A response to Reza Aslan’s “Zealot”

Creative writing or influential anti-Christian apologetic?

Reza Aslan’s book  Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth  (Westbourne Press, 2013) has really hit the headlines in the US media and online, aided hugely by an unfortunate interview on Fox News, in which the presenter could not seem to accept that a Muslim might legitimately choose to write a historical book about Jesus! Aslan came from a nominal Muslim family in Iran, moved with the family to the States at the time of the Islamic revolution, met up with evangelical Christians in the States and had a Christian conversion in his teens, but then began studying his new faith and other religions, and gave up his new faith reverting to Islam. This book explains how and why his view of Jesus changed. He now sees the Jesus of history as a nationalistic zealot, whom the Christian church turned into an internationally-minded peace-loving divine Christ and Son of God.
This is a new version of a commonly held-thesis; it is only a couple of years since the Oxford atheist Philip Pullman published his novel The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ, which is based similarly on the idea that the church turned Jesus the Jewish teacher/leader into a divine figure. Aslan’s book is not a novel, though it is engagingly and popularly written by someone who is a professor of creative writing at the University of California (as well as a respected writer on religions, notably Islam). For that reason it is likely to be increasingly influential, not only in the USA where it is already a New York Times bestseller, but also much more widely, not least in the Muslim world.
But its strength lies not just in its readability, but in its apparent historical plausibility:  Aslan has studied religion seriously, and has read widely about Jesus and the New Testament. His bibliography includes many very good scholars, including some leading mainstream and evangelical writers, such as F. F. Bruce, Craig Evans, and N. T. Wright. However, his book is largely a presentation of the views of sceptical rather than conservative scholars. He acknowledges that his view is not the only one possible and that others take other views, but he presents his own views – and asserts the absurdity of various conservative views – with a vigorous confidence that is not merited, to say the least. However, his ‘alternative’ view of Christian origins is as good as most other sceptical explanations, and he doesn’t buy into some of the sillier ideas that are around: e.g. he does not give much historical weight to the Gnostic gospels.
The picture he paints is of a Palestine that was a hot-bed of revolutionary fervour, with lots of Messianic claimants, who came unstuck at the hands of the Romans, and with a corrupt and hated religious hierarchy in the Jerusalem temple, who colluded with the Romans. Jesus as a carpenter’s son born in Nazareth (not Bethlehem) was probably uneducated and unable to read, and he was just another Messianic claimant, though he probably didn’t call himself Messiah but Son of man, on the basis of Daniel 7. He started out as a follower of John the Baptist. He was a popular exorcist and healer, one of many such magicians and faith healers in Palestine, but distinctive in offering his services free of charge. In a world of cruel disparities between rich and poor, he offered the poor the promise of divine deliverance in the revolutionary kingdom of God, which he expected to come very soon. He eventually threw down a direct challenge to the temple authorities and the Romans in the so-called ‘cleansing of the temple’; this led to his arrest, to (at most) a very quick appearance before Pilate, who was too brutal and would have been much too busy to bother with any formal trial, and so to his crucifixion, along with two other nationalist zealots. So Jesus the zealot died,  his hope for the kingdom of God having failed.
The New Testament version of Jesus, according to Aslan, represents an almost total makeover of the real Jesus, arising out of two things, first the Christians’ claim that Jesus had risen from the dead, and second the fall of Jerusalem after the Jewish revolt of AD 66-70. What gave rise to the idea of the resurrection is obscure, but it was this idea that kept the movement of Jesus going – in two streams. There was the strongly Jewish-Christian stream that remained based in Jerusalem and was led by James brother of Jesus. And then there was the liberal outward-looking stream associated with Stephen and then more significantly with Paul. The fall of Jerusalem spelled the effective end of the Jewish-Christian stream and the triumph of the Paul stream. All the gospels were written after AD70, John after AD100. It was a time of strong anti-Judaism when the church was courting Rome, and so the gospels, which all come directly or indirectly from the Paul stream, offer a picture of Jesus who is non-violent and outward-looking, whereas he had actually been interested only in the Jewish nation and he had not taken a stand against violence. Aslan quotes Matthew 10:34 on one of the opening pages of the book: ‘Do not think that I have come to bring peace on earth. I have not come to bring peace, but the sword’; he also specifically emphasizes the militancy of much of the Old Testament and of the Jewish tradition out of which Jesus came. The gospels  try to conceal the fact that Jesus was crucified by the Romans for sedition; they make out that Jesus was sent to his death by the Jews, but recognized as innocent by the Romans including Pilate.
