A Philosopher Examines Reza Aslan, Zealot

A Review of

Aslan, Reza, Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth

Random House, 2013

The title is engaging. The writing is clear. The book is very readable. And the thesis is quite simple. Jesus of Nazareth was one of many Jewish zealots in Palestine at the beginning of the first century C.E., who were fomenting revolts against Rome. The main reason for Jesus’s crucifixion was treason against Rome. This true historical account of the life of Jesus was suppressed by his Christian followers a few decades later, when the gospels were written. The reason for such suppression – the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 C.E. Christians and the writers of the gospels were trying to downplay the insurrectionist character of Jesus’s life because they were trying to distance themselves from the Jewish rebellion against Rome in 66 C.E., which prompted the Roman fury that followed. Thus Jesus was painted instead as a spiritual leader, as one who died for our sins and taught us to love our enemies. The resurrection of Jesus was also fabricated in order to make the revised story more compelling. The Christ of the early Christians, and of most Christians today, is very, very different from the historical Jesus.

Aslan’s thesis is not new. S.G.F. Brandon, among others, argued essentially the same thesis in 1967, in Jesus and the Zealots (Manchester University Press). Historical-critical scholarship has for a long time separated the historical Jesus from the Christ of faith. Pope Benedict XVI, in his forward to the first volume of Jesus of Nazareth (Image, 2012), describes the development of historical-critical scholarship. As this scholarship advanced, “finer and finer distinctions between layers of tradition in the Gospels, beneath which the real object of faith – the figure [Gestalt] of Jesus – became increasingly obscured and blurred.” This has produced “the impression that we have very little certain knowledge of Jesus and that only at a later stage did faith in his divinity shape the image we have of him.”

So how do I as a philosopher respond to Aslan’s argument? Philosophers demand articulation of first premises, rationality, consistency, and clarity in argument. (This is not to say that philosophers always practice what they preach!)

Aslan makes a very significant statement early in his book. “For every well-attested, heavily researched, and eminently authoritative argument made about the historical Jesus, there is an equally well-attested, equally researched, and equally authoritative argument opposing it” (p. xx). I appreciate Aslan’s frank admission that there are eminent scholars who disagree with his over-all position. This leaves the reader with a problem, however. What does one do when eminent scholars disagree? At the very least, one should be on guard against coming to a hasty and definitive conclusion about this book. It is not the last word. Other prominent scholars disagree strongly with much of Aslan’s argument, as can be seen in some early reviews of this book.

Aslan claims to have constructed his narrative upon what he believes to be “the most accurate and reasonable argument,” based on his “two decades of scholarly research into the New Testament and early Christian history” (p. xx). Now two decades of research is not a very long time. This book is not a product of a life-time of research. And the reader is left to wonder whether Aslan has looked carefully at the well-attested, well-researched, and authoritative scholarship that refutes his own narrative. For example, Aslan makes no mention of the work of Richard Burridge, Dean of King’s College, London, professor of biblical interpretation, and the first non-Catholic to receive the prestigious Ratzinger Prize, set up as a kind of Nobel Prize for Theology. Burridge specifically answers the attempt by scholars to separate the “historical Jesus” from the “Christ of faith” by showing that the gospels, were very much like the biographies written in the Greco-Roman world (e.g. Isocrates’ Evagoras, or Plutarch’s Lives). But these ancient biographies, while not biographies in the modern sense, were still intended to give us factual accounts of these figures.

Burridge’s careful comparison shows that we need to take the gospels more seriously as giving us an accurate historical account of Jesus (see Burridge’s What are the Gospels? A Comparison with Graeco-Roman Biography, Eerdmans, 1992, and his Four Gospels, One Jesus? Eerdmans, 1994). Aslan’s claim that the gospel writers were not at all concerned about “uncovering facts, but of revealing truths,” is therefore problematic (p. 31). Not only does Aslan fail to respond to Burridge’s argument, there is very little by way of responding to any other evidence or arguments that go counter to his own interpretation. All too often Aslan simply makes claims to the effect that “most scholars” agree, or he refers to “the consensus view” of scholars (pp. xxi, 83, 141). This not only contradicts his earlier claim regarding a divided scholarship, but it also makes the reader wonder whether there has been a decided bias in Aslan’s own research.

