What Jesus Wasn't: Zealot
Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth
by Reza Aslan
Random House, 337 pp., $27
ithin an hour of its online debut, the number of viewers of Reza Aslan’s now notorious interview with Fox News’ Lauren Green had far exceeded the number of Israelites who crossed the Red Sea under the leadership of the father of all Jewish nationalist zealots, Moses. Aslan was being interviewed on the occasion of the appearance of his book that places Jesus of Nazareth at the top of a long list of subsequent, rabidly nationalist messianic Jewish zealots.
By now, Aslan’s Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth has come to dominate every book sales index in America, and his fifteen Fox-minutes of fame have been viewed by millions. Sales for this “scholarly” book have broken every record in the category of religious studies; the number of stops on Aslan’s current speaking tour is nothing short of staggering; and it will surely require a crack team of number-crunching accountants to calculate the tax debt on Aslan’s royalties and speaking fees.
Given such overwhelming statistics, it is perhaps understandable that Aslan himself appears to be experiencing some problems keeping his numbers, and his facts, straight. That he is numerically challenged was apparent during the Fox interview. No sooner had Green posed the first of her series of preposterous questions, all pondering what might motivate, or justify, a Muslim to publish such a provocative book about her Lord and Savior, than Aslan, with rapid-fire confidence, listed his many alleged scholarly credentials, as a “scholar of religions with four degrees, including one in the New Testament, and a PhD in the History of Religions . . . who has been studying the origins of Christianity for two decades.” He then went on to claim that he was a professor of religious history; that he had been working assiduously on his Jesus book for twenty years; that it contains more than “one hundred pages of endnotes”; and, finally, that Zealot is the fruit of research based on his “study of around 1,000 scholarly books.”
That last greatly exaggerated claim is as good, or awkward, a place as any to begin an assessment of the credibility of the man and his work. Zealot does indeed provide a respectable, if spotty, bibliography. But it lists one hundred and fifty four, not one thousand, books. Given his evident talent at self-promotion, it is hard to imagine that Aslan was holding back out of an abundance of humility. His claim regarding his extensive endnotes is also plainly false, since there is not a single footnote or conventional endnote to be found anywhere in Zealot. The book’s chapters are, rather, appended by bibliographic essays, loosely related to their respective general themes. A cursory review of Aslan’s own biography and bibliography also renders impossible his repeated claims that Zealot is the product of twenty years of “assiduous scholarly research about the origins of Christianity.”
To be sure, Aslan, 41, has been very hard at work since graduating college with a dazzling array of projects—mostly having to do with Islamic religion, culture, and literature as well as Middle Eastern politics—but none of which has anything to do with his quest for the historical Jesus. He is, to quote his own website, “the founder of AslanMedia.com, an online journal for news and entertainment about the Middle East and the world, and co-founder and Chief Creative Officer of BoomGen Studios, the premier entertainment brand for creative content from and about the Greater Middle East,” including comic books. Of his three graduate degrees, one is from the University of Iowa where he studied creative writing (the subject he actually teaches at the University of California, Riverside); the second was a two-year masters degree at the Harvard Divinity School, where he apparently concentrated on Islam; and his doctorate was not, as he indignantly told the hapless Green, in “the history of religions.” Rather, he wrote an exceedingly brief sociological study of “Global Jihadism as a Transnational Movement,” at UC Santa Barbara.
Speaking on CNN in the wake of his Fox interview, Aslan ruefully observed, “There's nothing more embarrassing than an academic having to trot out his credentials. I mean, you really come off as a jerk.” Actually, there is something significantly more embarrassing, and that is when the academic trots out a long list of exaggerated claims and inflated credentials.
Perhaps it is Aslan’s general fondness for breathless, and often reckless, exaggeration that explains his problems with the basic digits and facts about his own work and life. Such hyperbole alas pervades Zealot. Depicting the religious mood of first-century Palestine early on in the book, Aslan asserts that there were “countless messianic pretenders” among the Jews (there were no more than an eminently countable half-dozen). Among his most glaring overestimations is Aslan’s problematic insistence that the foundational Christian belief about Jesus, namely that he was both human and divine, is “anathema to five thousand years of Jewish scripture, thought and theology.” The vast chronological amplification aside, Judaism’s doctrine about this matter is not nearly so simple, as Peter Schäfer demonstrated exhaustively in his very important study, The Jewish Jesus, and which Daniel Boyarin has argued even more forcefully in his latest book, The Jewish Gospels. Boyarin and Schäfer are just two of the many serious scholars whose works Aslan has clearly failed to consult.
