“Zealot”: A Book Review

zealotI wrote a series earlier this year about The Quest for the Historical Jesus, and I had occasion to mention a phrase coined by Luke Timothy Johnson: “The Jesus Business”. For Johnson, the “Jesus Business” is the “profitable trade in Jesus by a variety of publications that by creating a commotion in both the academy and the church also create a media-fed demand for more of the same.” I personally think that the Quest for the Historical Jesus has produced many terrific books, but I have to admit: I’ve purchased more than my share of Jesus books that fit Johnson’s description. The latest of these books is the current New York Times best-seller, Reza Aslan’s Zealot: The Life And Times Of Jesus Of Nazareth.

Aslan’s book (and in particular, the nasty way he was interrogated on Fox News) has created something of a firestorm. Aslan is a prominent voice for Islam in the United States, and evidently there are people who question why a Muslim would want to write a book about Jesus. In case it isn’t obvious, I’m all in favor of non-Christians writing good books about Jesus, and for the record I’m also in favor of Christians writing good books about Jesus.

The problem with Zealot is that it’s not a good book.

Zealot perfectly fits the “Jesus Business” pattern described by Johnson: (1) the book sets forth a “novel angle” on Jesus, one that was previously unknown because it was “covered up” by the church. (2) The book identifies Gospel texts that support this “novel angle” and somehow managed to survive the church’s cover-up – perhaps these texts slipped past the church censors, or perhaps these texts contained material too well known to be suppressed. (3) The book moves other pieces of the Gospels around to support the “novel angle” and reach “provocative conclusions”. (4) Pieces of the Gospel that don’t fit the book’s angle are dismissed as church inventions.

Aslan’s “provocative” conclusion is this: Jesus was a revolutionary who sought and failed to overthrow the Roman rule of his native Palestine by violent means.

In support of his “novel angle”, Aslan primarily relies upon the following Gospel texts: Jesus was called messiah, and “to call oneself the messiah at the time of Roman occupation was tantamount to declaring war on Rome.” Jesus rode into Jerusalem in a “provocative” manner, on a donkey, in a manner befitting a king. Jesus “cleansed” the Temple by overturning the tables of money changers, and driving out the sellers of animals for sacrifice. Jesus told his followers: “I have not come to bring peace, but the sword.” At the last supper, Jesus told his followers to sell their cloaks and buy swords. Jesus was crucified as “King of the Jews”, and crucifixion was “a punishment that Rome reserved almost exclusively for the crime of sedition.” Ergo, Jesus was a violent revolutionary. Any questions?

You might ask about Jesus’ advice to “render unto Caesar that which is Caesar’s”, advice traditionally read as Jesus’ accommodation to Roman rule. But Aslan does not read this advice in the usual way. Aslan translates this advice as “give back to Caesar the property that belongs to Caesar”, property that does not include the land of Israel. Hence, Aslan sees Jesus’ “render unto Caesar” advice as evidence of Jesus’ zealotry. Need more proof? Everyone agrees that Jesus preached the imminent coming of the Kingdom of God, but for Aslan, the Kingdom of God required “a complete reversal of the present political, religious and economic system”, together with “the annihilation of the present leaders”, and “the end of the Roman Empire.” This reversal would require “violence and bloodshed” … and at the end, it would be Jesus sitting on God’s throne.

As I noted above, the “Jesus Business” requires an author to dismiss Gospel texts that do not fit his theory. So Aslan expressly rejects any image of Jesus as an “inveterate peacemaker”. The Jesus who “loved his enemies” and “turned the other cheek” was a church invention, “a complete fabrication”. Jesus preached “love your neighbor”, but this was shorthand for “love your Jewish neighbor”, so Jews could “love their neighbors” and still seek the “annihilation” of Romans or any Jew that collaborated with Rome.  There are many other Gospel passages reflecting a nonviolent Jesus that Aslan simply ignores (and here I’m relying on a handy list provided by Anthony Le Donne), including Jesus’ rejection of an eye for an eye[1], his advice to go the extra mile, his statement “blessed are you when others revile you … on my account”, his command to flee when persecuted, his command to forgive others when praying, and most famously, his request to God from the cross to forgive his persecutors[2].