The book is something of a tour de force, but it is largely a repackaging of well-known ideas of sceptical scholars. The particular thesis that Jesus was a revolutionary zealot was proposed by a Manchester professor, S. G. F. Brandon, in the 1960s, but scholars have almost universally found his arguments unpersuasive. What is true is that there was plenty of revolutionary resistance to the Romans in the period of the New Testament (including Barabbas, Luke 22:19), and also that the accusation against Jesus that justified Pilate’s execution of Jesus was that of sedition – claiming to be ‘king of the Jews’. But the case for Jesus being a nationalist zealot goes against a huge amount of evidence. Aslan present his case skilfully and confidently. But despite the confidence of his claims – positively about what happened negatively about the unreliability, indeed the absurdity, of the New Testament account – his arguments are seriously flawed. They are flawed in so many respects that it is hard to know where to start. There is, for example, the exaggerated impression he gives of first century Palestine as being so full of messianic pretenders and miracle-workers, that Jesus hardly stood out; there is his questionable assumption that Jesus would probably have been illiterate and uneducated, whereas it is likely that he would have had a basic education through home and synagogue.
But we notice four major problem areas. The first is his scepticism about the historical value of the gospels and so the gospel stories, from the virgin birth to the resurrection. He dates them all post AD70, and doubts if any were written by the authors of Christian tradition, except possibly for Luke. It is good that he makes that exception, for the case for Luke being author of Luke-Acts is very strong. The ‘we’ passages in the latter half of Acts point to the author having been with Paul on his journeys and so having been in Palestine for a period of years, with access to all sorts of eyewitnesses (Acts 21:15, 27:1). There is also a strong case for Mark being written by Mark, as has been argued most expertly by Professor Richard Bauckham in his Jesus and the Eyewitnesses. Of course, the text of the gospel doesn’t say that it is written by Mark, but there is evidence of the author having close touch with the events (e.g. he knew the sons of Simon of Cyrene, Mark 15:21). Even if the evidence is less strong for the other gospels, the ascription of all the gospels to the traditional authors is very early (early 2nd century), and it is quite possible that Matthew and John were somehow behind the gospels carrying their names, even if they did not actually write them down. As for the dates, the confident dating of them all to post 70AD is hazardous; there is a good chance that some or even possibly all of them antedate the fall of Jerusalem.
Aslan tells us that the evangelists radically rewrote the story of Jesus in the light of the church’s later convictions and context, and that they never intended their accounts to be read as history. The infancy stories are not found in the earliest Christian traditions (Mark’s gospel, the so-called ‘Q’ traditions used by Matthew and Luke, or in Paul’s writings), but were creative theology, getting Jesus to be born in Bethlehem (as the Messiah should be) and showing Jesus to be the fulfilment of the Old Testament. The stories of Jesus’ resurrection appearances were invented to counter anti-Christian polemic: so Jesus eats fish and invites people to touch him to counter the view that the resurrection was just a hallucination; a guard is set over the tomb to counter the accusation that Christians stole the body. This is polemic not history.
But this view of the gospels not being intended as history really doesn’t work: Luke in his prologue – immediately before his stories about the birth of Jesus – suggests that he is very interested in getting the story right based on eyewitness testimony; John too emphasizes that his story is based on witness, ‘so that you may believe’.  It looks as though they wanted their accounts to be believed, and that must in any case be presupposed if they were trying to change what people had previously believed about the story of Jesus, as Aslan suggests.
