Monday, August 12, 2013

Reza Aslan's "Zealot": Some Belated Reflections on a Book about Jesus

Nothing is bound to garner notoriety for an author more than producing a well-written, seemingly "novel" (read "unorthodox") "historical" study of the life of Jesus of Nazareth for mass consumption. Think the late Robert Funk's infamous Jesus Seminar, whose democratic voting process led to 1996's The Five Gospels, with its portayal of Jesus as a peasant Cynic poetaster adept at spinning aphorisms about the lilies of the field. Think too of Dan Brown, whose incredible historical hypotheses about Jesus formed the substrata of his 2003 murder-mystery page-turner The DaVinci Code, the popularity of which led to serious responses by such prominent evangelical scholars as Darrell Bock and Ben Witherington, who really had better things to do with their time.

The latest writer to "earn" his Warholian five minutes of fame is Reza Aslan, Associate Professor of Creative Writing (!) at UC-Riverside, whose new book, Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth, is ensconced at the top of The New York Times' Best Sellers List. The reason has less to do with the merits of his work (more on that presently) than popular response to an already-infamous interview on Fox News by host Lauren Green conducted on 26 July. The interview was a disaster for both Green and Fox. The former—where does Fox come up with such gray cell-challenged hosts, anyway?—made the fundamental error of repeatedly (!) expressing incredulity that Aslan, as a Muslim, would even desire to write a book about Jesus, more than implying that he had some ulterior motive to tackle a subject about which he could have no objectivity. Green's ineptitude simply furthered the (valid) perception that Fox's institutional Islamophobia renders the network unable to comment meaningfully on related matters. Response was immediate (see the swift take of Andrew Kaczynski at BuzzFeed here) and almost unanimous in its sympathy for, and support of, Aslan.

For his part, Aslan played a feisty defender of both his honor and his credentials for writing his book. He repeatedly declared himself to be an "expert" and "scholar of religions" with "four degrees, including one in the New Testament and also a Ph.D. in the subject." Well, not so fast, as many, including Joe Carter, quickly countered. Aslan, it seems, pulled one over on most of the media who, not surprisingly, were unacquainted with the academic discipline in question—my discipline, as it happens. As it turns out, Aslan doesn't have a terminal degree in any of the relevant fields related to the study of the historical Jesus: Ancient History, New Testament, Ancient Judaism, or Classics. Neither has he written any peer-reviewed works in any of those fields, nor even taught any of these subjects at the undergraduate or graduate levels. His Ph.D. is in the sociology of religion, his dissertation, as Barnard College Religion Professor Elizabeth Castelli informs us, a mere 140-page work on contemporary Muslim activism. That is not to say, of course, that Aslan could not possibly write intelligently on the matter (indeed, his bibliography shows him to be fairly well-read in the field of the Quest of the Historical Jesus, though, as Anthony Le Donne has rightly remarked, much of it is of older literature, with unfortunate lacunae in many areas). It is to say, however, that Aslan has deliberately overstated his qualifications to write as a self-styled "expert" on the matter. It would have been better if he had admitted that he wrote as a non-specialist. After all, books like that are written all the time, not least by ministers and others who, like Aslan, are fluent in Koine Greek but have no legitimate claim to be scholars in the field.

More importantly, however, is the fact that Aslan's thesis, to wit, that Jesus was a "zealot" who was crucified because he wanted to overthrow the Romans violently (and thus, of course, that all the Gospels' talk about "loving one's enemies" was a later fabrication by his followers, who were further divided when St. Paul "introduced" the idea of Jesus' divinity and the like), has an absolutely zero percent chance of being true. This is something about which every reputable New Testament scholar who has responded is in agreement, both evangelical (Gary Manning, Jr.Anthony Le DonneCraig A. Evans, and especially the scathing article by John Dickson) and non-evangelical (Elizabeth CastelliSimon J. Joseph) alike. Indeed, Aslan's problems lie, not only with his central thesis, but with scores of over-generalizations and blatant historical errors to boot (see especially the exposes by Le Donne, Castelli, and Dickson on these), which no "expert" in Jesus studies would write in such numbers.

Aslan's thesis is also hardly a new or "novel" one, and so needs no substantial feat of ingenuity to refute. Indeed, for anyone who has read widely in historical Jesus studies, Aslan's thesis will recall that of Hermann Samuel Reimarus, the posthumous publications of whose Wolfenb├╝ttel Fragments by G. E. Lessing in 1774-78 is generally regarded as the first installment of the original Quest for the Historical Jesus. More recently, S. G. F. Brandon of the University of Manchester tried to resurrect a variation/refinement of Reimarus's thesis in his 1967 work, Jesus and the Zealots. Reimarus, after all, exerted more influence in method than he did by virtue of his conclusions, which ultimately failed to satisfy almost all scholars. Not surprisingly, Brandon failed to persuade many, and his thesis was delivered a knock-out blow by a substantial article published by Ernst Bammel in 1984 ("The Revolution Theory from Reimarus to Brandon," in E. Bammel and C. F. D. Moule [eds.], Jesus and the Politics of His Day [Cambridge: CUP, 1984] 11-68). Since that day, Jesus scholarship has moved on, with the so-called "Third Quest of the Historical Jesus" dominating the discussion (apart from the more "radical" stream represented by such men as Funk, Dom Crossan, and Burton Mack). Like Aslan, scholars associated with the "Third Quest" (both Jewish and Christian, "conservative" and "liberal") insist Jesus must be understood against his Jewish background and seek, above all, to explain both the historical reasons for Jesus' crucifixion and the rise of the early church. Aslan provides a possible, though, contrary to his assertion, not a necessary or even probable, explanation for why Jesus was crucified. Where he really fails, however, is in explaining how the early church developed as it demonstrably did. Particularly egregious is his understanding of Paul and the delineation of his putative differences from the Palestinian Christians who followed Jesus before him. At best one can say that Aslan's thesis is an inelegant one.

The lesson to be gained from this is that popular audiences should be careful whom they read on matters as potentially important as the identity, message, and work of Jesus of Nazareth. Credentials matter, and the lack of such credentials is often painfully evident to those with the specialized training to notice it. For those who are interested and really want to see how genuine historical research into Jesus is done, I suggest two works: from a more conservative perspective, N. T. Wright (The University of St. Andrews), Jesus and the Victory of God (Christian Origins and the Question of God, vol. 2; Minneapolis: Fortress, 1996); from a less conservative standpoint, Dale C. Allison, Jr. (Princeton Theological Seminary), Constructing Jesus: Memory, Imagination, and History (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2010). Neither is for the faint of heart or dull of mind, but the difference between such works and that of Aslan is immediately obvious.


  1. This was immensely helpful and quite enjoyable to read.

  2. The book is similar to the earlier free online book called Devil or Delusion? The danger of Christianity to democracy, freedom and science - except that the devil or delusion book correctly explains how Paul created Christianity for a Roman audience as mentioned in the article above. The devil or delusion book also explains how the story of the resurrection was made up.