“Zealot” – Reza Aslan’s Implausible Jesus Story

Not the Greatest Story Ever Told:

zealotAslan agrees that the Gospels are “The Greatest Story Ever Told”, in his Author’s Note. His own version is… not. Aslan is a masterful storyteller (he should be, because he’s a professor of creative writing!), but the story he is telling has some serious problems.

Aslan is not an historian, nor an expert in New Testament scholarship, despite famously having claimed to be. This lack of actual subject-matter expertise becomes embarrassingly obvious, even to a mere student of the fields, as one eagerly turns the pages of his ripping, if completely implausible, yarn entitled, “Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth”.

Many experts have criticised the work on various levels, and it really is easy, for those who have studied the subject, to pick technical holes in it. But that’s not especially edifying, and it would take a book as big as Aslan’s novel to do it. To me, it remains firstly important to note that Aslan’s own story, on its own terms, using only the subject matter he brings to it, fails to make sense of the facts as he presents them. This results in an implausible plot line, even without attempting to reference it to real history. Secondly it is important to clear up the profoundly misleading characterisation of the New Testament’s teachings, which could not be sustained in the company of New Testament scholars, and are the very same misunderstandings which have given rise to anti-Semitism in the past.


Genre

It would be reasonable to assume that Aslan is writing in the tradition of Dan Brown (Author of The Da Vinci Code, for example), who describes his own genre this way:

“I do something very intentional and specific in these books. And that is to blend fact and fiction in a very modern and efficient style, to tell a story. There are some people who understand what I do, and they sort of get on the train and go for a ride and have a great time, and there are other people who should probably just read somebody else.”

– Dan Brown, Dan Brown on dealing with criticism. today.msnbc.com. Retrieved April 9, 2015. (from 0:35 in the video)

Frankly, I think Brown was probably caught off guard by the swathes of people prepared to swallow his fictional work “The Da Vinci Code” as though it really were historical, but he never set out to write history. He was writing an entertaining fiction, set amongst real historical events, places and people.

If only Aslan had introduced his novel (because that is what it really is) in such terms, much confusion would have been avoided. On the contrary, he claims that it is a scholarly work, worthy of being treated as history. Unfortunately that opens it to the glaring eye of the scholarly world, where it then completely fails. No credible scholar has attempted to defend it as being worthy of use as a primary reference text, for example. In the sense that it is at all “peer reviewed”, his peers rate it poorly.

Failures

Aslan’s story is of a Jesus who was … an illiterate copy-cat, hopelessly deluded, violently militant, deliriously apocalyptic preacher/magician, who stormed Jerusalem intending to overthrow the entire Roman Empire without a single weapon, and with no armed men in his company.

The failings in this work are numerous. Historical, theological, exegetical, and purely logical errors are a constant source, for the informed reader, of amusement, surprise, frustration, or alarm, depending how seriously one takes Aslan’s work. Others have provided critiques of the numerous technical errors, so rather than give a blow-by blow, I’d like to point out just a couple of tectonic problems with what Aslan is trying to do in telling this story as he does.

Firstly, the plot, as Aslan imagines it, cannot resolve. It doesn’t make sense.

Plot

Usually, one is prepared to suspend disbelief a little when consuming fiction. After all, we don’t want to bother George Lucas with questions as to why spaceships ought to bank like aircraft in space, or why they need jet turbines… But George Lucas is creating a fantasy of which we desire to partake, so we grant him license. An historian presenting a supposedly historical narrative will be granted no such license.

Resurrection

One of the really big plot dilemmas, which one would perhaps overlook in a fiction but which nevertheless would have the fan club wringing its hands, is the problem of Jesus’ resurrection and the events that it precipitated.

To his credit, Aslan recognises the resurrection of Jesus as a somewhat mystifying phenomenon for historians. As an historian (because in his story world, that is his identity), he cannot prove that it happened, but neither can he explain the events in the story if it did not (Page 174: “Obviously the notion of a man dying … and returning to life three days later defies all logic … one could simply stop the argument there … however, there is this nagging fact to consider…”) He goes on to describe the undeniable fact that a great many people actually believed, on pain of death, that they had met the risen Jesus. 

Eventually, somehow concluding that an historical fact is only an historical fact if it satisfies some criterion of his own invention, he concludes that “the resurrection is not an historical event. It may have had historical ripples, but the event itself falls outside the scope of history.” (p176)

Now, if an event has “ripples” within the scope of history, then how can the event “fall outside the scope of history”? It cannot. It can only lie outside the scope of historical enquiry if no direct evidence exists. Indirect evidence exists, but not direct evidence. The same could be said of a vast number of events in antiquity which are accepted as historical fact. Jesus’ resurrection, except that people usually predetermine it to be impossible, is better attested than many other events that we easily accept to be historical fact.

