Aslan, Reza. Zealot. The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth. Random House, 2013.
Reviewed by Sheldon Greaves, Ph.D.
Zealot first came to my attention when I was teaching classes on the New Testament early Christianity at Stanford University the year the book was published. Several people in my classes had read it, but I did not get the opportunity to read it for myself until some time later.
Ever since the Jesus Seminar rocketed into the public eye with their radical approach to the much older question of the “historical Jesus,” books about the central figure of Christianity have continued to appear in a steady stream. They range across the spectrum of faith, skepticism, and cynicism. I applaud this activity, both out of personal intellectual interest, but also because for far too long the persona of Jesus or, more precisely, a heavily edited and even stylized persona, has distorted both the significance of Christianity and its message.
Enter Reza Aslan, a Muslim who has acquired the academic tools needed to seriously study and write about Christianity, much to the confusion of a certain news network. He has also willingly thrust himself into the public debate on religion in general as an informed and reasonable voice to counter the intellectual dilettantism found among the so-called “New Atheists.” His is a welcome addition to the public intellectual landscape.
Aslan’s book is a worthwhile read on several points. First and foremost, it delivers on its subtitle; it is an outstanding introduction to the “Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth.” I still maintain that the best description of those times is the opening paragraph of Dicken’s A Tale of Two Cities, but Aslan gives us the details. He describes a people riven by political, religious, and economic strife, much of it self-inflicted, but taking place under the Roman occupation. We see the fragmented society, the gaping chasm between Haves and Have Nots, and the growth of an ill-defined but very present apocalyptic and messianic hope that Christian theologian Hans Küng summarized thus, “The world must be changed! Positively and radically changed.”
What many casual readers on Christianity do not know is that there were multiple uprisings and rebellions, all of them bloody, all of them not ending well for those who joined them. Further, each of the bandits, pretenders, madmen, or wannabes wrapped their anti-establishment ardor in a messianic mantle. The vast disagreements about the Messiah–even how many of them there would be—made it easy for fraudsters to claim that role. Aslan reviews this aspect of history with clarity and excellent detail. He is well-acquainted with his sources and, for the most part, uses them well.
The primary problem with the book is its title, Zealot. It is easy for the casual reader to assume that Aslan assumes that Jesus was a member of the Zealot party, which he most definitely was not. Even Aslan himself acknowledges this well into the book. However, “zealot” is also a generic term for someone of that period who had a higher-than normal antagonism towards Roman rule. If we accept this adjustment, then Jesus can fairly be called a Zealot; there is very little we can verify about him historically, but one thing we do know is that he was executed as an enemy of the Roman state. This is a separate question from that of the redemptive sacrifice that lies at the root of Christian theology. The historical fact is that Jesus was executed because he pissed off a Roman named Status Quo.
This antipathy between Jesus and Rome is the guiding star for Aslan’s reading of and interpretation of Jesus in the New Testament. He presents a Jesus defined mainly by an implacable opposition to Roman rule. While readers, myself included, may quibble that his political and economic agenda was broader than that, Aslan’s book is still valuable because it provides a good foundation for further discussion into the nature of his teaching and activism. This is fortunate, because the details of his ministry are where we find some of the truly puzzling aspects of Jesus and the movement he began.
One puzzle we have already alluded to, which is the exact reason why Jesus was put to death. Walter Herzog, in his wonderful study Parables as Subversive Speech; Jesus as Pedagogue of the Oppressed takes the same point of departure as Aslan, that the defining historical fact of Jesus’ life is his execution as an enemy of Rome. He points out that time and necessity can alter or distort the original intent of teachings, and then goes on to show how non-traditional readings of the parables show them in many cases to be narratives that unmask the mechanisms that oppress the vulnerable and preserve the power structures that are responsible. Herzog’s analysis is that Jesus’ radicalism was not so much anti-Roman as anti-inequality. Indeed, the earliest Christian hymns such as the Magnificat/Song of Mary (Luke 1:46-55) or the Nunc dimitus/Song of Simeon (Luke 2:29–32) make no mention of overthrowing Rome per se, but do speak of elevating the downtrodden at the expense of the rich and powerful. In Herzog’s reading, this did not become a problem until it threatened Roman interests, at which point Jesus was taken and crucified.
Another, equally challenging puzzle, is why Christianity survived at all. In all likelihood, it should have died along with its namesake, since it was Roman policy to kill not only the ringleaders of revolt or sedition but everyone associated with them; hence Peter’s panicked denials that he had anything to do with Jesus. Yet the movement survived. Why?
