Tuesday, September 3, 2013

Review Of Zealot by Reza Aslan

It was Freud who stated, “Every religion bears the imprint of the times in which it arose.” With the same understanding Aslan sets out to make the case that the orthodox Christian religion as we know it was mostly developed by Hellenized (Rome-assimilated) Jews who had radically reinterpreted and revised the words and stories told about Jesus of Nazareth to fit a spiritualized ideology that would give the disenfranchised and crushed Jews hope, while being more palatable to a Roman world-audience. The way Aslan sees it, Jesus was a man, a Jew, who began a resistance against Rome, but ultimately failed and was crucified; but his noble deeds, along with a grain of scandal about his resurrection, renewed the Jewish confidence in their religion enough to convince others like Paul that there was enough unrealized potential in the old ideas, assuming some editorial work, to inspire new generations.

It doesn’t matter how you piece the Bible puzzle together…there are plenty of extra/missing pieces either way. Aslan breaks apart the orthodox Christian jigsaw, reshuffles the pieces, and then reassembles following his new picture-on-the-box of Jesus as man and Jewish revolutionary. And he doesn’t do a bad job at all. There still seem to be pieces left over (like Jesus stating “my kingdom is not of this world”, Jn 18:36), which Aslan does his level-best at explaining away, but not nearly so many leftover pieces as would completely and utterly allay the concerns of evangelical Christians. The apologist William Lang Craig’s brazen flippancy may have betrayed more concern than he’d like to admit when he said that there was nothing new in Aslan’s work that hasn’t already been disproven long ago. Looks like someone told Craig one too many times that the other kids are ‘just jealous’.

The Author’s Note and Introduction in the book does a fantastic job of laying out the author’s basic claims, and will probably be satisfying to a person wondering what the big deal about this book is (of course, you have to see the video to really understand the author’s recent rise in notoriety: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Jt1cOnNrY5s). If a person is mildly open to his thesis, or insanely opposed enough to slurp his errors like blood, the rest of the book delivers the goods as well. At the end of his introduction Aslan even throws a bone to people of faith who can’t swallow his premise, “The quest for the historical Jesus is ultimately an internal quest.” That would have been nice, but then he goes on to say, somewhat contradictorily, “But in the end, [Jesus as man and revolutionary] is the only Jesus that we can access by historical means. Everything else is a matter of faith.” Sounds pretty, but it’s mildly patronizing when you really look at it. It’s tantamount to a ‘too-bad-so-sad’ sort of concession for his believing critics. I guess he figured they don’t like him anyway.

As a whole, it was good. I liked it. The first sentence of the book was killer. No, really. “The war with Rome begins not with a clang of swords but with the lick of a dagger drawn from an assassin’s cloak.” Yesssssss. Throughout the work Aslan employs compelling historical analysis, but he really drives his best points home with good storytelling. Here, in history, was a people faced with impossible odds, who courageously managed to keep their noses above water to survive the brutal conditions of human oppression at the hands of the ‘civilized’ Romans. In Aslan’s view, this brave struggle is too often eclipsed by Christianity’s concept of a Divine Messiah who can’t ‘really’ die and is actually God himself. He believes it dilutes the story of frail and mortal people bravely taking risks and hazarding their families, life, and welfare for principles like freedom and faith. Jesus as God is not a hero. He is, well, God. He can’t quite feel the despair that humans feel, no matter how theology tries to ‘save’ his humanity from his all-invading divinity. He can’t quite be overpowered as humans can, can’t experience self-doubt, can’t wrestle with personal guilt, and can’t quite waver on the fence between good and evil. Granted, by billions, the story of Jesus as God is important for its own obvious reasons, or how could it have swallowed whole this other failed Jewish messiah that was part of the end of an age? But you have to admit, Aslan has a point. No matter where you stand on the religious/irreligious spectrum, we all can admit that narratives of the painful groping of humankind to find the light, resist evil, act bravely, and love deeply need to be told out from under the shadow of a “God-fixes-all-our-problems” sort of a bully-theology (‘bully-ology’?).

One of the most important keys to understanding Aslan’s premise is really securing in your mind the chronology of events and zeitgeist as he presents them. Here they are, having been regurgitated by my brain with the most significant events and ideas as I understood them. 

Regarding the political history of the Jews:

1.       There were a lot of people claiming to be messiah back in the day. Jesus was only one of many. Palestine was awash in apocalyptic expectation and messianic fervor.
2.       Rome was constantly suppressing rebellions, and crucifying the movement’s leaders as an example. Jesus was a zealot who had admirable political aspirations, but whose courageous strategy to free Rome ultimately failed. He was known as a miracle worker (as were others), made himself out to be a political deliverer (the Messiah), but was crucified as state criminal in 30-33 CE.  Something happened (which the author doesn’t scrutinize) which caused the disciples to believe he had resurrected.
3.       In 66 A.D. the Jews, under the command of the temple captain Eleazar, revolted against Rome, and actually won Jerusalem back for a time (4 years!).
4.       Rome dispatched a band of soldiers, but it wasn’t large enough, so they were quickly defeated, which boosted Jewish morale.
5.       Nero sent Vespasian and his son Titus in 68 CE to overthrow the revolt once and for all. He quickly subdued surrounding areas and they surrounded Jerusalem with 60,000 men.
6.       News of Nero’s suicide reached Vespasian, who forthwith left with his army to lay claim to the throne.
7.       With Vespasian as the new emperor, he sent his son Titus to take Jerusalem.
8.       Jerusalem had been fighting amongst itself in a series of small civil wars with several leaders claiming to be the new messiah.
9.       Titus took his time, re-conquered surrounding areas that unhinged during the confusion between Roman emperors. He laid siege to Jerusalem and waited. People weakened and starved, died in the streets, and many resorted to cannibalism.
10.   Titus finally came in swiftly and burned Jerusalem to the bloody ground. Temple and everything. 3 years later the nearby fortress of Masada was finally taken. The Jews were made an example of for other cultures that contemplated rebellion. The point was not a victory of the Empire over a people, but a ‘victory over a god’. Jews were now the eternal enemy of Rome. By the year 135 CE, Jerusalem ceased to exist in all official Roman documents.
11.   The Jews did not blame God for their downfall, but they blamed their selfish leaders, the Zealots, Sicarii, so-called prophets and messiahs. “They were the ones responsible for the Roman onslaught. They were the ones God had abandoned. In the years to come, the Jews would begin to distance themselves as much as possible from the revolutionary idealism that had led to the war with Rome. They would not altogether abandon their apocalyptic expectations…[but they] would be compelled by circumstance and by fear of Roman reprisal to develop an interpretation of Judaism that eschewed nationalism. They would come to view the Holy Land in more transcendental terms, fostering a messianic theology that rejected overt political ambitions, as acts of piety and the study of the law took the place of Temple sacrifices in the life of the observant Jew” (69).

Regarding the ideological history of the Jews:

1.       After the death of Jesus the zealot, James and Paul had been busy at work building up the story of Jesus resurrection and establishing Christianity. James stayed closely to a high valuation of Jewish custom with the new ideas, while Paul preferred to leave behind most Jewish custom. James and the Jewish leaders/apostles butted heads with Paul, and seemed to dominate church growth…until the destruction of Jerusalem.
2.       Paul writes his first epistle, 48 CE.
3.       Stories of Jesus circulated until about 50 CE, when some may have been written down in what is referred to as ‘Q’ (German Quelle= “source”). There is no literal Q source, but it is a hypothetical document assembled in the minds of modern scholars who have gathered what they think are similar sounding passages in Matthew and Luke.
4.       First Gospel (Mark) isn’t actually written until 70-71 CE, after the deflating defeat of the Jewish revolt. Matthew and Luke written around 90-100 CE. Gospel of John isn’t written until 100-120 CE and is heavily influenced by St. Paul. All gospels scrub their stories of any notion of Jesus as political messiah. They reinterpret Jesus as spiritual messiah to make it more palatable for surviving, Hellenized Jews, and for the Roman Empire.
5.       The Council of Nicaea in 313 CE sanctions/declares orthodox Christian doctrines.
6.       Council of bishops in Hippo Regius (modern-day Algeria) declare in 398 CE what documents comprise the Christian New Testament cannon.

The message Aslan hammers into the reader’s skull: Jesus was a man. He was a Jewish freedom-fighter. The Jesus-as-God story came later as a survival tactic of many Jews trying to preserve and reinterpret their national identity for their new situation, and it thrived because it blended with Greek philosophical ideas. “It was only natural for the Gospel writers to distance themselves from the Jewish independence movement by erasing, as much as possible, any hint of radicalism or violence, revolution or zealotry, from the story of Jesus, and to adapt Jesus’ words and actions to the new political situation in which they found themselves.”

Aslan may have been right after all, though little he knew, in his throw-out at the end of the introduction. What a person chooses to believe is a matter of faith. Aslan may not have quite succeeded in banishing all doubt from the believers mind regarding the Pauline Christ, yet it was a landslide victory in terms of MAKING the believer use his faith. The Christian apologists who assert that their ideas are completely reasonable and ‘believe-easy’, thinking to make fools of their detractors and those who wrestle with intellectual difficulties regarding Biblical doctrines, have been served. Have they not read their own Bible? “The righteous shall live by their faith.”


  1. It's worth noting, however, that Craig isn't the only person pointing out that Aslan's writings and theories are outdated (See link below). The majority of his viewpoints are a good 40 years old, and much historical Jesus scholarship has moved on from them, both liberal and conservative. Though I've only read excerpts, interviews with Aslan, and the reviews of others (rendering my view cloudy at best), it seems to me like Aslan discovered Atari and is claiming it's a brand new thing, while the rest of the Historical Jesus world is playing xBox. Scholars have been at this for years, and do it very well, so for Aslan to come around acting like he's got something groundbreaking going is a little bit annoying. I do intend to give him a fair shake all the same. One of the downfalls of the Historical Jesus scholars is how inaccessible they've made their material, either through availability or comprehension of the information itself (though John Dominic Crossan, Marcus Borg, and NT Wright do fairly well). It's nice to have someone making this stuff more available (much of his research seems pretty good). I guess I just don't like so many people calling it "new."

    On a different note, nice blog! I'm doing a lot of the same reading you're doing (just picked up The Courage to Be), so it's nice to read a different perspective. Cool stuff!

    1. http://www.patheos.com/blogs/peterenns/2013/08/two-scholars-respond-to-the-actual-content-of-reza-aslans-take-on-jesus/

  2. I'm not so sure I agree that the ideas are as 'outdated' as they are 'dated', but I get your point. Bottom line, for me, is that Aslan evidences himself as a great writer, whether or not he's working with old ideas or new, because a new generation of people are more willing to interact with these concepts than some of the more evangelical, magical explanations of Biblical narrative. Thanks for sharing.