But whether or not the reader believes that Jesus was resurrected from the dead, Aslan gives no explanation for the phenomena which he acknowledges as pointing to it. He goes on to hypothesise how various elements of the Gospel story came to be retroactively inserted, according to his own timeline for the writing of the Gospels (such a timeline is widely debated among scholars, and Aslan’s is only one of many possible), but Aslan never explains how the resurrection event came to be believed so doggedly by those who were tortured to death professing that they actually met the resurrected Jesus.

In fact, after quoting Paul in an uncharacteristically accurate way, Aslan concludes, “Paul makes a key point. Without the resurrection, the whole edifice of Jesus’s claim to the mantle of the messiah comes crashing down” (p176).

Aslan’s own story, on its own terms, using only the subject matter he brings to it, fails to make sense of the facts as he presents them

In light of this, the concluding sentence in the whole novel is mystifying. Aslan’s says that “Jesus the man” (as opposed to what he describes as an invented messiah in Biblical texts), “is, in short, someone worth believing in.” (p216). How extraordinary! Aslan’s story is of a Jesus who was, by the time Aslan has told the story, an illiterate copy-cat, hopelessly deluded, violently militant, deliriously apocalyptic preacher/magician, who stormed Jerusalem intending to overthrow the entire Roman Empire without a single weapon, with no armed men in his company. Aslan would have us believe that this Jesus, who believed that he was going physically to slaughter the entire Roman army and become king of his own physical kingdom, was surprised to have been nailed to a cross and left to die instead. And Aslan thinks that’s someone “worth believing in”?

Of course he doesn’t. This concluding sentence is actually a somewhat backhanded nod to members of Aslan’s family who are presumably Christians, according to the book’s dedication, “For my wife, Jessica Jackley, and the entire Jackley clan, whose love and acceptance have taught me more about Jesus than all my years of research and study“. Apparently he would be more content to believe in a long-dead, passionate but credulous, tragically deluded Nazarene village idiot who thought he was a military conqueror, than the Jesus described in the Bible who presumably motivates the laudable qualities of his family members.

Aslan cannot have it both ways. By his own estimation, either Jesus was resurrected from the dead, and therefore really is worth believing in, or he is the worthless failure Aslan describes in his racy novel. It might also be noted that although his Author’s Note talks about his time spent as a Christian, it neglects to mention that Aslan converted back to Islam just a few years later, except in veiled and ambiguous terms, “I began to rethink the faith and culture of my forefathers, finding in them as an adult a deeper, more intimate familiarity than I ever had as a child…”. It deliberately gives the impression, indeed the statement, that he is a “committed disciple” of whom he describes as “Jesus of Nazareth”, but one cannot help noticing that this in fact is no other than the completely a-historical “Jesus” of the Qur’an, invented in the 7th Century by Mohammad in response to Christian apologists (hence the Qur’anic refrain “If they say …, then say to them …”).

James “the Just”

The other area where Aslan brings information to the table which undermines his whole premise is the extensive information about “James the Just”. This James was the leader of the Jesus movement in Jerusalem after Jesus’ exit from the story (by death, according to Aslan, or by ascension according to James’ own movement, who were, after all, actually there).

George Lucas is creating a fantasy of which we desire to partake, so we grant him license. An historian presenting a supposedly historical narrative will be granted no such license.

Aslan tells us that James was so respected in Jerusalem in the decades after Jesus’ death that he was widely recognised as a community leader of influence among the Christian Jews. Now that community must have been somewhat numerous for James’ influence to be so notable, of course. Aslan tells us this in order that we understand James as a devout Jew (which he most certainly would have been), in preparation for a fanciful depiction of James and Paul as enemies of one another (which they most certainly were not).

I’ll get to the quite inaccurate and unscholarly rant about Paul and James being opposed to one another below. What I’m more concerned with here is Aslan’s insistence that the Jewish Christian leadership stayed in Jerusalem to be butchered by the Romans, when the relevant historical records state explicitly that they did not.

The main record historians have is from Eusebius, the text of which is available for anyone to read. Aslan presumably relies on his readers by this stage being uninterested in checking his sources, which completely disagree with his fanciful assertions. In Eusebius’ words:

But the people of the church in Jerusalem had been commanded by a revelation, vouchsafed to approved men there before the war, to leave the city and to dwell in a certain town of Perea called Pella. And when those that believed in Christ had come thither from Jerusalem, then, as if the royal city of the Jews and the whole land of Judea were entirely destitute of holy men, the judgment of God at length overtook those who had committed such outrages against Christ and his apostles, and totally destroyed that generation of impious men.

– Eusebius, Histories, III, V

This account is widely credited as describing a real exodus of the Christian community from Jerusalem. A full and fair discussion of the strengths and weaknesses of the historical data, and finally an assessment that the event was historical, can be accessed on this avowed anti-Christian website, just for example.

