Book Review of, “Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth,” by Reza Aslan

Zealot is the first book about the historical Jesus Christ to rank number one on the NY Times bestseller list. This is most unfortunate in that Reza Aslan is not a recognized New Testament scholar. But worse, it is riddled with factual errors, or at least views not widely accepted by the academic community. The book is sometimes confusing, not always well written, and too often does not distinguish between facts and hypotheses.

My first clue that this was not a scholarly work was on page xxvii in the preface. He dates the Gospel of John to 100-120 CE. Most scholars believe the Gospel of John was written in first century CE. The mouthpiece of the Catholic Church, the Catholic Encyclopedia, dates John’s gospel to around 96-99 CE, the first not the second century. On the same page he writes, “Matthew and Luke also relied on what must have been an early and fairly well distributed collection of Jesus’s sayings that scholars have termed Q (German for Quelle or ‘source’). Although we no longer have any physical copies of this document we can infer its content by comparing those verses that Matthew and Luke share in common but that do not appear in Mark.”

Austin Farrer, Michael Goulder, and Mark Goodacre have argued against Q, maintaining Mark was the first gospel written and claiming the use of Matthew by Luke. This view has come to be known as the Farrer hypothesis. Farrer, in his 1955 paper which first outlined this hypothesis, notes that when two documents are found which contain common material, identical in the words and phrases they use to describe some scenes, the simplest explanation is that one of the two used the other as a source, rather than both using a third document as a source. Goulder points to common Matthean phrases such as “brood of vipers who,” “make fruit,” and “cast into the fire,” which each appear in Luke only once, in a Q passage. Goulder’s conclusion, based on writing styles, is that Matthew is the actual source for these “Q” sayings. Goodacre notes that there is no extant copy of Q and that no early church writer makes an unambiguous reference to a document resembling the Q that modern scholars have reconstructed from the common material in Luke and Matthew. It is worth noting that there is no manuscript of Q in existence. No one has yet found even a fragment of Q. On pages 105, 111, 175, and 190, Aslan refers to Q as source material. I repeat, there is no extant copy of Q, not even a fragment.

On page xxviii Aslan writes, “crucifixion was a punishment that Rome reserved almost exclusively for the crime of sedition…The Gospels claim that on either side of Jesus hung men who in Greek are called lestai, a word often rendered into English as ‘thieves’ but which actually means ‘bandits’ and was the most common Roman designation for an insurrectionist or rebel.” Both the King James Version (KJV) of the New Testament and the Vulgate (the Latin bible used in the Catholic Church) state that the men crucified with Jesus were thieves. That is what I was taught in Catholic school and during Bible readings at Sunday Holy Mass. How could both sources (the KJV and the Vulgate) get it wrong? There were times when Romans ran out of pine wood needed for crucifixions. They would not have wasted it on thieves. It is far more likely thieves would have been beheaded. I believe that the story of Jesus being crucified with common thieves was made up by the authors. It seems to me, Jesus was more likely to be crucified alone to make a clear example of what happens to people who claim to be a king. The king of the Jews was Herod Antipas, who was appointed king by the Roman government.

On page 100 Aslan writes, “It is the high priest Caiaphas who will become the main instigator of the plot to execute Jesus precisely because he was a threat to the [priests’] authority.” Aslan sounds like the anti-Semitic Mel Gibson. Aslan should have read Nostra Aetate, the Declaration on the Relation of the Church with Non-Christian Religions, issued by the Second Vatican Council and approved in October 1965 under the aegis of Pope Paul VI. It states that even though some Jewish authorities and those who followed them may have called for Jesus’ death, the blame for this cannot be against those Jews present at that time, nor can the Jews in our time be held as guilty, thus repudiating an indiscriminate charge of Jewish deicide. There are various hypotheses as to why Jesus was crucified. I like the one which blames Antipas. He had the motive (he, not Jesus, was the real King of the Jews) and the opportunity (his relationship with Pontius Pilate made having Jesus crucified no more than a simple text message to Pilate, or whatever they used to communicate back then).

On page 138, Aslan asserts that the Jewish religion is 5,000 years old. The oldest known non-biblical reference to the early Israelites is the Merneptah Stele. It is the first documented instance of the name Israel in the historical record and its only mention in Ancient Egypt. If the Jewish faith began with the expulsion of the Hyksos out of Egypt in the 16th century BCE, then Hebrewism is no more than 3,500 years old. Five thousand years ago would put the origin of Jewish faith to one thousand years before the time of Abraham, the time of Noah and the Ark. The Hebrew Bible is not considered to be a valid source for events back that far back in history. Actually, there is no evidence that Noah and Abraham ever even existed. Aslan reminds me of the moon-walking astronaut James Irwin, who spent the last 20 years of his life searching for Noah’s Ark. What a waste of time and energy.

On page 262, Aslan says, “Moses saw the burning bush on Mount Sinai when in fact it appeared to him on Mount Horeb, which, despite some arguments to the contrary, was not the same place as Sinai (Exodus 3:1).” The Hebrew Bible is not a valid source and scholars debate whether Sinai and Horeb are the same place. Some say yes, others no. The Jewish Encyclopedia says, “The Rabbis consider ‘Sinai’ and ‘Horeb’ to be two names of the same mountain, which had besides three other names.” Aslan should separate fact from opinion.

On page 172, Aslan writes, “it was, the Gospels say, the sixth hour of the day–three o’clock in the afternoon–on the day before the Sabbath when Jesus of Nazareth breathing his last… At the ninth hour, Jesus suddenly cried out, ‘my God, my God, why have you forsaken me?’” How could Jesus cry out at the ninth hour if he breathed his last at the sixth hour? According to Scripture, Jesus came back to life on the third day, not three hours after he breathed his last.

