Reza Aslan, Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth. New York: Random House, 2013. $27.00. xxxiv + 296 pp. ISBN 978-1-4000-6922-4.
Want to write a New York Times #1 bestseller? How about composing a new biography of Jesus? He is a perennially fascinating figure. Of course, just about every take imaginable on him has been tried, so what could you possibly do that would catch people’s attention? Perhaps look for an approach that a few bona fide scholars have taken but is not very well known. Make sure the last blockbuster from your perspective was at least a generation ago, so that people will have forgotten about it. Be sure you have very good command of English and write in a fluent, accessible, and interesting fashion. Surround your presentation with a lot of accurate details about the world into which Jesus was born and in which he ministered. Cite Scripture wherever it might possibly support your perspective and ignore all the texts that don’t support it. Oh, and one thing you can’t manufacture, but it sure helps: if you grew up in a different religion, flirted briefly with authentic Christianity, and can tell now how your scholarly study disabused you of traditional Christianity and revitalized your historic religion. At least that is how Reza Aslan, a nominally Muslim Iranian-American has produced this top-of-the-charts book.
Aslan is S. G. F. Brandon redux. Brandon wrote in 1967. His book was published only in England, under the title Jesus and the Zealots. For decades scholars cited him as about the only truly scholarly defense of Jesus as a member of this “fourth philosophy,” as Josephus calls it. In the last few years, one almost never hears about Brandon anymore. Aslan is also reminiscent of the famous eighteenth-century pioneer of the quest for the historical Jesus, H. S. Reimarus; with a dash of Albert Schweitzer thrown in. Jesus was a revolutionary who failed. Paul is the founder of Christianity as we know it, a far cry from the vision and message of Jesus of Nazareth. And the church has just gotten it more and more wrong ever since as they have turned Jesus completely into God.
The best part of Aslan’s book is Part One—six detailed chapters imaginatively recounting the violent parts of first-century Israel’s history, from the uprising of Judas the Galilean in A.D. 6 to the fall of the last Zealot outpost at Masada in A.D. 73. Relying largely on Josephus’ writings, Aslan highlights all of the various Jewish freedom-fighters that emerged during these six and one-half decades. He stresses Israel’s seething discontent with Rome through it all. He narrates various events from the Jewish war in 66-70 with riveting vividness. He relies very heavily on Richard Horsley’s work in New Testament backgrounds without telling the reader that Horsley’s Jesus is largely nonviolent. He does not comment on Sean Freyne’s demonstration of a fairly quiet Galilee until sometime in the 50s. By the time you have finished Part One, you have learned about virtually every act of violence any Jew committed against Rome or any Roman leader committed against the Jewish people in the first century. You thus come away with the impression that Israel was an incessantly boiling cauldron of discontent and violent interaction with the Romans at every juncture along the way, even though this impression is demonstrably false.
Little wonder that when the six chapters of Part Two turn to Jesus, the unsuspecting reader is as psychologically ripe as possible for Aslan’s thesis. Jesus, too, was a Zealot. He was a Jew. Jews were violently opposed to Rome. Therefore Jesus must have been part of the rebel cause. But Aslan never discusses all the other Jewish leadership sects, much less the ordinary am ha-aretz or people of the land, from whom Jesus came, who had no time or energy to take up arms.
What is the scriptural evidence for Jesus the Zealot? All four Gospels narrate the pivotal event that the Synoptics specifically stress was the catalyst for Jesus’ arrest and execution—his so-called Triumphal Entry on what we now call Palm Sunday (Mark 11:18 pars.). The crowds treated him as a coming king. He entered the Temple precincts and demonstrated against their misuse by means of violent protest. In John’s account, Jesus’ actions are tied in with the text in the Hebrew Scriptures that speaks of zeal for God’s house consuming the Psalmist (John 2:17; Psa. 69:9). Jesus was crucified as a royal pretender between two other insurrectionists (not common thieves). See, Jesus was violent and a Zealot.
Hadn’t Jesus predicted that he had come not to bring peace but a sword (Matt. 10:34 par.)? When Jesus was ready to leave the Upper Room for Gethsemane, Peter said, “See, here are two swords.” Jesus replied, “It is enough” (Luke 22:38). But it wasn’t. When Peter tried to start the revolution in the Garden, the authorities nipped it in the bud. And that was the end of Jesus.
The one who had preached so much about God’s kingdom coming in his ministry must have thought he was its king. And a Jewish king could be installed in Jerusalem only by force. Jesus must have imagined himself to be a violent revolutionary, but he turned out to be a miserable failure. Still, the fact that he was willing to fight for what he most valued makes him a worthwhile model to follow. Aslan even accepts Jesus’ miracles of healing and exorcism as most likely historical and rightly sees them as a challenge to the priestly authorities because they bypassed Temple ritual. Little wonder things eventually turned violent. Let us have none of this wimpy nonviolent stuff of preaching peace, love, and joy. Not for Aslan, the newly revitalized Muslim, by his own admission. He can admire his reconstructed Jesus. Most historical Jesus questers do admire their reconstructed Jesuses more than the canonical one; that is a major reason why they reconstruct him!