On occasion, Aslan changes the Gospel stories to better fit his purpose. Take, for example, Jesus’ arrest at the Garden of Gethsemane. The Gospels tell us that Jesus went to the Garden to pray, and when confronted there by the Temple Guard, Jesus peacefully surrendered, ordering his followers not to resist. But Aslan’s version of this story is somewhat different. According to Aslan, the Garden was Jesus’ “hideout”. His followers hid there with him, “shrouded in darkness and armed with swords – just as Jesus had commanded.” Aslan’s Jesus did not meekly surrender – he and his followers fought the Temple Guard in what Aslan describes as a “brief melee”. While Jesus and his followers were not “taken easily”, their resistance proved “useless”, and Jesus was “seized, bound, and dragged back into the city to face his accusers.” Ah! That’s a better story, at least if your preferred Jesus is a violent revolutionary, or an action hero. The fact that this story appears nowhere in the historical record seems to be of no concern to Aslan. He doesn’t bother to mention that the story is his own creation.

Aslan amends the Gospel texts in other significant ways. He denies that there was any strife in Jesus’ family (perhaps because he ends his book by extolling Jesus’ brother James as the ideal disciple). He ignores the battles between Jesus and the Pharisees, characterizing their relationship as, at worst, “occasionally testy”. Aslan wants the wrath of his Jesus focused not on the Pharisees, but on the Jerusalem elites, and in particular on Jesus’ “main antagonist”, the high priest Caiaphas, “the Jewish imposter occupying God’s Temple”.

More on Aslan and the Temple in a moment. But first, I’d like to say some nice things about Zealot. It’s a good thing to consider Jesus with a sword. We tend to overemphasize the pale, thin, white, long-haired Jesus, the guy from the movies and the lithographs whose strongest reaction to human foibles is a long sigh and eyes turned upwards to heaven. I hate to give the advocates of “muscular Jesus” any credit, but there’s something to be said for the Jesus who does battle with Satan, tames demons, argues fearlessly with authority and (as we’re about to discuss) drives people from the Temple with a whip.

It’s also good to consider Jesus as a first century Palestinian Jew. Kudos to Aslan for his discussion of “the tumultuous era in which Jesus lived”, and for trying to locate Jesus in his time and place. Unfortunately, Aslan paints a one-dimensional picture of Jesus’ time and place, imagining that all Jews (other than the aristocratic elite) were inclined towards violent revolt, when such was not the case. Moreover, while Aslan deserves credit for emphasizing the Roman occupation of Palestine, strangely enough he’s willing in certain ways to give Rome a pass. For example, he barely mentions the oppressive system of Roman taxation, yet he makes frequent references to the “ravenous Temple treasury”, notwithstanding the fact that the Temple tax was more-or-less voluntary and amounted to about 2 days’ pay a year.

Indeed, the Jerusalem Temple is for Aslan the center of all that’s wrong with Jesus’ world. Aslan describes the Temple as a “kind of feudal state”, complete with slaves, fouled with the “stench of slaughter”, where “huge sums” pass through the hands of “merchants and grubby money changers”; where the priests are “avaricious” and so hated by the people that “many in Jerusalem … longed to slay the rapacious high priest” and “more than a few would have liked to wipe out the bloated Temple priesthood in its entirety.” Aslan’s focus on the evil Temple priesthood even extends to the Parable of the Good Samaritan, which for Aslan has “less to do with the goodness of the Samaritan than with the baseness of the two priests.” At one point, Aslan manages to sum up Jesus’ “message” in two words: “brazenly anticlerical”.

Reading Aslan’s book, one would never know that the first Jewish war against Rome began in 66 C.E. when the Jews in Palestine rose up to resist the demand of the Roman governor that the Jews pay reparations to Rome out of the Temple treasury. The idea that Jesus’ fellow Jews were fiercely loyal to the Temple would, let’s say, have disrupted Aslan’s narrative. The Jews of first century Palestine may have had issues with the high priest, but for the most part they supported the Temple and were willing to fight to protect its integrity. Even the early Christians continued to worship in the Temple after Jesus’ death. When the Temple was destroyed in the first Jewish war, Jews everywhere mourned its loss as their greatest collective tragedy. The sole remaining remnant of the Temple, its Western Wall, is today revered by Jews worldwide as the most sacred spot on Earth. This is not what we’d expect if, as Aslan suggests, the Temple was seen by Jesus’ contemporaries as the central source of their economic and political oppression.

