Reza Aslan’s Jesus the Zealot

It’s about time. A Palestinian Jesus has made it to the top of the New York Times and Amazon bestseller lists with Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth by Muslim writer Reza Aslan.

First off, let’s get to the question of whether a Muslim has the right to pen a critical evaluation of the founder of Christianity. Just as much right as Christians have to expound on Islam and its founder Muhammad. And Christians have been wide ranging in their evaluations of Muhammad.

At one end of the spectrum is fundamentalist evangelist Pat Robertson’s famous 2002 FOX News interview in which he declared that Muhammad was “an absolute wild-eyed fanatic … a robber and a brigand.” A more balanced (perhaps unduly favorable) perspective is expressed by well-known liberal commentator Karen Armstrong in her 2001 book Muhammad: Legacy of a Prophet. And there have been numerous non-Muslim commentaries in-between.

A self-described American Muslim (of Iranian heritage), Aslan “found Jesus” and briefly converted to Christianity at an evangelical youth camp at age 15. As a re-converted Muslim, today he claims to be a “more genuinely committed disciple of Jesus of Nazareth than I ever was of Jesus Christ.” He concludes the book with the statement 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.”

Whether as an anti-American jihadist or non-practicing Muslim proud of his American heritage, any Muslim has as much right to talk and write about Jesus as anyone else. The fact that Reza Aslan is up-front about his biases and sympathies is so much the better.

Make no mistake about it. Zealot is one of the best-written, most coherent books about the Jesus of history and faith to appear in recent years. Three features of this book are most compelling:

1. Aslan clearly separates the life of Jesus the man from the post-resurrection identity of Jesus the Christ. Jesus is planted as a flesh and blood Jewish man within the chronological time span of human history. As much as any work to date, this book succinctly articulates the case for Jesus as a revolutionary – a Zealot – who sought to rid his native Palestine of the economically and spiritually corrupt practices of first century Roman authority and Jewish religious leadership. To the extent that the Christian New Testament presents the “kingdom” as more a heavenly than earthly realm, that is because the gospels and epistles are argued (by Aslan) as written after the AD 70 destruction of Jerusalem. In effect, rather than tell the story of Jesus as it really was, Aslan claims that the goal of the post-70 writers was to rescue Jesus from a failed human mission by elevating him to a divine and timeless role as the Christ – the Messiah, one with God – for Gentiles as well as Jews.

2. Zealot is not shy about presenting apparent conflicts between various canonical and non-canonical accounts of Jesus life and mission. Aslan does a great job to accentuate rather than (the more typical Christian predilection) to smooth the edges as happens, for example, between the accounts of Jesus life by the three synoptic gospel writers or in the New Testament’s presentation of subsequent early church conflicts between Paul and James. Based on a detailed review of the gospel accounts, Aslan presents a compelling case as to why Jesus may never have viewed himself as Messiah and likely would have opposed his subsequent deification as Christ – on a par equal to God the Father.

3. Aslan rightly ends his survey of apostolic church authority with James the brother of Jesus rather than Paul the self-appointed missionary to a more receptive non-Jewish audience. As Aslan notes, “Paul may have considered himself an apostle, but it seems that few if any of the other (early Christian) movement leaders agreed.” Aslan suggests that James was getting the upper hand in this intra-church feud. Paul’s influence even with churches he started may have been on the wane due to James’ efforts to keep the diaspora in line with its roots in both Judaism and the Jesus of history.

James may have won the battle but lost the war due to his early execution at the hands of the Jewish high priest, the subsequent Roman destruction of Jerusalem and attempted obliteration of all things Jewish, and by a re-crafted Pauline message that played better to the culture and mythologies of Rome and its subject empire. In summary, Aslan writes that “it would be the contest between these two bitter and openly hostile adversaries (James and Paul) that, more than anything else, would shape Christianity as the global religion we know today.” Unfortunately, the shape Christianity has taken reflects less of the Jesus of history than the post-resurrection manipulations of Paul the self-anointed apostle.

Despite the outstanding presentation of Zealot, Aslan unfortunately overplays his hand – in at least two respects.

First, as the title of the book clearly implies, Jesus is portrayed by Aslan as a zealot – a term commonly associated with persons seeking to overturn the economic and political authority of the day, by violence if necessary.  However, the more detailed narrative backs off this claim. Jesus is one who has zeal for God’s house but is not necessarily of the same ilk as the numerous wannabe and actual revolutionaries of first century Palestine. Near the middle of the book, Aslan explains a bit more precisely that:

To be clear, Jesus was not a member of the Zealot Party that launched the war with Rome, because no such party could be said to exist for another thirty years after his death. Nor was Jesus a violent revolutionary bent on armed rebellion, though his views on the use of violence were far more complex than it is often assumed.

A panoply of writers over the last two centuries have attempted to pigeon-hole Jesus – variously as a mystic, charismatic, healer, do-gooder, preacher of prosperity gospel, social revolutionary, and now as zealot.

Jesus is all and yet none of the above. History has attempted but so far failed to pigeon-hole Jesus into any of these or other singular categories. While perhaps helping to sell books, Aslan’s appellation – as zealot – sells his work short.

When Jesus looked at this site, he saw Herod's temple. Did he predict its destruction in advance or was his prophecy inserted into the gospels after the leveling had taken place at the hands of the Romans in 70 AD? And did Jesus foresee the Muslim Dome of the Rock that would eventually take its place?

When Jesus looked at this site, he saw Herod’s temple. Did he predict its destruction in advance or was his prophecy inserted into the gospels after the leveling had taken place at the hands of the Romans in 70 AD? And did Jesus foresee the Muslim Dome of the Rock that would eventually take its place?

Second, like many critical thinkers and scholars, Aslan flatly states (without evidence) that all of the gospels are written after the 70 AD destruction of Jerusalem. He also summarily rejects John’s gospel as an essentially bogus work – supposedly written much later to further buttress Paul’s claims of Jesus as Christ – as God.

Nowhere in Zealot does this reader find any definitive evidence or explanation to support these conclusions, not even in the fairly extensive notes at the end of the book. If Aslan is in league with much of the current scholarly community, the overwhelming reason for this late dating appears to be the presupposition that, since no one can foretell the future, any gospel that predicts the destruction of Jerusalem must have been written after than before 70 AD. This is logic not based on rules of evidence but on personal and/or scholarly bias.

Admittedly, it is high time for fundamentalist Christians to consider what it means if the gospels were shaped (or spun) to reflect political conditions and realities in place long after rather than during Jesus’ actual sojourn on earth. At the very least, this suggests a spin toward the Jesus of Paul (Jesus as God) rather than Jesus of James (as messiah or divine representative of God).

On the flip side, commentators like Aslan either need to provide clear historically verifiable evidence for a post-70 dating of the gospels or to straightforwardly address the implications of their spin in view of the contingency that these accounts may well have been written earlier instead of later. If the gospel accounts were written by the traditionally ascribed writers with first-hand (albeit sometimes conflicting) information or direct access to those with first hand contact with Jesus, do the arguments of Zealot still stand? 

If Jesus really did prophesy the destruction of the Temple and Jerusalem, does Aslan still present a coherent view of the Jesus of history? Or do his arguments crumble?


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