But with what tone of voice did Jesus say two swords were enough? Might it have been ironic? Could anyone seriously have thought two swords would do anything against the might of Rome? Is it worth looking at the context of the saying about bringing a sword rather than peace, a context taken over from the Old Testament that speaks of hostility within a family when there are spiritual mismatches (Matt. 10:35-36; Mic.7:6)? Has Aslan ever heard of a metaphor? Could a protest against Jewish moneychangers that didn’t even cause enough concern for the soldiers guarding the temple from the overlooking Antonia Fortress to intervene on the spot be enough to turn Jesus into a freedom fighter? How does Jesus’ compassion in healing people and casting out their demons turn him into a violent threat against the authorities? Zeal in Second Temple Judaism was most commonly directed toward the Law, and that involved no show of physical force. How can we be so sure Jesus’ zeal was consistently destructive?
What about the content of all those kingdom sayings? There is not a word in Aslan’s book about the meaning of all the famous parables of the kingdom—parables that regularly contrasted Jesus’ ways with the ways of the Gentiles who lorded it over others—nor about the near-pacifism of the Sermon on the Mount. True, at one point, Aslan states by mere affirmation with neither argument nor documentation that such a portrait “has already been shown to be a complete fabrication” (p. 120). Really? Where? If Jesus was a threat to Rome, it was because, as Horsley (and Warren Carter and Dominic Crossan and a host of others) stresses, he was envisioning a peaceful, caring, compassionate, countercultural society of his followers that Rome could never produce and that Judaism had never yet created. The moral impotence of the powerbrokers of both communities would stand out in striking and embarrassing contrast. But if Jesus were a Zealot then he was no more (and no less) noble than the Maccabees had been or the imperial troops currently were.
As with all contributions to the various quests for the historical Jesus that paint a radically different picture of the Jesus of history from the Christ of faith, and from the Christ of the New Testament, Aslan has to argue that the New Testament writers mostly got Jesus wrong. But by what method does he defend this conclusion? At least Crossan has one—limit yourself to the most multiply attested traditions, including in the apocryphal and Gnostic Gospels, and you have the kingdom come in the communities of Jesus’ followers posing that alternate model before the powerbrokers. So does Marcus Borg—highlight the many parallels between Jesus and the numerous other holy men throughout history who have had unique spiritual experiences and who have served as unique conduits of spiritual power to their followers. But Aslan has no criteria of authenticity and only a tiny handful of texts from which to try to demonstrate parallels with the Zealots. Yes, all the historical background of violence is significant, not because it turns Jesus into a Zealot but because it makes him stand out in sharp relief as about as far from a Zealot as one could get!
Particularly damaging for Aslan’s thesis is what happened to all those other first-century freedom fighters. After the authorities violently squelched them and their leaders were killed or disappeared, their movements immediately died out. Why did the Jesus movement continue? Aslan believes the early church made a conscious decision to change their messianic standards from militaristic to spiritual, but he ignores the prior, more important question. Why was there an early church in the first place? None of the other failed messiahs had any followers left after their failures. Aslan does recognize that the answer to this question is related to the disciples’ belief in Jesus’ resurrection. But like so many questers before him, he affirms that the resurrection is not a historical event. He doesn’t rebut those who have argued for it as such; he merely asserts (by faith?) the opposite, thereby leaving the question of the persistence of the Jesus-movement unaccounted for. Why did no other freedom-fighters’ followers invent stories about resurrections? It was much more of a Jewish than a Greco-Roman concept after all (cf.Dan. 12:2)?
The three chapters of Part Three form the weakest section of all. None of the New Testament writers were eyewitnesses or utilized eyewitness testimony. F. C. Baur and the nineteenth-century Tübingen school come alive again with James (even more so than Peter) vs. Paul and Luke as a later whitewasher of the conflict. But Paul essentially wins—he who had no knowledge of the Jesus tradition, had thoroughly rejected his Jewish background, and no longer cared about either. Funny, the last time I checked, the overwhelmingly dominant view in Pauline scholarship of almost all stripes is that he was thoroughly Jewish, knew quite a few traditions about Jesus, and cared deeply about lines of continuity with the self-styled rabbi from Nazareth!
The church has survived Jesus the Pharisee, Jesus the Essene, and Jesus the Zealot. He has been turned into a Cynic, a proto-Gnostic, and the product of a mystery religion. He has even been viewed as an alien. Would this book even have made a splash except for the word on the street: “Have you heard about the new book on Jesus by a Muslim?” If it had been by a practicing Muslim living in the Middle East it might have been worthy of attention, no matter what the perspective. But it’s just one tiny minority branch of liberal Christian thought reinvented. People will forget about it in a few years, like all the others.
Now if you really want to test your creativity, try something I have never seen attempted. See if you can turn Jesus into a Sadducee!
Craig L. Blomberg, Ph.D.
Distinguished Professor of New Testament