An indepth review of Reza Aslan’s “Zealot: the Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth”
(If you want a shorter version, try here)
Reza Aslan’s Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth is one of the latest forays into popular level historical Jesus studies. Such “quests” for the historical Jesus are nothing new and date back to at least the early 19th century (here is an accessible intro as well as information about the Jesus Seminar, which stands in this tradition). The public, and the media especially, tends to have a short historical memory, so Aslan’s book has been seen as a ground-breaking blockbuster revealing the “real truth” about Jesus, the church, etc. Common to other revisionists such as Bart Ehrman, Aslan has a gift for making a complex subject very approachable (doing in print what skeptics such as Penn Gilette and Bill Maher have done on camera). Like these others, Aslan presents a picture which is comfortingly academic while glossing over many of the more difficult areas. What he gets right, he does well, but what he gets wrong tends to be ignored or explained away, often with a hand-wave toward that greased-pig of “scholarly consensus.” For this reason, this analysis of his work is divided broadly into three sections: the good (what he gets right and does well), the bad (where his presuppositions are unexamined and difficulties ignored) and the ugly (things he gets just wrong or appears to gloss over, apparently to support a faltering thesis).
Introduction: what’s the basic idea?
Aslan’s thesis is simple enough, though he does have a couple of unique twists to what is essentially a theologically liberal approach to historical Jesus studies. 1st century Palestine was an area in political and economic upheaval with a restive peasant Jewish population oppressed both by Romans and their own privileged countrymen. On to this stage comes Jesus, the latest in a line of aspiring messiahs. Essentially an ordinary peasant carpenter, Jesus lives and ultimately dies for the most obvious of reasons, the reason nailed over his cross: he was a seditionist and political troublemaker. Rather than fading away like so many others, however, his followers try to keep alive his revolutionary sentiments, even as the movement fractures along Jew/Gentile and revolutionary/pacifist lines. The Romans ultimately decide for them, destroying the traditional revolutionary thread with the razing of Jerusalem in 70 CE. The remaining church, struggling for life, adopts the writings of an early heretic (Paul/Saul of Tarsus) and combines this with some unique features to make a religion more palatable and less threatening for the Romans, giving birth to the Gentile church we know today. The real Jesus of history is largely a cipher, since what we possess is really more of a synthesis of these later thoughts cast backwards onto Jesus as the most convenient hook. Unlike many popular-level works, Aslan also provides a bibliography and index, in addition to a relatively rich “notes” section where he cites the sources for many of his reconstructions and theories.
Part the First: the good
As you can tell, I’m not a fan of Aslan’s overall thesis, but let’s start with what he gets right. He says he has spent 20 years studying Jesus (xix-xx), and in general it shows. He has obviously read deeply, if not widely, and is fluent in many historical texts and studies that usually escape the notice of typical church-goers. His overall picture of 1st century Palestine is mostly accurate: it was a time of political and economic upheaval, though he admits that the particular time of Jesus’ ministry was unusually politically stable. The picture he paints of Jesus’ day is down-to-earth, and he has a knack for making it familiar to modern readers; he nowhere explicitly states this, but it doesn’t take a genius to see that the reason that it is easy to appreciate is that it looks not unlike modern-day Palestine, with economic and political issues in constant foment and no easy resolution in sight. Throughout the first two chapters, he is also careful to point out necessary contrasts to today: the religious background of 2nd temple Judaism was inescapable, as was the Roman occupation, and these are not the sorts of images that jibe with depictions in “The Jesus Storybook Bible”: this is gritty real life, nasty, brutish and short, and who you knew and the wealth you had determined who you were.
On to this scene comes Jesus, and from the beginning, this Jesus is neither the hair-parted-down-the-middle popular Protestant Jesus, nor the ever-suffering Catholic Jesus. He’s just Jesus, a peasant Jew, trained by his father in the only path open to him as a landless Jew, but he has imbibed enough of the revolutionary brew around him to really appreciate the religious, social, and political issues that occupy everyone else in the region. Aslan is to be commended so far: this is a real Jesus, truly human and growing up as a human, not a popular not-quite-touching-the-ground Jesus. If this Jesus appeared on the streets of America, he would neither understand nor be understood, for both linguistic and cultural reasons. This is a humbling realization for many, and would be an excellent tonic to take before trying to interpret any New Testament text. Unfortunately, Aslan himself soon forgets humility, and the Jesus he creates becomes so typical, so ordinary, so very “1st century zealot Jew” that there ceases to be any reason for him to be the basis for a new religion. But I am jumping ahead.