On page 177, Aslan writes, “Jesus’s is body was stolen? How so, when Matthew has conveniently placed armed guards at his tomb–guards who saw for themselves the risen Jesus but who were bribed by the priests to say the disciples had stolen the body from under their noses?” Here we go again, Aslan blaming the Jews. He is arguing that Jewish priests bribed Roman guards to contradict the “Jesus has ridden” story which was making the rounds.

Finally on page 60, Aslan describes the mass suicide at the fortress Masada by the Sicarii (Jewish zealots) in 74 CE. He writes, “This speech [by the Sicarii leader Eleazar] had its desired effect. As the Romans prepared for their final assault on Masada, the rebels drew lots among them to decide the order in which they would proceed with their gruesome plan. They then pulled out their daggers…and began to kill their wives and their children, before turning the knives upon each other. The last 10 men chose one among them to kill the remaining nine. The final man set the entire palace ablaze. Then he killed himself.” This story was likely embellished by Flavius Josephus, the noted first century Jewish historian. It is not accepted as historic. In The Credibility of Josephus, Shaye Cohen, the Jewish historian currently teaching at Harvard University, writes “We do not know what happened on the summit of Masada on the fifteenth of Xanthicus in 74 CE. The archaeological discoveries of Professor Yadin show that Masada was besieged by the Romans in the fashion described by Josephus, but they do not tell us how the defenders of Masada were killed. For this and for all the other details of Masada’s history, we are dependent upon Josephus alone…We know that Josephus’ account is false. Silva did not order a premature withdrawal, Eleazar did not have an opportunity for two magnificent orations, the Jews did not have a long evening for the leisurely slaughter of their wives and children, the deliberate collection of all their possessions in one pile and the methodical murder of all the remaining men. This scenario is implausible, contradicted by the archaeological discoveries, and motivated in part by Josephus’ polemical and literary concerns.”

Conclusion: Aslan wrote an interesting book and it provides a brief summary of the life of the historical Jesus, as best as historians can tell. But it is not ready for prime time or the classroom. A reader really interested in the life of the historical Jesus would do far better reading any one of the numerous volumes written by Bart Ehrman (University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill), Elaine Pagels (Princeton University) or Paula Fredriksen (Boston University). These academics are true experts in the historical Jesus and the New Testament. Ehrman has read all of the gospels in their original language, Koine Greek. He would know best whether the story of Jesus being crucified with common thieves is a misperception and why. Ehrman teaches that the Bible isn’t consistent. He discovered the inconsistencies grew exponentially as he traced translations through the centuries. There are some 5,700 known ancient Greek manuscripts which are the basis of modern versions of the New Testament. Scholars have uncovered 400,000 textual variants (differences) in those texts. “Put it this way: There are more variances among our manuscripts than there are words in the New Testament,” Ehrman lectures his students. How could Aslan write a book about Jesus and Greek translations of the manuscripts without consulting Ehrman. There is not one reference to Ehrman, Pagels or Fredriksen in the text or in the footnotes of Aslan’s book. Perhaps his book would have been more historically accurate if he had reviewed their vast body of work and knowledge.

The most important question about the historical Jesus is, “Why was Jesus the only messiah to become a source of a religion?” For believers the answer is quite simple. Jesus is god and/or the son of god. For nonbelievers, the answer is not simple. Aslan describes a variety of messiahs both before and after Jesus. But none, save for Jesus, either was the basis for a major religion or even remembered after his death. Were it not for biblical historians, we would never know about the other messiahs.

On page 215, Aslan writes, “Paul’s conception of Christianity may have been anathema before 70 C.E. But afterward, his notion of a wholly new religion free from the authority of the Temple that no longer existed, unburdened by a law that no longer mattered, and divorced from a Judaism that had become a pariah was enthusiastically embraced by converts throughout the Roman Empire… Christianity after the destruction of Jerusalem was almost exclusively a gentile religion; it needed a gentile theology. And that is precisely what Paul provided. The choice between James’s [James the Just, brother or half-brother of Jesus] vision of the Jewish religion anchored in the Law of Moses and derived from a Jewish nationalist who fought against Rome, and Paul’s vision of a Roman religion that divorced itself from Jewish provincialism and required nothing for salvation save belief in Christ, was not a difficult one for the second and third generation of Jesus’s followers to make.”

Aslan argues that Roman gentiles comprised the majority of Christians in the immediate generations after Jesus. Somehow Aslan suggests that the Romans abandoned their pantheon of Roman gods and replaced them with a singular human being who was the son of god, god almighty, or both. I find this implausible. If the Romans needed a man-god, there was Julius Caesar, who was decreed god by the Roman Senate in 42 BCE. In 27 BCE, Octavian, aka Caesar Augustus, the adoptive son of Caesar, assumed the title of Divi Filius (son of a god). Why did Romans believe Jesus was god or the son of god instead of Julius Caesar or Caesar Augustus? According to Marvin Meyer, deceased professor of religious studies at Chapman University, the Gnostics believed Jesus taught that we can all become sons (or daughters) of god. Certainly the Jews would have never accepted Jesus as god since the Jewish tradition has no belief in a human being who is also god. That would be considered both blasphemous as well as polytheistic. There are no major religions today, except Christianity, which believe that a human being, now or in the past, is god or the son of god. I think Aslan would have served his readers far better had he spent his entire book researching this all-important question. Sadly, after reading this book, I know little more about the historical Jesus Christ than before.

G.R. Pafumi
Author, Is Our Vision of God Obsolete?

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