It's been a while since I reviewed a Life of Jesus, but I did promise to review more recent samples of the genre so here, hot off the press, is Reza Aslan's Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth. I first heard of Aslan's book via a scathing review by John Dickson. A couple of weeks later, the book itself was staring at me from the new acquisitions display in my local library, so here is my own (rather less scathing) review.
Aslan was born in Iran in 1972 and fled to the US with his family in 1979 following the Iranian revolution. After a period as an evangelical Christian in his teens he shifted back to Islam as a young adult. He has a doctorate in religious studies and teaches creative writing and religion at various universities. Apparently Zealot has caused quite a stir in the US and he has not just been criticised for the content of his book, but had his credentials and his character impugned on national television in a way that makes Dickson's dismissal seem polite.
This is a shame because the book is really not that bad. It is certainly not a piece of pseudo-history in the manner of Barbara Thiering, Stephan Huller or the amazing Tony Bushby. There is no secret code, no hidden identities, no Catholic conspiracy. Nor is it particularly ground-breaking, and whatever errors in makes have been made plenty of times before with much less fuss.
His basic idea is obvious from the title. Jesus was a zealot, a Jewish revolutionary leader intent on overthrowing the Romans and initiating an independent Jewish kingdom in Palestine. Aslan explains this idea concisely in three sections.
In the first he sets the context by describing the succession of revolutionary movements which rose and fell in Palestine from the time of Herod through to the final destruction of Jerusalem in 70 CE. In each of these a revolutionary leader (often either proclaiming himself the Messiah or designated as such by his followers) leads a band of rebels against the Roman authorities, is crushed mercilessly and as often as not is crucified in a public place as an example to other would-be revolutionaries.
The second section hones in on Jesus himself and uses various incidents from the Gospels to illustrate his critique of Rome, his claim to kingship (the triumphal entry, the cleansing of the temple) and the final loss of patience by the authorities that led to his public crucifixion. In Aslan's telling, this pattern is just the same as that of the other rebels of the period, and has the same result.
In the final section he describes how Christianity was transformed from a revolutionary movement under Jesus' leadership - and after his death, the leadership of his brother James - into a peaceful empire-wide spiritual movement. Naturally he blames Paul, who he says completely transformed Jesus' message by infusing various Hellenic ideas into the interpretation of Jesus' death and resurrection while ignoring Jesus' own teachings.
What are we to make of this interpretation? Well, let me suggest a couple of things.
When you start reading this book, Aslan appears to be a sceptic in the manner of the Jesus Seminar. He suggests that from a historical point of view we can only know two things for certain about Jesus - he was a Jew, and he was crucified by the Romans. Crucifixion, he says, was the punishment reserved for rebellion or insurrection. Therefore, Jesus was an insurrectionist.
However, he doesn't seem to realise the major problem with this chain of reasoning. He inadvertently provides a clue with the following story.
A few years earlier, when two zealous rabbis, Judas son of Sepphoraeus and Matthias son of Margulas, shared with their students their plans to remove the golden eagle that Herod the Great had placed above the Temple's main gate, both rabbis and forty of their students were rounded up and burned alive.
If this over-the-top response is typical of Roman attitudes to dissent then Aslan doesn't so much need to explain why Jesus was treated so harshly as why his movement was treated so leniently.
In 1999 Paula Fredriksen wrote a book called Jesus of Nazareth: King of the Jews in which she started from a similar point. However, she identified three facts rather than two. Jesus was a Jew, he was crucified by the Roman authorities, and his disciples were not. Building on these three observations she concludes that Jesus was not understood by the Romans to be a serious revolutionary, since if he had been leading a rebel movement his followers would also have been eliminated. Instead they were not only allowed to live, but to operate openly in Jerusalem right up until its destruction with only intermittent harassment by the temple authorities. If only Aslan had read Fredriksen's book before publishing his own!
As you read further you discover that Aslan's scepticism is not anywhere near as thorough as he wants you to believe. Although he is formally dismissive of the Gospels as historical documents he makes free use of the stories they contain. For instance, although he doesn't believe in miracles per se, he points out that Jesus' reputation as a wonder-worker is pretty much the best attested historical fact we have about him, referred to repeatedly by followers and enemies alike with far greater frequency than his crucifixion. Hence in describing Jesus' mission he refers to a wide range of gospel stories - the healings and exorcisms, the teachings, the symbolic acts. Like John Shelby Spong, he even gives surprising credence to the resurrection stories. After all, something has to explain why the disciples kept going after Jesus' death and were eventually prepared to face death themselves rather than renounce him.
I suppose if you are going to write a book about Jesus you have to use the Gospels because otherwise you would have nothing to write about. However their use gives Aslan a problem because unlike the Jesus Seminar fellows at one end, or conservative scholars like Dickson at the other, he has no clear criteria for determining which stories to accept and which to discount. In the absence of such a framework, he seems to just select (and sometimes even modify) those stories and quotes which support his starting point. Hence all the passages in which Jesus is shown to reject violence, encourage inclusion of non-Jews and suggest a gradual, inward process of growing the Kingdom of God are discounted as later inventions, while statements like "I have not come to bring peace but a sword" from Matthew 10 are taken out of context and made into revolutionary statements.
Yet the biggest failing of this book is that it really has nothing new to say. Aslan sets his Jesus up in opposition to the portrayal of "an apolitical preacher with no interest in or, for that matter, knowledge of the politically turbulent world in which he lived". This portrait has not been sighted in scholarship about Jesus for a long time. Over a century ago Albert Schweitzer concluded that Jesus was an eschatological prophet, warning his contemporaries of the destruction that was soon to come their way. Through the 1970s and beyond the liberation theologians of South America and Africa alerted the church to the political dimensions of Jesus' teaching and ministry, and these insights have spread much more broadly so that even a conservative figure like John Stott acknowledges their importance.
Aslan by contrast is stuck in a debate that has long since finished. In order to combat the caricature of Jesus as an otherworldly spiritual teacher he has created a caricature of his own. He doesn't deserve to be vilified for this, but nor does he deserve much adulation.