he language of the [Roman] victors." (How about Latin, as on the Arch of Titus, which celebrated their victory over the Jews?) Noncanonical gospels "written mostly in the second and third centuries … . demonstrate the dramatic divergence of opinion [concerning Jesus] … even among those who claimed to walk with him, who shared his bread and ate with him, who heard his words and prayed with him." (They must have lived a long time, then.)
Paul's hometown Tarsus was located "on the Mediterranean Sea." (Actually, 22 kilometers inland.) Upon his conversion, Saul of Tarsus "changed his name to Paul." (Saul almost certainly bore from birth the Hellenistic name "Paul" as well as the Hebraistic name "Saul.") Luke never refers to Paul as an "apostle." (On the contrary, see Acts 14:14.) Paul "thinks he is the first apostle" (emphasis original). (What to do, then, with his "Last of all … to me"?) "The letters of Paul … make up the bulk of the New Testament." (Oh? Pagewise, barely over 22 percent, though bookwise 13 over against 14 non-Paulines.) Paul did not preach "to his fellow Jews." (Scratch the book of Acts, then—also Paul's saying, "To the Jews I became as a Jew, in order to win Jews.") Apart from Jesus' Words of Institution, "Paul seems totally unconcerned with anything 'Jesus-in-the-flesh' may or may not have said." (Yet he explicitly cites Jesus' teaching on divorce.) "Paul's Christ is not even human, though he has taken on the likeness of one (Philippians 2:7)." (But according to Paul, Jesus "was descended from David according to the flesh" and "born of a woman.")
There are other errors, but it's time to stop nibbling around the edges. As to the central thesis that Jesus was a revolutionary, Aslan has to admit that in AD 10-36—i.e., during Jesus' teens and on through his public ministry and beyond—"the Galileans enjoyed a period of peace and tranquility." This "most stable period in the entire first century" casts doubt on Jesus' supposed anti-Roman revolutionism. So Aslan has to resort to speaking of a "slow burn." To maintain that Jesus "render[ed] irrelevant the entire priestly establishment and their costly, exclusivistic [sacrificial] rituals," Aslan similarly has to say that "Jesus is joking" when telling a healed leper to go offer the Mosaically prescribed sacrificial gift for a testimony to the priests. Jesus' saying to "go also the second mile" when a Roman soldier requisitions you to carry his gear "one mile" ill suits Aslan's speaking of Jesus' "condemnation of the Roman occupation."
Astonishingly, Aslan affirms Jesus' teaching that Caesar should be paid back the tax owed him, exactly opposite what a revolutionary should or would have said. Then Aslan tries shifting the issue from tax-paying to that of Palestine as "God's land" (emphasis original), which should be paid back to him. But nothing in the context speaks of the Holy Land, and Jesus' addressees (Pharisees and Herodians) were in no position vis-à-vis the Romans to give that land back to God. Aslan might have been better off to deny the historicity of that episode, except that doing so would have made more obvious than ever the Procrustean bed he uses to amputate materials unfriendly to his thesis.
Granted, the Jews who acclaimed Jesus at his triumphal entry into Jerusalem probably thought of him as a messianic king who would overthrow the Romans; but the Jesus who proceeded to cleanse the temple as "a house of prayer for all the nations" and aimed "to give his life a ransom for many" seems to have had in mind something different from a messianic rebellion against Rome. The two swords that he told his disciples were "enough" would hardly have sufficed for such a rebellion, and his repeated predictions of his own and his disciples' violent deaths betray a nonexpectation of God's imminent overthrow of Rome.
Though Jesus wasn't "a violent revolutionary bent on armed rebellion," he "instructs his disciples immediately after the Passover meal" to go sell their cloaks and each buy a sword, as for a violent revolution. So says Aslan, but he fails to mention the context of an evangelistic mission requiring not only a sword for self-protection but also a purse, bag, and sandals for travel, just as he fails to mention that Jesus' bringing a sword has to do, figuratively and contextually, with division in families over whether to follow Jesus, not with revolution against Rome (compare Jesus' saying in the different context of violence that "all who take the sword will perish by the sword"). Undoubtedly Jesus was crucified as "The King of the Jews"—i.e., as a messianic rebel—but Aslan has to doubt or deny that the Sanhedrin shifted from the religious charge of blasphemy, under which they condemned Jesus, to a false political charge of sedition when arraigning him before Pilate.
Stephen's seeing Jesus at God's right hand is supposed to have launched "a wholly new religion," divorced from "the historical person known as Jesus of Nazareth." Such a dictum requires a denial that Jesus himself predicted he would take a position at God's right hand. "After the Jewish revolt and the destruction of Jerusalem [in ad 70]," according to Aslan, "the early Christian church tried desperately to distance Jesus from the zealous nationalism that had led to that awful war" and consequently "transform[ed] their messiah from a fierce Jewish nationalist into a pacifistic preacher of good works whose kingdom was not of this world." It's strange, then, that Paul wrote already in the 50s that "the kingdom of God is … righteousness and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit" (Romans 14:16). But Paul and Peter didn't share "the same faith," says Aslan. So it's strange once more that in 1 Corinthians 3:22 Paul included Peter along with himself and Apollos as those belonging in Christ to the Corinthian believers (see also 1:10-17).
Beyond further criticisms, deserving of mention are Aslan's flights of imagination, whether they be true or false: "After his baptism" Jesus "stayed in the wilderness for a while … to learn from John [the Baptist] and to commune with his [John's] followers." When Jesus cleanses the temple, "a corps of Roman guards and heavily armed Temple police blitz through the courtyard looking to arrest whoever is responsible for the mayhem." Jesus died "on a bald hill covered in crosses, beset by the cries and moans of agony from hundreds of dying criminals as a murder of crows circled eagerly over his head waiting for him to breathe his last." The assassin "[w]ho killed Jonathan son of Ananus as he strode across the Temple Mount in the year 56 c.e." was probably "the first to cry, 'Murder!' " Such lively prose befits an "associate professor of creative writing" who holds "a master of fine arts in fiction" as well as "a Ph.D. in the sociology of religions."
Epilogue: Aslan's apostasy from evangelical Christianity stemmed from his discovery of unhistorical elements in the Bible and having been taught that "every word of the Bible is God-breathed and true, literal and inerrant." Teachers whose version of biblical inerrancy lacks enough literary sensitivity to acknowledge in Scripture the presence of genres that mix fact and fiction for more than purely historical purposes—these teachers should take warning from the example of Aslan, and of too many others like him.
Robert Gundry is scholar-in-residence and professor emeritus at Westmont College.
1. Aslan uses the politically correct "B.C.E." (as he styles it) and "C.E.," but PC isn't my MO.
Copyright © 2013 by the author or Christianity Today/Books & Culture magazine.
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