Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth
By Reza Aslan
New York: Random House, 2013
336 pages. Hardback, paperback, and ebook
A review essay by Reta Halteman Finger
Many books are written about Jesus. What made Zealot so popular that the author was prominently featured in such media outlets as NPR, PBS Newshour, Jon Stewart’s “The Daily Show,” Fox News, and Time? Why are there 3,421 reviews of Zealot on amazon.com?
What explains all this attention?
Let me guess. First, author Reza Aslan has a Muslim name, which piques interest. Why would a Muslim write about Jesus? On Fox News, Aslan tried in vain to persuade his interviewer (who clearly had not read his book) that he was writing as a scholar of religion and not as a religious Muslim.
Second, Aslan’s writing style is engaging and dramatic; Zealot reads like historical fiction. His book plunges the reader into a maelstrom of first-century violence, much as a movie trailer features a film’s most gory, action-packed scenes. (Aslan is an associate professor of creative writing at the University of California, Riverside.) He eliminates footnotes and instead discusses his main sources for each chapter at the end of the book. The notes are readable and helpful, but less carefully documented. A bibliography and index are included, but not all sources used are listed.
Third, Aslan’s main argument turns the conventional American-Christian picture of Jesus and the Gospels on its head. Readers are curious, ready to embrace or rebuff.
Searching for the historical Jesus
As secular Muslims caught in the Iranian Revolution of 1979, Reza Aslan’s family fled to America when he was a young teenager. Religion was irrelevant to him until, at 15, he attended an evangelical Christian camp and met Jesus. Fascinated with Jesus, he set out to learn more. Then he discovered that the Christ of faith that he had met at camp was very different from the Jesus of history (Author’s Note, xvii-xx). Zealot is Aslan’s attempt to get behind the Gospels and portray Jesus in his historical context in first-century Palestine.
The task is not new. Since the 1800s, there have been three intermittent Quests for the Historical Jesus. Aslan builds on the work of current scholars of the Third Quest, such as Richard Horsley and John Dominic Crossan, who focus on the political situation in first-century Palestine under Roman domination. I was disappointed, however, not to find mentioned other important “empire-critical” scholars like Warren Carter and Neil Elliott. Also ignored are “social context” scholars such as Bruce Malina or Jerome Neyrey. Instead, Aslan often relies on older sources, some of which have since been challenged.
What Aslan concludes about Jesus
Here in brief is his thesis: Jesus grew up when Galilee was a hotbed of revolutionary activity. As an illiterate peasant, Jesus shared with others a hatred of the Roman occupation and its wealthy, overbearing clients in the Jerusalem temple system. His healing and teaching skills first attracted local attention. Eventually he saw himself as an insurrectionist—a messiah—called to overthrow the Romans and set up the Kingdom of God in the Holy Land, as David and Solomon had done a thousand years earlier. By choosing 12 disciples as his inner circle, he signaled his plan to restore the 12 tribes of Israel under one ruler, God, and himself as the human representative. Jesus was not overly violent, but he was no pacifist either. His “cleansing” of the temple’s economic exploitation and his triumphant entry into Jerusalem at Passover as God’s coming messiah signaled his zeal—and sealed his doom.
Jesus was one of many would-be messiahs who came and went during this time (i.e., Hezekiah the bandit chief, Judas the Galilean, Simon of Peraea, “the Samaritan,” “the Egyptian,” Aronges the shepherd, Menaham, Simon bar Giora). Rome executed them all when they appeared to be a threat. Pilate probably never gave Jesus a trial, just signed papers for his crucifixion, the typical punishment for insurrection.
But unlike the others, Jesus was not forgotten. Disciples carried on his memory, and when the Jewish-Roman War began in 66 CE, believers hoped this signaled “the end of the age.” Jesus would return and establish God’s kingdom on earth. Instead, Judea, the Jews, and their temple and religion were totally wiped out by the Romans. At that point, the Christian church, now more gentile than Jewish, revised its theology. The Gospels, containing many fictions, were written to portray Jesus as God—a divine, cosmic, non-military figure. The Kingdom of God he had proclaimed transmogrified into a spiritual one. The remnant of Jews also gave up political aspirations and retreated under the rabbis to study Mosaic law.
My take on Aslan’s thesis
As someone likewise fascinated with Jesus much of my life, I offer these comments:
• In Part I, Aslan is right to emphasize the political chaos within Palestine from the second century BCE through the first century CE. The corruption, greed, and incompetence among the Judean elite brought about the Roman takeover after Herod the Great’s death—even though Roman governors often did no better. We should learn about the Jewish bandits, insurrectionists, and aspiring messiahs who claimed kingship before they were cut down.
However, Aslan’s single-minded focus on power politics forces him to ignore other cultural aspects of Palestinian life, such as economics. Peasants were constantly losing land because of unpayable debt and heavy taxes. Douglas Oakman’s The Political Aims of Jesus (2012) focuses on Jesus’s concern over peasant debt. By eating meals with “tax collectors and sinners”—creditors and debtors—he served as a broker between these unequal classes of people (e.g., Zaccheus in Luke 19:1-10). The work of such scholars could have “thickened” Aslan’s description of Jesus’s social context—but in in drawing upon such scholarship, Aslan would have had to abandon his single-minded focus and portray Jesus as more of a peacemaker than a top-down violent revolutionary.