The gospel accounts of Jesus are much much more credible that Aslan repeatedly allows. There are real historical puzzles, such as the reference to the census of Quirinius in Luke 2. But, to take a few examples, Aslan’s dismissal of Matthew’s account of Herod the Great killing the children of Bethlehem is cavalier; true, it is not mentioned in Josephus, but Josephus does make it clear, as Aslan notes, that Herod was insanely jealous at the end of his reign, killing three of his own sons, one wife and one father-in-law, because he feared them. The killing of the children in Bethlehem thus makes good historical sense. Later in the story, Aslan notes how the gospels say that Herod junior (Antipas) arrested John the Baptist and had him executed because of his criticism of his marriage to Herodias, whereas the Jewish historian Josephus suggests it was because John was too popular and was seen to be a threat. But Aslan’s dismissal of Mark’s account as a fanciful folktale and his preference for Josephus are completely unnecessary: the two accounts are quite compatible: a popular religious leader publicly attacking his recent controversial marriage was definitely dangerous for Herod and it made sense to deal with him. As for the trial of Jesus, Aslan’s confidence that Pilate would not have taken any serious interest in Jesus and would have had anyone accused of sedition sent to execution without hesitation and that the Jews would never have said ‘We have no king but Caesar’ is a conspicuous example of a modern scholar or reader assuming that they understand the dynamics and psychology of an ancient situation in a way that is just not possible. Being a representative of the foreign superpower in the religiously volatile Middle East was (and is!) a very tricky business, and Pilate had put his foot in it with the Jews before; he might well have found the case of Jesus very delicate, as well as very intriguing. And he might well have been very nervous over  threatening words about referring him to Caesar.
A second area of weakness in the book is Aslan’s assumptions about Paul. He may be right in thinking that Stephen was an influence on Paul; Acts hints as much. But Aslan’s view that it was Stephen (not Paul as others have argued) who launched a ‘wholly new religion’ proclaiming a divine Jesus (contrary to the Jewish religion and the religion of Jesus) is remarkable speculation and flimsily based. His views on Paul, effectively Stephen’s successor in promulgating the new religion, are equally questionable: he argues (a) that Paul had ‘an extraordinary lack of interest’ in the historical Jesus, and (b) that Paul was at loggerheads with the Jewish Christians of Jerusalem.
I have argued extensively – most recently in my Did St Paul Get Jesus Right? – that Paul was very interested in the history of Jesus, and that he did know a lot of that history, and that indeed he is an important and early witness to all sorts of things that Aslan sees effectively as post AD70 Christian inventions.
Perhaps the most important example is Paul’s testimony to the resurrection of Jesus in 1 Corinthians 15: we can date this quite confidently to around AD55 (and significantly Paul says that this is a tradition which he ‘received’, which even sceptical scholars suggest may take us back to the time of Paul’s conversion in the early 30s). Aslan knows this, but he does not make the connection between this and his view that the stories of the resurrection appearances all emerged near the end of the century in response to hostile questionings about the resurrection. Paul of course does not tell us in 1 Corinthians the actual stories of how Jesus appeared ‘first’ to Peter, ‘then to the twelve…. then to more than 500 brothers at once…, then to James, then to all the apostles.’ But that is because he is simply referring to these appearances as part of his argument for the historicity of the resurrection. It is inconceivable that he or his readers had no knowledge of the stories behind the headlines; we can infer confidently that the stories were around and were known – at the time of this very early letter of Paul and probably much earlier.
