Tuesday, May 13, 2014

Book Review (#46 of 2014) Zealot by Reza Aslan

Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth
The main problem with Aslan's writing is that in setting up his narrative he selectively quotes verses of Scripture while ignoring others in the same passage. Or he describes/summarizes events in various passages while leaving out key details that would seemingly contradict his narrative or he embellishes by describing details that are not found in any texts. My advice is to read the book with Bible open to see what I mean. It's also problematic to cite sources from 300-400 C.E., without providing the context they were written in, as authoritative over texts written centuries earlier.


I'll start with the widely-acknowledged errors in the book. Aslan makes some big assertions about early church history that are easy for non-experts to look up and find false. I found most of the major errors are at the end of the book where he tries to wrap up his narrative. You can decide for yourself if Aslan is intentionally fabricating his story or not (he has called himself as an "expert" in interviews promoting this book). A couple of the biggest problems: Aslan writes that Peter was "the first bishop of Rome." There is no historical evidence for this and plenty to the contrary. The idea that Peter was made the head of the church by Jesus himself, and the church's center was at Rome came later. While the Catholic church maintains this position, it does so against facts and historical sources that Aslan claims to use as authoritative elsewhere in the book-- hence, there's a contradiction in his presentation. How church polity developed in the first 300 years is dealt with in many books, one free one I'd recommend as an intro on the subject is The Ancient Church by W.D. Killen. Bishops in Rome in the second century who tried to exercise authority over other regions were opposed and reminded that they were just bishops of Rome. Aslan also asserts that the Council of Nicea was the first ecumenical council, when there is plenty of evidence that there were other councils before it-- some local and regional in nature. The idea of a "Bishop of Bishops," a title which Aslan claims for James also developed much later, and there is no early historical evidence that James was held in such esteem, though he was an essential figure. Nor is there any evidence that towards the end of his life James sent missionaries with the intent to undermine the work of Paul.

Likewise, Aslan closes his book by arguing that Peter was in Rome before Paul and was working to undermine his ministry. This also does not stand up to any historical scrutiny. Paul wrote several of his letters from Rome with no mention of Peter's presence and the canonized epistles of Peter are addressed to churches Paul had planted and are written as a means of encouraging them--including the exhortation to follow Paul's teachings (not reject them, as Aslan insinuates). Whether written by Peter or a disciple, it's clear from the evidence that there were not the schisms that Aslan claims to fit his narrative. Nor is there evidence that Peter and Paul were martyred together at the same time as Aslan claims. There are good arguments for the Book of Acts being written before Paul's death since his death is not recorded in the book. Several scholars argue that Paul was released from prison, and traveled again before being arrested again and finally executed. The evidence points to Peter arriving in Rome either at the end of Paul's life or shortly after his death. There is no evidence that Paul's writings were "anathema" until after 70 A.D. after which they came en vogue.

Another example of Aslan's narrative dominating over historical evidence is how he treats Paul's relationship with James and the church in Jerusalem. He contends it was openly hostile, that Paul held James and others "with contempt," at one point citing Galations 2:1-10 to back his point. However, he leaves out verse 2: "I submitted to them the gospel which I preach among the Gentiles, but I did so in private to those who were of reputation, for fear that I might be running, or had run, in vain" (emphasis mine). This "fear" shows humility and concern from Paul, and certainly respect for those authorities. Aslan also skips the entirety of verses 9-10: "recognizing the grace that had been given to me, James and Cephas and John, who were reputed to be pillars, gave to me and Barnabas the right hand of fellowship, so that we might go to the Gentiles and they to the circumcised. They only asked us to remember the poor—the very thing I also was eager to do.

Aslan also ignores that a major reason for Paul's journeys was to collect money from the churches of Asia Minor for the famished church in Jerusalem-- Aslan never mentions it! Neither the text itself, nor subsequent church history, fit Aslan's narrative of open hostility- but rather display "fellowship," peace, and understanding.

Another example from the first half of the book, Aslan frequently embellishes certain accounts of Jesus' life-- such as Jesus' cleansing of the temple-- by adding in characters and drama that do not exist in the Gospels he's quoting or other texts. If someone is unfamiliar with the accounts, he may accept Aslan's account as based on Scripture rather than imagined or embellished.

Aslan is not arguing, as some have charged, that Jesus was part of the Zealot movement that started in the 60s-70s A.D. What he is arguing, however, is that Jesus was both heavily influenced by that simmering movement and that his ministry was a propagation of it. Several of the "myths" that Aslan wants to dispel about Jesus are ones believed by certain Christians (like Catholics or Eastern Orthodox) but not by those who take the Gospels as historical sources-- such as that Jesus had brothers and sisters. That is a "myth" only if you've never read it in the Bible.


