For a few days in July 2013, Reza Aslan won the support of virtually every scholar of religion in the United States.
Aslan gained this distinction after sitting through an especially absurd FOX News interview in honor of his forthcoming Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth. Fox “religion correspondent” Lauren Green simply could not understand why Aslan, a Muslim, would have chosen to write a book about the historical Jesus. “You are a Muslim,” Green intoned. “Why did you write a book about the founder of Christianity?” Aslan, not unreasonably, responded by listing his academic credentials: “I am a scholar of religions with four degrees, including one in the New Testament, and fluency in biblical Greek. … I am an expert with a PhD in the history of religions.” Green seemed not to understand. “But … why would you be interested in the founder of Christianity?” At one point she accused Aslan, who identifies himself as a Muslim on the second page of Zealot, of trying to hide his religious affiliation.
Scholars of religion, whatever their political views, groaned. Did Green not understand that religious-studies scholarship was not conducted along devotional lines, so that one could write about early Christianity without confessing Jesus as Christ, Tibetan Buddhism without striving to attain Buddhahood, and the Raelian cult without believing in UFOs? Or was Green under the mistaken impression that Islam had no connection to Christianity, and that the Qur’an did not portray Jesus as the most important prophet before Muhammad? As news of the interview spread, some joked that Aslan and Green between them had contrived to generate the best possible publicity for Zealot: Anyone with an interest in religious studies or a distaste for Islamophobia was now predisposed to like the book. Driven by controversy, it became a national bestseller.
In many ways, Zealot deserves its brief star turn. It is a compulsively readable account of first-century Roman-Jewish politics, pulling readers in with an immersive and action-packed prologue set in 56 CE, decades after Jesus’ death, and then switching between eras, parceling out Jesus’ life alongside the developments of what became a full-scale Jewish revolt against the Romans, culminating in the destruction of Jerusalem and mass suicides at Masada. Aslan’s four degrees include an M.F.A., and his primary academic appointment is in creative writing, so it comes as no surprise that Zealot is a much snappier read than the typical scholarly monograph. Indeed, it is a volume aimed at a general readership: instead of a formal scholarly apparatus of footnotes or endnotes, it includes an appendix of entertaining but rather diffuse bibliographic essays in small print.
Zealot describes a very human and very political Jesus, a man shaped and ultimately killed by the linked forces of rebellion and messianism that loom so large in the history of late Second Temple Judaism. This Jesus, a day laborer with something faintly scandalous about his parentage (why else call him “son of Mary”?), was born into a war-torn region and grew up to become a charismatic preacher, a rabble-rouser, a demagogue, a miracle-worker, and a threat to both the Judean religious authorities and the Roman government. Jesus associated with prostitutes, tax collectors, and others at the margins of respectable society because he, too, was marginal; he was crucified between two bandits because he, too, was seen as a potential bandit and criminal.
The central mystery of Jesus’ teachings, as Aslan understands them, is not the nature of his idiosyncratic claims to the status of messiah, but why it took the Romans so long to condemn him for them.
For Aslan, the defining value of Jesus’ life is that of zeal. Although not part of the Zealot Party, which arose several decades later and played a major role in the revolt against Rome, Jesus came from the same region and shared the same spiritual DNA, which Aslan rather vaguely links to various Hebrew Bible exhortations to cleanse the land of pagan inhabitants. In its late Hellenistic Jewish form, however, zealotry came from poorly armed bands of peasant insurrectionists roaming the Galilean countryside, claiming to personify God’s apocalyptic wrath against the Romans and their Jewish supporters. Not surprisingly, these movements were suppressed again and again, employing considerable violence, but each time they re-emerged.
Aslan maintains that Jesus of Nazareth, the historical figure, saw himself and was seen as part of this long tradition of zealots. Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem, Aslan points out, featured triumphant Messianic claims followed by violent destruction of property in the outer courtyard of the Jerusalem Temple. When he is later cornered by Jewish authorities and asked whether Jews should pay tribute to the Romans, he famously avoids the question by taking a Roman coin and announcing that since it features Caesar’s image, it must go back to him. The second half of that statement, however, is that what is God’s should go back to God. As Aslan points out, this is neither a conciliatory nor a peaceful solution:
[A]ccording to Jesus, Caesar is entitled to be “given back” the denarius coin, not because he deserves tribute, but because it is his coin: his name and picture are stamped on it. God has nothing to do with it. By extension, God is entitled to be “given back” the land the Romans have seized for themselves because it is God’s land: “The Land is mine,” says the Lord (Leviticus 25:23). Caesar has nothing to do with it. … This is the zealot argument in its simplest, most concise form. (77-78)
But Jesus’ zealotry was not unique. “The Kingdom of God is a call to revolution, plain and simple,” Aslan asserts, and men before and after Jesus would make claims very similar to his.
From this starting point–the height of Jesus’ zeal–Aslan catalogues the other words and actions of Jesus in the Gospels. Some he accepts as genuine (generally the most inflammatory); others he derides as later inventions. Jesus’ “brazenly anticlerical message” at Capernaum gives way to his budding career as an exorcist and healer. Again, these powers did not make Jesus unique, but they did make him notorious, especially in his vehement refusal to accept payment and his equally vehement assertion that he was healing and cleansing people as God’s agent on Earth—in increasingly clear opposition to the mechanisms established at the Temple in Jerusalem.
