About a dozen people or so in my congregation have asked me about a new book currently near the top of the New York Times bestseller list, ZEALOT.
It led to me thinking it’d be a worthwhile exercise to, every once in a while, offer a Christian pastor’s perspective on some of the more influential literature out there, particularly those that which more directly impacts American faith and spirituality. (It also doesn’t hurt when people regularly gift you books – Thanks, Bob!)
While I’m a firm believer in producing helpful content, not just tearing down the content of others (which is not only easier, but less beneficial in the long run), I’d still agree that from time to time, it’s certainly necessary to offer clarification and correction.
Reza Aslan’s latest book was selling quite well upon its release. But it wasn’t until after his interview with Lauren Green on Fox News that ZEALOT became the current most controversial book on the planet.
The interviewer regularly questioned Aslan’s credibility, as a Muslim, to write a book about the life of the individual on whom Christianity is founded. The more liberal edge of media pounced on this as unfair and Buzzfeed even headlined a subsequent article, “Is This The Most Embarrassing Interview Fox News Has Ever Done?” Quite honestly, I do think there’s something to that. If, as a Christian pastor, I did twenty years worth of research on Islam and wrote a book about Muhammad, should it immediately be discredited due to my Christian faith? I think most people would suggest “No.”
Nonetheless, I also believe the interviewer had a point that a “neutral” public sphere doesn’t understand: It’s simply impossible to write anything without bias. If I did write a book, as a Christian, about Muhammad, I can guarantee it would contain bias. Only those who don’t understand the way faith works would be so bold as to suggest that it would have zero impact on your perception of another faith. You simply cannot disassociate your soul from your worldview.
If nothing else, I thought the interview, which has been replayed and rehashed countless times at this point, served as an interesting exposure of the American public’s failure to understand the nature of faith. And it created a good learning opportunity, as does ZEALOT itself.
The book’s title is derived from both the author’s assessment of Jesus’s character and his leadership in a perceived “new” first century philosophy.
Jewish historian Josephus uses the term “Fourth Philosophy” to discuss an ideology that is distinct from the philosophies of the Pharisees, Sadducees, and the Essenes. Aslan suggests that Jesus is the prime figure of this new party.
“What set the members of the Fourth Philosophy apart from the rest was their unshakeable commitment to freeing Israel from foreign rule and their fervent insistence, even unto death, that they would serve no lord save the One God. There was a well-defined term for this type of belief……zeal.” (pg. 40)
Aslan’s basic thought throughout the book, then, is that Jesus, the man, failed in his mission to free the Jews from Roman oppression. However, after the Jewish/Roman hostility that led to the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem in 70 C.E., the Jews had a decision to make regarding what they were going to do with their faith. Judaism was no longer a comfortable option.
“With the Temple in ruins and the Jewish religion made pariah, the Jews who followed Jesus as messiah had an easy decision to make: they could either maintain their cultic connections to their parent religion and thus share in Rome’s enmity….or they could divorce themselves from Judaism and transform their messiah from a fierce Jewish nationalist into a pacifist preacher of good works whose kingdom was not of this world.” (pg. 150)
In other words, Aslan is suggesting that many Jews, including the later New Testament writers, out of convenience, consciously shifted their understanding of Jesus from his true identity as a zealous Jewish nationalist (like so many other first century Jewish nationalists) into a worldwide peacemaker (unlike the other first century Jewish “messiahs”). This messiah (i.e. Jesus), was one that Rome could get on board with, to such a degree, in fact, that the empire would eventually make him their official God in the fourth century.
Aslan believes that Jesus “the Christ” has been concocted upon two millennia of false beliefs founded on the inaccurate, imaginative statements of guys like Saul of Tarsus and the Gospel writers. This claim is nothing new, by the way.
So, let’s take a look at the rejectable, the redeemable, and the net takeaway from ZEALOT.
1) Jesus was the most acceptable of “bandits” to the Romans
Aslan makes the case that the Greek word lestai can best be translated as “bandits” rather than “thieves.” So, for instance, the criminals on the cross next to Jesus would not likely have been crucified merely for being “thieves,” but banditry, or inciting rebellion against the Roman state, was certainly a cause for crucifixion.