The author writes that Jesus never claimed to be "Son of God," and that this Divine Jesus was created later by the Gospel writers who were disillusioned after the destruction of the Jewish temple in 70 A.D.  But Jesus clearly equated his work with the "Father's" and made statements that could only be made by God. "I and the Father are one." "Before Abraham was, I am." "Your sins are forgiven." These are recorded in the Q material, were believed and preached by Paul long before 70 A.D.,  before the destruction of the Jewish temple. That's another problem for Aslan's argument. Jesus may have been a liar or worse, but everyone acknowledged his claims. The Pharisees and scribes plot against him because of his equating himself with divinity, something that Aslan conveniently ignores.


Aslan states up front that he's rejecting Paul's writings about Jesus, even though Paul's writings predate the Gospels, because "Paul wasn't interested in the historical Jesus." Aslan then uses later writings create a narrative about Jesus that contradicts what Paul wrote and clearly believed. That's a real contradiction in his methodology. He does not deal very well with the conversion of Paul, someone much more familiar both with Jewish law and custom as well as Greco-Roman philosophy and customs than anyone else Aslan cites. Paul also had years of contact with Jesus' followers and Temple geneological records to verify their claims about the Messiah. If what Aslan writes is true, then why did Paul abandon his faith, prestige, and livelihood to proclaim a divine Messiah to both Jews and Gentiles? Furthermore, why did Jesus' followers join Paul in that and not contradict anything Paul was writing and proclaiming? Since the author of Acts was a traveling companion of Paul, the Gospel that he writes would have been built on information acquired both from Paul and other witnesses that Paul encountered. It's a real problem for Aslan's argument, and he never addresses it other than noting Paul's conversion as "remarkable." However, Aslan returns to Paul later in the book in order to complete his narrative (see above).


William Lane Craig offers a 25-minute take-down of an article promoting the book that you can watch here. Craig's major point is that, contra Aslan, there are plenty of extra-biblical historical sources about the life of Jesus. Craig also presents an example from Josephus' history of Pontius Pilate displaying stubborness against Jewish hostility and the will of a Jewish mob four years prior to the crucifixion as evidence against Aslan's contention that the Pilate narrative is entirely made-up--Aslan contends that Pilate would not have hesitated to execute any Jew because Pilate was later censored by the Roman government for being too quick to kill Jews. This historical fact may actually be important in explaining something Aslan points out appears to be a contradiction-- why did the Jewish leaders hand Jesus over to Rome to be executed while taking the authority of capital punishment on themselves in Acts? I would contend that Pilate likely gave the Jewish authorities the power to execute capital punishment in order to stamp out what the Jews portrayed as insurrection. Aslan never considers this as a possibility.


Different from other modern skeptics, Aslan accepts the miracle stories since they are recorded in all four Gospels. There is more historical evidence of Jesus' miracles than anything else. It's silly to try and explain them away with natural phenomenon or to argue that they were made up afterwards. Jesus was never accused by the religious authorities of breaking the Jewish law with conjuring or magic, meaning those who saw the miracles accepted that they really happened.

But Aslan simply lumps Jesus' miracles in with other miracle workers and exorcists in Palestine at the time. Jesus simply did the work "for free," which is what attracted the huge crowds. Again, Aslan ignores the statements that go along with the miracles-- that peoples' sins were being forgiven. Cue C.S. Lewis.

He glosses over the resurrection, essentially agreeing with other skeptics like John Dominic Crossan that "something happened" to move Jesus' followers from sad and defeated to zealous martyrs for their faith. But, like Jesus' miracles, says it cannot be a "historical event" that we can prove happened.
Aslan believes that the explanations of the resurrection recorded in the Gospels evolved over the years as the authors' grew used to defending the resurrection against claims that Jesus was only resurrected as a spirit, or that his disciples stole his body, etc. 

So, why give this book two stars instead of one? Aslan is correct that most Christians -- of all stripes-- are not taught much about the context of 100 B.C.E. to 100 C.E.The events recorded in 1 & 2 Maccabees were important to the Israel of Jesus' time. Who was Herod? Who was Festus? What was the context of their reigns? What was Nazareth? Aslan does a good job putting much of that history-- as recorded by Josephus and uncovered by modern archaeology-- into an easily-readable narrative.


I suppose I will have to read Aslan's book on Islam to determine if he applied the same type of research techniques in critiquing the religion he claims to adhere to.

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