This combination of overly confident and simplistic assertions on exceedingly complex theological matters, with stretching of truths—numerical, historical, theological, and personal—permeates Aslan’s bestseller. And yet, precisely because Zealot is generating such frenzied controversy, this is all serving Aslan very well. But as it would be wrong to judge Aslan’s book by its coverage, let us turn to its text.
Aslan’s entire book is, as it turns out, an ambitious and single-minded polemical counter-narrative to what he imagines is the New Testament’s portrayal of Jesus Christ.
The core thesis of Zealot is that the “real” Jesus of Nazareth was an illiterate peasant from the Galilee who zealously, indeed monomaniacally, aspired to depose the Roman governor of Palestine and become the King of Israel. Aslan’s essentially political portrayal of Jesus thus hardly, if at all, resembles the depiction of the spiritual giant, indeed God incarnate, found in the Gospels and the letters of Paul. While Aslan spills much ink arguing his thesis, nothing he has to say is at all new or original. The scholarly quest for the historical Jesus, or the “Jewish Jesus,” has been engaged by hundreds of academics for the past quarter millennium and has produced a mountain of books and a vast body of serious scholarly debate. The only novelty in Aslan’s book is his relentlessly reductionist, simplistic, one-sided and often harshly polemical portrayal of Jesus as a radical, zealously nationalistic, and purely political figure. Anything beyond this that is reported by his apostles is, according to Aslan, Christological mythology, not history.
Aslan is, to be sure, a gifted writer. The book’s Prologue is both titillating and bizarre. Entitled “A Different Sort of Sacrifice” it opens with a breezy depiction of the rites of the Jerusalem Temple, but very quickly descends to its ominously dark denouement: the assassination of the High Priest, Jonathan ben Ananus, on the Day of Atonement, 56 C.E., more than two decades after Jesus’s death:
The assassin elbows through the crowd, pushing close enough to Jonathan to reach out an invisible hand, to grasp the sacred vestments, to pull him away from the Temple guards and hold him in place just for an instant, long enough to unsheathe a short dagger and slide it across his throat. A different sort of sacrifice.
There follows a vivid narration of the political tumult that had gripped Roman-occupied Palestine during the mid-first century, which Aslan employs to great effect in introducing readers to the bands of Jewish zealots who wreaked terror and havoc throughout Judea for almost a century. It seems like an odd way to open a book about the historical Jesus, who was crucified long before the Zealot party ever came into existence, until one catches on to what Aslan is attempting. The Prologue effectively associates Jesus, albeit as precursor, with that chillingly bloody murder by one of the many anonymous Jewish Zealots of first-century Palestine.
To address the obvious problem that the Jesus depicted in Christian Scriptures is the antithesis of a zealously political, let alone ignorant and illiterate, peasant rebel and bandit, Aslan deploys a rich arsenal of insults to dismiss any New Testament narrative that runs counter to his image of Jesus as a guerilla leader, who gathered and led a “corps” of fellow “bandits” through the back roads of the Galilee on their way to mount a surprise insurrection against Rome and its Priestly lackeys in Jerusalem. Any Gospel verse that might complicate, let alone undermine, Aslan’s amazing account, he insolently dismisses as “ridiculous,” “absurd,” “preposterous,” “fanciful,” “fictional,” “fabulous concoction,” or just “patently impossible.”
Aslan’s entire book is, as it turns out, an ambitious and single-minded polemical counter-narrative to what he imagines is the New Testament’s portrayal of Jesus Christ. The strawman Jesus against whom he is arguing, however, is a purely heavenly creature, far closer to the solely and absolutely unearthly Christ of the 2nd-century heretic Marcion, than the exceedingly complex man/God depicted by the Evangelists and painstakingly developed in the theological works of the early Church Fathers.
