Introducing Reza Aslan’s Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth

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by Neil Godfrey

aslanReza Aslan’s book about Jesus, Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth, opens its prologue like an historical novel:

The war with Rome begins not with a clang of swords but with the lick of a dagger drawn from an assassin’s cloak. (p. 3)

Addressing the reader in the second person Aslan draws her into the colourful world Jewish worship at the Jerusalem temple and shocks her after half a dozen pages by having her witness the assassination of the high priest there in 56 C.E. One knows one is in for a dramatic read.

For the more academically minded reader there are over fifty pages of endnotes detailing sources and additional explanations for what appears in the main text. To Aslan’s credit, he makes abundantly clear in his introductory “Author’s note” that

For every well-attested, heavily researched, and eminently authoritative argument made about Jesus, there is an equally well-attested, equally researched, and equally authoritative argument opposing it. (p. xx)

That’s a refreshing change from the way some scholars introduce their own work or criticize the works of others. Aslan explains that his footnotes attempt to present some of the arguments of those who oppose his views in the body of the book.

Why this book about Jesus?

By way of preliminaries, however, Reza Aslan recounts how, after migrating from Iran, he became a Christian at fifteen years of age and how this new identity happily served to strengthen his identify as an American.

In the America of the 1980s, being a Muslim was like being from Mars. My [Muslim] faith was a bruise, the most obvious symbol of my otherness; it needed to be concealed.

Jesus, on the other hand, was America. He was the central figure in America’s national drama. Accepting him into my heart was as close as I could get to feeling truly American. (p. xviii)

Not that his conversion was a matter of convenience,

On the contrary, I burned with absolute devotion to my newfound faith. I was presented with a Jesus . . . with whom I could have a deep and personal relationship.

Not “convenience” perhaps, but Reza might as well have added that he converted to the American way of devotion to the American religion.

And again like (most?) well educated Americans Aslan lost his naive fundamentalist beliefs as he learned more about the Bible, while at the same time becoming

aware of a more meaningful truth in the text, a truth intentionally detached from the exigencies of history. (p. xix)

Not being an American I was unaware of Reza Aslan’s prominent public profile as a Muslim scholar. If I had never seen the Fox interview with Aslan about this book but relied upon the book alone I would have assumed Aslan had left the Muslim religion and was writing as a liberal Christian (American and still evangelizing) scholar. He writes:

Today, I can confidently say that two decades of rigorous academic research into the origins of Christianity has made me a more genuinely committed disciple of Jesus of Nazareth than I eve was of Jesus Christ. My hope with this book is to spread the good news of the Jesus of history with the same fervor that I once applied to spreading the story of the Christ.

Aslan’s influences – Meier

meierAslan explains that he was heavily indebted to John P. Meier’s A Marginal Jew, in particular volume 1 with its discussion of the evidence for Jesus and how scholars know anything at all about the historical Jesus behind the canonical Gospels.

Meier relies upon the “traditional” criteria — embarrassment, multiple attestation, etc. All steadily being discredited by others striving to assert a post-modernist reconstruction of Jesus from memory theory, and/or simply a “plausible Jesus”.

Meier also stresses the “fact of the crucifixion” as another claim for historical certainty. This makes no sense to me since the crucifixion, along with all the other sufferings of the Suffering Servant motif we find in Mark’s gospel, or if you’d prefer, the sufferings of a “man of God” are all theological tropes. They are as theological in function as are the christological titles themselves. To say they argue for historicity is to deny the clear evidence we have for their theological and literary functions and heritage.

Surely the first rule for any serious historian is to analyze the nature of the source documents and to test the claims of their narrative contents against external controls. Here Aslan is no better or worse than his theologian peers.

Echoing Meier Aslan explains that it is “a miracle” that we know anything at all about this historical person given that he was “a marginal Jewish peasant from the backwoods of Galilee”.

The witness of Celsus

Aslan adds his own twist of evidence to this argument, however, by citing “Celsus”, a Jew from the latter half of the second century who wrote a polemic against Christianity. We know of the arguments of Celsus from a mid third century work by Origen. Aslan quotes the words Origen attributes to Celsus as evidence that in Jesus’ day there were very many Jewish figures wandering throughout Palestine, with bands of “ragged followers” in tow, claiming to be God or a servant of God or a divine spirit and preaching the imminence of divine judgment to come upon the world.

Aslan does not, however, explain how he justifies taking a passage that originated 150 years after the supposed time of Jesus as a reliable historical picture of the social characteristics of Palestine in Jesus’ day. Josephus himself tells us of one such figure, also named Jesus, who was dismissed as a madman. He attracted no ragged band of followers. Critically, he appeared in the time of great social distress, in the middle of the first Jewish revolt against Rome. Celsus wrote about a generation after a second and far more cruel and socially/culturally destructive war between Rome and the Jews in “Judea”. One would expect a very different social world in the Palestine of 170 CE from the one in 30 CE.