There is another way in which Aslan betrays his earlier statement, and this has to do with the language he uses in the book, which is often dogmatic and strident. Here are some examples: He describes Luke’s account of some early episodes in Jesus’s life as “fabulous concoctions of the evangelist’s own devising” (p.35). The gospels’ description of Pilate as a righteous yet weak-willed man who had to overcome his own doubts about putting Jesus of Nazareth to death is labeled “pure fiction” (p. 47). The common depiction of Jesus as an apolitical preacher and peacemaker who loved his enemies and turned the other cheek is “a complete fabrication,” according to Aslan (p. 120). The gospel accounts of Jesus’ arrest, trial and execution, “this final, most significant episode in the story of Jesus of Nazareth is also the one most clouded by theological enhancements and flat-out fabrications” (p. 154). The “theatrical trial before Pilate” is described as “pure fantasy” (p. 156). Many more examples of Aslan’s use of dogmatic and strident language could be provided. This is not the language of careful scholarship. Aslan’s rhetoric fails to acknowledge that there are other eminent scholars who disagree with his interpretation of Jesus. Good scholarship is more humble in its declarations.

Of course, the use of such dogmatic and strident language is based on another assumption that underlies the entire book, and that has to do with the reliability of the gospel accounts of Jesus’ life. Aslan is quite skeptical of the historicity of the gospel accounts. In his introduction, he tells us that “the gospels are not, nor were they ever meant to be, a historical documentation of Jesus’s life” (p. xxvi). This certainly contradicts the statement made by Luke at the beginning of his gospel, where Luke describes his task as one of “investigating everything carefully” so as to provide “an orderly account of the events that have been fulfilled among us,” based on accounts handed down by “eyewitnesses,” so that the reader might know the “truth” about Jesus (Lk. 1:1-4). Of course, Aslan would dismiss this statement. He specifically says the gospels “are not eyewitness accounts of Jesus’s words and deeds recorded by people who knew him” (p. xxvi). Instead, “they are testimonies of faith composed by communities of faith and written many years after the events that they describe” (p. xxvi). But this assessment is based on his own reconstruction of life of Jesus and so begs the question.

What is curious here is that at times Aslan does draw on the gospel accounts in order to substantiate his argument. For example, after decrying Luke’s account of John the Baptist’s lineage and miraculous birth as “fantastical,” he nonetheless draws on the gospel accounts, including Luke’s, in order to show that Jesus was a disciple of John (pp. 83-89, cf. pp. 73f, 113-4, 144f). This is quite puzzling. How can Aslan treat the gospel accounts as reliable some of the time when he has made the general statement early on in his book that the gospels are not, and were never meant to be, historical documents about the life of Jesus?

Further, if the gospels are sometimes reliable, then we need to be given a clear idea of the criteria that are to be used in assessing when they are and when they are not reliable. Here matters become even more puzzling. Sometimes Aslan requires corroboration from non-gospel accounts (e.g. Josephus, pp. xxv, 31, 82, 85,). Sometimes historical reliability seems to be dependant on the fact that all four gospels say the same thing (p.73). Sometimes the reverse is the case – the fact that only one of the gospels says something makes the claim authentic (p.117). In the end, one is left with a strong impression that these judgments are rather arbitrary. It would seem that Aslan judges the gospel accounts to be reliable if what they say is in keeping with his overall argument (see esp. p. 85). But this is special pleading. It has all the makings of the “Gospel according to Aslan.” And there are some reputed scholars who dispute Aslan’s gospel!

Fundamental to Aslan’s overall argument is the wedge he tries to create between “Jesus the man” and “Jesus the Christ,” between the historical Jesus, and the Jesus manufactured by the community of faith pp. xxvi, 120, 134). Aslan’s assessment of the gospel accounts of Jesus’s arrest, trail and execution is as follows: “Factual accuracy was irrelevant. What mattered was Christology, not history” (p. 154). Here Aslan commits a basic logical fallacy, known as the either-or fallacy. The either-or fallacy creates a disjunction when in fact both claims can be true at the same time. One does not have to choose between either “Jesus the man” or “Jesus the Christ.” Jesus the man and Jesus the Christ may in fact be the same person. The Jesus described by the community of faith may in fact be the same as the historical Jesus. Indeed, this is what is claimed by orthodox Christianity, and there are many reputed scholars who defend orthodox Christianity.

