Reza Aslan’s book, Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth, published this past July, was a New York Times number one bestseller for nonfiction. There are two problems with that: first, that it was a bestseller, which is too bad since people read it as if it is an accurate account that will overturn the Jesus of history, who is the same as the Christ of faith, and shake the foundations of Christianity. Second, that is it categorized as nonfiction.
Much of what is written is not historical but conjecture. And, like much of this sort of writing, its grandiose claims that it will transform and revolutionize what we know and how we understand the Jesus of history and Christianity are not only overblown, they are fallacious. The sad reality is that many will believe the claims made in this book, and the faith of some Christians will be shaken.
But at the end of the day, it is not the Christian faith that is undermined and found wanting. Instead, it is the book and its claims that are not only problematic, they are incorrect.
Here are a number of excellent reviews, of which I include summary, concluding statements.
Craig Evans: “Reza Aslan Tells an Old Story about Jesus.” Evans summarizes Aslan’s core contention.
Aslan’s core contention might be outlined as follows: The regime change that Jesus and his followers anticipated did not take place. Jesus was arrested and executed, along with two other rebels. Not long after—however it happened—Jesus’ followers became convinced that their master had been raised from the dead and that his mission had not been a failure after all. Unlike other zealot movements that ceased after the deaths of their respective founders, the Jesus movement not only continued, even in the face of severe opposition. It flourished, soon reaching large numbers of non-Jews.
This is where it gets interesting. With the conversion of Saul of Tarsus (who becomes the well-known Paul the apostle of New Testament letters and the book of Acts), the Jesus movement began to be pulled in two directions. One camp remained loyal to the very Jewish roots of Jesus and his family, while the other increasingly came to view Jesus as a divine figure, a figure very attractive to non-Jews who otherwise had little interest in traditional Jewish thinking and living. It was the latter wing of the Jewish movement that eventually won out, thus creating a new religion, one destined to have the most followers around the world. Ironically, what it became was not what its founder proclaimed or intended. Or so Aslan contends.
After noting that the book is “riddled with errors,” Evans concludes:
At points Aslan’s book is informative; it is often entertaining. But it is also rife with questionable assertions. Let the reader beware.
John Dickson: “How Reza Aslan’s Jesus is giving history a bad name.” Aslan, notes Dickson, “takes several false steps, all of which involve as much creativity as history.” He lists four of these steps: (1) exaggerating the historical context; (2) misunderstanding the crucifixion; (3) evidence that is lacking and conspiracy theories; (4) a litany of errors. Dickson’s conclusion:
The Jesus depicted in Zealot is certainly a figment of the imagination of a professor of creative writing, but he is likely to do more concrete damage to the public’s appreciation of a vast and worthwhile academic discipline. Aslan’s Jesus is giving history a bad name.
Darrell Bock: “When Scholarly Skepticism Encounters Jesus Christ.”
Though a well-written narrative with relevant first-century background to the Jesus history, the book rejects the Gospels and relies on one side of the scholarly conversation. So what Aslan presents as likely history is really but one debated reconstruction of who Jesus was and is. It’s just one picture of how Jesus of Nazareth got to be the Christ of God.
Bock notes that to arrive at this conclusion he uses a number of questionable means. First, notes Bock, Aslan “assumes the Gospels are more about constructive theology than history.” Second, he “misreads eschatology on the kingdom of God as well as Jesus’ kingdom teaching, arguing Jesus merely taught about God’s rule what other prophets had already said.” Third, Bock focuses on a “litany of problems.” From which the conclusion follows:
Suffice it to say, Zealot is yet another modern reconstruction of Jesus. It is not fresh and new, as it claims to be, but reflects longstanding debate. That debate is between those skeptical about the Gospels’ portraits of Jesus and those who see them as complementary pictures of Jesus as he was and is. Our culture is attracted to cases against the Gospels’ credibility, which explains the popularity of Aslan’s book and others like it. It’s not at all clear, however, that Aslan understands the history of Jesus better than the Gospel writers did. It’s not even clear that the scholarly consensus he claims to represent stacks up on his side of the debate.
Robert Gundry, “Jesus as a Jewish Jihadist: Reza Aslan’s Zealot.”
Epilogue: Aslan’s apostasy from evangelical Christianity stemmed from his discovery of unhistorical elements in the Bible and having been taught that “every word of the Bible is God-breathed and true, literal and inerrant.” Teachers whose version of biblical inerrancy lacks enough literary sensitivity to acknowledge in Scripture the presence of genres that mix fact and fiction for more than purely historical purposes—these teachers should take warning from the example of Aslan, and of too many others like him.