Nor must it be overlooked that Celsus speaks of such figures as madmen to be mocked, just as did Josephus. These were looked upon as clowns and were most certainly not deemed worthy of the effort of crucifixion. They did not appear even to attract followers.

Use of Celsus as evidence of the sort of person Jesus might have been identified with by others needs cogent justification.

Aslan’s influencesHorsley

horsleyAnother major influence on Aslan’s work (again this is from Aslan himself) is Richard Horsley’s Bandits, Prophets & Messiahs. I have addressed key sections of this book in earlier posts and try to point out that Horsley provides no evidence that Jewish rebels and bandits (at least prior to the first Jewish War) were any different from rebels and bandits in other provinces oppressed by Rome. On the one hand scholars say that Josephus did not want to call them messianic movements for fear of offending Rome (though how explaining the crimes of his countrymen against Rome, crimes he detests, should offend Rome is rarely made clear); while on the other hand some of the same scholars argue that Josephus did say that Jesus was thought to be the messiah by his countrymen and does so without any presumed offence to Rome.

The first time, according to scholars like Green and Thompson, that Jews supposedly addressed a contemporary political figure or king as a messiah was from the time of the Jewish Wars, in particular the second Jewish War led by Bar Kochba. Until then the title was reserved as a theological title for figures of theology, past, heavenly or future. Green remarked that scholars have otherwise tended to find messiahs in texts where the messiah is never mentioned. That is, their arguments are essentially circular, beginning and concluding with the belief that contemporary rebels or kings (before the final catastrophes) were hailed as messiahs.

Besides, in the time of Jesus there were bandits, but no unambiguous political rebels. We do read of Judah the Galilean who at the turn of the century “began a revolt” by refusing to pay taxes, but we read of no armed rebellion by him or military conflict with Rome. He is not even mentioned by Tacitus when he gives his list of Judean rebels.

So again, as far as I understand the evidence, Aslan has created a setting for his zealot Jesus that is anachronistic.

Other anachronisms

This is not to criticize Aslan any more than other theologians who likewise attempt to write about the historical Jesus. The Gospel picture — taken for granted by a good many scholars — of Galilee being pitted with Pharisees and synagogues before 70 CE is also anachronistic. I understand there is no evidence for synagogue buildings in Galilee before this time, and that the Pharisees chose to move there after the destruction of Jerusalem.

Not a few scholars, some indeed quite prominent, also write anachronistically of the “Judaism” of Jesus’ day being far more monolithic (especially with its reputed notion of “one true god” who alone was worthy of worship) than the evidence actually suggests. (Regrettably some of these same scholars are not prepared to be as generous as Aslan and allow “equally well attested” and “equally well researched” and “equally authoritative” arguments to the contrary.)

Something missing

Aslan then comes to other widely shared scholarly assumptions that embed a range of contradictions about his portrayal of “historical Jesus”. One of the most notable is that although Jesus is compared with other presumed “messianic” rebels whom Rome attacked along with their followers — the only way to destroy their movements — in the case of Jesus the disciples are ignored by Rome. I know a few scholars (e.g. Paula Fredriksen) have tackled this question, and I have not yet seen how Aslan deals with it, but one does have to ask if their explanations ultimately serve to point to the serious problems with the assumption that theological narratives were ever grounded in an historical person at all form their beginning.

He really did exist

Which brings us to the question of mythicism. Interestingly Aslan mentioned in one of his online interviews that he is asked this question “a lot”. His answer, that is, his grounds for believing in the historicity of Jesus, is no less dismaying than we often hear from the theologians. Tacitus, Pliny, and Josephus. To our relief he avoids the famous Testimonium Flavianum (which has become something of a Rorschach test for later twentieth/early twenty-first century scholars who are sure that behind the obvious forgery Josephus really did say something there about Jesus) but he does use that awkward expression later in Antiquities that appears to say there was a James who was a brother of Jesus Christ. It is dismaying to see any scholar take this passage at face value as if unaware of the serious problems it poses when applied to the gospel Jesus. See the archive of various posts addressing this passage. But in this, again, Aslan is no worse than many other scholars who write about the “historical” Jesus.

I may return to other details of Aslan’s book in a future post.

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Neil Godfrey

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8 thoughts on “Introducing Reza Aslan’s Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth

  1. Neil, I agree with Carrier that the best, concise argument made for zealot Jesus – or better, a seditious Jesus – is of prof Bermejo-Rubio.



    This prof secured me that in future he will dispute directly the argument of establishment (and of Carrier) against the use of criterion of Embarassment (in a zealot Jesus direction). If a such use is licit, then from the pattern of ”zealot clues” disseminated in the gospels like ”dissecta membra”, it will be possible to extrapolate an historical man behind the Gospels.

    My problem with this view is that, however supposing a zealot figure behind the gospels (….and I have my doubts about), how can we be secure that his name was ”Jesus” , if we cannot believe even the basically ”pacifist” picture of him given by Gospel ?

