14 things you need to know about the new book Zealot

What should you make of the new book Zealot? Here are 14 things to know and share.
What should you make of the new book Zealot? Here are 14 things to know and share. (photo: Register Files)

There’s a new best-seller out there which claims to give us “the real story” on Jesus.

It’s called Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth, and it is one in a long line of books challenging the portrait of Jesus given in the gospels.

The author is giving interviews in the major media, promoting his book, and people are asking questions about it and how to respond.

Here are 14 things to know and share . . .


1) What is Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth?

It is a book authored by Reza Aslan and published by Random House in July of 2013.

With the power of the Random House marketing machine behind it, the book quickly shot to the top of Amazon’s bestseller list.

The book is billed as a biography of Jesus of Nazareth.

In keeping with Aslan’s creative writing background (see below), much of it is written in a casual, narrative style that does not stop to cite sources, mount arguments, or consider alternative viewpoints.

It reads rather a lot like historical fiction, with Aslan inviting us to imagine the colors of the curtain of the Jerusalem temple, how scene at the temple would have sounded, and even how it would have smelled (rather putrid, according to Aslan).


2) Who is Reza Aslan?

Aslan is an associate professor of creative writing at the University of California Riverside. He lives in Hollywood.

He was born in Tehran, Iran but raised in the San Francisco Bay Area.

His family background is Muslim, though not devout.

He himself experienced a conversion to Christianity in his teens but later lost his faith.

He has a doctorate in the sociology of religions from the University of California Santa Barbara.


3) Is Aslan trying to hide his Muslim background?

He has been accused of doing so in television interviews, but this seems unfounded.

He certainly does not hide it in the book. In fact, there is an “Author’s Note” at the beginning of Zealot that explains his religious background very forthrightly.

Aslan’s Muslim background is not very relevant to the views he proposes in Zealot, and given the dynamics of TV interviews, it wouldn’t make sense for Aslan to discuss this unless he were specifically asked about it.


4) Is Aslan giving us a Muslim re-reading of Jesus?

Aslan has similarly been accused of doing so, but this is also unfounded.

Muslims typically hold that Jesus was born of a virgin, that he was the Messiah, and that he was not crucified.

Aslan appears to reject all three of these positions.

·      Early in the book he casts doubt on Mary’s virginity.

·      He does not appear to regard Jesus as fulfilling the role of a divinely-authorized Messiah.

·      And he believes that Jesus was crucified.

In fact, early in the book he states that Jesus’ crucifixion is one of only two “hard historical facts” about Jesus that can be relied upon (see below).

Rather than providing a Muslim re-reading of Jesus, Aslan offers a standard liberal-skeptical re-reading of Jesus.


5) What does he think we know about Jesus?

His bottom line summary is as follows:

In the end, there are only two hard historical facts about Jesus of Nazareth upon which we can confidently rely: the first is that Jesus was a Jew who led a popular Jewish movement in Palestine at the beginning of the first century C.E.; the second is that Rome crucified him for doing so.

If Aslan were to stop with what he considers the only hard historical facts on which we may confidently rely, it would make for a rather short biography.

So he goes beyond these bare bones to offer an imaginative reconstruction of the life and times of Jesus based on his own thoughts about what most probably happened.


6) Is that the way biographies are normally written?

No. Biographies typically go beyond trying to offer imaginative reconstructions of a person’s life.

If you really think that you only know two things about a person then you can’t write a biography of more than a few sentences.

Providing a book-length exercise of imagination, however much detail from historical sources you include, puts you in the realm of historical fiction rather than biography.

One is tempted to say that Aslan’s Zealot is only a “biography” of Jesus of Nazareth the way that Robert Graves’s I, Claudius and Claudius the God are “biographies” of the Roman Emperor Claudius.

That is to say, all three are works of historical fiction written as if they were biographies.

The difference is that Graves has more literary style than Aslan and is more up-front about the fictional nature of what he is doing.


7) How does Aslan imaginatively reconstruct the figure of Jesus?

Drawing on the facts that Jesus led a popular movement in Palestine and that the Romans crucified him, Aslan adds a third supposed fact:

Crucifixion was a punishment that Rome reserved almost exclusively for the crime of sedition.

He then infers that Jesus must have been guilty of sedition and re-casts him in the role of one of the many political revolutionaries of the day who tried to throw off Roman rule, only to get squashed.

This is where the book gets its title—Zealot. The claim is that Jesus was just one of the many zealot-like revolutionaries of the time.

Aslan then cherry-picks the evidence of the gospels, accepting whatever agrees with his thesis and discarding everything that doesn’t.


8) How does he explain the fact that the gospels do not depict Jesus as a political revolutionary?

According to Aslan, the gospels were written long after the fact and are unreliable on these points.

However, they are apparently reliable whenever they say something that he can use to support his thesis.

According to Aslan, all of the Gospels were written after the destruction of Jerusalem in A.D. 70. (He dates Matthew and Luke to between A.D. 90 and 100 and John to between A.D. 100 and 120!)

At these late dates, Aslan informs us, Christians wanted to de-couple their religion from the failed political messianism that resulted in the destruction of Jerusalem, and so the gospels falsify their depiction of Jesus and make him a non-revolutionary.