While he points out that there were many false messiahs that went through Judea in the first century, Aslan suggests that it was a series of political events that causes Jesus to be the one that stuck.
The idea that there were indeed many false messiahs in first century Palestine is true and should never scare Christians. In fact, the reality that Jesus of Nazareth is the only one who is worshipped today, two thousand years later, actually gives more credibility to Jesus. Something must have been different about him. Skeptics have known this problem and the best they’ve been able to come up with, as Aslan has, was that there must have been some sort of convenience in following Jesus that was appealing. But this is unacceptable when you consider the thousands that went to their death (and continue to today) for commitment to the man.
“There is this nagging fact to consider: one after another of those who claimed to have witnessed the risen Jesus went to their own gruesome deaths refusing to recant their testimony. That is not, in itself, unusual……(BUT) They were being asked to deny something they themselves personally, directly encountered.” (pg. 174) He’s talking about a resurrected Jesus. Why would so many people (Paul says over 500) claim to have seen Jesus alive after his death if it’d mean they might have to die? The most obvious explanation, which Aslan refuses to accept – is that their beliefs were TRUE.
2) Aslan’s Refusal of Predictive Prophecy
Even when reading through the introduction of the book, I got a strong sense that Aslan believes we cannot trust the Bible as wholly reliable. Much of what he was saying sounded eerily familiar. Sure enough, as I was readying the nearly 100 pages of miniscule font Author Notes at the end, I ran across quotes from guys like John Dominic Crossan and Rudolph Bultmann. I had to pour over the writings of these guys in seminary hermeneutics (biblical interpretation) classes.
Briefly, these are guys who have studied the Bible a lot, but are highly skeptical about its claims. Nonetheless, since there has been a tremendous sensitivity about bringing anything religious into the educational arena since the early-mid twentieth century, almost no conservative Bible scholarship has found its way into institutions like Harvard or Yale. Consequently, if you want to sound educated and quote higher scholarship in faith matters, you have to study and reference guys who adamantly deny the authority of the Bible’s claims.
It’s a domino effect that leads people, when studying multiple religions, as Aslan does, to almost exclusively study liberal Bible scholarship and only recognize liberal scholarship as, in fact, reputable “scholarship.”
Anyways, one of the main problems with liberal biblical scholarship is the outright rejection of predictive prophecy. In other words, these skeptics balk at the idea that King David or Isaiah or Daniel could ever be making any claims about the coming Messiah, and any New Testament writer or current Christian who believes they are, is naively reinterpretting what was originally written.
1) History of first century Palestine
While I obviously don’t agree with many of Aslan’s conclusions, I found his narrative of first century Palestine to be a fascinating history review. He walks readers through the politics of the Intertestamental Period. He explains the passage of power from Herod the Great to his three sons and why Rome decided to go from a local client-king in Herod to an eventual direct governance in a prefect like Pontius Pilate. He details the presence of other first century “messiahs” – Theudas, Athronges, The Egyptian, The Samaritan, Simon son of Giora, Simon son of Kochba, etc. It’s all very interesting and many Christians will enjoy it.
2) Profession of Historical Jesus and acknowledgement about who the Scriptural authors claim he was
Many skeptics in the twentieth century doubted the existence of the “Historical Jesus.” Many Muslims today doubt that he ever was crucified (Quran 4:157-158). But Aslan, as a historian, navigates beyond both of those instincts that would be native to him and, to his credit, finds such suggestions, on the basis of the information we have today, unacceptable.
Jesus of Nazareth did live. He was crucified. Many claimed he rose from the grave and were absolutely convinced. If Aslan represents the modern skeptic, then the modern skeptic is one step closer to recognizing Jesus as the Christ than the twentieth century skeptic was.
3) Logical reason why we have so little info about Jesus’ childhood
Despite some conjecturing about the first thirty years of Jesus’s life, Aslan offers a refreshingly simple, yet obvious explanation as to why we have so little information on Jesus’s early years, which I will happily direct people to in the future.
“It is simply impossible to say much about Jesus’s early life in Nazareth. That is because before Jesus was declared messiah, it did not matter what kind of childhood a Jewish peasant from an insignificant hamlet in Galilee may or may not have had.” (pg. 37)
4) Acknowledgment of Jesus’s miracle-working
Again, for a skeptic, it’s a little unusual, and seemingly counterintuitive, to point out the fact that all the evidence points to Jesus as someone supernatural. But Aslan, who certainly considers himself a valid historian, does not deny the early claims.