Aslan dismisses just about all of the New Testament’s accounts of the early life and teachings of Jesus prior to his “storming” of Jerusalem and his subsequent arrest and crucifixion. He goes so far as to insist that Jesus’s zealous assault on the Jerusalem Temple is the “singular fact that should color everything we read in the Gospels about the Messiah known as Jesus of Nazareth.” Everything! Aslan goes on to assert that the very fact of his crucifixion for the crime of sedition against the Roman state is “all one has to know about the historical Jesus.” Still, as the New Testament constitutes the principal primary source for these facts as well as for anything else we can know about the “life and times of Jesus,”Aslan has little choice but to rely rather heavily on certain, carefully selected New Testament narratives.
Aslan is insistently oblivious even of the powerfully resonant climax to the single act of violence on the part of any of the twelve apostles recorded in the Gospels.
The persistent problem permeating Aslan’s narrative is that he never provides his readers with so much as a hint of any method for separating fact from fiction in the Gospels, a challenge that has engaged actual scholars of the New Testament for the last two centuries. Nowhere does he explain, given his overall distrust of the Gospels as contrived at best and deliberately fictitious at worst, why he trusts anything at all recorded in the New Testament. But one needn’t struggle too hard to discern Aslan’s selection process: Whichever verses fit the central argument of his book, he accepts as historically valid. Everything else is summarily dismissed as apologetic theological rubbish of absolutely no historical worth.
So, for example, after recounting the Romans’ declaration of Jesus’s guilt, he writes:
As with every criminal who hangs on a cross, Jesus is given a plaque, or titulus, detailing the crime for which he is being crucified. Jesus’s titulus reads KING OF THE JEWS. His crime: striving for kingly rule, sedition. And so, like every bandit and revolutionary, every rabble-rousing zealot and apocalyptic prophet who came before or after him— like Hezekiah and Judas, Theudas and Athronges, the Egyptian [sic] and the Samaritan [sic], Simon son of Giora and Simon son of Kochba, Jesus is executed for daring to claim the mantle of king and messiah.
(Lest the words of the titulus be mistaken for mockery, Aslan informs us that the Romans had no sense of humor, which will come as a surprise to classicists.)
Aslan is particularly fond of assembling such lists of Jesus’s seditious predecessors, peers, and successors. Elsewhere, he compares Jesus’s mission to Elijah’s, which ended in his slaughter of the four hundred and fifty prophets of Baal; on another occasion he sets Jesus alongside Judas Maccabeus, who waged a long and bloody war against the Greek Seleucids. And Jesus is made out to be a direct forerunner of the militant rebel of the second century, Simon bar Kokhba, who battled the Romans to the goriest of ends. And so on.
The crucial distinction that Aslan fails to acknowledge is that what clearly sets Jesus so radically apart from all of these figures is his adamant rejection of violence, to say nothing of the pervasively peaceful and loving content of his teachings and parables, which Aslan willfully misconstrues and at one point revealingly describes as so “abstruse and enigmatic” as to be “nearly impossible to understand.”
Aslan is insistently oblivious even of the powerfully resonant climax to the single act of violence on the part of any of the twelve apostles recorded in the Gospels, which occurred during the tumult surrounding Jesus’s arrest by the minions of the Jewish High Priest, Caiaphas:
While he was still speaking, suddenly a crowd came, and the one called Judas, one of the twelve, was leading them. He approached Jesus to kiss him; but Jesus said to him, “Judas, is it with a kiss that you are betraying the Son of Man?” When those who were around him saw what was coming, they asked, “Lord, should we strike with the sword?” Then one of them struck the slave of the high priest and cut off his right ear. But Jesus said, “No more of this!” And he touched his ear and healed him. (Luke 22:47-51)
Matthew’s version of the same episode ends with Jesus’s stern and powerful admonition against any sort of violence:
Suddenly, one of those with Jesus put his hand on his sword, drew it, and struck the slave of the high priest, cutting off his ear. Then Jesus said to him, “Put your sword back into its place; for all who take the sword will perish by the sword.” (Matthew 26:51-52)
And in Mark’s version of the story, Jesus protests his peaceful intentions to those who come to seize him violently, crying out “Have you come out with swords and clubs to arrest me as though I were a bandit?” (Mark 14:48).