As I’ve pointed out elsewhere, Aslan’s reasoning is loose, and his research is sloppy. He’s not taking into account the best research on the historical Jesus. He cites many of my favorite authors (John Meier, Amy-Jill Levine), but he does not adequately address the central points of their books. As I pointed out with Aslan’s Garden of Gethsemane story, Aslan’s narrative sometimes appears to come out of nowhere. Granted that any good history is a creative effort, but Aslan’s effort seems to cross the line into fictionalized history.

Take for example Aslan’s description of Jesus’ Temple-cleansing. Following the Gospels, Aslan has Jesus overturn the tables of the money changers, release animals from their cages and block commercial traffic. In response, Jesus is confronted by Temple priests, and also (in an Aslan flourish) by “a corps of Roman guards and heavily armed Temple police”. These authorities are “irate”.

So far, Aslan has not strayed far from the Gospels, but to the small extent he has strayed, he’s written himself into a corner. In Aslan’s view, Jesus’ Temple cleansing is “akin to an attack on the priestly nobility”, “tanamount to an attack on Rome itself”, and a “capital offense” “punishable by crucifixion”. But unlike the Gospel accounts, Aslan imagines Jesus confronted at the Temple by hostile, armed and “irate” Temple police and Roman troops. If Aslan has the story correct, then the next logical step should have been Jesus’ immediate arrest, along with that of his followers. This would have meant no Last Supper, and no betrayal by Judas at the Garden of Gethsemane: Jesus would have proceeded from the Temple directly to the Cross.

With Jesus surrounded by armed forces, how did he manage to escape? Here is Aslan’s theory: Jesus told his would-be captors (as he does in the Gospel of John) that he had the power to rebuild the Temple in three days. By merely making this claim, according to Aslan, Jesus rendered the authorities “dumbstruck”, so “dumbstruck” in fact that the Roman guards and Temple police “apparently do not notice Jesus and his disciples calmly exiting the Temple and walking out of the city.” Wow! That’s some kind of dumbstruck. Really, it’s less a case of “dumbstruck”, and more like a miracle: in essence, Jesus vanished into thin air. For my money, disappearing while surrounded by armed Roman troops beats walking on water, but Aslan doesn’t seem to see anything miraculous here. Evidently for Aslan, when you are surrounded by forces intent on your arrest, you can avoid detection by saying something outrageous.

In short: Aslan’s reconstruction of the Temple cleansing makes no sense.

This is no minor detail. This goes to the very heart of Aslan’s thesis. Aslan is claiming that Jesus was a violent revolutionary. But Aslan can point to only one incident in Jesus’ life where he may have committed an act of violence, and that act is the Temple cleansing. If Aslan wants to picture the Temple cleansing as a violent, revolutionary act, then Aslan has to plausibly explain how Jesus escaped arrest at the Temple, and if he cannot do so, then we’re left to wonder whether the Temple cleansing involved any amount of violence on Jesus’ part. Perhaps the reason Jesus was not arrested at the Temple was because he didn’t do anything violent to warrant arrest, meaning that the Temple cleansing was not the big deal Aslan makes it out to be, in which case it would seem that Jesus never committed a single act of violence in his life. We’re left to wonder how Jesus could have possibly been a Zealot, a violent revolutionary, when he merely talked about the sword but never actually used one.

Moreover, even if Jesus did overturn a few tables at the Temple, we still must address an even more crippling problem with Aslan’s book: that his Zealot Jesus was a profound and miserable failure. If Jesus intended to lead a revolution, it was an ill-conceived revolution – as Stephen Prothero asked in his book review, where were Jesus’ soldiers and weapons, and “why no battle plan?” If Jesus was a violent revolutionary, his career consisted (at most) of a single act of violence at the Temple, one that (judged by the standards of violent revolution) was an impotent and ill-conceived non-starter. Even Aslan admits that Jesus wasn’t a success as a zealot. Aslan states that Jesus died without changing the social order, his predicted Kingdom of God never arrived and he did not fulfill “a single requirement expected of the messiah”. So we must ask the question: if Jesus was a zealot, and he accomplished so little in the way of zealotry, then why does anyone remember him today?

For Aslan, what made Jesus memorable was not his life, but his resurrection. Of course, Aslan cannot confirm that the resurrection happened – he’s an historian, and miracles are beyond historical proof. But Aslan can confirm that after Jesus’ death, Jesus’ followers reported that they’d experienced the resurrected Jesus, and that they acted on that experience by (for example) forming a church and subjecting themselves to persecution and (on occasion) martyrdom.

