Book Plunge: Zealot

What do I think of Reza Aslan’s book published by Random House? Let’s plunge into the Deeper Waters and find out.

My wife is an anime fan and when we go to the mall, she always wants to stop at the anime store there and see what they have. During a recent visit there, we somehow got started talking with the guy working there and the topic of religion came up. He asked me if I had read Reza Aslan’s Zealot and if so, what were my thoughts on it. I told him that what I had heard wasn’t good, but I would be willing to read it myself.

So I went to the library web site and ordered it. Aslan’s book has a generally good enough writing style to it. A difficulty is all the referencing is in notes in the back instead of properly footnoting or even endnoting what is found. I do want to make some statements about some matters early on in the book.

Aslan starts with his personal testimony (It’s like some people never get the fundamentalism knocked out of them!) and how he became a Christian before abandoning it. On xix he says “The bedrock of evangelical Christianity, at least as it was taught to me, is the unconditional belief that every word of the Bible is God breathed and true, literal, and inerrant.”

I wish I knew who it was who was teaching this stuff to him. The bedrock of evangelical Christianity should be the death, burial, and resurrection of the God-man, the Messiah Jesus Christ. Unfortunately, too many evangelicals do place a premium on Inerrancy and too many do so on literalism as well. This is largely an American phenomenon as well.

He also says on the next page that if you have a well-attested, researched, and authoritative argument for a position, someone on the other side has one just as well done critiquing yours. Of course, people on all sides do research well, but this would end up in an epistemological relativism if it was really believed. If this is the case, why should I believe Aslan instead of his opponent?

But I need to get into the meat of the work. For a surprise, much of it was well-researched, although there are a few blunders and such. It’s certainly not on the level of the zaniness of Jesus mythicism. I went through for awhile wondering what all the fuss is about.

Aslan is certainly off on Jesus being a zealot since that movement as he recognizes did not come till later. If all he meant was that Jesus was zealous for God, then He certainly was a zealot and may all Christians be. Unfortunately, Aslan takes one side of God, the side of the Conquest specifically, and then says this is the God Jesus worshipped, completely ignoring other passages in the Old Testament on love and grace.

Aslan’s book as I said starts off fine enough, but the further you go, the more strange it becomes. Aslan never offers an explanation for the rise of the Christian church or tries to explain the resurrection. In many cases, he acts like a naturalist in explaining the text, especially when it comes to miracles. Somehow people have this idea that reasonable people can’t believe in miracles. It is a wonder why this is. They do not contradict science or logic. They actually presuppose both as you must have a working order to recognize the exception.

The main stuff I want to hit on is really in the center of the book. Aslan writes about the Kingdom of God and how it was revolutionary. Indeed it was, but it was not a kingdom that would come by the will of men or by political might. As an orthodox Preterist, I believe the Kingdom of God has been established. Jesus did it by His death and resurrection. I am writing this right now in a location thousands of miles from where Jesus lived and in another language and 2,000 years later. I’d say his message spread well as did His kingdom.

Aslan does not see this as eschatology seems to play no major role in his work. It could be he has a hang-up on the literalism he spoke of earlier and reads passages like Matthew 24 in a literalistic sense instead of seeing them along the lines of Old Testament prophecies that were not to be seen as literal.

This problem shows up again when he gives references to Jesus saying He did not come to bring peace but a sword. Sure, but this is not a literal sword. Jesus knew what His kingdom would do. Jesus was the dividing line. You are either for Him or against Him. That would tear one’s very household apart. The sword is a metaphor.

On 121, Jesus also says the idea of love your neighbor applied only to a fellow Jew. Aslan leaves off interaction with the parable of the Good Samaritan where Jesus specifically addresses the question of who one’s neighbor is and goes with someone completely reprehensible to His fellow Jews. This was so much the case that in the end when Jesus asks who it was who was the neighbor, the lawyer says “The one who showed mercy.” He cannot bring Himself to say, “The Samaritan.”

Aslan also says on 122 that if one thinks Jesus is the begotten Son of God, His being Jewish is immaterial. WOW! Really? I think Jesus is that and His being a Jew is essential. That’s the only way He can be the promised Messiah and in the lineage of David. Jesus has to fulfill the promises of the Old Testament to truly be the revelation of God.

This also explains Aslan’s puzzle that the Kingdom never came in 135. The Kingdom Jesus preached is not what Aslan thinks it was since he is hung up on the literalism. Interestingly, Aslan gives no Scripture references in describing the Kingdom on this page.

Aslan writes about how the Gospel writers wanted to blame the Jews for the death of Jesus moving further and further away from the Romans, yet on 156 he’s quite clear the Romans killed Jesus and this was clear to Luke. Luke also doesn’t present Pilate as a saint in Luke 13.

Some ask why Pilate would seem to be so weak and light on Jesus when he had a reputation for being a cruel leader. Cruel sure, but that doesn’t mean he held execution parties whenever the Jews wanted someone executed. Pilate knew it was just the Jews being jealous and was thinking, “Yeah. Not going to be your person to do your bidding.”

Furthermore, there is debate on when Jesus was crucified, but it could have been around the time of Sejanus who had been executed for treason. He and Pilate had had a close relationship. Pilate could have been walking on thin ice and didn’t want to upset Rome by causing any more riots.

Aslan also makes much out of the trial of Jesus being totally out of sync with how Jewish trials were to be done. At this, most every conservative scholar wants to say, “Duh!” That’s the point. The Jewish courts were breaking laws left and right to get rid of Jesus. Something like this isn’t news if you’ve been reading scholarship.

At 166, I have to wonder if Aslan meant Daniel 9:26 instead of 7:26. On this page, he also says Peter uses Acts 2 to say it’s about Jesus when it’s really about David. Aslan ignores that in the very passage of Acts 2, Peter says it could NOT be talking about David since David was still in his tomb.

On 168-9, Aslan looks at Stephen’s vision of God and says he no longer sees the Messiah, but a God being coming in judgment. Aslan never seems to consider to ask if there was any reason Jesus would be standing instead of sitting which He was supposed to do. Perhaps there is a simple one. That simple one is Stephen is before the Sanhedrin to be judged by them, but when He sees Jesus standing, the standing is because Jesus is pronouncing judgment. The Sanhedrin is putting Stephen on trial, but Jesus has put them on trial and found them wanting for killing the first Christian martyr.

Aslan tries to deal some with the resurrection on 174 saying that obviously a man dying a gruesome death and rising again 3 days later defies all logic, reason, and sense. It does? In what way? The only way is if you rule out ipso facto miracles, but this has not been done. All that has happened is the question has been begged for naturalism. Aslan does admit that people were convinced they had seen the risen Jesus, but He gives no explanation for this.

It’s also clear that Aslan really has it in for Paul and wants nothing to do with him. Aslan doesn’t look at how the church fathers treated Paul and it is bizarre to think that Paul would be able to distort Christianity so badly and yet the people who wrote the Gospels seemed to give messages that according to Aslan would contradict Paul. One wonders what is going on here.

Aslan’s book can be interesting reading, but it is not a theory that has caught on well and for good reason. Aslan has Jesus as a zealot, but then the zealots weren’t really around, and has just begun with what he wanted to find. He also still has a fundamentalism in him found in his introduction that shapes his approach. Scholars long ago abandoned the idea that Jesus was a zealot. Aslan has not brought back the idea enough to have it be considered by scholars again.

A fuller review can be found by my friend David Marshall here.

In Christ,
Nick Peters