Unsurprisingly, Aslan dismisses these passages as pure invention. One problem with this is that Aslan sometimes justifies his own selective acceptance of certain New Testament narratives by pointing to their appearance in all three of the synoptic Gospels which, he argues, lends them a degree of historical credibility.
Another problem is that one of the key texts that Aslan uses to buttress his thesis that the proto-Zealot Jesus was planning for some kind of apocalyptic showdown with his enemies, is taken from the very same chapter in Luke:
He said to them, “But now, the one who has a purse must take it, and likewise a bag. And the one who has no sword must sell his cloak and buy one.” . . . They said, “Lord, look, here are two swords.” He replied, “It is enough.” (Luke 22:36, 38)
The Jesus actually depicted here is hardly prepping his “band of zealots” for a rebellion against Roman rule by strictly limiting their arsenal to two, obviously symbolic, swords.
Why would the Evangelists deliberately engage in so much wanton fabrication? Aslan offers a simple explanation:
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 connection to their parent religion and thus share in [sic] Rome’s enmity, or they could divorce themselves from Judaism and transform their messiah from a fierce Jewish nationalist into a pacifistic preacher of good works whose kingdom was not of this world.
Allergic to ambiguities or complexities of any kind that might interfere with his Manichean dichotomy between the historical Jesus of Nazareth and mythical Jesus Christ of the Gospels, Aslan perceives everything as an either/or proposition—either the zealous, radical, and purely political Jesus of history, or the entirely fictional moral teacher and pacifistic Jesus of Christology. He takes the same approach to the Jews of Jesus’s era: There existed either the violent apocalyptic Jewish bandits who mounted one rebellion after another against the Romans, or the corrupt quisling Priests, such as Caiaphas who suppressed all such activity. The passive, scholarly Pharisees who opposed both these postures, are simply ignored.
The only passage I could find in Aslan’s entire book where he argues for a more nuanced approach to anything pertains to Jesus’s “views on the use of violence,” which he insists have been widely misunderstood:
To be clear, Jesus was not a member of the zealot party that launched the war with Rome because no such party could be said to exist for another thirty years after his death. Nor was Jesus a violent revolutionary bent on armed rebellion, though his views on violence were far more complex than it is often assumed.
And yet, elsewhere Aslan insists, that being “no fool,” Jesus “understood what every other claimant to the mantle of messiah understood: God’s sovereignty could not be established except through force.” And it is this latter characterization which is central to Zealot.
To take account of the fact that even at the moment of Jesus’s maximal zeal, when he stormed the Temple, he was also interpreting Hebrew Scriptures would seriously undermine Aslan’s insistence on Jesus’s illiteracy, so he ignores it. The same goes for the numerous times he is addressed, both by his disciples as well as by the Pharisees and the Romans, as “teacher” and “rabbi.”
There is not so much as an allusion to be found in Zealot to the fascinating debates between Jesus and the Pharisees about the specifics of Jewish law, such as the permissibility of divorce, the proper observance of the Sabbath, the requirement to wash one’s hands before eating, the dietary laws, and—most fascinating and repercussive of all—the correct understanding of the concept of resurrection, in response to a challenge by the Sadducees who rejected that doctrine tout-court.
Aslan is intent on portraying Jesus as a faithful, Torah-abiding Jew for obvious reasons: Intent on being crowned King of Israel, and as such a candidate for the highest Jewish political office, how could he be anything less than a “Torah-true” Jew? So Aslan takes at face value the Gospel’s report (Matthew 5:7) of Jesus’s insistence that he has not come to undermine a single law of the Torah, but rather to affirm its every ordinance.
Aslan's ignorance—if that is what it is—has serious consequences.