“At no point in the gospels do Jesus’s enemies ever deny his miracles, though they do question their motive and source. Well into the second and third centuries, the Jewish intellectuals and pagan philosophers who wrote treatises denouncing Christianity took Jesus’s status as an exoricist and miracle worker for granted. They may have denounced Jesus as nothing more than a traveling magician, but they did not doubt his magical abilities.” (pg. 105)
What’s the REAL Takeaway
There’s an old joke that goes something like this……How do you find out whether or not someone went to an Ivy League School? ANSWER: Don’t worry, they’ll tell you.
Thus is the case with Aslan. I didn’t bother counting how many times, merely in the introduction, he refers to himself as a “scholar” or his research as “scholarly.” He realizes that if he’s going to make some fantastic claims about the most influential figure in world history, he’s going to have to lend some credibility to those claims. Nonetheless, it’s hard to take someone who is constantly trying to tell you what a good scholar they are seriously. Their work, one would think, should speak for itself.
Furthermore, while Aslan holds a degree in religion from Santa Clara University, a Master of Theological Studies from Harvard, and a Doctorate of Philosophy in Sociology from Univ. Cal. Santa Barbara, Aslan also has a Master of Fine Arts from Univ. of Iowa’s Writers’ Workshop. In fact, Aslan currently teaches as an associate professor of Creative Writing form Univ. Cal., Riverside. Creative Writing. This is telling. It explains, to some degree, why ZEALOT, at times, reads as much like a Dan Brown book as it does actual history. Brown has a genius for taking real historical events, ignoring the traditionally accepted views, and imaginatively spinning the incidents to say something entirely different, all with well-crafted verbiage. Aslan has a similar “gift.”
This leads me to wish Aslan was, in fact, a Christian, aside from the obvious reason of desiring that his soul be saved. The truth is that he has a remarkable God-given gift for painting a vivid portrait of history. It’s just not, in my opinion (and that of the majority of scholarship of the past 2000 years), the accurate one.
So….here’s my net takeaway.
1) The arrogance of “a scholar”
As much or more than anyone I’ve read, Aslan comes off as arrogant. It’s quite apparent throughout the book that he fully believes he understands the era of Jesus better than the Gospel writers!!! (I’ve provided a number of illustrations at the end of the post, but here is just one. Aslan thinks the only way Christianity could spread is because uneducated “non-scholars” like the martyr, Stephen, were simple-minded enough to believe the fairy tales.)
“Here lies the key to understanding the dramatic transformation that took place in Jesus’s message after his death – Stephen was not a scribe or scholar. He was not an expert in the scriptures….As such, he was the perfect audience for this new, innovative, and thoroughly unorthodox interpretation of the messiah being peddled by a group of illiterate ecstatics whose certainty in their message was matched only by the passion with which they preached it.” (pg. 167)
Believing that he has the authority, through his research, to examine the Bible and separate the truth from the lies, Aslan arrives at conclusions that I think will really never be considered much beyond his own personal opinions, or perhaps some fringes of liberal scholarship, whose opinion of the Historical Jesus seems to be forever changing. In other words, while a lot of people are buying Aslan’s book and are going to find his writing entertaining – he’s likely not going to reshape the way the world thinks about Jesus of Nazareth.
2) According to the Bible, a non-believer will not appreciate spiritually discerned things (1 Cor. 2:14)
The Apostle Paul wrote “Where is the philosopher? Where is the scholar? Where is the debater of this age? Hasn’t God made the world’s wisdom foolish? For since, in God’s wisdom, the world did not know God through wisdom, God was pleased to save those who believe through the foolishness of the message preached. For the Jews ask for signs and the Greeks seek wisdom, but we preach Christ crucified, a stumbling block to the Jews and foolishness to the Gentiles.” (1 Cor. 1:20-23 NASB)
Let’s go back to the original Fox News interview question about the validity of a Muslim writing on the history of Jesus of Nazareth. Everyone who has heard the gospel message is, afterwards, either a believer or a non-believer. And then, when that individual approaches the Bible (the main text that teaches about the gospel of Jesus) that person comes with presuppositional bias on the basis of that belief/non-belief.
