Review of ZEALOT: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth by Reza Aslan (Random House, 2013)
On the page before the table of contents of Reza Aslan’s new book, ZEALOT, there appears one line from the Gospels: “Do not think I have come to bring peace on earth. I have not come to bring peace, but a sword.” (Matthew 10:34)
Do not think that Aslan, a professor of creative writing at my alma mater, the University of California at Riverside, wrote this book to present the Jesus of nonviolent compassion. Aslan zealously pursues an historically angry Jesus who sought to evict the Romans by force and institute an earthly realm of divine justice for the poor.
Lauren Green’s pitiful performance in her interview with Aslan on Fox “News” catapulted his book into the literary stratosphere. How could a Muslim write a book about Jesus? she asked. How could an Islamophobe interview a Muslim? we might better ask. What should have been a meaningful discussion about the thesis of the book turned into a Muslim-baiting farce. There are important insights as well as serious flaws in Aslan’s book, but none of them came to light in the Fox interview. He took the interviewer’s bait and spent a long time hyping his scholarly credentials. While his PhD in the sociology of religion could qualify him to weigh in as a scholar on the identity of the historical Jesus, this topic is not his academic specialty. This becomes apparent while reading his book.
For decades I have depended on the Westar Institute/Jesus Seminar’s fine scholarship for broadening my understanding of the historical Jesus and of the spirituality and cultural milieu of early Christian communities. One of the Jesus Seminar scholars, John Dominic Crossan, has written persuasively about Jesus as an activist for economic and social justice. In The Historical Jesus: The Life of a Mediterranean Jewish Peasant, Crossan shows that Jesus’ invocation of the kingdom of God on earth is a rallying cry for a just and compassionate alternative to the Roman occupation of Palestine. Echoes of Crossan sound in Aslan’s book. But Reza Aslan runs the argument off its rails.
Aslan declares at the start of his book that for every well-argued description of the historical Jesus, there’s another conflicting one with just as much academic heft behind it. But he says that by the standards of modern historical analysis, we know hardly anything about the identity of Jesus other than that he was a Jewish spiritual leader who was crucified by the Romans in the first century. Then, in further contradiction, he says that his version of Jesus “is the only Jesus that we can access by historical means. Everything else is a matter of faith.” (p xxxi)
Which Reza Aslan shall we take seriously? The version of Aslan who thinks that the gospels’ versions of Jesus are almost entirely mythological? Or the version of Aslan who relies on numerous gospel accounts to make his case for a violent Jesus bent on becoming king of Israel?
At the beginning of the book, Aslan tells of his own spiritual journey from nominal Iranian Islam to heartfelt American evangelical Christianity to jaded rejection of Christianity to a reclaiming of his Islamic spiritual heritage. “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 ever was of Jesus Christ.” (p xx) Yet nowhere in the book is there any hint of what that means for him. Does this discipleship entail his commitment to violent revolution against colonialism and oligarchy? Is Aslan part of a community of Jesus of Nazareth disciples? How does this version of Jesus preach? What hymns could be written about such a Jesus, and how would they sound and feel in a church? Jesus is an important figure in the Koran, but Aslan makes no reference to his reverence for Jesus in an Islamic context.
Aslan’s argument at several points runs counter to the consensus of the Jesus Seminar regarding the historicity of Jesus’ words as recorded in the canonical gospels and in the Gospel of Thomas (see The Five Gospels by the Jesus Seminar). The Jesus Seminar’s general rubric was to cast as more reliable the quotes of Jesus that were counter-cultural or unique to the wider literature of the time. Many of these quotes have a “gnostic” spiritualist flavor to them. Aslan sees the gnostic tradition in Christianity as an adulteration of the original social justice thrust of Jesus’ mission. But why could Jesus not have been both a teacher of mystical and sometimes esoteric spirituality and an agent of practical social change?
The central fact organizing the book is the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 AD by the Romans in response to a major Jewish revolt against the Empire’s occupation. Aslan artfully describes the seething anger and outrageous violence that never fully abated during the Roman rule of Palestine. He paints a picture of Jesus as one of a long line of failed wanna-be messiahs striving against the Temple-based Jewish elite and the Roman occupiers. He describes colorfully the intense conflict between Paul and James in the early days of the church. He paints a picture of Paul as an opportunistic Hellenist spiritualist, in conflict with James, described as a Jewish fighter for social justice just like his brother Jesus. Paul wins, James loses. From start to finish, Aslan presents a faithless, hopeless vision of Jesus and of Christian origins. I am at a loss to understand why he claims to be such an enthusiastic disciple of his Jesus of Nazareth, who was brutally killed for sedition, whose church erupted in conflict shortly after his death, and whose religion later was smothered in an embrace with the very imperialism that his Jesus attacked.
But the intensity of Aslan’s thesis seems to have led him to some intriguing insights. He argues that the healing miracles of Jesus were political in nature. By healing lepers without the intercession of Temple rituals and sacrifices, Jesus insults the sanctity and primacy of the Temple elites (p 112). His interpretation of “render unto Caesar that which is Caesar’s and to God that which is God’s” is that the land of Israel was God’s, so Jesus was calling explicitly for the expulsion of the Romans (p 77). These and other sparks of light in this otherwise dark book remind the reader that there is a place for polemics in scholarship. An outrageous thesis can focus attention on important aspects of a subject that might otherwise be ignored. Aslan succeeds in giving the reader a vivid look at life in first-century Palestine, and this makes the book worth reading in order to get a better understanding of the person Jesus of Nazareth might have been.
From the start, Aslan recognizes that there are a lot of Jesuses, each constructed on the flimsiest of historical evidence. Aslan’s version appears, according to his argument, to have been erased from Christian memory in the smoking ruins of Jerusalem in 70 AD. Looking for the Jesus of history is a worthy pursuit, both academically and spiritually. Understanding the social, economic and political environment in which Christianity was formed helps us to feel our way into the souls of early Christians, and even to imagine our way into the heart of Jesus himself. But in the end, we choose for ourselves which version of Jesus to lift up and follow, if we care about him at all. I choose to follow a Jesus who chose a path of active nonviolent resistance to oppression: a very human Jesus who was both a social reformer and a spiritual teacher, a Jesus who made no distinction between the inner life and practical engagement with the world.
Reza Aslan says there’s a Jesus of history distinct from a Christ of faith. But his is a Jesus of faith more than of history. Is it a faith worth following? That’s a question scholarship can’t answer.