The Bad: unstated presuppositions, scholarly ‘consensus’ and theory-driven interpretation
As a creative writing professor, Aslan starts out his book with two ‘hooks’ to draw in the reader. One is the prolog of part I, a reenactment of the assassination of the high priest Jonathan in the mid-50s CE and it is a nice piece of writing, though perhaps a bit melodramatic in spots (“the insufferable stench of slaughter”, 6). The other (and in my opinion, the more enlightening) hook is his autobiographical aside in the “Author’s Note.” Aslan was (and, perhaps by his own conception, still is) a Christian. Though raised nominally Muslim, he had a typical summer-camp conversion to Christianity, embracing Jesus in the vigorous American evangelical tradition, inviting Him into his life and becoming a diligent disciple. Like many others, however, he lost his faith in college, mostly as a result of higher criticism and a general non-Christian academic environment. It is not unlike Bart Ehrman’s journey that he recounts in Misquoting Jesus, though Aslan’s “de-conversion” has a social science and history spin instead of Ehrman’s textual critical one.
Besides just being interesting, this journey also provides some warning for the unstated presuppositions that lie ahead. Aslan has not shaken off much of his conservative and populist thought patterns: if Jesus is one thing, he cannot be something else, and if a passage says one thing for one reason, is can’t be saying something else at the same time. Common to many a fundamentalist-turned-skeptic, Aslan has difficulty with nuance and provisional thinking; it is icing on the cake that this sort of breezy certainty makes for entertaining and comforting writing for a popular audience. His writing style consistently says, ‘let me clear away the cobwebs for you, this isn’t all as complicated as the priests and pastors would have you believe!” Ironically, this is probably the same message he got at summer camp, those years ago: “Jesus is the answer to your longings, life doesn’t have to be as complicated and messy as you think!”
Like a hybrid of popular evangelicalism and popular skepticism, he brings an interesting set of presuppositions to the text. Most of these are unstated, and it is not obvious when this is intentional (to support a weak thesis or not clutter up the text) and when he honestly does not see that there may be other views. His reading on the historical Jesus is deep, but not wide: a look through both the notes and bibliography suggests that the only source for information he sees as reliable is secular, politically liberal and anti-supernaturalist. Surprising for someone with a background in sociology, Aslan doesn’t seem to appreciate much of the more recent work on Jesus’ likely cultural and social background. For instance, his explanation of the “messianic secret” (the tendency early in Mark for Jesus to try to ‘hush up’ his messianic identity) is a state-of-the-art explanation for 75 years ago: Jesus was trying to avoid getting crucified. He seems entirely unaware of the work by Bruce Malina and others looking into the role of ascribed identity in an honor/shame culture where Jesus grew up. Aslan correctly notes that there were a variety of expectations about what a ‘messiah’ would look like and do (134) though he later ascribes most of this to post-hoc embellishment by a Gentile church. Jesus, being nothing but typical, would not have any sort of unique take on what a “messiah” was supposed to do. The sources Aslan cites are all reputable theologians and Biblical scholars, but they share this in common: whatever Jesus was, he was not the messiah or the son of God, much less God incarnate dying for the sins of the world. To suppose otherwise, even for the sake of argument, apparently puts Jesus immediately into the Christian summer camp mold that Aslan has rejected.
