There’s been a lot on the news lately about a new book called Zealot, written by Reza Aslan. I’ve decided to review and split it up into multiple parts due to space (as well as the fact that I’ll be writing the review as I read the book). This installment of the review covers the Author’s Note and Introduction portions of the book. The next installment of the review will begin with the prologue.
If you look at the Amazon.com reviews of this book, people either love it or hate it; it’s either the best thing to happen to the study of the “historical Jesus” or a complete fraud.
A lot of the opposition arises from the fact that Aslan is a Muslim. In the “Author’s Note” in the book he talks about how he grew up as a secular Muslim, “found Jesus” in high school, and then later converted back to Islam. He has a number of academic degrees, none directly related to the study of historical Christianity, but I don’t feel that is that important. I don’t have a degree in Christian history either, but I don’t think that disqualifies me from writing about it. I’ve studied a lot of the early Christian sources as well as non-Christian sources from the early New Testament Church, as did Aslan apparently.
The purpose of this multi-installment review, then, is to review Aslan’s books on its merits. Putting the author aside, I want to look at what he writes in the book about Jesus and the early New Testament Church. There will be additional installments of this review as I finish sections of the book. Aslan states that “scholars tend to see the Jesus they want to see,” and I think that in Aslan’s case this is very much true; he has seen what he wants to see.
The book begins with the “Author’s Note” that I mentioned above. There are a few interesting comments in this section. Aslan talks about the Jesus he knew in high school. He writes, “I was presented with a Jesus who was less ‘Lord and Savior’ than he was a best friend, someone with whom I could have a deep and personal relationship” (Aslan xviii). It appears that Aslan encountered evangelical Christianity, as also evidenced by the fact that he says he “found Jesus.” Lutheran Christians (as would Catholic, Anglican, and Orthodox) would argue that Jesus is, in fact, Lord and Savior and that he found us. This puts the emphasis on what God has done for us through Christ, rather than on what we did or are doing.
Aslan also makes a distinction, found throughout the book, between “Jesus the Christ” and “Jesus of Nazareth.” He uses “Jesus the Christ” to denote the Jesus of faith; that is to say, the Jesus that Christians believe in. He uses “Jesus of Nazareth” to denote the Jesus of history; that is to say, the Jesus that historians feel they can prove. I find this a false distinction, because I believe that the Jesus that Christians believe in is the Jesus of history. God came in the flesh, was born of the Virgin Mary, was crucified, died, buried, and rose again on the third day. Even non-Christians of the time wrote that Christians believed this.
If Jesus did not do all these things, if what we believe about him is not historically accurate, then the Jesus we believe in is powerless to raise us from the dead. As Paul said in his letter to the church in Corinth, “… if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile and you are still in your sins” (1 Corinthians 15:17). Don’t allow people to strip away the “historical Jesus” from “Jesus the Christ,” because in the end they will destroy your faith in “Jesus the Christ.” The entire testimony of the Gospels and of the early New Testament Church is that Jesus did the things that are written about him, most importantly dying and rising.
Aslan also repeats the common accusation that “the Bible is replete with the most blatant and obvious errors and contradictions” (Aslan xix). For a minute I thought I was reading one of Bart Ehrman’s books! I confess to never having read all of one of Ehrman’s books, but I have skimmed through them before. Ehrman contends that the Bible is full of contradictions and errors, and Aslan is here picking up the baton. Every time I have read about one of these supposed “errors and contradictions” I have found it to be due to a lack of understanding on the part of the reader. I’ll have to see what examples Aslan provides in his book.
Another charge that Aslan repeats is that the authors of the Gospels are unknown, although he concedes that Luke possibly wrote the Gospel of Luke as well as Acts. However, he says that Matthew did not write the Gospel of Matthew, Mark did not write the Gospel of Mark, and John did not write the Gospel of John; he believes that they were written towards the end of the first century by people who did not know Jesus. This is another common accusation by some Biblical scholars. I get the impression, though, that they are all using themselves for mutual support, citing each other as references in a great wheel of circular thinking. In contrast, the early Church believed that the writers of the Gospels are the ones for whom the Gospels are named.
This is what Irenaeus, bishop of Lyons from 177 to 200 AD, had to say about the four Gospels:
“Matthew published a written gospel for the Hebrews in their own tongue, while Peter and Paul were preaching the gospel in Rome and founding the church there. After their passing, Mark also, the disciple and interpreter of Peter, transmitted to us in writing the things preached by Peter. Luke, the follower of Paul, set down in a book the gospel preached by him. Lastly John, the disciple of the Lord, who had leant back on His breast, once more set forth the gospel, while residing at Ephesus in Asia” (Simms 91).
Aslan contents that the Gospels were not meant to be historical, but rather to tell us about “Jesus the Christ.” He believes that they are therefore not accurate historically and are “not eyewitness accounts of Jesus’s words and deeds recorded by people who knew him” (Aslan xxvi). He seems to contradict himself later, though, when he states that there was disagreement over Jesus, “even among those who claimed to walk with him, who shared his bread and ate with him, who heard his words and prayed with him” (Aslan xxviii). If the Gospels are not historical accounts written by Jesus’ contemporaries, then how can his contemporaries be said to disagree?