The Apostle Paul is suggesting here that when a non-believer reads/hears the message of the Bible, particularly the gospel, it sounds like pure foolishness. However, the individual who has denied Jesus’s divinity then has to do something with all of the historical claims that the Bible makes about Jesus.
When Aslan reads the Bible, everything he reads is processed through his “Jesus was just a political revolutionary” filter. So he says things like “Jesus recognized that the new world order he envisioned was so radical, so dangerous, so revolutionary, that Rome’s only conceivable response to it would be to arrest and execute them all for sedition. He therefore consciously chose to veil the Kingdom of God in abstruse and enigmatic parables that are nearly impossible to understand.” (pg. 124) That is his assessment of Jesus’s parables and teachings – they were just cryptic messages to the Jews about how the Jewish people would/could eventually overthrow their Gentile oppressors.
Does that make good sense? I say “No.” But it is the conclusion that a non-believer has to come to when reading things like Jesus’s parables. Remember, they are just “foolishness to the Gentiles.”
For further reading….
Just a few examples of how Reza Aslan clearly believes he knows more about Jesus than Jesus’s contemporaries:
1) An empire wide census never could have taken place
“Luke is right about one thing and one thing only….Luke’s suggestion that the entire Roman economy would periodically be placed on hold as every Roman subject was forced to uproot himself and his entire family in order to travel great distances to the place of his father’s birth, and then wait there patiently, perhaps for months, for an official to take stock of his family and his possessions….is, in a word, preposterous.” (pg. 30)
2) Jesus never would have had the education or opportunity to debate rabbis
“Luke’s account of the twelve-year-old Jesus standing in the Temple of Jerusalem debating the finer points of the Hebrew Scriptures with rabbis and scribes (Luke 2:42-52), or his narrative of Jesus in the (nonexistent) synagogue in Nazareth reading from the Isaiah scroll to the astonishment of the Pharisees (Luke 4:16-22), are both fabulous concoctions of the evangelist’s own devising.” (pg. 35)
3) Jesus never could have predicted the future
“Jesus’s warning to Jerusalem that ‘the days will come upon you, when your enemies will set up ramparts around you and surround you and crush you to the ground – you and your children – and they will not leave within you one stone upon another’ (Luke 19:43-44) was put into his mouth by the evangelists after the fact.” (pgs. 75-76)
4) Gospel-writer John tends to exaggerate
“John’s gospel claims a ‘cohort’ (speira) of soldiers marched to Gethsemane – a unit that would comprise between three hundred and six hundred Roman guards – along with the Temple police, all of them carrying ‘torches and weapons’ (John 18:3). John is obviously exaggerating.” (pg. 78)
5) John the Baptist’s death didn’t happen as taught in the Bible
(Regarding the story of John the Baptist’s death) “Alas, the gospel account is not to be believed. As deliciously scandalous as the story of John’s execution may be, it is riddled with errors and historical inaccuracies.” (pg. 81)
6) Jesus and the Pharisees really had a fairly amicable relationship
“While the gospels tend to paint the Pharisees as Jesus’s main detractors, the fact is that his relations with the Pharisees, while occasionally testy, were, for the most part, fairly civil and even friendly at times. (pg. 99)
7) Jesus never would have received an audience with Pilate
(Regarding Jesus public trial before Pontius Pilate): “This scene makes no sense at all….Why would Mark have concocted such a patently fictitious scene, one that his Jewish audience would immediately have recognized as false? The answer is simple: Mark was not writing for a Jewish audience. Mark’s audience was in Rome, where he himself resided.” (pg. 149)
8) In general, the Gospel writers are liars
“As with everything else in the gospels, the story of Jesus’s arrest, trial, and execution was written for one reason and one reason only: to prove that he was the promised messiah. Factual accuracy was irrelevant. What mattered was Christology, not history. The gospel writers obviously recognized how integral Jesus’s death was to the nascent community, but the story of that death needed elaborating.” (pg. 154)
9) Supernatural events, no matter what the evidence, are not possible
“The fact remains that the resurrection is not a historical event.” (pg. 176)