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Reza Aslan on Jesus: A Biblical Scholar Responds

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Reza Aslan's Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth has taken off as a cultural phenomenon. Just two weeks after Aslan's interview on NPR's "Fresh Air," his interpretation of Jesus' life and intentions has attained number one status on bestseller lists. A ridiculously hostile FOXNews interview has certainly helped. But it's been two weeks -- and as yet I cannot find a serious review by a practicing biblical scholar. This brief review amounts to my attempt to respond to the questions I'm receiving about the book from every corner.

Aslan gained wide popularity for his introduction to Islam, No god but God. I very much enjoyed my copy and still consult it. Aslan holds a PhD in sociology, but his primary scholarly emphasis involves contemporary religion. Aslan has also worked in New Testament studies, and Zealot contains references to a vast amount of literature, yet the book also betrays that he is not immersed in the literature of that field. Aslan is a spectacular writer, and his portrait of Jesus is spiritually if not intellectually compelling.

Allow me to address the common complaint that as a Muslim Aslan has no business writing a Jesus book. Aslan clearly respects and admires Jesus. That some Christians might find his claims unsettling is, well, tough, because Aslan is doing serious intellectual work. The complaints have no place in responsible public discourse.

First, Zealot has formidable strengths. Aslan has done a great deal of homework, offering material that will instruct many specialists from time to time. The most important thing Aslan accomplishes involves setting Jesus in a plausible historical and cultural context. Indeed, more of the book may involve Jesus' contexts than direct discussion of the man himself. Someone very like Jesus could easily have existed in Roman Galilee. Aslan's Jesus is thoroughly Jewish, passionately committed to Israel's welfare and restoration. Aslan appreciates how Jesus' activities amounted to resistance against Roman domination -- as well as against collaboration on the part of Jewish elites. Many scholars would agree.

Any respectable portrait of Jesus must take serious account of how Jesus died, as Aslan's does. Jesus dies as a convicted seditionist, a would-be king who finally got caught. This is a serious interpretation of Jesus' crucifixion. Perhaps Aslan most deserves credit for his openness to the possibility that Jesus really did see himself as Israel's messiah, or king. Far too many historians dismiss this possibility out of hand.

Many traditionalist Christians will struggle with Aslan's handling of the Gospel stories. Maybe they don't teach this in some churches, but Christian thought developed a great deal in the decades following Jesus' death, a fact Aslan recognizes. I do wish he were more careful in spelling out why he finds certain Gospel traditions more historically plausible than others, but again any credible account of Jesus' life must recognize that the Gospels do not provide direct windows into Jesus' activities.

I would add that Aslan provides some of the most helpful discussions I have yet encountered regarding the accounts of Jesus' healing ministry and of his resurrection. These stories represent minefields for any historical investigator. Aslan handles them with sympathy, imagination, and critical judgment.

At the same time, I have some serious reservations about Aslan's portrait of Jesus, and I suspect that most professional biblical scholars will share some of them. First, the book contains some outright glitches, things a professional scholar would be unlikely to say. Aslan suggests there were "countless" revolutionary prophets and would-be messiahs in Jesus' day. Several did appear, but "countless" is a bit much. Aslan assumes near-universal illiteracy in Jesus' society, an issue that remains unsettled and hotly contested among specialists. At one point Aslan says it would seem "unthinkable" for an adult Jewish man not to marry. He does mention celibate Jews like the Essenes, but he seems unaware that women were simply scarce in the ancient world. Lots of low-status men lacked the opportunity to marry. Aslan assumes Jesus lived and worked in Sepphoris, a significant city near Nazareth. This is possible, but we lack evidence to confirm it.

Two of Aslan's glitches, however, bear directly upon his argument. Readers of the Gospels know that Jesus often silences those who would proclaim his messianic identity. We call this phenomenon the "messianic secret." Aslan claims that Jesus himself veiled his messianic identity in order to avoid detection by the authorities. He also claims that Jesus used coded language to promote his vision of the Kingdom of God for similar reasons. Most scholars will find these claims just silly. For example, Aslan notes that many interpreters credit the author of Mark with inventing the messianic secret as a literary device. Aslan rejects that view on the grounds that Mark's author lacked literary skill. Mark certainly features rough Greek, but appreciation for Mark's remarkable literary artistry stands as one of the most important scholarly findings of the past few decades. After all, how many spellbinding storytellers lack proper grammar? The misguided idea of a secretive Jesus figures importantly in Aslan's overall argument.

I would like to conclude with a few critical but constructive observations.

First, Aslan seems to assume that Jesus' crucifixion demonstrates that Jesus himself fomented violent sedition. That conclusion is far less obvious than Aslan admits. Crucifixion shows that the Romans regarded Jesus as a threat to public order -- and they did. (See the two chapters on Jesus' crucifixion in my Sinners: Jesus and His Earliest Followers.) However, one did not have to practice violence in order to experience Roman wrath. The Qumran community may have anticipated a holy war, but we have no evidence they ever marched out to battle. We have firm archaeological evidence that the Romans destroyed their community in 68 C.E. In other words, Jesus need not have promoted violence for the Romans to see him as dangerous.

Second, Jesus' resistance to Rome need not have promoted violence. Aslan does a wonderful job in showing how Jesus' "triumphal entry" amounted to a public demonstration. He demonstrates that "Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar's" promotes not good citizenship but outright resistance (Mark 12:17). (I've written on these topics as well.) Aslan is aware of how deeply Jesus draws upon the book of Daniel -- but he does not acknowledge Daniel's main message. Daniel called forth a community of the wise who would resist their wicked rulers without employing violence. Just as the Judaism of Jesus' day included rebels, it also featured streams of nonviolent resistance. That is where most scholars locate Jesus.

Third, Aslan is almost surely correct that Jesus was a faithful Jew who observed the law of Moses. (This may surprise many Christians, but almost all scholars agree.) Perhaps Jesus was "zealous" in this sense. Yet it's difficult to square one feature of Jesus' ministry with the portrait of Jesus as a zealous revolutionary: the Gospels' remarkable insistence that Jesus enjoyed the company of sinners. Matthew's Jesus acknowledges how his circle of friends led to accusations that he was a drunkard himself (11:19), while Luke posits that sinners and tax collectors (collaborators!) actually enjoyed Jesus' company (15:1-2). Hard to see a zealot acting like that.

Finally, Aslan seems to have bought into an outdated model of Christian development. According to that model, Jesus was a mighty prophet, but it took decades for the idea of Jesus' divinity to take shape. Aslan imagines a Jewish Jesus tradition that developed without the trappings of a divine Jesus. It took the Hellenized Paul and his circle of Gentile converts to start the church on the path to Nicea. Paul, Aslan asserts, "created" the figure of Jesus as "Christ."

Contemporary scholarship is undermining that familiar model. For one thing, Paul was not nearly so removed from the teachings of Jesus as Aslan assert. Paul's connection to the Jesus movement goes back to within a couple of years of Jesus' death, and Paul's teachings resonate with some of Jesus' most characteristic emphases. Moreover, we find "high christologies" -- assertions of Jesus' divinity -- from the earliest stages and from beyond Paul. Daniel Boyarin, a leading Jewish biblical scholar no less, believes that Jesus saw himself as divine. (I mention Boyarin not because I agree with him but because he represents a non-Christian take on these developments.) Matthew's Gospel, the most obviously Jewish of the four Gospels, emphasizes people worshiping Jesus. The old model that Paul "invented" devotion to Jesus the Christ, particularly devotion to a divine Jesus, simply does not hold.