Paul attests more indirectly all sorts of other sayings or stories of Jesus – Jesus’ teaching about divorce, his parables about the second coming, his institution of the Last Supper, his sending of the apostles, possibly the story of Peter ‘the rock’ and about the virgin birth, and so on. The existence of strong oral traditions about Jesus dating back to Paul and earlier mean that even if Aslan were right about Mark being written post AD70, Mark and the other gospel-writers were not telling the stories from scratch: the stories were well known in the Christian church, and accounts which very radically changed the story would not easily have been accepted.
As for the idea that there was a major rift between Paul and the Jewish Christians led by James with Peter, that is an old chestnut, going back to the 19th century. But it is no more plausible now than then. There were certainly tensions between Paul and conservative Jewish Christians, and Paul is very honest about these (notably in Galatians); but there is no need to question what he says there about how Peter vacillated, nor about how agreements were worked out, nor about his own commitment to working with Jerusalem.
As for regarding all the gospels as all deeply influenced by Paul and his letters and so presenting a Pauline take on Jesus, that is not easy to sustain. Matthew in particular is strongly Jewish in flavour, and has even been considered anti-Pauline, for example where Jesus affirms every tiniest detail of the law in chapter 5:17-20. I don’t believe Matthew is anti-Pauline, but his gospel does seem to reflect something of the Jewish Christian perspective, such as is also reflected in the letter of James.
There have been attempts to reverse the argument that I have put forward in my books about Paul echoing Jesus’ teaching and to argue instead that points of similarity between Paul and Jesus reflect the gospels’ dependence on Paul. But, although it is quite possible that the evangelists were sometimes influenced by Paul, the evidence is often strong that Paul was drawing on ‘the word of the Lord’, not the evangelists on the word of Paul; so to take just one example, in 1 Thessalonians 5 Paul compares the coming of the Lord to that of a thief coming in the night; this has a parallel in Matthew and Luke where Jesus tells a parable to the same effect. Are we to suppose (a) that Paul compared the coming of his master to that of a thief, and (b) that the author of ‘Q’ put this idea on the mouth of Jesus? It is far far more likely that the famous story-teller Jesus used the controversial analogy of himself, and that Paul and other early Christians got it from him.
The third point of weakness is Aslan’s discussion of the resurrection. In one way we could say that it is a strength, in that he recognizes how massively important the resurrection was. It was this that differentiated this messianic movement from others. He also seems to accept that Jesus’ followers genuinely believed that they had encountered the risen Jesus. But he sidesteps the issue of what it was that actually happened, hiding behind the unsatisfactory defence (quite often used by scholars) that you cannot discuss something like the resurrection as a historian, because the supernatural/miraculous nature of the event puts it beyond the reach of the historian. However, even if that view were to be accepted, it should hardly be used by Aslan who obviously does not accept the New Testament’s supernatural explanation of the resurrection and for whom it should therefore be quite legitimate and possible to try to explain historically how the Christians came to their belief. (He doesn’t hesitate to give historical arguments for disbelieving much in the gospel accounts.) Probably the best sceptical view is that it was some sort of hallucinations which the first Christians experienced.
But that view of the resurrection has been exhaustively studied and forcefully refuted, for example by N. T. Wright in his The Resurrection of the Son of God. Aslan refers to Wright’s book in commenting on first century ideas of resurrection, but he shows no sign of engaging with its substantial arguments about the reliability of the accounts and about the theological implications of the resurrection.
If the case is as good as Wright claims – and Christians have traditionally claimed – then this points to Jesus being much more than a disappointed messianic pretender. Aslan may find the nationalist Jesus who came to a sticky end – rather than the Jesus of Christian faith – ‘someone worth believing in’ (the last phrase of his book), but I doubt if many will feel that about the Jesus he portrays.
But his portrayal of Jesus is the fourth area to question. There are serious questions about his method. Having raised all sorts of questions about the gospels’ reliability and argued that they are to no small extent theological fiction, he cheerfully writes his story of Jesus using those very same gospels, and not just Mark and ‘Q’, to which he gives priority, but also material that is unique to Matthew and even to John, verses which many sceptical scholars would question. There is more than a suspicion that he is selecting what he wants in order to make a case, rather than working as the responsible historian he claims to be.