Also somewhat surprising for someone with his level of education, Aslan repeatedly has odd and misplaced expectations of the Biblical text. Though he clearly knows the difference between different types of texts (history, epistle, apocalyptic, etc.), he generally doesn’t allow this to affect his interpretation. Paul, for instance, “displays an extraordinary lack of interest in the historical Jesus”(xxv). I suppose this is true: these are, after all, letters Paul is writing to established Christian congregations, addressing both practical and theological problems; there is scarcely any need to rehearse what these churches already obviously know about the historical Jesus. In addition, these were “high context” societies, where rehearsal of what everyone already knew would be both unnecessary and a waste of good papyrus. Aslan, however, sees this as evidence that Paul didn’t know anything, and was just creating theology out of some sort of free-association in reaction to his pharisaical upbringing. Others have written about just how much you can glean from Paul about the historical Jesus (here and associated bibliography), so I won’t rehearse it here; that Paul knew nothing of the historical Jesus is frankly not supported, regardless of what Aslan prefers.
Essentially all of chapter 14 falls prey to this mishandling of the texts. Letters are expected to provide history, whereas texts which are self-consciously historical (e.g. Luke, see Luke 1:1-4 and Acts 1:1-3) are merely post-hoc theological musings. Further, when Aslan allows some level of historicity (e.g. in the overall gospel of Mark), he misses the forest for the trees: “in the gospel of Mark, there exists not a single definitive messianic statement from Jesus himself.” Well, this is curious: if the text was manhandled by editors to look more “Christian”, one would certainly expect some sort of statement (Aslan dismisses essentially the entire gospel of John on this basis), but if it accurately presents what Jesus said or did, the whole gospel screams ‘messiah!’ True, there is no “messianic statement”: there are only exorcisms, nature miracles, claims to forgive sins, judge the world, rise from the dead, fulfill prophecy and defeat the devil. Besides this, there’s nothing messianic about this simple, earthy record of Jesus!
He often disregards interpretations like this, often on thin pretexts. He does this explicitly in at least one place (75): “put aside for a moment the centuries of exegetical acrobatics that have been thrust upon this bewildering episode (of the cleansing of the temple)”. OK, why? Is there a reason to put it aside, or is the mere labelling of it ‘acrobatic’ sufficient? Aslan is far from the first reader to find Jesus’ cleansing of the temple curious, but there is nearly 2000 years thought on the subject; Aslan is the latecomer here. This is what CS Lewis refers to as “chronological snobbery”: the fact that an interpretation is new means that it is more likely to be accurate than earlier ones (with no argument necessary). The same thing occurs with Jesus’ response to the question about taxes (77): rather than see Jesus’ response here as giving to God what is in the image of God (i.e. man), he argues that what is God’s is the land of Israel, and so Jesus is here calling for insurrection. Aslan is not the first to suggest this (as his notes show), but he gives no particular reason to discard the older interpretation except that it is old, and his interpretation better supports his thesis. He gives similar treatment to the “Son of Man” sayings (of which there is an immense literature suggesting that, though Jesus was unique in calling himself this, it is one of the most ‘messianic’ things he repeatedly said).
Aslan’s book is meant for a popular audience, which means that both nuance and a historical review of Jesus studies are somewhat out of place. However, he too frequently calls upon “scholarly consensus” to bolster a point he’d rather not discuss. “Scholarly consensus” is notoriously difficult to pin down, as any scholar in any subject knows. There are some things which are known, yes, but when it comes to disputable issues, there’s usually a humble and nuanced consensus when it exists at all. Aslan’s assumptions about consensus show up early (xix): that the Bible is “true, literal, and inerrant” is “irrefutably false.” He makes no effort either to support this, nor (and probably more importantly) define what he means by “true, literal and inerrant.” I, for one, hold the Bible to be “true, literal and inerrant,” but my hunch is that my thoughts about this are substantially more nuanced than what Aslan held when he left his evangelical Christian culture for the university. The overall impression is that this is simply something adolescent, and that anyone who continues to believe this is in a sort of mental adolescence: it is time to grow up now, even if it means letting go of cherished notions that we find comforting. Throughout the book there is this gentle background music, the lyrics of which are “let’s let go of simpler times and grow up now; it’s time to leave the childish behind….” If anything is likely to throw an orthodox Christian into a state of doubt, it is this gentle sway in the background more than anything that Aslan explicitly says. To read Zealot is to swim in these sorts of assumptions, and the fact that they’re stated rarely and gently only adds to the spell. I believe there is some analogy with frogs and kettles that would be apt here: Aslan is not a shrill Richard Dawkins, calling down fire from Science to burn up the believers, he’s just a gentle teacher, helping you move forward into a brighter and wider world, a world where we can believe in Jesus with our eyes open, and therefore believe in him much more fully than was possible before (212). Any reason for believing in Jesus at all has already been removed, but this thought would hurt the flow at this point, so is left unsaid.