Jesus’ teachings about the Kingdom of God also take on an inflammatory tone in Aslan’s retelling. “The Kingdom of God is not some utopian fantasy in which God vindicates the poor and the dispossessed,” Aslan insists. “It is a chilling new reality in which God’s wrath rains down upon the rich, the strong, and the powerful. … God’s rule cannot be established without the annihilation of the present leaders.” The central mystery of Jesus’ teachings, as Aslan understands them, is not the nature of his idiosyncratic claims to the status of messiah, but why it took the Romans so long to condemn him for them.
What made Jesus stand out from a long line of other failed messiahs was not his message, or his actions, Aslan argues. Rather, it was his followers’ success in reshaping his legacy, repackaging a Jewish revolutionary as a peace-loving divine presence with universal appeal. “After the Jewish Revolt and the destruction of Jerusalem, the early Christian church tried desperately to distance Jesus from the zealous nationalism that had led to that awful war,” Aslan explains. “Statements such as ‘love your enemies’ and ‘turn the other cheek’ were deliberately cleansed of their Jewish content and transformed into abstract ethical principles that all peoples could abide regardless of their ethnic, cultural, or religious persuasions.”
In gradual stages, as Aslan tells it, the early Christian community moved away from both the zealotry and the Jewishness of Jesus’ teachings. The thriving community of Jewish-identified Christians led by Jesus’ brother James was mostly annihilated in the same revolt that destroyed the Temple: in its aftermath, the New Testament was assembled around the teachings of James’ rival Paul, who had never met Jesus in person but claimed the authority of revelation in order to explain Jesus’ divinity and his sudden devotion to the non-Jewish world. The three New Testament Gospels which postdated the revolt also revised Jesus’ story, softening his harshest messages and creating improbable narratives in which the “Jews” rather than the Romans became responsible for his execution. An epilogue set at the Council of Nicaea in 325 C.E., affirming the full divinity of Jesus Christ under the supervision of a Roman emperor, indicates how completely Jesus’ radically anti-Roman and exclusively Jewish message had been transformed by his followers. “Two thousand years later,” Aslan concludes, “the Christ of Paul’s creation has utterly subsumed the Jesus of history.”
For some readers, this may be a new and exciting–even revolutionary!–perspective on the historical Jesus. Aslan certainly hopes so: he describes Zealot as the culmination of “two decades of rigorous academic research into the origins of Christianity.” For scholars, however, Aslan’s research is neither novel nor especially rigorous. Those two decades begin with Aslan’s undergraduate major in religious studies, and they include not only a master’s degree in theological studies and that MFA in creative writing but also a doctorate in sociology, which finally culminated in a dissertation on the origins of Islam. It is clear that Aslan has indeed been fascinated by the historical Jesus since his teenage years, but he is not an academic specialist in the New Testament or in early Christianity, and he does himself a disservice by portraying himself as one.
Indeed, Aslan’s honeymoon period with scholars of religion was quite brief. From an academic perspective, the Jesus of Zealot is a flattened and sometimes polemicized synthesis of two centuries of scholarship on the historical Jesus, with an emphasis on the 1990s. As Aslan acknowledges throughout his bibliographic essays, his primary inspiration is John P. Meier’s magisterial Jesus: A Marginal Jew (in four volumes from 1991 to 2009). He also seems to draw frequently on the scholarship of the Jesus Seminar, especially John Dominic Crossan and his Jesus: A Revolutionary Biography (1995). Non-English and more recent scholarship are oddly lacking from Aslan’s otherwise respectable bibliography, and many long-running scholarly debates on details of Jesus’ life (for instance, whether or not he was literate) are decisively resolved in a sentence or two of Aslan’s text, only to be questioned deep in his bibliographic essays, if at all.
A particular weakness of Zealot is Aslan’s two-dimensional view of how Judaism and Christianity emerged as distinct (and often opposing) entities in the centuries following Jesus’ death. Aslan sees Jesus as a figure completely out of step with the Jewish religious establishment of his day, and argues that claims of Jesus’ divinity (whether his own or his followers’) were completely anathema to Second Temple Judaism, leading to an apparently seamless break between Jews and Christians in the aftermath of the Temple’s destruction. However, recent scholarship by Peter Schäfer (The Jewish Jesus, 2012) and Daniel Boyarin (The Jewish Gospels, 2012) only deepens a long-standing debate over the extent to which Christian doctrines came out of Judaism and the extent to which rabbinic Judaism constructed itself in response to the challenge of Christianity. Readers interested in nascent Jewish-Christian relations could also benefit from Amy-Jill Levine’s more approachable, but still extremely erudite, The Misunderstood Jew: The Church and the Scandal of the Jewish Jesus (2007).
All this notwithstanding, Aslan’s Zealot is an engaging work of creative nonfiction about the enigmatic founder of a major world religion. For anyone intrigued by the debate over the historical Jesus but willing to take Aslan’s claims of newly revealed truth with the same skepticism he himself turns on the New Testament Gospels, this could be a fun leisure-time read. For anyone searching for a hidden Muslim agenda, however, the results are bound to disappoint: Aslan’s Jesus and the Qur’anic Jesus share nothing but a fragile, ultimately doomed, humanity.