The case that he makes out for Jesus being a zealous Jewish nationalist, who was not opposed to violence, flies in the face of the evidence presented in the gospels (our main historical sources), which show Jesus as resisting all attempts to make him into such a nationalist leader and as offering a very different and counter-cultural message. Of course, for Aslan this is the result of the great makeover of Jesus.
His argument involves two significant moves. First, he points to Matthew 15:24 and 10:5, verses only found in Matthew’s gospel, where Jesus does speak of his mission and that of the disciples as to the lost sheep of the house of Israel, to show that Jesus was a focussed Jewish nationalist (which is certainly not Matthew’s inference, see 8:11,12, 28:19). Then secondly, he explains that the texts where Jesus appears to be a peace-maker, notably those verses in both Matthew and Luke (‘Q’ material) where Jesus speaks of turning the other cheek and loving one’s enemies, refer exclusively to one’s fellow Jews, and have nothing to do with how to treat foreigners and outsiders. But Aslan himself emphasizes the Roman imperial context of Jesus and Jesus’ reservations about Roman rule, and it is hard to imagine Jesus’ hearers understanding his reference to enemies as excluding the Romans – of all people. In the Q text referred to Jesus contrasts loving one’s neighbours, who could indeed be seen as Jews, with the far more demanding ‘love your enemies’, which must surely include people such as the Samaritans and the Romans (Matthew 5:41 refers to going the second mile with one who forces you to go one mile, with probably refers to carrying a Roman soldier’s bag for a mile).
Aslan’s portrayal of Jesus as narrowly nationalistic is in tension with the evidence that Jesus was notorious for mixing with ‘sinners’ and outsiders. Jesus did have a ‘to the Jew first’ policy during his ministry, but also a strikingly wider vision. (Intriguingly Aslan keeps the parable of the Good Samaritan in his account, but sees it as an anti-clerical anti-temple parable, not as offering a revolutionary view of outsiders.)
Paul in Romans 12 seems to echo Jesus’ striking teaching on love of enemies in writing to Gentiles, and it is much more plausible to explain the early church’s openness to the Gentile world as having its roots in Jesus’ teaching than to say that this is a distortion of Jesus by Paul, Stephen or others (though the first Christians did struggle with exactly how to incorporate Gentiles in the church). It is much more plausible to explain the strong emphasis on the call to peace and sacrificial love in the New Testament as having its roots firmly in Jesus’ life and teaching than as something that Paul added, let alone as something that the Christians emphasised post AD70, in order to distance themselves from revolutionary Judaism. Yes, Jesus speaks in Matthew 10:34 of bringing not peace but a sword, but that is quite clearly understood metaphorically by Matthew as referring to the controversial effect that the mission of Jesus would have (contrast the non-metaphorical warning of 26:52 ‘those who take the sword will perish by the sword’); in Matthew 10 the disciples of Jesus are called to give freely, not to fight.
Aslan notes, as many have correctly noted, the dangers of understanding Jesus to suit oneself, reflecting one’s own interests. Whether his own studies of jihadist Islam have consciously or unconsciously affected his reading both of first century Judaism and of the historical Jesus is impossible to say. It is a skilfully presented reading, and there are things to learn from it – Christians often make Jesus as they would like him to be, and do not appreciate some of the nitty gritty of his context which Aslan portrays. But his portrayal is flawed, and the Jesus who rose from the dead and inspired the first Christians is much more like what we find in the New Testament than in this 21st century best-seller.

David Wenham, is a a New Testament theologian, who previously taught at Wycliffe Hall, Oxford and Trinity College, Bristol.  His previous works include ‘From Good News to Gospels‘ (Eerdmans, 2018) and Paul: Follower of Jesus or Founder of Christianity? (Eerdmans 1995), and many others.