Behind this overall impression are a number of particular unstated commitments. It’s clear that Aslan is nothing if not a committed naturalist and materialist (this is why the claim by some that, as a “Muslim”, Aslan has no business writing about Jesus is especially odd). Aslan repeatedly states that the gospels are “late” (meaning written after 70 CE), and this is one of these things about which scholars supposedly all agree. Unless you’re familiar with the secondary literature he cites, the reason for this may not be obvious: they must be after 70 CE, because they show Jesus predicting the destruction of Jerusalem, and since predictive prophecy is impossible, they must have been written after this, with these prophecies carefully placed later to bolster Jesus’ prophetic credentials. This reasoning is iffy for at least two reasons. First, it would not take a prophetic genius to predict Jerusalem’s eventual destruction; indeed, others have called Jesus’ prophetic ability false simply because it took another 40 years to come to pass. More importantly, this commitment to anti-supernaturalism is simply assumed: prophecy, miracles, dying for the sins of the world, these are simply things that grown-ups don’t believe! It’s the 21st century, for goodness sake! That thinkers as qualified as Alvin Plantinga, William Lane Craig, Mike Licona, NT Wright, FF Bruce and more have argued that this assumption is unwarranted is simply left by the wayside (or perhaps Aslan simply doesn’t know it). It’s true enough that a certain amount of methodological naturalism is necessary to do science or history. However, to assume that naturalism at the foundation of the universe is a philosophical and theological statement, not a historical or scientific one. This forms the unstated basis for much of what actual argument occurs in Aslan’s book. Jesus, in casting out demons, is not showing that he is more powerful than Satan (though this is what the text states, and what it expects the reader to see, and has nearly 2000 years of people seeing this), but is showing that he is “a professional exorcist performing tricks.” That neither his followers nor even his opponents (Mt 12:24) saw it this way isn’t important: demonic activity is just beyond the pale for enlightened people like us.
Supremely, “the resurrection is not a historical event” (176). Aslan’s cursory treatment of what has long been seen as the linchpin of the Christian faith is strange. The earliest Christian traditions we know of (Paul’s discussion of “what I received, I passed on to you as of first importance” in 1 Cor 15) emphasize it as central, and every tradition we have, secular or sacred, agrees that the disciples were different people 3 days after the crucifixion. He does spend some time looking at the idea of resurrection, noting both how some Jews expected it at the end of time and how pagan philosophers generally despised the concept. He notes the idea of Jesus rising can be traced to no later than the 40s. He does not generally deal with the actual textual evidence. What seems to be implied is that since it is overtly miraculous, there is nothing the historian can say, which means there is nothing that can be said, and if nothing can be said, it didn’t happen. Aslan is not so crude as to actually say this: it is more just a background assumption, a sort of “let us be done with this foolishness, now shall we? I’ve never seen anyone rise from the dead, and I daresay the same is true of you. If you want to consider Jesus to be risen in some sense in your heart or your tradition, that’s fine, I suppose (though I’ve grown beyond it), but let’s have none of this ‘physical resurrection’ that science has proven impossible.” Since Aslan disposes of the whole event in two pages (173-4), it’s hard to know if this is what he is actually thinking.