In this connection, alas, Aslan offers a most unflattering and skewed stereotype of Jesus as a typical Jew of his era, namely an intolerant ethnocentric nationalist prone to violence towards Gentiles and whose charity and love extend only to other Jews:
When it comes to the heart and soul of the Jewish faith—the Law of Moses—Jesus insisted that his mission was not to abolish the law but to fulfill it (Matthew 5:17). That law made a clear distinction between relations among Jews and between Jews and foreigners. The oft-repeated [sic] commandment to “love your neighbor as yourself” was originally given strictly in the context of internal relations within Israel . . . To the Israelites, as well as to Jesus’s community in first-century Palestine, “neighbor” meant one’s fellow Jews. With regard to the treatment of foreigners and outsiders, oppressors and occupiers, the Torah could not be clearer: “You shall drive them out before you. You shall make no covenant with them and their gods. They shall not live in your land” (Exodus, 23:31-33)
As in his highly selective misuse of the Gospels, Aslan is here distorting the Hebrew Scriptures, conflating different categories of “foreigners,” and erasing the crucial distinction between the righteous ger, or foreigner, and the pernicious idolator, as well as the radically different treatments the Torah commands towards each. He mischievously omits the Torah’s many and insistent prohibitions against “taunting the stranger, for you know the soul of the stranger having been strangers in the land of Egypt,” and “cheating the foreigner in your gate”, and, most powerfully, the injunction to “love the stranger as yourself." (See, inter alia, Exodus 22:20 & 23:9, Leviticus 19:34 and Deuteronomy 24:14.)
Aslan achieves the two central goals of his book with this distorted, and terribly unflattering, depiction of the treatment he alleges Jewish law demands of the foreigner. It at once hardens his argument about Jesus’s “fierce nationalism,” while at the same time creating an image of the Jews as a hateful bunch, profoundly intolerant of the mere presence of others in their land. It is difficult when reading this, and many similar blatant distortions, to suppress all suspicion of a political agenda lying just beneath the surface of Aslan’s narrative.
What will prove most shocking, at least to those with some very basic Jewish education, are Aslan’s many distorted, or plainly ignorant, portrayals of both the Jews and their religion in Jesus’s day. Aside from his apparent unfamiliarity with the critically important recent works of Schäfer and Boyarin, Aslan seems oblivious of more than a century of scholarship on the exceedingly complex theological relationship between the earliest disciples of Jesus and the early rabbis. The foundational work of R. Travers Herford in Christianity in Talmud and Midrash (1903) and, three-quarters of a century later, Alan Segal’s Two Powers in Heaven: Early Rabbinic Reports about Christianity and Gnosticism (1977) are just two of the hundreds of vitally important books missing from his bibliography.
This ignorance—if that is what it is—has serious consequences. For it is not only the Gospels’ accounts of Jesus citing Hebrew Scriptures while discussing Jewish law that belie Aslan’s portrait of Jesus and his apostles as an uncouth band of Galilean peasants. As Schäfer has richly documented, Rabbinic sources contain numerous references to the original biblical exegesis of Jesus and his disciples, including accounts of rabbis who were attracted to these interpretations, even as they came ultimately to regret and repent of their “heresy.” That Aslan has not read Schäfer is made most painfully clear in his pat dismissal of the Roman historian Celsus’s report of having overheard a Jew declare that Jesus’s real father was not the Jew, Joseph, but rather a Roman centurion named Panthera. Aslan says that this is too scurrilous to be taken seriously. While it would be unfair to expect him to be familiar with the common Yiddish designation of Jesus as Yoshke-Pandre (Yeshua, son of Panthera), one might expect him to have read the fascinating chapter devoted to this very familiar and well-attested theme in rabbinic sources, in Schäfer’s Jesus in the Talmud.
On the other hand, Aslan weirdly accepts at face value, and even embellishes, the dramatic accounts in the Gospels of Jesus’s entry into Jerusalem allegedly just before the Passover, as the Jewish crowds wave palm branches and chant hosannas. But were he familiar with the basic rituals of the Sukkot festival, Aslan might somewhere have acknowledged the skepticism expressed by many scholars about the Gospels’ contrived timing of this dramatic event to coincide with Passover.
