I hesitate to even write about Reza Aslan’s book Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth because so many have reviewed the book. But even more, by writing about it, I am giving some form of tacit approval or endorsement of it. Yet, I have been asked about this book so thought I would put down some of my thoughts. Simply put, this book falls below a standard for a book I would recommend on the life of Jesus. It is problematic on many different levels, and I will highlight just a few. Before I do so, I want to mention a few books that are better written, with better research, and more solid conclusions. The first is John Dominic Crossan’s Jesus: A Revolutionary Bibliography. Crossan frequently writes more technical works on the life of Jesus, such as, The Historical Jesus: The Life of a Mediterranean Peasant, but this first book is an easy way into Crossan’s work. While N.T. Wright’s book, Jesus and the Victory of God, might seem quite a tome (662 pages), it is worth the read. Interestingly, Aslan does not even include this book in his bibliography. While Aslan does capture some of the context of the first-century world, a better reconstruction would be Ben Witherington’s New Testament History: A Narrative.
One of the issues with Zealot is that the author over simplifies situations and makes statements as if they were fact when they are only partially true or not true at all. Nuance has been banished from the pages while confident declarations are found everywhere. Numerous examples occur, but here are just a few samples.
1. “. . . Mark created a wholly new literary genre called gospel . . .” (p. xxvi).
No he did not. Mark used a type of genre known in the ancient world as biography (not be to confused with modern biographies). See Richard Burridge, What Are the Gospels?: A Comparison with Greco-Roman Biography. (This work is also not cited in Aslan’s bibliography).
2. “For a fee they [money changers] will exchange your foul foreign coins for the Hebrew shekel . . .” (p. 4)
These were not Hebrew shekels; these were Tyrian shekels. These coins actually carried on the obverse (front) the pagan god of Tyre, Herakles-Melqart, and on the reverse (back) the image of a standing eagle. This presents an interesting paradox of collecting the temple tax with pagan coins.
3. “Unlike their heathen neighbors, the Jews do not have a multiplicity of temples scattered across the land. There is only one cultic center, one unique source for the divine presence, one singular place and no other where a Jew can commune with the living God” (p. 7)
Well, yes and no. Actually the Judeans had temples in Egypt. A Judean temple existed in Elephantine until the 4th century BCE. The Judean Temple at Leontopolis survived until Vespasian ordered it destroyed around 73 CE. (It lasted longer than the Jerusalem temple, which was destroyed in 70 CE). Also, many Judeans worshiping and studying Torah in the synagogues scattered around the land would dispute Aslan’s assertion that they were not communing “with the living God.”
4. “Mark’s focus is kept squarely on Jesus’ ministry; he is uninterested either in Jesus’s birth or, perhaps surprisingly, in Jesus’s resurrection, as he writes nothing at all about either event” (p. 29).
Jesus’ resurrection is very much an interest of Mark, and he does write about it. Three times the “passion predictions” are given (8:31, 9:31, and 10:34). Each times Jesus says something like “and after three days he [the Son of Man] will rise” (10:34). Also, Mark 16:6 has the resurrection announcement, “Do not be amazed; you seek Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified. He has risen, he is not here; see the place where they laid him.” While no appearance of the resurrected Jesus is recorded in Mark, the author still writes around the resurrection.
These examples are enough; they could be multiplied with others. While some might say that I am picking at insignificant points, I suggest, with enough leaks in a boat, it sinks. What is troubling is that many individuals reading this book will not have the biblical background or grounding in the biblical text to know that what they are reading is not true or only partially true.
Another issue is sloppy research and not enough attention to details. These twin vices lead to (1) cherry-picking facts that support a thesis and discarding other facts or labeling them as not historical (i.e., no systematic methodology is found in this work), (2) imprecise use of terms (for example, virgin birth instead of virginal conception), and (3) no integration of statements made throughout the book (again a methodology problem). On this last observation, consider this example. Aslan suggests “there are only [my emphasis] two hard historical facts about Jesus of Nazareth . . .” (p. xxviii); these being, Jesus led a popular Judean movement, and he was crucified by Rome. In chapter 4, however, he states, Jesus had brothers: “It is a fact [my emphasis] attested to repeatedly by both the gospels and the letters of Paul. Even Josephus references Jesus’s brother James . . .” (p. ). So are there two hard facts about Jesus or now three? Or maybe there are even more?
Aslan also has a tendency that I particularly dislike in writers and that is what I call the “omniscient author syndrome.” Aslan believes he knows the mind of particular biblical authors, that is, what they were thinking. Here is an example: “Luke himself, writing a little more than a generation after the events he describes, knew that what he was writing was technically false” (p. 30). How does Aslan know what Luke knew? Unless Aslan received special revelation about the mind of the author, he does not know what Luke knew.
Perhaps by this time in the blog post, you might be asking, “But what about his thesis, his main point about Jesus?” His thesis is that Jesus was a zealous nationalist (Aslan does not call him a Zealot, which is good since it would be anachronistic in 30 CE), who was an advocate for overthrowing the Roman Empire. Aslan’s thesis is not unique. He is treading familiar ground as found in S. G. F. Brandon’s Jesus and the Zealots (1967). Many find this portrait of Jesus suspect. N. T. Wright points out that Jesus’ behavior was just the opposite of a radicalized nationalist. He was one who perceived that rebellious nationalism was going to take the Judean people into destruction, and he was prophetic in his critique against this unbridled nationalistic fervor and Israel’s “failure to enact justice within her own society (Jesus and the Victory of God, p.417). These following words of Jesus seem very strange coming from a revolutionary rebel bent on the destruction of Rome: “If only you had recognized the things that make for peace! But now they are hidden from your eyes” (Luke 19:42).
Finally, Aslan’s creative writing skills are evident throughout his book, which may be why it found a popular audience. I find, however, some of his style a bit annoying. For example, in the first paragraph of chapter 2 “King of the Jews,” he uses five adverbs: “steadily worsened,” “gradually swallowed,” “freshly minted,” “wholly focused,” and “nearly half their annual yield” (p. 17). The over reliance on adverbs is found throughout the book. Stephen King in his book On Writing notes, “The adverb is not your friend” (p. 90) and suggests, “. . . the road to hell is paved with adverbs . . .” (p. 91). Along with his excessive adverbs was his love of adjectives. Here is a sample: “Herod’s was a profligate and tyrannical ruler marked by farcical excess and bestial acts of cruelty” (p. 20). Twenty-five percent of this sentence is composed of adjectives.
This blog post is far too long as it is (1300+ words), and I know this taxes attention spans, but hopefully it captures some of my perspective on Zealot.