Ancient Faith Commentaries:
When I turned recently to my window on the world (aka “Facebook”), I discovered that the Next Big Noise in the cultural world of the west is a book recently written by Reza Aslan entitled, Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth. Mr. Aslan, as one might guess by his name, is a Muslim by faith, and, as he repeatedly reminds us in an interview, a scholar and professor by trade. The interview to which I refer is the one given on Fox Network’s online programme “Spirited Debate”, in which Lauren Green interviewed him about his book (or perhaps I should say “interrogated him”, since she came on so aggressively that one wondered if she wasn’t taking his erroneous teaching somewhat personally). In response to Ms. Green’s challenges, Mr. Aslan insisted over and over again that he was “a scholar of religion with four degrees, including one in the New Testament, fluency in Biblical Greek”, and “an expert with a Ph.D in the history of religions”. Granted that he was on the defensive, I did think that such vigorous insistence on his expert credentials was a bit much. After all, real scholars don’t need to engage in such self-promotion. To take but two examples: Robert Taft doesn’t need to inform us that he is the world’s foremost Byzantine lituriologist, and I. Howard Marshall doesn’t need to insist on his scholarly credibility in the field of New Testament studies. Real scholars know the masters when they see them. Methinks Mr. Aslan doth protest too much.
Mr. Aslan’s book presents us with Jesus the Zealot—that is, Jesus as a member of the first century Jewish movement that objected to Rome’s occupation of the Holy Land and who were committed to overthrow it by force of arms. It is not particularly a new idea, being presented by S.G.F. Brandon in his book Jesus and the Zealots as far back as 1967. But the problem is not just that Aslan’s stuff is not new, but that it is fundamentally nonsensical and based on lousy scholarship. For all his insistence on his expertise, in fact he is writing outside his field. Notwithstanding his claim to be a professor of religion (“that’s what I do for a living, actually”), he actually makes his living as an Associate Professor of Creative Writing. And Aslan’s take on Jesus of Nazareth certainly involves some very creative writing.
It is proverbial and timeless wisdom not to judge a book by its cover or (I suppose) to judge a scholar by his interviewer, but perhaps the book can be judged by bits of interview responses if these responses present us with enough howlers. And the quotes from another interview conducted for National Public Radio certainly provides us with enough howlers to judge the book.
For example, concerning Jesus’ claim to be divine, Aslan said, “If you’re asking if whether Jesus expected to be seen as God made flesh, as the living embodiment, the incarnation of God, then the answer to that is absolutely no. Such a thing did not exist in Judaism. In the 5,000-year history of Jewish thought, the notion of a God-man is completely anathema to everything Judaism stands for.” Of course here Aslan is technically correct: Judaism had a problem with anyone claiming divinity. That is just the point. The Gospel writers do not suggest that Jesus infuriated the Jewish leaders of His day to the point of homicidal rage because He told them to love their neighbours, but precisely because He claimed to be divine and said things that were “completely anathema to everything Judaism stood for”. Thus we read, “The Jews took up stones again to stone Him. Jesus answered them, ‘I have shown you many good works from the Father; for which of these do you stone Me?’ The Jews answered Him, ‘It is not for a good work that we stone you, but for blasphemy, because you, being a man, make yourself God’” (Jn. 10:31-33). It is inane for Aslan to assert that Jesus could not have claimed divinity because it was strange to Judaism. The New Testament consistently makes the very point that it was the strangeness of this claim that resulted in His death.
Or to take another example: Aslan asserts that the Gospels were written long after the events by people who knew essentially nothing about them: “Almost every word ever written about Jesus was written by people who didn’t actually know Jesus when he was alive. These were not people who walked with Jesus or talked with Jesus.” The implication is that the Gospel picture of Jesus is not reliable, and is wholly a construct of later writers. This flies in the face of Luke who said that he interviewed the eye-witnesses who were there (Lk. 1:1-4), and of St. John’s repeated claim to be an eyewitness himself (e.g. Jn. 19:35, 21:24). Indeed the fact that John’s Gospel represents the report of an eyewitness has been recognized by many. C.S. Lewis long ago discerned the authentic touches of an eyewitness in the Gospel. He wrote, “Either [John’s Gospel] is reportage…pretty close up to the facts…Or else, some unknown writer in the second century, without known predecessors or successors, suddenly anticipated the whole technique of modern, novelistic, realistic narrative. The reader who does not see this has simply not learned to read.” And it is not just the scholarly Lewis who discerned in John’s Gospel the voice of an eyewitness. The modern BBC reporter Peter France, in his book, A Place of Healing for the Soul, writes of his unexpected experience of reading that Gospel: “Very soon an amazing thing happened: I came across passages that had no business in a carefully crafted and mystical meditation…These details—the water bucket, the charcoal fire, the napkin—are not the stuff of mystical allegory. They are the small irrelevancies that hang about in the memory of someone who was present…I began to read St. John again as a story told by a man who was there.” France’s words are not those of a Christian partisan arguing his case, but of a modern unbeliever forced against his will to appreciate the essential reliability of an ancient report. But then Mr. France made his living as an investigative reporter for the BBC, not as a Professor of Creative Writing.
One final example from Aslan’s book. In the epilogue, he portrays the Council of Nicea as debating whether Jesus were divine or human. According to Aslan, the Arians, “seemed to suggest” that Jesus was “just a man—a perfect man, perhaps, but a man nonetheless”. You would think that with all those degrees Aslan would at least know that the Arians did not suggest that Jesus was “just a man”. Their view was that Jesus was pre-existent, and was created by God before the world was made. You don’t need to be “an expert with a Ph.D. in the history of religions” to discover this; any first year college course in Church History 101 will tell you.
It turns out then that the Next Big Noise which is Aslan’s new book is just a tired re-writing of the same nonsense pseudo-scholars have been churning out for some time now. I give the final word of this book review to Mr. Behrendt, who ended his own review with much the same verdict as mine. Mr. Behrendt admitted, “Frankly, it’s exhausting to read a book like Zealot, and constantly have to pause in mid-thought to ask if Aslan is giving me the straight dope… I owe it to myself to keep reading [Aslan’s] newer book and try to find its central point. Which I will do. Wish me luck, I think I’m going to need it.” I applaud Mr. Behrendt’s perseverance in reading such nonsense. He is braver than I.