I will spare readers a long list of Aslan’s blatant and egregious errors regarding Judaism, from his misunderstanding of the rabbinic epithet Am Ha-Aretz (the rabbinic description, fittingly enough, of an ignoramus) to his truly shocking assertion that rabbinic sources attest to Judaism’s practice of crucifixion. Aslan very effectively explains why the Romans employed crucifixion to such great effect; the horrific public spectacle of the corpses of those condemned for their sedition to this most agonizing of deaths was a powerful deterrent to would-be insurrectionists. However, he seems not to understand how particularly offensive this was to the Jews, whose Torah demanded the immediate burial of executed criminals (who were to be hanged, never crucified), prohibiting their corpses to linger “even unto the morning” as this was considered a desecration of the divine image in which all men were created.
Finally, there is Aslan’s description of the fate of the Jews and Judaism in the wake of the destruction of the Temple. In his account, all of the Jews were exiled from Judea, and not so much of a trace of Judaism was allowed to survive in the Holy Land after 70 C.E.. Astonishingly enough, Aslan says not a word about the tremendously important armistice arranged between the pacifistic party of Jewish moderates led by Yochanan ben Zakai, or of the academy he established at Yavneh (Jabne, or Jamnia) some forty miles northwest of Jerusalem, and which flourished for more than a half-century, breathing new life and vitality into rabbinic Judaism in the immediate aftermath of the destruction of Jerusalem.
Readers with no background in the history of rabbinic Judaism will be misled by Aslan to believe that its pacification was the result of the Jews total defeat and expulsion from Palestine. Aslan seems to think that rabbinic Judaism is entirely a product of diaspora Jews who, only many decades after the Temple’s destruction, began to develop a less virulently and racist version of the Jewish religion, centered on Torah study. Can it be that this self-professed “historian of religions” is entirely ignorant of the Sages of the Land of Israel who flourished in the wake of the destruction of the Temple, and whose teachings are recorded in the Mishnah, and later the Jerusalem Talmud? Or is Aslan, here again, choosing deliberately to ignore inconvenient historical truths? And none is less convenient than the fact that a significant, and ultimately dominant, faction of Jews of first-century Palestine, far from being nationalist zealots, were pacifists whose accord with Vespasian gave birth to the religion we today recognize as Judaism.
Which brings us back to Aslan’s awful interview on Fox. Lauren Green’s questioning of Aslan’s right, as a Muslim, to write his book was absolutely out of bounds, but perhaps she was, quite unwittingly, onto something about his agenda. While the form taken by Green’s questions was unacceptable and made Aslan look like the victim of an intolerant right-wing ambush, might it not be the case that it was Aslan who very deftly set her up? He prefaces the book with an “Author’s Note,” which is a lengthy and deeply personal confession of faith. Here Aslan recounts his early years in America as an essentially secular Iranian emigré of Islamic origins with no serious attachment to his ancestral faith, his subsequent teenage conversion to evangelical Christianity and finally his return to a more intense commitment to Islam. Aslan ends this intimately personal preface by proudly declaring:
Today, I can confidently say that two decades of rigorous academic research into the origins of Christianity have made me a more genuinely committed disciple of Jesus of Nazareth than I ever was of Jesus Christ.
This unsubtle suggestion that Evangelical Christians’ discipleship and knowledge of Jesus is inferior to his own makes it rather harder to sympathize with him as an entirely innocent victim of unprovoked, ad hominem challenges regarding his book’s possibly Islamist agenda. Aslan had to know that opening a book that portrays Jesus as an illiterate zealot and which repeatedly demeans the Gospels with a spiritual autobiography that concludes by belittling his earlier faith as an Evangelical Christian would prove deeply insulting to believing Christians.
And yet, if there is one thing Aslan must have learned during his years among the Evangelicals, it is that even the most rapturous among them, who pray fervently for the final apocalypse, reject even the suggestion that their messianic dream ought to be pursued through insurrection or war. In a word, they have, pace Aslan, responded appropriately to the question “what would Jesus do?”
Finally, is Aslan’s insistence on the essential “Jewishness” of both Jesus and his zealous political program not also a way of suggesting that Judaism and Jesus, no less than Islam and Mohammed, are religions and prophets that share a similarly sordid history of political violence; that the messianic peasant-zealot from Nazareth was a man no more literate and no less violent than the prophet Mohammed?