At any rate, the early New Testament Church understood the Gospels to be historically accurate. In particular, Luke, in the prologue of his Gospel, expressly states that he is writing “an orderly account” (Luke 1:1-4).
Luke, in fact, is a gentile Christian, writing in the manner of Greek historians. He is very concerned with history and when the events he narrates occurred. Of all the Gospel writers Luke is most concerned with times, because he is purposely writing a historical account. Matthew, Mark, and John organized their Gospel accounts thematically, but they are still historical accounts; the events related by Matthew, Mark, and John actually occurred. They are told, however, in an order that is not linear.
There are two ways of thinking about an event. One way is linearly, the way we tend to think. That is to say, event A happened, followed by event B, followed by event C, etc… The ancient Greeks and Romans thought this way and wrote histories that still appeal to us today. This is the type of written account that men like Thucydides, Livy, Tacitus, Suetonius, and others wrote.
Another way of thinking, though, is thematically. The Jews and other Semitic peoples tended to think in this way. In this way of thinking, all the events that relate to a certain theme are gathered together and related in such a way that the central theme is continually emphasized. A written thematic account tends to be like a spiral, circling around the main theme. Thus, Matthew’s theme is how Jesus came in fulfillment of God’s promises given in the Old Testament. Mark’s theme is how Jesus came to usher in the in-breaking of God’s reign on earth through His Church. John’s theme is how Jesus is the Word made flesh, the true temple, the Lamb of God, and the one who brings the light of God. In fact, in Revelation we see this thematic way of writing as John orders his account of what he saw as a series of three sevenfold visions recounting the time from Christ’s ascension to his return.
Generally, Aslan is accurate in the rest of the historical details he provides. He attempts to add color to his historical account of first century “Palestine,” as he calls it, by writing about the types of sights, sounds, and smells a person experienced during that time. Aslan calls the area “Palestine,” but the Roman province of this name did not come into existence until the middle of the second century AD, after the Bar Kochba revolt by the Jews (see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Syria_Palaestina). The main events narrated in the New Testament occur in the Roman province of Judaea, with Galilee as a separate territory. ”Palestine” as a province was formed from the merger of these territories with the province of Syria, but this was after the close of the first century. Aslan himself concedes as much in the “Notes” section at the back of the book.
Aslan also mentions a Greek philosopher named Celsus who was a second century writer who mocked Christianity. Aslan’s point in mentioning Celsus is that the image of an “itinerant preacher wandering from village to village clamoring about the end of the world, a band of ragged followers trailing behind, was a common sight in Jesus’s time” and that Celsus, therefore, mocked this as a “caricature” (Aslan xxiii). This is not completely true. Celsus was directly mocking Christianity, not the penchant for the Jews in following “messiahs.” In fact, Celsus knew that Christians believed that Jesus died and rose from the dead and that they worshipped Jesus as God. It is precisely for these reasons that Celsus ridiculed Christians. Celsus even believed that Jesus did many great miracles, but that he did these through magic he had learnt while in Egypt (Simms 75). Later in his book, Aslan denigrates the idea that Jesus was taken into Egypt by his parents, believing it to be a fictional addition to his birth story.
Aslan believes that Matthew and Luke provide “two different and conflicting infancy narratives” of Jesus. Aslan doesn’t specifically state where he sees the conflict, but I can surmise what he means. Matthew talks about the Magi coming from the east, while Luke talks about the shepherds coming to visit Jesus. To many people these seem like conflicting accounts. However, Matthew mentions Jesus’ birth and then talks about a later period when the Magi came to visit him. Notice that when the Magi tell Herod when they first saw the star announcing Jesus’ birth, that Herod has all the baby boys in Bethlehem up to two years old killed. This means that Herod had reason to believe that Jesus might be two years old; Jesus was a toddler not an infant. Luke, however, records the night of Jesus’ birth in some detail; the shepherds came when Jesus was first born and saw him as an infant. Thus, Matthew and Luke are covering different events in Jesus’ life. If I told you that I used to go fishing in Hawaii with my brother and also that I used to go fishing in Virginia with my brother, I’m not lying. Both statements are true; I lived in Hawaii as a young child and then in Virginia as a slightly older child.
Aslan also dates Jesus’ birth to after the death of Herod the Great (4 BC) in contradiction to the Gospel accounts (Aslan 24). I’m not sure why he does this. Luke’s Gospel is fairly clear that Jesus was born while Herod the Great was alive and that his parents brought him up out of Egypt after Herod died.
Aslan talks about the revolt of the Jews in 66AD and their defeat by the Romans in 70AD. He calls the four intervening years “glorious.” These years were anything but “glorious;” the Romans had their legions besiege the city and fight the rebels. Aslan talks about the defeat of the Jews in 70AD and the destruction of Jerusalem and the temple as if the city was completely wiped out. There was a lot of destruction and looting for sure (the Arch of Titus in Rome depicts the victorious Roman soldiers carrying off the treasures of the temple), but the Jews were still allowed to live in the city. It wasn’t until the Bar Kochba revolt that the Jews were expelled and the city renamed Aelia Capitolina by the Romans (see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bar_Kokhba_revolt).
Stay tuned for the next installment!