Probably the best thing to happen to Reza Aslan, and his book, Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth, was a train-wreck of an interview on Fox “News” back in July. You may remember that the interviewer (“inquisitor” is probably a better word), Lauren Green, started off in attack mode: “You’re a Muslim, why did you write a book about Christianity?”
Aslan then gave a lengthy reply in which he explained that he was a religious scholar with a PhD in Religious Studies who had spent two decades studying the origins of Christianity.
To which Green replied, “Why would you be interested in the founder of Christianity?”
That’s like asking someone who studies American History – someone from another country, maybe – “Why would you be interested in George Washington?”
The interview continues for over nine minutes like this, with Aslan giving reasoned responses and Green basically sputtering, “But you’re a Muslim!” over and over.
This was good for Aslan and his book because the video went viral – like the ones where people hit themselves in the head with a hammer or something (in this case Aslan is the hammer and Green is the self-inflicted wounder) – and Zealot soared to the top of the Bestseller List.
I’ve been asked about the book by several folks in my congregation, but had plenty of books on my “to read” list (and downloaded on my Kindle) and wasn’t really that interested in reading another deconstruction of the historical Jesus by a Muslim or anyone else. But I was lent an actual hard copy of the book recently, and just finished it.
For a book written by a scholar, Zealot is quick and fairly easy to read if you ignore the notes. After the 200 pages of prose, there are over 100 pages of notes. That’s impressive, but perhaps overkill and maybe a sign that Alsan knew he was going to be challenged on the book. I didn’t read but a few of the notes; the ones I did read were helpful when Aslan wrote something that made me wonder, “Where did he get that?”
But that was a rare reaction, as the history conveyed in Zealot is on the mark (except, alas, when it comes to Jesus, but more about that later). Aslan’s portrayal of first century Palestine and its background is well-grounded and alive with detail. The first eight pages of the Prologue are riveting. Aslan describes Jerusalem at festival time, much of it written in second-person which puts the reader in the middle of the action – “It is where a clatter of merchants and grubby money changers lie in wait as you make your way up the underground stairs and onto the spacious sunlit plaza.” I’m probably going to use some of Aslan’s description to liven up my sermon this Sunday about Jesus clearing the Temple.
In fact the first third of the book, a history of Palestine from the Babylonian captivity through the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 AD, is wonderful in providing context not just for the Gospels, but for Acts and the New Testament Epistles as well.
But then Aslan starts writing about Jesus.
The problem has nothing to do with Aslan’s religion. If Lauren Green had read the book, she would have seen that it is not a “Muslim” tract. As Aslan pointed out in the interview, the Jesus he describes in Zealot differs from the Muslim version of Jesus in important ways. For example, Muslims believe that Jesus was not crucified, and Aslan is convinced that crucifixion was Jesus’ ultimate fate. Also, Muslims believe in the Virgin Birth, but Aslan dismisses that account as a fabrication.
But the Jesus of Zealot is not the Christian Jesus, either. Aslan is only the latest in a long line of scholars, from Albert Schweitzer to the Jesus Seminar, who have used various tools and biases to deconstruct Scripture and other sources to reveal the “real” or “historical” Jesus. These scholars do the same thing Thomas Jefferson did when he produced his version of the Bible by taking a razor to the passages where Jesus performed miracles or said something he didn’t like and then gluing the text back together . . . just without the mess of torn paper and glue.
But they do tend to make a mess of Jesus; at least to Jesus the Savior, the Son of God. As Aslan says in the book, the goal of this sort of exercise is to “pry the historical Jesus away from the Christian Christ.” For those on this kind of quest, the historical Jesus and the Christian Christ just can’t be the same person.
When one sets out to find the “historical Jesus,” decisions must be made about how to wield the razor and the knife. In Aslan’s case, he accepts much of what the Bible says about Jesus. But, like Jefferson, all of the supernatural stuff gets excised. As mentioned above, that means crucifixion (common method of execution in the Roman Empire) stays in, and the Virgin Birth (miracle) gets cut.