While Aslan points to the cleansing of the Temple as a violent act of sedition—one that is recorded in all four Gospels—I question whether this was as great an affront to the Romans as Aslan claims it to be. It was certainly a wild dust-up, and a direct challenge to the High Priesthood, and the triumphal entry into Jerusalem might have raised some Roman eyebrows, but we have no evidence that there was lethal force implied or involved. Nor do we see a direct call for the overthrow of Rome, in spite of the urging of Jesus’ followers. Aslan points out, as Herzog does, that texts and events are commonly repackaged to meet the needs of the hour, and the Gospels may have been sanitized to tone down the true nature of Jesus’ movement. But this does not ring true; had the movement been otherwise, if it had not embraced the nonviolence that we see in the Gospels, it seems all but impossible that the Romans would have tolerated it.
Instead, not only were the disciples allowed to live, they operated quite openly in Jerusalem, apparently with the approval of the authorities. Another fascinating clue comes to us via Rodney Stark’s excellent study The Rise of Christianity, where he points to evidence that Jesus had sympathizers in some high places, and that this is another reason, if not the main reason, why the followers of Jesus were not eliminated along with their leader.
Zealot provides plenty of grist for exploring these and other questions too often passed over when considering the life and ministry of Jesus. Apart from the unfortunate title choice, it is an interesting and quite painless introduction to the earliest days of Christianity and the sacred rage to shape a better world.
Jesus was executed because an apostate Jewish leadership hated him. That’s the reason. “He came unto his own and his own received him not.” There is no reason to believe that, absent this, he would have been executed. After his arrest, Jesus was taken not to the Romans, but to the Sanhedrin, where he was summarily abused. Jesus was not then delivered to the Romans because of the Sanhedrin’s deep respect for Roman law. Had they the authority to kill Jesus, the Sanhedrin would have gladly done so ASAP. But since only Rome could do this, off Jesus went to Pilate – who bent over backwards to release Jesus. “I find no fault in him”. Jesus was diverted to Herod and then returned. Had the Jewish rent-a-mob shouted, “Give us Jesus!” rather than Barabbas, Jesus would have been released, right? Jesus didn’t “piss off’ the Roman status quo – what Roman ever took preemptive action against him? – he pissed off the Jewish status quo, which, in turn, pissed off Pilate and pushed all his buttons. Absent this, Jesus would have been a free man.
Jesus told Roman soldiers to be satisfied with their wages and told the tax collectors to assess no more than the tax due; he made one of the latter his Apostle. He engaged no Roman officials nor preached against them. He didn’t march on Rome and read them the riot act. His contribution to ending slavery and other social ills via political activism was nil. Politics wasn’t the religion of Jesus, but it is often the modern world’s (and scholar’s) substitute for religion, the scales on which everything present and past is weighed.
I will read this book with interest. If, as the review asserts, the author’s voice runs counter to the “intellectual dilettantism found among the so-called ‘New Atheists,’” I shall be rewarded.
Tim, it might be worth it to compare and contrast the different execution stories in the Gospels, and see why many scholars view the stories as we have them today with some suspicion. What actually happened is a separate concern for scholars than what the texts claim happened.
I would ask, “Where is the historical evidence that makes Jesus’ crucifixion a fact?”
Nice review. Just finished listening to the audiobook myself. I thought Aslan’s critical examination of early Christian history and the rivalry between James and Paul was particularly engaging. Good read.
The four Gospels are unanimous that a group of soldiers, with Judas in tow, sought out Jesus and arrested him, that it was the ear of the High Priest’s servant (not a Roman) that was struck off, that Jesus was delivered to Caiaphas before ever seeing a Roman authority, that Jesus was then delivered to Pilate, who was reluctant to condemn him and willing to release him but was browbeaten into sentencing him. There is nothing ridiculous in this scenario; it is not some out-of-left-field conspiracy theory. The Jewish leaders hated Jesus, who had condemned their wickedness, and got Rome to do the dirty work.
The bedrock issue is this: Was Jesus Christ different from every other mortal man who ever lived or was he a mortal – born in no different manner – like everyone else who ever lived? I get that historians must accept the latter; their output then depends on how far they are willing to accept the Gospel narratives as reliable. Opinions vary.