• Aslan may decry biblical inerrancy, but his methods are just as troubling. He quotes genocidal texts from Joshua in the Hebrew Bible to assert that violent conquest was Yahweh’s major role in Hebrew religion (p. 16). But Eric Seibert’s examination of this issue in The Violence of Scripture: Overcoming the Old Testament’s Troubling Legacy portrays Yahweh very differently (see my review on this website). Moreover, both archeology and other texts such as Judges 1-3 show that much of the genocide commanded in Joshua never happened. Aslan’s use of the Hebrew Bible is selective and one-sided throughout.
• Aslan also pulls Gospel texts from their literary contexts to argue that Jesus was a Jew for whom “Israel was all that mattered.” Loving one’s neighbor only applied to Jews, and he only rarely and reluctantly healed others. Where is his evidence? Aslan quotes Matthew 10:34 (parallel to Luke 12:51) to highlight Jesus’s attitude toward non-Jews: “do not think I have come to bring peace on earth. I have not come to bring peace but a sword” (pp.120-122). But this sword is a metaphor and refers to intra-family dissension that can occur when one member follows Jesus and the others reject her or him for doing so, as Matthew 10:35-39 and Luke 12:51-53 make clear.
At Jesus’s final meal in Luke 22:35-38, he tells his disciples to buy swords. But this heavily-debated text must be seen in its context of imminent arrest, when Jesus is probably still struggling with what he should do. After his agonized prayer of submission, he is arrested. When a disciple uses a sword to cut off an opponent’s ear, he heals it and declares, “No more of this!” Jesus’s arrest in Matthew 26:51-54 also echoes Jesus’s refusing violence to rescue himself or kill enemies.
• Aslan dates the four Gospels ten to thirty years later than the scholarly consensus of 65-70 CE for Mark, 80s for Matthew and Luke, and 90s for John. The longer time lapse strengthens his case that Jesus’s original revolutionary message was distorted and spiritualized after the Jewish-Roman War. Richard Bauckham’s Jesus and the Eyewitnesses (2006) would directly challenge this through his intensive literary analysis, noting also how carefully oral history is passed on in non-literate societies.
Other scholars, myself included, agree with Aslan in seeing this war as a watershed—but interpreting it very differently. This war made clear that war and violence did not work. God did not fight violently for Israel against her enemies. Through this defeat, Jesus-Jews could now understand how Jesus’s original teachings about non-retaliation made sense. “All who take the sword will perish by the sword,” says Jesus (Matt 26:52). Blessing one’s enemies, as in the Sermon on the Mount, may take longer, but great persons like Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Nelson Mandela, and others have demonstrated that active nonviolence is more effective in the long run. Aslan never recognizes this.
• Aslan claims the post-war Gospels and Acts have stripped Jesus of his Jewishness. In Acts 7:56, Stephen’s vision of Jesus standing at the right hand of God implies blasphemy: Jesus elevated to equality with God (p.169). To his Jewish audience, that crime meant death by stoning. But Daniel Boyarin’s recent book, The Jewish Gospels: The Story of the Jewish Christ (2012), makes mincemeat of this argument. A brilliant Jewish Talmud scholar, Boyarin demonstrates how “the ideas of Trinity and incarnation, or certainly the germs of those ideas, were already present among Jewish believers well before Jesus came on the scene to incarnate in himself those theological notions and take up his messianic calling” (Boyarin, p. 102).
• The last two chapters before Aslan’s epilogue are devoted to Paul the missionary and James the brother of Jesus and leader of the Jerusalem church. Paul gets a bad rap. He breaks with the Jerusalem church, denigrates the Law of Moses, and calls himself an apostle. Paul makes Jesus into “Christ,” a cosmic being that is now worshiped by the Christian church, but who never existed. “Paul’s lack of concern with the historical Jesus is due to the simple fact that Paul had no idea who the living Jesus was, nor did he care” (p.187).
Once again Aslan selectively chooses texts to make his point, buttressed by older sources that have been thoroughly debunked in the past 25 years by many Pauline scholars, both Christian and Jewish. If Paul wrote “in Christ there is no longer Jew or Greek” (Gal 3:28), he also wrote, “Has God rejected his people? By no means! I myself am an Israelite, a descendant of Abraham, . . . God has not rejected his people whom he foreknew” (Rom 11:1-2). In A Radical Jew: Paul and the Politics of Identity (1997), Boyarin joins other Jewish American scholars who see Paul—“thoroughly trained in every point of our ancestral law” (Acts 22:3)—as far more rabbinically Jewish than Jesus.
Aslan presents Paul (missionary to gentiles) and Jesus’s brother James (leader of the Jerusalem church) as antagonists and rivals who teach opposite theologies—a huge exaggeration of Galatians 1 and 2. Providing no evidence, he proposes that Peter got to Rome before Paul for the purpose of setting up “an anti-Pauline community” (p.196). Really?
I acknowledge Aslan as a gifted and passionate writer. He may be a scholar of religions, but he is definitely not a biblical scholar. His thesis creating Jesus as a zealous insurrectionist has overpowered the available evidence and colored his selection and (mis)interpretation of many biblical texts. I see too many flaws and errors to recommend this book.
Reta Finger has taught Bible at Messiah College in Grantham, PA, and is now affiliate associate professor of New Testament at Eastern Mennonite University and Seminary. She writes for Sojourners magazine and other publications, including a biweekly Bible study at this website called Reta’s Reflections. She has written two books on Paul’s letters (Romans and 1 Corinthians) and one on Acts.
© 2014 by Christian Feminism Today