The either-or fallacy comes up repeatedly in this book. For example, Aslan argues that it was the faith community which fabricated the argument that it was the Jews who killed the messiah, when in fact it was the Romans who killed Jesus for insurrection (p.150f). But, why can’t both the Jews and the Romans be responsible for the crucifixion of Jesus? Aslan maintains that the promise of the Kingdom of God was a central theme and unifying message of Jesus’s brief three-year ministry (p. 116). But, then he argues that the Kingdom of God for Jesus was not purely celestial or eschatological, but a real earthly kingdom (pp. 117-18). But, again why can’t the Kingdom of God be both eschatological and present here and now, though only partially realized? And we must also not rule out the possibility of Jesus’s kingdom being both spiritual and political in nature. Earthly rulers have never liked Christians making spiritual claims because they see even this as threatening their earthly rule.

Aslan’s treatment of miracles in Chapter 9 is confusing and disingenuous. There are times in this chapter and the rest of the book where Aslan seems to accept the gospel accounts of Jesus’s miracles as real (pp. 111f, 112f, 130f). But in the beginning of Chapter 9 Aslan is very clear about ruling out the very possibility of miracles. “To the modern mind, the stories of Jesus’s healings and exorcisms seem implausible, to say the least” (p. 104). And a little later Aslan again comments on the modern mindset, suggesting that Jesus’s status as an exorcist and miracle worker “seem unusual, even absurd” (p. 107). Indeed, it is the question of miracles that “forms the principal divide between the historian and the worshipper, the scholar and the seeker” (p. 104). There we have it. It is only the seeker or gullible worshipper who believes in miracles. The enlightened scholar and historian reject their very possibility. Aslan goes on to say that “there is no evidence to support any particular miraculous action by Jesus” (p. 104). Why is all evidence ruled out? Because according to Aslan’s enlightened worldview, miracles are impossible. That is his real position.

Aslan is forced to concede, however, that there is a lot of “accumulated historical material confirming Jesus’s miracles” (p. 104). This claim is again very misleading. It seems as though Aslan is accepting the gospel accounts of Jesus’s miracles, but he is really only treating these as fabricated accounts of Jesus’s “reputation” as a miracle worker (p. 105). Indeed, he goes on to link miracles with “magic” and “tricks,” on par with other the many other magicians and medicine men who were wandering Judea and Galilee at the time (pp. 102, 105). Indeed, in ancient Palestine, the unenlightened simply couldn’t distinguish between magic and miracles (p. 111). So for Aslan, the miracle stories of Jesus “were embellished with the passage of time and convoluted with Christological significance, and thus none of them can be historically validated” (p. 104). This conclusion is a huge generalization, that rests on Aslan’s overall strategy of separating the Jesus of history and the Christ of the Christian church, and thus again begs the question.

It is this same strategy that Aslan uses to discredit the resurrection of Jesus in Chapter 13. For Aslan the “only two hard historical facts about Jesus of Nazareth upon which we can confidently rely” is that Jesus was a Jew who led a popular Jewish movement in Palestine at the beginning of the first century, and that Rome crucified him for doing so (p. xxviii). Aslan has a lot to say about the crucifixion. But the resurrection is a non-event. Why? The notion of a man dying a gruesome death and then returning to life three days later “defies all logic, reason and sense” (p. 174). In other words, the resurrection is again impossible.

How then did the Christian community come to believe in the resurrection? Again, we see the tired strategy of Aslan coming to the fore. Something was needed to transform “Jesus from a revolutionary zealot to a Romanized demigod, from a man who tried and failed to free the Jews from Roman oppression to a celestial being wholly uninterested in any earthly matter” (p. 171). The apostles themselves were severely limited in their ability to bring about such a transformation as they were farmers and fishermen, “illiterate ecstatics whose certainty in their message was matched only by the passion with which they preached it” (pp. 171, 167). But this characterization of the I.Q. of the apostles is unsupported, and is at least in part known to be false.