(That Jesus was different than other mortals helps explain Pilate’s behavior. Correctly identified by Aslan as a brutal loather of Jews, Pilate knew there was something “different” about Jesus; so did Pilate’s wife. It gave them both pause. Also with the case of the trial before the Sanhedrin, which for Aslan presents problems “too numerous to count.” The trial “violates nearly every requirement laid down by Jewish law for a legal proceeding” [p. 157]. It may do so, but that’s the point; that is what wicked men do – violate the law. Jesus was an affront to Jewish leaders in a way that other men were not.)
Zealot is the latest in a long line of books telling us we don’t know Jesus. Aslan is explicit in what he is about:
“If we expose the claims of the gospels to the heat of historical analysis, we can purge the scriptures of their literary and theological flourishes [which for him are legion] and forge a far more accurate picture of the Jesus of history. Indeed, if we commit to placing Jesus firmly within the social, religious, and political context of the era in which he lived – an era marked by the slow burn of a revolt against Rome that would forever transform the faith and practice of Judaism – then, in some ways, his biography writes itself” (p. xxxi)
Aslan, following earlier variations on this theme, argues vigorously for a Jesus few Christians and no Latter-day Saint will recognize. It’s kind of a neat trick, too, since Aslan admits that there are only two facts we know about Jesus: He was a Jew and he was executed for sedition by Romans. Not much to go on, you’d think, but Aslan confidently fills in this (large) gap between birth and death by arguing that Jesus is best explained as one of many zealous Jewish nationalists fighting against Roman rule. That’s what Jesus was about. What the other zealots and messiah-wannabes did, so too did Jesus. There was little or no larger spiritual agenda, no ultimate post-mortal salvation for all mankind (Jew and non-Jew) for which Jesus is personally responsible and his resurrection essential. All those compelling sayings about treating people right apply between Jews, not between Jews and outsiders. Jewish nationalism and exceptionalism was his sole concern. It was the later church that “mixed and matched the different depictions of the messiah found in the Hebrew Bible to create a candidate that transcended any particular messianic model or expectation” (p. 135).
Thus, the Beatitudes should be read as “more than anything else, a promise of impending deliverance form subservience and foreign rule” (p.119), which “cannot happen without the destruction of the present order. God’s rule cannot be established without the annihilation of the present leaders” (ibid.). In fact, Jesus’s message was “akin to saying the end of the Roman Empire is at hand” (ibid.). So much for the peacemakers. Aslan holds that Jesus was a disciple of John the Baptist and not his superior in any way.
Well, Jesus was wrong and the Roman Empire didn’t end and things got worse for Palestine, not better, and so a new narrative was needed. The (much later) Gospels and writings of Paul both supply this. (Aslan considers Luke to be “Paul’s sycophant” [p. 185] and depicts Paul as one who believed he was the first Apostle and the one to whom Isaiah’s prophecy of “a light to the Gentiles” properly applied rather than to Jesus. Go Paul.)
So, as the “real” historical Jesus will no longer do, the Gospel writers stepped up and supplied a fictional life of Jesus (or a life of a fictitious Jesus) and a new spin on the Gospel preached by him. As for Paul, he “shows no interest at all in the historical Jesus” (p. 187). And why should he, since he is dismissive, if not derisive, of church leaders in Jerusalem and intent on converting Christianity into a gentile religion with a gentile theology.
Aslan’s historical Jesus would be dumbfounded and aghast at the results. He would hardly have recognized himself as presented in any of our Gospels; He never lived that life and never preached a Gospel of peace. Christianity can believe what it wants, of course, but its Jesus is not the historical Jesus.
The “historical” Jesus presented here is not the one who visited either the Nephites or Joseph Smith. (The virgin birth is out, as it always is.) He did not tell everyone on the planet they needed to pray to the Father in his name.
If this is your cup of (caffeine-free) tea, then have at it and good luck. Reviewers on both the Christian and Jewish sides of the house have not been kind, pointing out Zealot’s numerous deficiencies:
Zealot describes vividly the milieu of 1st Century Palestine. But If you think Jesus may have some wee bit to do with heaven and the fulfillment of prophecy and your (not to say everyone’s) very real salvation, and that God would see to it that the truth about Jesus, and not a fiction, would endure, you will need to seek elsewhere for enlightenment.
For correctives to the scholarly abandonment of the traditional Jesus and the Gospels, see Luke Timothy Johnson, The Real Jesus, and Craig Evans, Fabricating Jesus.
“Who do men say that I am?” Indeed.