Similar to his handling of “scholarly consensus” when it comes to miracles is his handling of textual traditions. He has clearly swallowed hook, line and sinker the idea of “redaction criticism.” This perfectly legitimate discipline aims to see how texts and traditions have changed over the years, and that some has occurred is an actual consensus: even a cursory reading of the Gospel of John or Revelation shows that there has been much theological musing and development between the 50’s (when Paul was writing) and the 90’s when these were written. However, like naturalism, if this is turned from a method into a foundational assumption, trouble results. “That Jesus came from this tightly enclosed village of a few hundred impoverished Jews may very well be the only fact concerning Jesus’s childhood about which we can be fairly confident” (26). Of course, if you assume that Luke and Matthew were written late, as little more than propaganda, I suppose this is true, but he has not established this fact. Similarly, the gradually diminishing role of John the Baptist (87-88) is seen not as the result of theological musings, fleshing out exactly what it meant when John said, “he must increase and I must decrease” (Jn 3:30), but instead is a “frantic attempt to reduce John’s significance.” If there is something frantic here, Aslan needs to show it, not merely proclaim it as obvious. In the case of President Lincoln’s assassination, I suspect that the role of Maj. Henry Rathbone was initially seen as crucial (he certainly blamed himself for allowing it), but only historians and Lincoln trivia buffs today know his name; does this mean that his role was, in fact, crucial, or merely that with reflection and the passage of time, we appreciate that his presence in the booth didn’t have much effect on the assassination? That historical accounts of an event evolve is not much disputed today; that this automatically means that history is inaccessible to us is a supposition, not an argument. Aslan seems unaware of this.
As these examples begin to show, Aslan is adept in using the “revisionist two-step”: first you call a text into question, impugn its reliability and historicity, and then you use the same text to “see behind” the text to what was really going on. It’s all propaganda and theological infighting until the text can be made to support a thesis: then it becomes again reliable. Jesus’ temptation in the wilderness, for instance: all this talk of the devil and fasting 40 days is clearly nonsense, but a perceptive reader (like Aslan) can see that this event has its origin when Jesus went into the wilderness to join John the Baptist’s wilderness commune (88-9). The text nowhere says that this had anything to do with joining John the Baptist; it appears to be linked only chronologically in the text (which Aslan assumes has been extensively edited after 70 CE). To be consistent, it would be better to say that it never happened at all. Aslan makes his method explicit (154): “The only means the modern reader has at his disposal to try to retrieve some semblance of historical accuracy in the passion narratives is to slowly strip away the theological overlay imposed by the evangelists”. What he seems to mean is that ‘educated adults’ strip away any theological overlay and replace it with a historically skeptical overlay; why one is to be preferred over the other, he does not say. He uses this method again with John 7 (27-29) and often adopts the general posture that what is important is what is not said. The truth is hidden from both the gullible pew-sitters and the original readers, but has been revealed to careful modern scholars. Aslan does not deal with secular texts this way. With few exceptions, if Josephus or Tacitus or Pliny the Younger said it, it is simply true, and obviously more trustworthy. Indeed, even when an account is quoted by a Christian, who is quoting a lost work by a 2nd century opponent of Christianity, who is a trained rhetorician (Celsus), this is to be believed over Luke or Mark (xxiii). It all comes dangerously close to “the reason scholars see this writer as reliable is because he agrees with me.” The hubris is astounding.
Finally, in embracing this spectral scholarly consensus, Aslan often states as simple fact things which are far from decided. Palestinian literacy rates, the language(s) Jesus (or the disciples) spoke (34), what we actually know about Pilate (47), that the gospels were written by other than the traditional authors (xxi), that Stephen knew nothing of Jesus before the crucifixion(163): all of these are merely put in the category of “what everybody knows from scholarly consensus.” There is ongoing, vigorous debate about all these issues, in fact. Again, Aslan is writing for a popular audience, and doesn’t want to get bogged down in details, so on one level this is excusable. That he seems to imply that there is no debate is less forgivable; he gives a nod to it once (xx), but such discussions are never fleshed out.
