My article on Reza Aslan's Zealot, the Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth, published in the Minnesota Christian Examiner, 2007. http://www.minnesota.christianexaminer.com/Articles/Nov13/Art_Nov13_oped3.html
Zealot, the Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth by Reza Aslan is a New York Times bestseller, and for good reason. Aslan is a brilliant story-teller. In Aslan’s story, Jesus grew up under the oppressive rule of corrupt temple officials and brutal Roman overlords. It was a time of numerous uprisings by Jewish rebels and would-be-messiahs who sought to overthrow Rome by force. All this helped to foster Jesus’ resentment and rage against the rich and powerful.
According to Aslan, Jesus shared the anti-Temple feelings of other Galileans and his preaching of the kingdom was “a call to revolution, plain and simple” (120). Armed only with zeal, Jesus was welcomed as royalty as he rode into Jerusalem and confronted the Temple authorities with his claim to be Jerusalem’s rightful king. As a result, Jesus was arrested and executed by crucifixion, which the Romans reserved for the most serious political crimes.
So if Jesus’ message was a call to revolution, why don’t the Gospels tell the story this way? Aslan’s answer is that the Gospels were all written after the fall of Jerusalem by Christians who didn’t know Jesus and were trying to distance themselves from the rebellion. They, therefore, revised the story of Jesus to remove the fact that he was a zealot.
I found myself enthralled by the story and even agreeing in many cases. I agree with much of Aslan’s historical background material (though not always with his “spin”). I agree that most Jews in Jesus’ day opposed Roman rule and that some actively sought to overthrow it. I agree that Jesus thought of himself as Israel’s Messiah and that he envisioned a literal kingdom on earth. I also agree that Jesus was crucified by the Romans on charges of sedition.
But while there is much with which I agree, my disagreements are far more significant.
First, just because Galilee was a violent province before and after Jesus’ lifetime does not mean that Jesus grew up preaching a call to revolution. Imagine, for example, a book detailing all the violence of the civil rights era and arguing that Dr. King, therefore, must have been an advocate of violent revolution! Jesus’ peaceful message, like that of Dr. King, was “radical” because it was so countercultural.
Second, while I agree with Aslan that Jesus believed himself to be the Messiah, Aslan seems to think that this fact must necessarily mean that Jesus was a zealot intent on overturning Roman rule. Aslan seems unaware that many Jews in Jesus’ day thought the Kingdom of God would be established by the direct divine intervention, not by human violence. They need only wait and be faithful until God acted.
Certainly the Essenes were one such group. Interestingly enough, Aslan argued that Jesus was a disciple of John the Baptist who may have been influenced by Essenes. Yet Aslan doesn’t even entertain the possibility that Jesus agreed with the Essenes in their view that the kingdom would come by divine intervention, not by revolution.
Third, the extreme skepticism Aslan brings to the Gospels is unwarranted. He argues that the only two firm historical facts we can know about Jesus are that Jesus “was a Jew who led a popular Jewish movement in Palestine at the beginning of the first century C.E.”(xxvii), and that this resulted in his crucifixion by the Romans. Aslan seems unaware that even most of the radically skeptical Jesus scholars believe that the Gospels contain more historically reliable information about Jesus than this.
More significantly, however, although Aslan says “there are only two hard historical facts about Jesus,” (xxvii) he builds his case on other facts in the Gospels that he considers to be reliable. It appears that Aslan is very skeptical of everything that undermines his theory but accepts everything that he thinks may support his theory. Unlike many serious Jesus scholars, Aslan never sets forth the criteria by which he determines what is reliable.
Fourth, Aslan’s creative writing skill is one of the strengths of the book, but it is also one of the most serious weaknesses. Many readers will no doubt find it impossible to tell where the facts end and the creative storytelling begins. For example, when Aslan describes Jesus’ followers as “hiding in Gethsemane, shrouded in darkness, and armed with swords” and adds that they “will not be taken easily” (147), the reader is led to imagine a well-armed band of resistance fighters hiding out in wait for the Romans. This impression is pure fiction.
In Aslan’s view the reason not one ancient source presents Jesus as a zealot is because they were trying to cover up Jesus’ true identity. On the other hand, a second possibility might be that the reason none of our ancient sources present Jesus as a zealot is because Jesus—like the Essenes and other Jews of his time—was not preaching rebellion against Rome but was proclaiming God’s direct intervention. Jesus was warning people to repent in preparation for the day when God would directly intervene in human affairs to set up his kingdom.
This second option is precisely what the Gospels teach, it coheres well with what we know about first century Jewish groups, and it does not require extensive, speculative historical re-imagination.