This is the fourth installment of my review of Zealot, by Reza Aslan. You can find the previous installments here:
I’ve already covered Parts I and II of Aslan’s book, so this installment begins with Aslan’s prologue to Part III.
Most of his prologue is centered around the martyrdom of the disciple Stephen, mentioned in Acts 6 and 7. Aslan claims that Stephen “did not himself know Jesus of Nazareth” (Aslan 163). However, no where in Acts is it said, or can it be inferred, that Stephen did not know Jesus. Aslan seems to make this claim for dramatic effect and to advance his narrative that Stephen died for an imaginary Jesus that had been hijacked for theological purposes.
Aslan also claims that there is no place in the Old Testament that speaks of a Messiah who will suffer, die, and rise. This is not true. In particular, Isaiah 52:13-52:12 speaks of the Messiah who will bear the sins of the people, die with the wicked, and be buried, and will live to see “his offspring.” Isaiah talks about a Messiah who will die and yet live. Aslan mentions this text from Isaiah, but discounts it.
So, Aslan circles back to his contention that Stephen did not know Jesus and that “practically every word ever written about Jesus of Nazareth, including every gospel story in Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, was written by people who, like Stephen and Paul, never actually knew Jesus when he was alive” (Aslan 170). His premise is that the writers of the books of the New Testament didn’t know Jesus and created him as the Messiah for their own theological purposes. He follows this by strangely claiming that the apostles “could neither read nor write” (Aslan 171). In order to make these contentions, though, Aslan has to date the New Testament writings late, consider them as full of errors, and selectively choose which passages he will believe and which he will reject. He’s basically forming the evidence to fit his premise, rather than allowing the evidence to lead to a conclusion.
At the end of the prologue, Aslan sets up a conflict between James, the brother of Jesus, and Paul, the former Pharisee and convert to Christianity. Aslan says that these two men were “two bitter and openly hostile adversaries” (Aslan 171). He doesn’t have any evidence for this perceived conflict between James and Paul, but will try to create a sense of conflict in later chapters.
In Chapter Thirteen, Aslan discusses Jesus’ death and crucifixion. He tries to portray his crucifixion as one among many and nothing special. He mentions the fact that the Gospels record that the veil in the Temple that shielded the Holy of Holies and separated people from God’s presence was torn when Jesus died. He (mosly) correctly understands the Christian significance of this tearing of the veil. The point is that Jesus, as our great High Priest, has sacrificed himself in order to reconcile us to God. Therefore, we are no longer separated from God and are instead made priests, able to come before God and intercede on behalf of others. Aslan sees this as a replacement of the Temple just as Jesus’ words had replaced the Law. However, what Jesus is really doing is fulfilling the purpose of the Temple and fulfilling the Law, not replacing them. The Temple was where the Lord’s presence dwelt in the midst of His people; Jesus is the true Temple. The Law is God’s perfect will for us; Jesus fulfilled this for us on our behalf.
Aslan discusses Jesus’ resurrection and doesn’t discount it outright. He points out that Jesus’ disciples went to their own deaths, refusing to recant their belief that Jesus rose from the dead; this would be strange if they didn’t really believe that Jesus had died and risen. He also points out that, unlike all the other people who had claimed to be a messiah, Jesus is the only one who is “still called messiah” (Aslan 175). All the others have faded into history, but Jesus is still not only remembered, but worshipped as God. Aslan contends, though, that the resurrection accounts of Jesus in the Gospels were written long after the fact and that they were created to justify theological belief. This doesn’t quite square, though, with his earlier statement that Jesus’ disciples died refusing to recant their belief in the resurrection Christ. Aslan quotes Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians where Paul states that Jesus died, was buried, and rose “according to the scriptures” (Aslan 175; 1 Corinthians 15:2-8). The scriptures mentioned by Paul are what we today call the Old Testament; at the time, they would have just been the Scriptures. Paul’s point is that Jesus died and rose in accordance with God’s promises given in the Old Testament! Aslan disputes that any Old Testament prophecies point to the Messiah dying and rising, but centuries of Christian theologians disagree.
Aslan also tries to create the impression of discord between the Jews in Jerusalem and the Greek-speaking Jews of the Diaspora (i.e. the Jews who lived outside Jerusalem). There’s no fact behind what Aslan is saying, but he spends a lot of ink trying to make it so (as he does in other places). He also says that Jesus came not to fulfill the law, but to abolish it; this is contrary to Jesus’ own words in Matthew 5:17.
Chapter Fourteen and Fifteen return to Aslan’s theme of “conflict” between Paul and James, the brother of Jesus. Aslan seems to like this sense of conflict, as he creates it out of thin air to serve his purposes. Chapter Fourteen discusses Paul and paints a false picture of Paul as someone at odds with the apostles who were at Jerusalem. To support this, Aslan quotes part of Galatians 2:6 where Paul mentions the leaders of the Church in Jerusalem and says (in Aslan’s rendering), “Whatever they are makes no difference to me” (Aslan 185). The full verse, however, reads, “And from those who seemed to be influential (what they were makes no difference to me; God shows no partiality)—those, I say, who seemed influential added nothing to me.” Paul’s point in this and surrounding verses is that Christ called him to be an apostle and that he received his teachings from Christ and not from the leaders in Jerusalem. This doesn’t mean that he is in opposition to them; it means that he is on the same level as them as an apostle. I also think that quoting the full verse gives a different impression than Aslan’s selection.