As is probably obvious by now, Aslan often allows his theory to drive interpretation. He insists early on that the picture he paints of Jesus arose naturally out of careful and ongoing study (xx); his autobiographical account suggests, however, that by the time he was in graduate school, Jesus the Christ had long succumbed to the Jesus of history, and his journey since then has just been filling in details. For instance, Aslan goes to some length to point out that there were all kinds of ‘messiahs’ floating around Palestine (49) (and, by implication, it would only be a matter of time before one got lucky and acted as the foundation for a world religion). What he fails to point out is that the list he gives (“the Egyptian”, Simon bar Kochba, etc.) is comprehensive, exhaustive and covers nearly 150 years. To say, “a new messiah arose, on average, every 30 years over an area of several thousand square miles” sounds both much less impressive and doesn’t support his thesis: it’s left to the reader’s imagination to suppose that there was a messiah on every street corner in the year 30. Similarly, his description of exorcists fails to mention that all we know about exorcists is from less than a half-dozen texts (excluding the gospels and Acts) over 200 years from mostly fragmentary manuscripts. But Jesus was clearly just jumping on the bandwagon, and apparently had a knack for that kind of tom-foolery.
The most sustained place where his thesis drives the reporting of facts comes in his overall discussion of Jesus’ “kingdom of God” (120-122). When Jesus says something violent or ‘zealous’, it’s clearly original; when Jesus says to “turn the other cheek” or “my kingdom is not of this world”, these are clearly later additions by editors trying to pacify Jesus. What goes unmentioned is the fact that these divergent sayings occur in the same text, presumably edited into its current form by the same people with the same motives, and that even revisionist scholars (e.g. of the Jesus Seminar ) agree that many of the pacifist sayings are legitimately of Jesus. For Aslan, Jesus was a zealot, a political revolutionary; this has already been established, thank you. Similarly, “regardless of how Jesus viewed himself, the fact remains that he was never able to establish the ‘kingdom of God’” (144): since his kingdom was based on a violent overthrow of the Romans, clearly he was a failure. Anyone who claims this was not Jesus’ intent is clearly letting their religious sentiments guide their interpretation (unlike Aslan, who is objective). The coup de gras is an odd passage on p 157, where Aslan discusses the trial before Pilate: “the argument that the trial rules laid down by the rabbis in the Mishnah did not apply in the 30’s when Jesus was tried, falls flat when one remembers that the gospels were also not written in the 30’s.” I suppose this is true, but I’m not sure what the point is: if the rules did not apply in the 30’s, then this supports the contention that the gospels relied on early witnesses. So was the trial written in later for theological purposes (in which case the editors were wily enough to use trial rules that didn’t exist anymore), or left in because they showed real history (in which case the editors weren’t thorough enough to remove the seditionist charges)? When the gospels record sedition, it’s for the careful scholar to see; when they record theology, it’s a later addition, and the distinction between history and faith is obvious according to scholarly consensus, or at least according to Aslan’s scholarly consensus. It’s all starting to feel like a “when did you stop beating your wife” sort of investigation.
Finally, Aslan’s presuppositions insist that something can be history or it can be theology: it can’t be both (this may be a holdover from a fairly literalist and Biblicist Christian upbringing). For instance, Jesus was crucified for sedition, not to take away the sins of the world. As a Christian, of course, I can affirm that he did both: is not the very ground of my sin the fact that I am in rebellion against God? Jesus died as a rebel: how appropriate, for I deserve death as a rebel. The fact that this could be both historical fact (that Pilate crucified him as a seditionist) and theological fact (that he died for the sins of the world) does not occur to Aslan: theology is not connected, in any way, to history, this is another of these Things All People Know. In this, I don’t hesitate to say that Aslan never really knew what it meant to be a Christian. The high school Christianity he grew up in wasn’t known for its intellectual or theological rigor. That he assumes that this sort of Christianity is the best argument Christianity has to offer is less excusable, especially for someone with a formal background in history, sociology and Biblical studies.