Aslan also fails to explain how these apostles became so certain about their message and so bold in their proclamation. Aslan makes much of the fact that it was diaspora Jews, Hellenists, who were more sophisticated and urbane, better educated and wealthier, who transformed Jesus message into a universal message that would be more appealing to those living in a Graeco-Roman milieu (pp. 180f). But again, how could these sophisticated and educated Jews be misled by farmers and fishermen who supposedly manufactured the resurrection out of thin air?

Behind all of these fanciful explanations of the invention of the resurrection of Jesus lies a much deeper issue that needs to be faced. Aslan believes that the resurrection and the other miracles that Jesus did are impossible – they defy all logic, reason, and common sense. But, this is a metaphysical claim. It is a starting presupposition which is in fact very difficult to prove. Indeed, Aslan does nothing by way of trying to prove this very important proposition. He just dogmatically affirms it. It therefore becomes just as much an item of faith as Aslan attributes to Christian believers. I would recommend that Aslan and his many followers read some sophisticated defenses of the possibility of miracles. For a popularized argument, there is nothing better than C.S. Lewis’s little book entitled simply, Miracles.

If there is one thing philosophers are concerned about it is consistency in argument, and this raises a another problem I have with Aslan’s revisionary account of the life of Jesus. He repeatedly contradicts himself. For example, he argues at length that Jesus’s trial before Pilate is “a fabrication,” or “pure fantasy” (pp.148, 156), but sandwiched in between these pages he admits that a brief audience with Pilate might just be conceivable (p. 152). Aslan also finds the account of Jesus trial before the Sanhedrin to be “full of contradictions and inconsistencies,” so much so that they “cast doubt on the historicity of the trial before Caiaphus” (pp. 156f). But, then a page later, he suddenly concedes that “there may be a kernel of truth in the story of the Sanhedrin trial” (p. 158). These, and there are many other contradictions that could be cited, make it very difficult to follow Aslan’s account. It is often simply incoherent.

The book ends rather abruptly. After two final chapters involving a radical reinterpretation of Paul, which to my mind exaggerates the differences between Paul and the apostles, Aslan concludes that “the Christ of Paul’s creation has utterly subsumed the Jesus of history” (p. 215). “That is a shame,” according to Aslan, because he hopes that his study of the historical Jesus has revealed “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” (p. 216).

I find this conclusion to be quite astounding. What is so compelling and praiseworthy about an uneducated zealot who failed? There were, after all, a good number of zealots in Jesus’s day who similarly failed, as Aslan repeatedly points out in his book, but we don’t find these zealots to be compelling and praiseworthy. If you strip away all the features associated with the “Christ” of the gospels and of Paul’s writings, there really is very, very little left to believe in. Indeed, it seems a little odd to “believe in” a failed zealot who has been dead for over 2,000 years, just as it would be odd to talk about Guy Fawkes or Rosa Luxemburg as worth believing in. I would suggest that Aslan’s conclusion only begins to make sense if you draw on the features of Jesus the Christ, whom he has rejected.

Plato, long ago, gave some wise counsel when he encouraged any thinker to go where the argument carries one. Aslan has difficulty doing this. He is in fact drawing on borrowed capital. Aslan’s early evangelical faith hasn’t quite left him (cf. pp.xvii-xix). He needs it to make his historical Jesus praiseworthy. His conclusion should in fact be that we should forget about Jesus of Nazareth, a zealot who was a complete failure. Indeed, if Aslan were true to his basic modernist and scientistic assumptions which rule out miracles and the resurrection, he should become an atheist. I would suggest that is what Paul had in mind when he argued that if Christ has not been risen, then the Christian faith is in fact futile. “Let us eat drink and be merry for tomorrow we die” (I Cor. 15:17, 32).

With all these problems, it might be asked why I even bothered to read the book, let alone write a review of it. The book deserves some attention because so many people are reading it. After all the book was #1 on the New York Times bestseller list for a while. Also, I fear that this book will be read by many Christians who will accept its claims at face value. I would urge readers not to limit your reading diet to scholars like Reza Aslan. There are after all well-attested, heavily researched, and eminently authoritative scholarly treatments of the life and times of Jesus which dispute much of Aslan’s own account. Openmindedness would suggest that these too deserve a careful reading.


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