Aslan also quotes Paul’s words in Galatians 1:15 to claim that Paul is saying that he was “called by Jesus into apostleship while still in the womb” (Aslan 185-186). Again, looking at the full verse and its context gives a different picture: “For I would have you know, brothers, that the gospel that was preached by me is not man’s gospel. For I did not receive it from any man, nor was I taught it, but I received it through a revelation of Jesus Christ. For you have heard of my former life in Judaism, how I persecuted the church of God violently and tried to destroy it. And I was advancing in Judaism beyond many of my own age among my people, so extremely zealous was I for the traditions of my fathers. But when he who had set me apart before I was born, and who called me by his grace, was pleased to reveal his Son to me, in order that I might preach him among the Gentiles, I did not immediately consult with anyone; nor did I go up to Jerusalem to those who were apostles before me, but I went away into Arabia, and returned again to Damascus” (Galatians 1:11-17).
Paul’s point is that he received the Gospel from Jesus Christ himself. He also talks about how God called him by his grace before he was born and set him apart; that is, God elected him for salvation out of His grace and mercy. Then, he revealed His Son (Jesus Christ) to him (Paul) and called him to preach the Gospel to the Gentiles.
Aslan also attempts to create a contradiction between Paul in Romans 10:13 (“everyone who calls upon the name of the Lord will be saved”) and Jesus in Matthew 7:21 (“Not everyone who says to me ‘Lord Lord’ shall enter the kingdom of heaven”) (Aslan 187). I find this disingenuous on Aslan’s part. For one, Paul’s reference is to the Old Testament book of Joel (Joel 2:32). His point, as seen in the rest of the context, is that it is by faith in Christ that we rightly call on the name of the Lord. Jesus’ point is similar in Matthew; it is only by faith in him that we are saved and our faith then produces works.
Aslan also misunderstand’s Paul’s point when he calls Jesus Christ the “firstborn of all creation” (strangely, Aslan cites 1 Corinthians 8:6, but a better citation would be Colossians 1:15). Paul’s point is not, as Aslan says, that Jesus is the “first of God’s creations” or that he is “God’s physical progeny” (Aslan 189). Instead, Paul’s point is that as the “firstborn” Christ is pre-eminent over all things; he is the Word of God through whom the Father spoke creation into existence. He is also the “firstborn” of the dead, “preeminent” in all things since he is reconciling his creation to God through his death and resurrection. Aslan also states that Christians are to be “divine and eternal” like Christ (Aslan 189). This is not God’s plan for us, though. We are to be restored and fully human again, since the sin and death that separate us from God and each other will be removed from God’s creation when Christ returns. We have a foretaste of this restoration and reconciliation now in the Church where God’s reign has come to us, but will have it completely when Christ returns to finish what he started with his death and resurrection.
Aslan’s goal in all this is to make it seem like Paul is preaching a different Christ than that preached by James and the apostles. He makes it sound like James is sending people to the churches to contradict Paul, and that Paul is preaching a “Romanized religion” while James is preaching a form of Judaism. It is true that there was disagreement in the early Church between those who believed that there was no longer a need to follow Jewish law and those who believed that it was still necessary to follow Jewish law to be saved. Paul’s letters continually preach the Gospel of Jesus Christ that is received through faith, rather than through works; Paul is preaching against those who believed that works were necessary for salvation. However, this conflict was resolved in the early Church as people began to understand that Christ did everything for our salvation and that we do nothing for our salvation. Therefore, it is not necessary to follow the Old Testament laws to be saved; in fact, if a person trusts in anything else for his salvation (such as the works of the Law) other than Christ, then he is rejecting Christ and trusting in his own works instead. Paul continually makes this point in his epistles.
However, Paul was willing to bend for the sake of other people’s consciences. He refused to bend his teachings, but he would bend with regard to practices. He writes in 1 Corinthians: “For though I am free from all, I have made myself a servant to all, that I might win more of them. To the Jews I became as a Jew, in order to win Jews. To those under the law I became as one under the law (though not being myself under the law) that I might win those under the law. To those outside the law I became as one outside the law (not being outside the law of God but under the law of Christ) that I might win those outside the law. To the weak I became weak, that I might win the weak. I have become all things to all people, that by all means I might save some. I do it all for the sake of the gospel, that I may share with them in its blessings” (1 Corinthians 9:19-23).
