Fellowship of Saints and Sinners

Fellowship of Saints and Sinners

Jesus the Zealot? A Closer Look at Reza Aslan and His Latest Book

Author of "Jesus the Zealot" Reza Aslan speaks at a recent book signing in Portland, Oregon.

Author of “Jesus the Zealot” Reza Aslan speaks at a recent book signing in Portland, Oregon.

Maybe it’s because at 2 am last night my daughter woke me up and never went back to sleep. Or because at 2:05 am we discovered a bat flying around in the upstairs bedroom, having rather mysteriously snuck in from some where. (As I write this, the bat is still flying around in the upstairs bedroom; with my husband away, I had taken a sober appraisal of the limits of my feminism and concluded that they exclude equal rights with respect to catching small, flying rodents that elicit screams and a quick run out of the room.)

But still, regardless, this morning I am finding it hard not to be a bit grumpy about all the cyber brouhaha over scholar Reza Aslan’s treatment (or “mistreatment”) by a Fox television reporter around Aslan’s latest book, Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth. The reporter’s disappointing line of questioning aside—Aslan’s Muslim sympathies alone need not disqualify him from writing a book about his version of the “historical Jesus”—I am more disappointed that the FOX interview has proved an easy distraction from real engagement with Aslan’s scholarly credentials and Aslan’s line of reasoning in the book itself.

First, there remains the legitimate problem of Aslan’s credentials. Aslan himself is quick to draw attention to these at the start of the interview, and, not without conveying a note of pompousness. (You can judge for yourself by watching the exchange.) This made me curious: I did a Wickipedia search on Aslan; apparently he does have a specialization in Islamic studies, but currently teaches creative writing at UC Riverside. No mention is made of any academic expertise in the area of New Testament studies or the early history of Christianity. In fact, the doctorate Aslan earned is in the area of sociology.

Which means that Aslan has no more credentials to write a book about the historical Jesus and claim expert knowledge than a well-respected New Testament scholar like N.T. Wright, for example, might have to write a book about the historical Muhammed! (And I would add here that N.T. Wright’s scholarly credentials far supersede Aslan’s.)

Then there is the book itself, which, after reading a long excerpt from the book on The Huffington Post, I am inclined not to read. The line of reasoning and argument seem a bit sloppy. That main argument in a nutshell is this: that the only truly reliable thing we can conclude about the historical Jesus is that he was essentially just another “politically conscious Jewish revolutionary” who led a failed movement to establish “the kingdom of God” and was crucified on a cross for his insurrection. Everything else in the New Testament, Aslan concludes, is “a matter of faith.”

So, for example, Aslan can conclude mystifyingly that Jesus’ angry rampage in the temple is actually a political revolutionary’s attempt to overthrow the ruling authorities! But if Jesus were only another political revolutionary with messianic ambitions, wouldn’t he have coordinated a more strategically planned attack on the temple, conscripting at least his disciples to help? Throwing over the tables of a few money changers and having a temper tantrum about the corruption of the religious authorities hardly qualifies as a kind of Che Guevara moment.

The simplicity of Aslan’s conclusion that the historical Jesus is nothing more than a political zealot may be enticing; but the reductionism here fails to explain away much of the Jesus we see depicted in word and deed in the New Testament; that Jesus is admittedly a man of contradictions (and one could also argue  here that contradictions belong to the human condition). It also fails to engage the Gospels’ testimony to this man’s resurrection from the dead and the ensuing historical testimony of the lives of those who literally staked their lives on this claim. It overlooks against its own logic what may have been the reasoning behind the early church’s canonization of the four Gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John (and the devaluing of the Gnostics).

If there is anything that rivals my distaste for intellectual pomposity, it would be intellectual disingenuousness. I find it intellectually disingenuous to explain away things for which there may not as of yet be explanations (in this case, historical ones). The absence of an explanation does not mean that there is no explanation, as Madeleine L’Engle reminds me in her wonderful novel, A Wrinkle in Time—only that the explanation has yet to be found. Unfortunately, Aslan’s preference for one rather tiresomely familiar, blanket explanation of Jesus’ mission over rigorous and credentialed historical treatment takes us no further in the service of truth; and it lends itself to a work that I won’t be recommending to prospective readers any time soon.

There is one point on which I would agree with Aslan (and there may be more). Recently, when describing his objective in writing the book, Aslan said this: “If I do have some kind of philosophical objective—behind my secret Muslim objective—I want to show people you can be a follower of Jesus without necessarily being a Christian.”

Sadly, Aslan’s Jesus would demand political revolutionaries as followers.

But what do you think about any or all of the above? Did you see the FOX interview or read the book? I’d love to hear your thoughts.


  • Kristina Robb-Dover

    Hi Wendel,
    Thanks for your thoughts here—although I’m not sure if they all came through? I had the opportunity to meet Wright very briefly at a conference last year (although he probably won’t remember me) and may try to email him to invite a response.
    But I gather from your comment that you found Aslan’s argument more convincing that what he lays out in the excerpt he shares with Huffington Post?

  • http://AddaURLtothiscomment Wendel Thompson

    After reading Zealot, I’m looking forward to hearing NTWright discuss these notions so clearly articulated by Aslan: Paul’s idea that the law was abolished by Jesus; that the kingdom was either present now or was for the future (Wright says it is both); was the Bethlehem birth fabricated to fulfill Sripture; evidence that Jesus couldn’t read.was the absence of 2verses when he read in the Nazareth synagogue. Etc.

  • http://AddaURLtothiscomment Sal Hernandez

    I seen the fox interview and it was very bad for the lady because her I emotions were involved,I did not read the book and I don’t intend to.the thing I don’t understand is when you say I agree with Aslan following Jesus,what do you mean by following Jesus?

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