James the Just was killed before the Romans sacked Jerusalem, and the best accounts indicate that he was succeeded as Bishop of Jerusalem by Simeon. There are detailed records of three main, and several less influential, Jewish factions in the city when the Romans besieged it. Had Simeon been there, with this numerous and influential Christian faction who which James was so honoured during his life, one might expect the records to show it. The records instead say that he left town, taking the Christian community with him.

He concludes that “the resurrection is not an historical event. It may have had historical ripples, but the event itself falls outside the scope of history.”

Why does Aslan insist that the Christian leadership “maintained their presence in the city of Jesus’s death and resurrection, eagerly awaiting his return, right up to the moment that Titus’s army arrived…”(p212)? Why would Aslan invent facts that cannot possibly be corroborated, and which conflict with the best historical evidence available?

Because in Aslan’s faith journey, which is the basis of his fanciful tale, he needs the true basis of Christianity to be “wiped … – both Christians and Jews – off the face of the earth”(p212). He needs this so that he can have his central thesis of the entire book: that “With the destruction of Jerusalem, the connection between the assemblies scattered across the Diaspora and the mother assembly rooted in the city of God was permanently severed, and with it the last physical link between the Christian community and Jesus the Jew. Jesus the Zealot … Jesus of Nazareth”(p212).

Aslan is prepared literally to rewrite history to attempt to establish this premise, but the truth is that history cannot support it. The flight to Pella did happen, as far as anyone can tell, and there has been no “severing” of Christians from Christ, the Jesus community from the historical Jesus. That didn’t actually happen. Aslan’s whole fantastic story relies on this untenable premise.

For good measure he attempts to depict the 4th Century Council of Nicea as another watershed moment where historical links were severed, which it was not. It seems important to him to do so, at the expense of truth, and seemingly of intellectual integrity.

The Law of Moses

Finally (among the few arguments I will raise against a plethora of candidates), Aslan’s treatment of scripture when dealing with the topic of Paul, of James, and of the Law of Moses goes well beyond poor scholarship. It is either profoundly incompetent or flagrantly dishonest… if he were at all expert in the New Testament.

Because in Aslan’s faith journey, which is the basis of his fanciful tale, he needs the true basis of Christianity to be “wiped … – both Christians and Jews – off the face of the earth”

Aslan would have the reader believe that Paul went off into the wide world to teach people a new religion that Paul had invented – Christianity. He would have us believe that even after Paul returned to Jerusalem to discuss the obligations on non-Jewish converts, and after he gained agreement from James and the whole council that believers did not need to be circumcised, observe Sabbath, submit to Mosaic dietary requirements, or in any other way become “Jewish” (Acts 15:1-35), that somehow James was still interested in sending emissaries to Paul’s congregations to “correct what he viewed as Paul’s mistakes”(p207). He paints a tantalising, but completely fanciful picture of a confrontation between Paul and James in Jerusalem (p209-210), and a grand conspiratorial picture in which the devoted Christian thinkers of subsequent generations systematically expunged James’ doctrines, and amplified Paul’s supposedly incompatible ones instead (p203).

In a somewhat embarrassing quest to justify this bizarre accusation, Aslan misquotes, rewrites, and misrepresents scripture so that it might be compatible with what he says actually happened, about which he supposes the Biblical text to be lying. For example:

Aslan says that Acts 21:17-26 is a humiliation forced on Paul by James, in an effort to have Paul recant his anti-Mosaic doctrines. But of course, Paul does not have anti-Mosaic doctrines in the first place. Aslan is misrepresenting Paul’s teachings quite profoundly. To be fair, at times in later history, others have thought Paul was anti-Mosaic, too. In the Middle Ages, it was widely accepted as fact, resulting in some awful anti-Semitism, in fact. But more recent scholarship has comprehensively debunked that myth. Paul was merely teaching that non-Jews need not become Jewish. He explicitly taught that Jewish believers could continue observing their Mosaic customs (Romans 14, for just one example), but that it was not theologically necessary. The battles Paul ran were not with the Laws of Moses, but those who insisted that Gentile converts must become Jewish in order to be accepted as a believer.

Neither Paul nor James, nor any other of the Apostles of Jesus taught that Gentiles should be circumcised, nor that the Mosaic Covenant defined the membership of God’s People in Christ.

Had Aslan read any New Testament scholarship from the last 40 years or so, he would not have been able to sustain his argument. One might assume he hasn’t, except that this same scholarship is where he learned so much about First Century Judean, and particularly Jewish, life.

Aslan also says that Paul calls down curses on James and the Jerusalem leadership (p207). Aslan would have us believe that this, for example, is aimed at James and the Jerusalem leadership:

For such boasters are false apostles, deceitful workers, disguising themselves as apostles of Christ. And no wonder! Even Satan disguises himself as an angel of light. So it is not strange if his ministers also disguise themselves as ministers of righteousness. Their end will match their deeds.