So, Paul was willing to bear with the weaknesses of other people. It is in this context that I see the event in Acts 21:17-26 where Paul agrees to a purification ritual at the Temple in Jerusalem. Aslan sees this as Paul repudiating what he had been teaching. However, I see Paul willing to bear with the weaknesses of the Church in Jerusalem and going along with the ritual in an effort to win more people over to the Gospel. He is trying not to drive people away from the Gospel by being an offense to them. Aslan interprets this event differently, however, and sees in it evidence of conflict between Paul and James; he calls this Paul’s “embarrassing spectacle at the Temple” (Aslan 193-195).
Chapter Fifteen shifts to a discussion about “James the Just,” Jesus’ brother. He is a different person than James (the son of Alphaeus) and James (the son of Zebedee) who were both apostles. James, the son of Zebedee, is often mentioned in the New Testament in connection with his brother John as well as Peter. Peter, James, and John are the three apostles who Jesus calls out for special attention. They see more of his miracles, they see him transformed at the Mount of Transfiguration, and they are close to Jesus. In some parts of this chapter, though, Aslan seems to confuse James the Just (Jesus’ brother) with James the son of Zebedee.
Regardless, Aslan’s goal in this chapter is to paint James the Just, Jesus’ brother, as the true heir of Jesus. He cites Clement of Rome, in an epistle to James, as calling James “the Bishop of Bishops, who rules Jerusalem, the Holy Assembly of the Hebrews, and all the Assemblies everywhere” (Aslan 200). This makes it sound like Clement is calling James the leader of the whole Church on earth. However, this epistle is likely not genuine and was not written by Clement. Aslan also cites the Gnostic “Gospel of Thomas,” which was probably written in the second century and was roundly rejected by the early Church.
Aslan also claims that Clement of Alexandria said that “Jesus imparted a secret knowledge to ‘James the Just, to John, and to Peter,’ who in turn imparted it to the other Apostles” (Aslan 200). This quote from Clement of Alexandria is found in the ancient historian Eusebius’ “History of the Church.” The full quote from Eusebius is: “To James the Just, and John and Peter, the Lord after His resurrection imparted knowledge. These imparted it to the rest of the apostles, and the rest of the apostles to the Seventy, of whom Barnabas was one” (see http://www.ccel.org/ccel/schaff/anf02.pdf, pg. 1224). Aslan adds the word “secret” to his summary of this quote which, I think, gives it a vastly different meaning than that given by Eusebius’ quote. In addition, Eusebius writes: “Now Clement, writing in the sixth book of the Hypotyposes, makes this statement. For he says that Peter and James and John, after the Saviour’s ascension, though pre-eminently honoured by the Lord, did not contend for glory, but made James the Just, bishop of Jerusalem” (ibid, pg. 1223). Aslan argues that James the Just was in the Lord’s inner circle, but here Clement and Eusebius are saying that Peter, James (the son of Zebedee), and John were in the Lord’s inner circle. They, however, in their humility, made James the Lord’s brother (i.e. “James the Just”) bishop of Jerusalem.
Aslan also dissects the Roman Catholic doctrine of the perpetual virginity of Mary, the mother of Jesus (and James). Most Christians, however, believe that Mary was a virgin when she conceived and gave birth to Jesus, but then she and her husband Joseph later had natural children of their own, of whom James was one.
Aslan also argues that James’ epistle is “arguably one of the most important books in the New Testament” (Aslan 204). This would be news to centuries of Church theologians, since James’ epistle (along with Jude, 2 Peter, and 2 and 3 John) was never considered to be on the same level as the other New Testament books. The four Gospels and Paul’s letters were considered pre-eminant and the lens through which the other books were interpreted (my book “On this Rock” goes into more detail about these facets of the development of the New Testament). Aslan also claims that the books of the New Testament were not officially canonized until the late fourth century (Aslan 209). This is not exactly true. While it is true that a formal council of bishops did not meet until the late fourth century at which point they agreed on the canonical list of the New Testament Scriptures, the books of the New Testament were treated as canonical by the Church as early as the first century. Thus, the Council of Nicaea simply recognized what the Church had accepted as fact since the beginning (again, not to tout my own book too much, but I go into more detail there).
Thus, Chapters Fourteen and Fifteen (as well as the Epilogue) in Aslan’s book attempt to create a sense of division in the early Church between Paul and his followers and James the Just and his followers. Aslan’s contention is that since James died early, Paul’s views were able to take over. I don’t find this a credible theory. The book of Acts relates how the early Church dealt with the issue of how the Law relates to the Gospel and justification by God’s grace through faith in Christ, apart from works. The issue was settled in favor of grace and faith, with works seen as flowing from a person’s faith. In addition, the reason that Paul’s writings are so prominent in the New Testament is not that he was a bully and loudmouth (basically Aslan’s contention), but that they were recognized by the early Church as reflecting the teachings of the apostles. The Church adopted Paul’s letters as its own, because Paul’s teachings reflected the teachings of the apostles who had founded the various congregations of the Church.
The book ends on this note, with Aslan contending that “Jesus of Nazareth” was lost to history and that Paul’s views took over.
This is the last in-depth installment of my review of Reza Aslan’s Zealot. I’ll conclude my review with one more subsequent post which will summarize the previous installments.