Because Jesus says a lot of things in the Bible, if you are discerning the “real Jesus” you also have to decide what he “really” said. This is where bias emerges – what Jesus “really” said depends on who Jesus “really” was. For Aslan, Jesus is primarily a Zealot, a political revolutionary. So anything that supports this picture stays in. Anything violent or related to violence Jesus “really” said or did. Anything peaceful or advocating peace was added later by folks with an agenda.
Take Aslan’s account of the cleansing of the temple. Because this violent and revolutionary incident is central to his thesis that Jesus was a Zealot, Aslan takes the incident as described in the Gospels at face value – he is sure that it really happened. But not so for what the Gospel writers reported Jesus said at the temple. Jesus only “really” said what supports the thesis – he did not, for example, say “the days will come upon you, when your enemies will set up ramparts around you” etc. (Luke 19:43-44). That “was put into his mouth by the evangelists after the fact.” But the question about paying taxes to Caesar, and Jesus’ response – “Give back to Caesar the property that belongs to Caesar” etc. – Jesus most certainly “really” said.
But, according to Aslan, “centuries of Biblical scholarship” have misinterpreted what Jesus said: “At best, Jesus’ response has been viewed as a milquetoast compromise between the priestly and zealot positions.” Aslan’s point itself is most certainly a misinterpretation of “centuries of Biblical scholarship,” as Biblical scholars are far from unanimous about the meaning of Jesus’ response.
At times, Aslan seems to misunderstand not just Jesus but Christianity. This is surprising because not only does he study the Bible, he also identified as a Christian for a time, his mother and sister are still Christians, and his brother-in-law is an Evangelical pastor. But to say, for example, “For those who view Jesus as the literally begotten Son of God, Jesus’s Jewishness is immaterial,” is just wrong. Jesus as the Jewish Messiah, the fulfillment of the prophecies of the Hebrew Scriptures, is absolutely essential to his identity as Christian Savior.
Aslan wrote this book as someone who has decided that Jesus is not that Savior. About the central Christian event, he writes, “(T)he fact remains that the resurrection is not a historical event. It may have had historical ripples, but the event itself falls outside the scope of history and into the realm of faith.” That encapsulates the central problem of this book, and others like it, for Christians. For Aslan, that which is supernatural cannot be “real” or “historical,” so therefore are not part of who Jesus was (and is).
So what is left? For Aslan, a really good guy we should look up to: “The one thing any comprehensive study of the historical Jesus should hopefully reveal is that Jesus of Nazareth – Jesus the man – is every bit as compelling, charismatic, and praiseworthy as Jesus the Christ. He is, in short, someone worth believing in.”
But if you believe in that Jesus – Jesus who was just a man – he can’t save you. Because he’s dead.
I did enjoy reading most of Zealot. It is well written and even lyrical at times. I would recommend it to those who are interested in learning more about the history surrounding Jesus. I would caution Christians to be aware of Aslan’s biases, not because of his religion but because of his choice to discount the supernatural.
I would also recommend that one stop reading on page 183 when Aslan starts to write about Paul, because without Paul’s encounter with Jesus on the Road to Damascus – “A bit of propagandistic legend created bye the evangelist Luke” (supernatural = didn’t happen) – all of Paul’s witness and ministry is exactly the misguided mission Aslan describes.
The question for Aslan and those who would discount Paul’s Damascus Road experience, who would dismiss Jesus’s resurrection out of hand because it is “supernatural,” was posed by Nicole Nordeman in a song on her Brave album. “What if you’re wrong?”
But what if you’re wrong?
What if there’s more
What if there’s hope
You never dreamed of hoping for
What if you jump
Just close your eyes
What if the arms that catch you
Catch you by surprise
What if He’s more
Than enough what if it’s love
If you’ve read the book, what did you think?