The Ugly: factual and reasoning errors and the historian’s paradox
There are a number of simple factual and reasoning errors Aslan makes as well. Admittedly, this is a work of popular history, not a doctoral dissertation, but they are worrying because of their frequency. Some are minor: for instance, “cool salt air” (95) cannot blow off the Sea of Galilee, it being a fresh-water lake. Others verge on dishonest, or at least misleading: one of the first authors he cites is Celsus (in reference to the number of messiahs wandering around Palestine), though he fails to mention that Celsus was writing at least 100 years after Jesus, that he was writing a polemic work against Christianity, and that none of his work survives except as quotations in another author (Origen); interesting, in other words, but hardly a first-class historical source. He goes to pains to prove how obscure and backwater Nazareth was, and then complains that secular historians failed to note Herod’s massacre of the infants there (31). Among his objections to the Roman census of Luke is that there are no records of such, leaving the impression that the Romans were marvelous record-keepers (which is true, relative to other ancient empires, though their record-keeping was abysmal by current standards, and very little of it has survived). “Centuries after Jesus’ death, Christians would see Jesus in Old Testament prophecies” (166): true, though they would also see them less than 30 years after his death as well in Paul’s letters, and within a few years in Acts, unless one merely assumes Acts is fictitious. “Dozens died that day” (172) when Jesus was also crucified: no, three died, the gospels are united in that. It is doubtful the Romans would’ve been insensitive enough to go on a crucifying spree the day before Passover, anyway, and if Aslan knows of dozens more, historians would be fascinated to learn of it. The apostle Stephen’s first impression of Jesus’ followers were that they were “hirsute men and ragged women huddled beneath a portico” (164), though it is doubtful that a group that undeniably included Mary Magdalene (a wealthy supporter of Jesus and legally independent woman) would’ve ever been ragged, huddling, or more hirsute than anyone else. His freeform translation of Mt 22:21, “give back to God the property that belongs to God” (76-77), is simply incorrect (the Greek does not specify “property”, merely “that which is of God”). He argues that James, the brother of Jesus, has been “carefully excised” from the New Testament, his existence being an embarrassment to those teaching Mary’s perpetual virginity; except that he then quotes the church fathers Clement, Origen and Hegesippus as supporting James, and fails to mention that Mary’s ongoing virginity wouldn’t become an issue until some 200 years after the New Testament texts reached their final form. He mentions Nicaea as a “defining moment”, though he largely fails to mention what it defined; though he clarifies himself further down, he leaves it to the reader to assume that, since Jesus’ divinity was clarified at Nicaea, he was not considered divine before this (see any number of rejoinders to Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code for comments on this). Some of these issues are relatively minor in his overall scheme, but he (and his editor) do his readers no favors in sacrificing accuracy on the altar of colorful prose.
Finally, the book as a whole leaves the reader unsatisfied about Jesus because it creates at least as many mysteries as it solves. In by far the most incredible assertion, Aslan claims that, in the wake of Jerusalem’s destruction, Christians had to find a way to distance their Jesus movement from the commotion, and had to do it fast. This is a well-enough established fact that Aslan is able to pin the composition of Mark down to within a few months (69), something that would be ground-breaking news if other historians believed it. What Aslan fails to mention is that this rewrite seems to have failed horribly, given the political implications of proclaiming “Jesus is Lord” (the earliest creed we have) and given the persecution the early church faced throughout the first 3 centuries. Christian editors, as clever as they were, apparently weren’t clever enough to create a custom-made Roman religion that the Romans actually liked. For some reason Aslan omits, however, it persisted until Constantine made it official. Incidentally, we do have an example of a religion designed for the Roman world: Mithraism. Originally Persian, it received a makeover as it travelled west, and became both popular and reasonably well respected in the Roman world by these same centuries. It didn’t look much like Christianity, however, and even the few similarities are probably examples of Mithraists taking cues from Christians (not vice versa, as is often claimed).