9) How widely received is this view in the scholarly community?

It’s certainly been proposed before, but it is far from the only view out there.

In fact, among the skeptical scholars who try to discern the truth about “the historical Jesus” (as opposed to “the Christ of faith”), the Jesus-as-failed-political-revolutionary view is not the dominant one.

There are rival conceptions in the present or “third” Quest for the Historical Jesus. Wikipedia (accurately) notes:

The mainstream profiles in the third quest may be grouped together based on their primary theme as apocalyptic prophet, charismatic healer, Cynic philosopher, Jewish Messiah and prophet of social change. But there is little scholarly agreement on a single portrait, or the methods needed to construct it.

So Aslan’s view is neither original nor dominant, even among those who doubt the portrait of Jesus given in the gospels.


10) How might one respond to Aslan’s claims?

One line of response is to note the subjectivity which he himself attributes to it. He states:

Writing a biography of Jesus of Nazareth is not like writing a biography of Napoleon Bonaparte.

The task is somewhat akin to putting together a massive puzzle with only a few of the pieces in hand; one has no choice but to fill in the rest of the puzzle based on the best, most educated guess of what the completed image should look like.

The great Christian theologian Rudolf Bultmann liked to say that the quest for the historical Jesus is ultimately an internal quest.

Scholars tend to see the Jesus they want to see.

Having told us that there are only two things about Jesus we can be really confident of, Aslan then promises only a portrait of Jesus based on “fill[ing] in the rest of the puzzle based on the best, most educated guess of what the complete image should look like.”

This does not give us reason to take his portrait of Jesus particularly seriously.

And his periodic mishandling of the evidence gives us further reason for caution.


11) Does Aslan make obvious mistakes in his book?

Yes. For example, at one point he writes:

Paul may have considered himself an apostle, but it seems that few if any of the other movement leaders agreed. Not even Luke, Paul’s sycophant, whose writings betray a deliberate, if ahistorical, attempt to elevate his mentor’s status in the founding of the church, refers to Paul as an apostle. As far as Luke is concerned, there are only twelve apostles, one for each tribe of Israel, just as Jesus had intended.

Even setting aside Aslan’s unwarranted and prejudicially-phrased statement on Luke . . . Um. Dude? Acts 14:14?

But when the apostles Barnabas and Paul heard of it, they tore their garments and rushed out among the multitude.

This is beyond a mistake in interpretation, to which every scholar is entitled. It is a mistake of basic fact, which an actual scholar of this material would not make.

Aslan’s emphatic claim that Luke does not refer to Paul as an apostle betrays a fundamental lack of mastery of the material he is commenting on. He has, apparently, never even done a simple word study on the office of apostle, but he is making emphatic claims about it.


12) How accurate are the dates Aslan gives the gospels?

To support his cherry-picking, Aslan assigns very late dates to the gospels. In fact, he assigns dates that tend to be a decade later than most liberal scholars assign them.

Of special importance is that they be written after the destruction of Jerusalem in A.D. 70, since this was (for the time being) a crushing blow to Jewish political messianism and would, on his theory, provide Christians with a reason to re-cast Jesus as a non-revolutionary.

But the evidence is that the gospels were written much earlier. In fact, the best evidence is that they were all penned before A.D. 70, since they record Jesus’ prediction that the temple would be destroyed but they do not record its fulfillment.

The evangelists would have loved to say, “And it all happened, just the way Jesus predicted.” It would be a mark of credibility. But they don’t say that. The most plausible explanation is that the fulfillment of his prediction had not yet happened.

Further, since the book of Acts cuts off suddenly in A.D. 60, and since the Gospel of Luke was written before Acts, we have reason to think that Luke dates to no later than A.D. 59 (just 26 years after the crucifixion), and perhaps even earlier.


13) What about his claim that the Romans reserved crucifixion for sedition?

It is not true that crucifixion was “reserved almost exclusively for the crime of sedition”—particularly if by “sedition” you mean political rebellion:

The Romans used crucifixion to bring mutinous troops under control, to break the will of conquered peoples, and to wear down rebellious cities under siege.

Dangerous and violent robbers could be crucified—often near or at the scene of their crimes. Quintilian (ca. 35–95 a.d.) approved of crucifixion as a penalty for such criminals, and thought that this form of execution had a better deterrent effect when the crosses were set up along the busiest roads. . . .

The Romans used crucifixion above all as the servile supplicium (“the slaves’ punishment”), a terrible form of execution typically inflicted on slaves [Yale Anchor Bible Dictionary, s.v. “Crucifixion”].


14) What is the most fundamental problem with the book?

The most fundamental problem is that Aslan’s central thesis can only be supported by cherry-picking the data—that is, accepting some of it and rejecting everything that doesn’t fit.

This is an unreliable and unscholarly method, because if you can jettison anything that doesn’t fit your theory then you can prove anything you want to.

With all the problems that beset Aslan’s imaginative reconstruction of Jesus, there is simply no reason to take Zealot as anything like a reliable account of his life.

Certainly not compared to those offered in the gospels.


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