– 2 Corinthians 11:13-14

What he doesn’t mention is that this vitriol is not in any way directed at the Jerusalem leadership, but only appears so because of the selective way he quotes it. Paul says, in the same passage, of the same people he is criticising, for example:

But whatever anyone dares to boast of—I am speaking as a fool—I also dare to boast of that. Are they Hebrews? So am I. Are they Israelites? So am I. Are they descendants of Abraham? So am I. Are they ministers of Christ? I am talking like a madman—I am a better one: with far greater labors, far more imprisonments, with countless floggings, and often near death.

– 2 Corinthians 11:21-23

Paul can say this of second-generation believers who are Hebrew missionaries, but he could not and would not say it of those who had lived and ministered with Jesus himself, and were the acknowledged source of all teaching authority within the Jesus movement. Paul cannot boast that, and his congregations know it. So he is most certainly not talking about the Jerusalem leadership. He is talking about Judaisers who persistently came among his congregations attempting to force his converts to become Jewish by submitting to circumcision, because they don’t understand the scope of what Jesus did with respect to the Mosaic Covenant.

Again in Galatians, Aslan finds Paul flipping off James and the other Apostles:

And from those who were supposed to be acknowledged leaders (what they actually were makes no difference to me; God shows no partiality)—those leaders contributed nothing to me.

– Galatians 2:6

But again, Aslan is deceptively selective in only partially quoting what Paul has said. Paul doesn’t stop there. He goes on. This is the fuller passage:

And from those who were supposed to be acknowledged leaders (what they actually were makes no difference to me; God shows no partiality)—those leaders contributed nothing to me. On the contrary, when they saw that I had been entrusted with the gospel for the uncircumcised, just as Peter had been entrusted with the gospel for the circumcised (for he who worked through Peter making him an apostle to the circumcised also worked through me in sending me to the Gentiles), and when James and Cephas and John, who were acknowledged pillars, recognized the grace that had been given to me, they gave to Barnabas and me the right hand of fellowship, agreeing that we should go to the Gentiles and they to the circumcised. They asked only one thing, that we remember the poor, which was actually what I was eager to do.

– Galatians 2:6-10

 

Aslan’s story would be great fun, if only he had acknowledged it as the fanciful work of fiction that it is.

Quite obviously, “James and Cephas and John, who were acknowledged pillars” are different people from “those who were supposed to be acknowledged leaders“. James and Cephas (Peter) and John are undisputed leaders of the movement! It is some other, lesser “leaders”, that Paul simply doesn’t credit with any authority. It is such people who, never having suffered persecution for Christ, presume to come among Paul’s congregations and teach against what James and the other leaders had already agreed was orthodox, which is that the Gentiles should not be required to be circumcised. That’s Paul’s point.

Aslan then goes on to quote Pseudo-Clementine for support. These documents were written hundreds of years later, in polemical support of the Judaising doctrines still being promoted toward Christians even then (as they are now, in fact), but Aslan quotes them in a manner completely inconsistent with his otherwise pedantically diachronic treatment of Biblical documents. Whereas other documents are interpreted rigidly in the context of the writer’s milieu, (often unreasonably so), this one is received (by Alsan), as though it was authoritatively dealing with the situation in the mid first century, instead of contemporaneous issues 150-350 years later (for an overview of discussion about dating the documents, refer here).

Neither Paul nor James, nor any other of the Apostles of Jesus taught that Gentiles should be circumcised, nor that the Mosaic Covenant defined the membership of God’s People in Christ. Paul was teaching what James was teaching, which is also what Jesus taught. It was a different perspective on the Law of Moses altogether, from the contemporaneous Jewish interpretation. Christians were, from Jesus onwards, insisting that the Second Temple Judaism of the First Century had been misinterpreting Moses. You can learn more about that whole argument in this article: The Fundamentals of Christianity, as encoded in the Writings of Moses.

Summary

In summary, Aslan’s story would be great fun, if only he had acknowledged it as the fanciful work of fiction that it is. It would be as interesting as “The Da Vinci Code”, or the recent movies “Exodus”, and “Noah”, and all the other fiction-set-in-Biblical-history stories that have recently been popular. Even though set in a fairly authentic mock-up of First Century Judea, in the end “Zealot” is Aslan’s personal Jesus-myth, packaged in a deft and talented storytelling style. This gives it an initial air of believability if one is not closely acquainted with the subject matter, or if one simply doesn’t care if it is true or not.

It’s a shame, because much of the incidental information Aslan weaves into the story is actually based in fact. For someone unfamiliar with the historical setting of the New Testament, these things could be startling and thought-provoking. But the credibility-sapping technical flaws continually surface throughout the story, so that this vain attempt to push an ideological agenda eventually stands at the expense of both common sense and the truth.


 

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