It gets worse. Several large swaths of history remain simply unexplained. Besides his brushing aside the resurrection accounts (I recommend Licona’s The Resurrection of Jesus: a New Historiographical Approach ), Hebrews, Luke and Paul largely get the brushoff. Hebrews is perhaps dismissed because it is anonymous (though this doesn’t seem to affect Aslan’s treatment of the gospels, which he assumes to be anonymous), though it may be dismissed merely because it is inconvenient: it writes of the temple and its sacrifices in the present tense, does not predict their immanent temporal end or the destruction of Jerusalem, and has a high Christology. In Hebrews, Jesus is no itinerant, radicalized rabbi doing exorcism tricks, but the ultimate revelation of God, superior to both Moses and the angels, and all this seems to be true for at least some Christians (apparently Jewish ones!) before 70 AD, by someone other than Paul (some argue that Paul wrote Hebrews; I don’t necessarily dispute this, though I doubt Aslan would see the letter as Pauline, given its lack of attribution within the letter). The book of Acts ends in the mid 50’s CE, which is beyond dispute, with Paul on his way to Rome; there is no mention of the destruction of Jerusalem. Aslan continues to insist that Luke (and Acts, as its sequel) was written after 70, and in places argues that it is as late as the 90s. This is necessary since he must assume Markan priority, and Mark could not have been written before 70 (according to “scholarly consensus”). How does he address this? Well, he doesn’t, as near as I can tell. Perhaps the writer of Luke was merely clever enough to end his book in the 50’s to make it appear to have been written contemporaneously, while still making sophomoric mistakes about the Quirinian census of Luke 1.
Finally, the greatest mystery of all, the one Aslan set out to answer, remains unresolved. Aslan’s Jesus was nothing if not ordinary: an illiterate peasant Jew, with a smattering of 2nd-hand knowledge of the Torah, upset by Roman occupation and economic inequality who got himself crucified like so many other would-be messiahs. This one, however, is different: he acts as the foundation for a new religion which would conquer the Roman Empire. This despite the fact that the whole story of a Jewish savior of the world (silly), from Nazareth (laughable), who got himself crucified (need we say more?), is claimed to have bodily risen from the dead (ROFL!) to found a new kingdom, but one we can’t see (of course! snicker!). If this is a religion tailor-made for the Roman world, I’m not seeing it (consider The Impossible Faith for more details). According to Aslan, Jesus didn’t do it alone, or at all, actually: it’s mostly Paul’s fault. Paul, a Pharisee of Pharisees, of the tribe of Benjamin, persecutor of the church (which, at the time, was apparently preaching thoroughly orthodox, if politically disruptive Judaism, if Aslan is to be believed), has… well, some sort of experience on the Damascus road. What this is, we’ll never know, apparently, but it turned him into some sort of anti-Jewish, James-and-Peter-hating Jesus-booster, and despite this nervous breakdown, he was able to found competing churches all through the Mediterranean. A religion based on a false Jesus, who was preached by a disreputable madman, in direct opposition to Jesus’ family and disciples, all in an effort to make a pacifist faith which is palatable to the Romans who mostly wound up hating it: is this really more likely than that Jesus simply is who the gospels say he is?
This is the historicist’s paradox: if Jesus and his movement are only explicable in purely natural and historical terms, then subsequent history becomes a mystery. Aslan is hardly the first to face it. Most writers in the “quest for the historical Jesus” run into it. Jesus becomes supremely ordinary, but, for reasons lost to us, becomes in the end the savior of the world. He is claimed to have risen from the dead, in a culture where the resurrection was only going to occur at the end of the world (in Judaism) or was ridiculous in general (in Greek philosophy), and this exalted view of Jesus was preached less than 10 years (and probably less than 5) after his death. The only possible explanation is that all the records of this (the gospels) are clever forgeries, though not clever enough to escape the detection of historians writing 1900 years later, apparently, though they seemed to have fooled many before this, even cynics within a generation or two of the events. Finally, the best Aslan seems to be able to record is “then something extraordinary happened. What exactly that something was is impossible to know”(179). I suppose this is true, if the miraculous is simply impossible to believe: plausibility structures are harsh mistresses. They even can make a careful historian look like he has no idea what he’s talking about. Aslan paints a picture of who Jesus was but he fails explain how he became Savior and Lord to so many, and how the texts became so quickly and thoroughly corrupted (but not so corrupted as to be undetectable in their corruption). He successfully explains away Jesus the Christ by selective reading of scholarship, by idiosyncratic interpretation, and by simply ignoring swaths of historical and textual evidence. If one is eager to get rid of Jesus the Christ, I suppose no price is too high. Aslan starts and ends his book assuring us he believes in Jesus more than ever (xx, 212). It is not clear what is left for him that is worthy of belief.
Other helpful reviews
By NT professor Craig Evans
By historian John Dickson