Far be it from me to downplay the importance of the resurrection. The experience of Jesus’ resurrection does help account for the persistence of his movement after his death. But the resurrection alone is not enough to explain what cemented the loyalty of Jesus’ followers. Imagine that you encountered a resurrected political failure, like Harold Stassen, or a resurrected mediocrity, like one of the Jonas Brothers. No argument: an encounter with a resurrected person, any resurrected person, would be a thrilling experience. But if the person was Harold Stassen, would you be tempted to worship him? Would you devote your life to building a church around him? If faced with the prospect of being lion food, would you die for him? I don’t think so.

Aslan’s Zealot fails the most important test we can apply to any book about Jesus: it does not explain Jesus’ significance. Whatever or whoever Jesus was, we know for certain that Jesus was not insignificant. You don’t get to inspire the creation of the world’s largest religion by living an insignificant life, even if you’re resurrected afterwards. So, Zealot is not proof that Jesus was a zealot. It is proof that the Jesus Business is alive and well.

[1] The text regarding “eye for an eye” is mentioned in Aslan’s Notes, but only with regard to Aslan’s preference for the gospel of Luke’s version of Jesus’ commandments to “love your enemies” and “turn the other cheek”.

[2] Aslan does mention this speech on the cross, from Luke 23:34 (he mis-cites it at 23:24), in his Notes to Chapter 15 regarding James the Just. Here, Aslan notes the similarities between Luke 23:34 and James’ death speech as reported by Hegesippus and preserved in Eusebius’ Ecclesiastical History. But I could not find any reference to Luke 23:34 in Aslan’s discussion of Jesus’ supposed program of violent revolution.

  • AJ

    Thanks for the review. Just curious, to what extent do you think Aslan wrote this as a Muslim?

    Just based on your review (and not the book, which I haven’t read), the thought occurred to me whether Aslan is saying that a Jesus who’s “worth anything” would be more of a Mohammedian figure. Also, is it my imagination or is he portraying Jews and the Temple in ways which play into the most unflattering kinds of stereotypes – and if so, might that be religiously and/or politically expedient?

    I could be totally off, but I wanted to see what you thought.

    • lbehrendt

      AJ, if what you’re interested in is Aslan’s motives, I’d say that they are complicated and multifaceted. Aslan’s family are refugees from the Iranian revolution, and after that revolution “religion in general, and Islam in particular, became taboo in our household.” Aslan also described a period in his teen years when he was a born-again Christian. I’d say that there’s a lot going on here!

      Aslan’s Jesus is nothing like the Muslim Jesus. Jesus is regarding by Islam as a great prophet. Islam believes that Jesus performed miracles — Islam even accepts Jesus’ virgin birth. Others have commented that traditional Muslims are likely to object to “Zealot”, same as traditional Christians.

      As for Aslan’s Jesus being “Mohammedian”, I’ll note that Stephen Prothero claims that Aslan’s Jesus is “a frustrated Muhammad — a man who, like Islam’s founder, came to revolutionize the world by force yet, unlike Muhammad, failed.” But another critic of Aslan’s work, Rob Asghar, wrote here that Aslan’s Jesus is a much more violent character than Aslan’s Mohammed (see Aslan’s terrific book “No God But God”). Or as Asghar put it, “Aslan’s rendition of Jesus is much like a traditional view of the prophet Muhammad, and his rendition of the prophet Muhammad is more like a traditional view of Jesus.” So again, I find it best to pass over these kinds of questions, and instead to simply address “Zealot” on its merits.

      As for the Jewish stuff … I linked above to an article that says “Zealot” “caricatures the diversity of Jewish thought and practice in the first century – painting ‘Jews’ and ‘Judaism’ with the broad brush of nationalistic ‘fervor’ – as if all Jews were inclined towards violent revolt.” The article goes on to argue that “caricatures of Jews and Judaism are dangerous.” True enough. But similar “caricatures” exist in the writings of many other authors. There’s an unfortunate tendency to view first century Judaism as a foil for Jesus, so if Jesus cared about the poor, then the poor of his day must have been unspeakably and hopelessly poor. Or if Jesus cared about social justice, then first century Palestine must have been the most unjust place in the history of the world. Aslan did not invent this attitude towards Jesus’ world, so I decided that my review of his book should focus elsewhere.