Reza Aslan, Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth (New York: Random House, 2013)
Note: This review will be used by Christianity Today as well.
Reza Aslan’s Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth resurrects the theory that Jesus’ ministry and death are best explained against the background of Jewish zealot movements at the turn of the era. There is little here that is new. The ablest presentation of this line of interpretation was argued by S. G. F. Brandon in 1967. Few followed Brandon then; virtually no one does today. I doubt very much Aslan’s fresh take on it will win a following—at least not among scholars.
Aslan, who is writing for non-experts, describes Jewish zealotry (largely in terms of zeal for the temple and for Israel’s Law of Moses) and surveys some of Israel’s history between the Testaments. He reviews the attempts of a number of men who attempted in one way or another to throw off either the Herodian or Roman yoke and win freedom for Israel. He places Jesus of Nazareth and his following squarely into this history and social setting. Jesus’ proclamation of the coming kingdom of God was a call for regime change, for an end of Roman hegemony over Israel and an end of a corrupt and oppressive aristocratic priesthood.
The regime change that Jesus and his followers anticipated did not take place. Jesus was arrested and executed, along with two other rebels. Not long after—however it happened—Jesus’ followers became convinced that their master had been raised from the dead and that his mission had not been a failure after all. Unlike other zealot movements that ceased after the deaths of their respective founders, the Jesus movement not only continued, even in the face of severe opposition, it flourished, soon reaching large numbers of non-Jews.
This is where it gets interesting. With the conversion of Saul of Tarsus (who becomes the well known Paul the apostle of New Testament letters and the book of Acts), the Jesus movement began to be pulled in two directions. One camp remained loyal to the very Jewish roots of Jesus and his family, while the other increasingly came to view Jesus as a divine figure, a figure very attractive to non-Jews who otherwise had little interest in traditional Jewish thinking and living. It was the latter wing of the Jewish movement that eventually won out, thus creating a new religion, one destined to have the most followers around the world. Ironically, what it became was not what its founder proclaimed or intended. So Aslan contends.
There are numerous problems with Zealot, not least the fact that it heavily relies on an outdated and discredited thesis. But it also introduces a number of its own novel oddities and implausibilities. Aslan has canvassed much of the responsible scholarship in the field, but he does not always choose his options prudently. He often opts for extreme views and sometimes makes breathtaking assertions. I cannot help but wonder if Aslan’s penchant for creative writing is part of the explanation. Indeed, Zealot often reads more like a novel than a work of historical analysis.
Aslan assumes the latest dates for the Gospels and Acts, dating Mark after 70, Matthew and Luke-Acts in the 90s (perhaps later), and John somewhere between 100 and 120. After assigning such late dates he declares that there is no eyewitness tradition (without any engagement with Richard Bauckham’s important work on this subject). The circularity of this reasoning is hard to miss.
Zealot is riddled with errors, probable errors, and exaggerations. Aslan tells us a builder (Greek: tekton) in Nazareth had “little to do” (p. 34). Excavations at Nazareth and nearby Sepphoris suggest otherwise. Being a builder (or “carpenter”) mean that “Jesus would have belonged to the lowest class of peasants in first-century Palestine” (p. 34). Where does this come from? Sepphoris, a major city of Galilee, is said to be “a day’s walk” from Nazareth. Actually, it takes a jogger about 45 minutes. Scholars will be surprised to learn that Jesus ben Ananias (d. 70 CE), mentioned by Josephus, prophesied the “imminent return of the messiah” (p. 53). He did no such thing.
Aslan would have us believe that in an interval of one or two years (the time Jesus spent with John the Baptist) Galilee had become “urbanized, Hellenized, iniquitous” (p. 93). Previously it had been a place of family farms and open fields and blooming orchards. Excavations at Sepphoris indicate that even this large, somewhat Hellenized city had not adopted foods and customs contrary to Jewish law and traditions in the time of Jesus. In fact, excavations throughout Galilee have revealed how faithful to the Law of Moses the people were. When Jesus commands the cleansed leper to show himself to the village priest and do as Moses commanded, Aslan thinks “Jesus is joking” (p. 112). The discussion of magic and miracles (pp. 105–9) is confusing and inconsistent.
When transliterating the Greek for the nominative plural “apostles” Aslan gives us the genitive singular apostolou, instead of the expected apostoloi. Aslan assigns Eusebius to the third century, but the Christian apologist and historian flourished in the fourth century (p. 149). Aslan assumes throughout that Jesus and his disciples were illiterate (e.g., p. 171: “they could neither read nor write”; 178: “illiterate peasants from the backwoods of Galilee”). There is no engagement with scholarship that suggests otherwise. We are also told that James the brother of Jesus wore “simple garments made of linen, not wool” (p. 197). But linen was worn by the wealthy (see Luke 16:19), not the poor and simple.
The real problem of Zealot is seen in its exaggeration of the differences between Paul and the original apostles. There is no question that Paul sharply disagreed with Peter and other leaders over the question of the role of the Law of Moses in the lives of non-Jewish converts. But Aslan would have his readers believe that the debate centered on Christology, the divinity of Jesus, rather than on Ecclesiology, life in the Church. But the debate as described in the book of Acts and in Paul’s letters (see esp. Galatians) centers on food laws, sabbath observance, and circumcision, not on the divinity of Jesus (pp. 180–81). Aslan would have done well to consult David Wenham and others who show that claims to the effect that Paul invented Christianity are misguided.
Recent media coverage has drawn attention to Aslan’s Muslim heritage. As he himself explains, he was raised as a nominal Muslim, became a fundamentalist Christian as a teenager, then later abandoned his new faith after being exposed to biblical and historical criticism in his later education. Aslan earned a PhD in sociology and is now a professor of creative writing. I see nothing in his book that reflects distinctive Islamic beliefs about Jesus. The Quran, for example, explicitly asserts that Jesus was not executed but rather one like him (i.e., Simon of Cyrene, who assisted Jesus with the cross) died (see 4:157–58). Aslan contradicts this strange teaching (which apparently originated with the second-century heretic Basilides), rightly emphasizing the reality and brutality of Jesus’ death on a Roman cross.
At points Aslan’s book is informative; it is often entertaining. But it is also rife with questionable assertions. Let the reader beware.
Craig A. Evans
Acadia Divinity College