    This is far beyond from to argue for an ”historical Jesus” more than for an stand-in lent from History to give ”flesh and blood” to an originally mythic (pauline?) Christ, never descended on heart.


    1. Thanks for bringing Bermejo-Rubio to my notice. I’ll have a closer look at his work. As Carrier also points out, some of B-R’s arguments overlook the theological and literary provenance of certain gospel narrative details and bring to these texts a presumption of the historicity behind the narrative.

      Further, one detail I overlooked in my original post and that I see raised also by B-R, is that the placing of the crime above the one crucified is cited by scholars often enough as historical evidence for Jesus being crucified as an insurrectionist.

      But what all the gospels describe is NOT the crime of Jesus, but an ironic ambiguity: The King of the Jews. They were crucifying their King. Not someone who falsely claimed to be their king. This irony is made explicit in John where the priests complain that Pilate did NOT write the crime of Jesus above his head. This is all evidence that we are dealing not with some attempt to re-write history but with a theological claim written out in allegorical or narrative form.

  2. Aslan avoids the Testimonium Flavianum? That’s a surprise, because I’m pretty sure I heard him say that “the Jewish historian Josephus” attests to the historical Jesus in one of his interviews about the book. Perhaps he was referring just to the “James, the brother of Jesus called Christ” passage.

    1. Yes, he was. He writes of the TF

      in which Josephus appears to repeat the entire gospel formula. But that passage has been so corrupted by later Christian interpolation that its authenticity is dubious at best, and scholarly attempts to cull through the passage for some sliver of historicity have proven futile.

      Aslan appears to be more discerning than many of the theologians and other Christian scholars who write about the historical Jesus with his intimation that the entire passage is prima facie suspect solely on the grounds that it so neatly sums up the “entire gospel formula”. It is well worth keeping in mind that before the latter half of the twentieth century biblical scholars generally dismissed the entire passage as a forgery. The evidence has not changed since then, but wider cultural and social interests have.

    1. According to R. (=Rabbi?) Joseph Hoffmann a majority of scholars have preferred to place Celsus in the sixties or seventies of the second century. That’s from page 30 of his own translation of Celsus: On the True Doctrine. Admittedly, a scholar who has

      — had to defend his initial doctoral thesis on the grounds that it was merely an exploratory venture of maybe’s with no claim to rigid findings,

      — and who has proclaimed himself to be the saviour of the scholarly quest for the historical Jesus by arguing that Galatians 4:4 (“born of a woman”) is sure evidence that Jesus was a bastard,

      — and who evidently does not need to read works by authors he personally hates in order to offer “reasoned critique” of them,

      — and who declares many or most scholars agree to certain views without being able to name more than a single one of them,

      — and who emphatically declares only a complete idiot would entertain the mere possibility for a second that there was no historical Jesus even though he himself for a long time strongly hinted that he doubted the historicity of Jesus . . . . . —

      admittedly such a scholar may not be considered the most reliable.

      So I hesitate somewhat in turning to Rabbi Hoffmann’s discussion of the identity and date of Celsus.

      Hoffmann turns to the 1873 publication by Theodor Keim on Celsus as his starting point for explaining the current identity and date of Celsus. Keim argues that this Celsus was a friend of Lucian of Samosata who authored the satirical attack on Christianity that centred upon Peregrinus, and that was discussed in depth in a series of posts here by Roger Parvus.

      The famous medical practitioner Galen is known to have written a letter to “Celsus the Epicurean”, someone who had written several books attacking the practice of magic. At the same time we find in another work by Lucian, Alexander, the False Prophet a passing mention of Christianity in connection with Epicureanism, and that work was dedicated to a certain Celsus, who “has gone into the subject [of magic and magicians] sufficiently and presented [an] ample . . . expose of magicians.”

      It would seem certain, therefore, that the Celsus of Origen is the same Celsus known to Lucian and Galen. The problem with this hypothesis is that the Celsus in Origen is not an Epicurean philosopher. Origen’s Celsus is an advocate of “middle Platonism” instead. Origen does, apparently, at least accuse Celsus of being an inconsistent Epicurean philosopher, one who adopts certain tenets for convenience.

      There are, note, points in common that may link the Celsus friend of Lucian and Galen with the author addressed by Origen. R. Hoffmann gives us two:

      — Both are “ardently opposed to magic”
      — both lived in the late second century (Lucian’s friend lived in the time of emperor Commodus and Origen’s through the persecution by Marcus Aurelius)

      There are more detailed/complex arguments relating to when Celsus was an Epicurean and when he moved on beyond that philosophy. I won’t detail those here.

    1. Ah, Stephen’s speech — a fascinating study I’d love to do a post or two about one day. 🙂 There are actually excellent explanations for all of Stephen’s errors, in some ways similar to the errors of Josephus when he also repeated some of Israel’s history from the Jewish Scriptures. Why they left certain things out and reconfigured certain events tells us a lot about what they were really doing, and it certainly was not history in the way we understand the word.

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