Zealot: Dr. Aslan’s Violent, Improbable Jesus

Book Review

A Google search for “Zealot Aslan” reveals 2,350,000 results in less than 35 seconds. Page two contains a run-down of the many scholars who either hate the book or shrug it off. Personally, I read it because I was gratified by Dr. Aslan’s skewering of Fox News reporter Lauren Green, who tried and failed to re-ignite the crusades of the 14th century by questioning Aslan’s motives for writing the book in the first place: Why would a Muslim care about who Jesus might have been, and how dare that person presume to be an expert?

I am not now, nor have I ever been, a professional scholar of religion. I never went to seminary; I don’t have a teaching post at any institute of higher learning. However – much like Dr. Aslan – I do have an academic Doctor of Ministry in Creation Spirituality, from the former University of Creation Spirituality, founded by Rev. Dr. Matthew Fox. I have pursued an independent study of the work of Karen Armstrong, Marcus Borg, John Dominic Crossan, and John Shelby Spong – among others. I am an Associate of the Westar Institute (home of the Jesus Seminar); See, e.g., my commentary on the Revised Common Lectionary: Vol I The Year of Luke now available on Amazon.com; Volume II, the Year of Matthew, available September 1, 2013.

So I can do theology with the big boys. But a writer without real scholarly portfolio who wants to be taken seriously has to comply with some academic standards. First, s/he must document the way along whatever path s/he wishes to follow. However, documentation is not proof-texting – and proof-texting (cherry-picking quotations out of context) is what Dr. Aslan engages in throughout, despite his claim to the contrary. His innovative presentation of scholarly argument without footnote references to specific text, which constitutes the second half of the book, would never pass a dissertation committee worth its salt. Perhaps he thinks that most folks won’t bother to read the notes, because of his riveting, highly creative, story-telling.

A second academic requirement, if a non-professional scholar is going to engage in serious debate, is to lay out the opposing argument, then refute it. But as Rev. Jim Burklo, Associate Dean of Religious Life, University of Southern California, writes in his review of Aslan’s book: “Reza Aslan runs the argument off its rails.” The Westar Institute’s Jesus Seminar (and other projects – specifically on the Apostle Paul, Luke-Acts, and the origins of Christianity) has been the “industry standard” since 1985. Yet, Aslan ignores it all except for a brief, sneering reference to The Five Gospels (“And of course there are those scholars who reject nearly all of the Son of Man sayings as inauthentic” notes p. 254); and brief mention of John Dominic Crossan’s The Historical Jesus: The Life of a Mediterranean Jewish Peasant. In clear opposition to Aslan’s thesis, Crossan has shown that Jesus taught a nonviolent, subtle, yet highly subversive day-by-day shift in the paradigm from violent imperial injustice to nonviolent distributive justice-compassion. Aslan shamelessly uses Crossan’s work out of context to bolster his own idea that Jesus was engaged in a violent attempt to overthrow the Roman Empire and establish an equally violent and unjust political “kingdom of God” in its place.

A third pitfall for wanna-bee Biblical scholars – and indeed for anyone engaged in research, whether scientific or academic – is to assume that we are free of the influence of our own time, place, and circumstances. Dr. Aslan says he accepted conservative, evangelical Christian teaching and theology at age 15, then returned to his native Islam as an adult. “[T]he sudden realization that . . . the Bible is replete with the most blatant and obvious errors and contradictions . . . left me confused and spiritually unmoored . .. I angrily discarded my faith as if it were a costly forgery I had been duped into buying” (Author’s Note p. xix). Unfortunately, that same anger at this “costly forgery” laid the groundwork for Aslan’s violent Zealot. He at once relies on the supposed historicity of the (late first-century) synoptic Gospels while dismissing them as self-serving fiction, and claims the much later Gospel of John as definitive, even though “As with everything else in the gospels . . . factual accuracy was irrelevant” (p. 154).

Then there is Paul. The Apostle Paul is both praised and blamed by Biblical scholars (including Westar Institute scholars) for the existence of world-wide, orthodox Christianity today. I wonder why Aslan would spend so much time attacking Paul and attempting to set up Jesus’s brother James as the true inheritor of Jesus’s supposed failed, violent “kingdom.” James the Just was most interested in defending the poor and defenseless, according to Aslan. How James managed to develop that spirituality as opposed to his brother Jesus’s purported blood lust is also a question that Aslan does not consider. Are we to infer that the wrong son of a tekton was credited with the nonviolent “preferential option for the poor” that has managed to survive church politics for two thousand years?

The Book of Acts is not history remembered; it is a continuation of Luke’s novel of the life and teachings of Jesus, post-Easter – as any seminary student will tell you (let alone a simple scan of any Bible’s explanatory notes), and Aslan himself acknowledges. Nevertheless, Aslan accepts Luke’s opinions over Paul’s own letters. Why a scholar would throw out someone’s personal correspondence because the life that correspondence reveals contradicts accepted tradition boggles the mind. Worse, Aslan gives equal weight to all the letters attributed to Paul, whether authentically his or not. Probably because of his own bias against Westar Institute scholarship, Aslan ignores John Dominic Crossan and Jonathan L. Reed’s In Search of Paul: How Jesus’s Apostle Opposed Rome’s Empire with God’s Kingdom (Harper San Francisco, 2004); Richard I. Pervo’s The Mystery of Acts (Polebridge Press 2008); and The Authentic Letters of Paul – A New Reading of Paul’s Rhetoric and Meaning (by Lane McGaughy, Daryl D. Schmidt, Roy W. Hoover, and Arthur J. Dewey, Polebridge 2011). But serious consideration of these carefully researched studies would have scuttled the second half of Aslan’s book, thereby reducing it to a curious pamphlet – which would have attracted little attention, even from Fox News.

Aslan needs to rethink his dissertation. Grade: Incomplete.

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