This is the third installment of my review of Zealot, by Reza Aslan. You can find the first and second installments here:
The second installment covered Part I of the book, and this installment begins with Aslan’s prologue to Part II.
In his prologue to Part II, Aslan tries to paint Jesus as a “zealot,” using the word “zeal” to understand “who Jesus was and what Jesus meant” (Aslan 73). In a few places throughout the book, Aslan states that the “Zealot Party,” as such, did not exist until much later. However, there was most definitely a zealot movement and group that began with the Roman takeover of Judea in 6 AD (see the article here for additional background information: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Zealotry ). Simon the Zealot, one of Jesus’ disciples, was associated with this movement; he was called the “Zealot” to differentiate him from Simon called Peter (the “Rock”).
Aslan’s main goal in the prologue is to paint Jesus as a “zealot” who is against the Temple authorities in Jerusalem and who opposes Roman rule. He even goes so far as to say that Jesus “claimed to be the promised messiah sent to liberate the Jews from Roman occupation” (Aslan 77). This is not, however, what Jesus claimed. He is the promised Messiah, but he did not come to liberate the Jews from Roman occupation, he came to die and rise for sinful humanity. In fact, his disinterest in liberating the Jews from occupation led to his betrayal by Judas Iscariot and his rejection by the crowds who had welcomed him into Jerusalem as “king” on Palm Sunday, but then shouted “crucify him” on Good Friday.
Aslan follows this with a series of bad exegeses on Jesus’ statement in Luke 20:25 to “render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” Aslan takes this statement to mean that Jesus was advocating the removal of Roman authority from the land. This interpretation goes against the rest of the Gospel witness as well as the interpretation of centuries of the Church.
After laying the false foundation for his premise that Jesus is a political “zealot,” Aslan moves to Chapter Seven to discuss Jesus’ relationship with John the Baptist. To Aslan, Jesus is a disciple of John who takes over John’s ministry after he is arrested. He discusses John’s baptism and mentions the various ritual washings of the Jews. He also says that the purpose of John’s baptism was to bring people into the “new nation of Israel… ready to receive the Kingdom of God.” He doesn’t really close the loop, though, and get to the main significance of John’s baptism. Whereas the Jewish ritual washings were repeated and there was a one-time purity washing for converts, it was a foreign concept to them to baptize those who were already Jews. It was odd to them, because they thought they were already part of Israel due to their physical descent from Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. Thus, John’s Baptism was different precisely because he called Jews to repentance; those who thought they were part of Israel were called to repent and be baptized in anticipation of Christ’s coming. So, Aslan is partially correct but doesn’t really connect the dots here.
Aslan also states that the Gospel account about John the Baptist’s death “is not to be believed” (Aslan 81). He says that “the evangelists mistakenly identify Herodias’s first husband as Philip” (ibid.). Herodias was the wife of Herod Antipas and her first husband was, in fact, Philip; this is backed up by the ancient Jewish historian Josephus who Aslan himself is wont to reference (see Josephus’ Antiquities of the Jews 18.5.4). Aslan also accuses the Gospel writers of other errors, but I believe Aslan to be mistaken in these cases as well.
Aslan also references Josephus in stating that John’s baptism was “not for the remission of sins, but for the purification of the body” (Aslan 85). Aslan’s point is that the Gospel accounts of John’s baptism are in conflict with Josephus’ account. In order to find the source for the quote from Josephus, I had to turn to Aslan’s notes in the back of the book where he cites Josephus’ Antiquities of the Jews ”18.116.” There is no book 18, chapter 116 in Josephus’ work; the correct reference is to 18.5.2 where Josephus discusses John the Baptist and his baptism. Josephus views John’s baptism as standing on its own, whereas the early Church understood it as pointing people to Christ and the forgiveness that he brings. This is why the Gospels call John’s baptism a “baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.” The repentance paves the way for the person to receive the Gospel of Jesus Christ which brings forgiveness. Thus, Aslan’s set up of a conflict between Josephus and the Gospels is misplaced; the Gospels are not claiming what Aslan says they claim. That is, it is not John’s baptism that brings forgiveness of sins; it is Jesus Christ who brings forgiveness, and John paved the way of his coming by calling people to repentance.
Not surprisingly, Aslan also misinterprets John’s baptism of Jesus and views it as largely a fabrication. The real point (missed by Aslan) of Jesus’ baptism is that he stands in our place. He stood in our place as he, sinless as he is, was baptized into a baptism of repentance; he has done everything perfectly for us. This baptism also connects us with his cross, where he died and rose for us in our place; Jesus referred to his death and resurrection as his “baptism.” Thus, our baptisms connect us with his death and resurrection. Jesus’ baptism is also a moment of the inauguration of the restoration of his creation. In Genesis 1, the Father is speaking forth His Word (the Son) to create, and the Holy Spirit is hovering over the surface of the created waters. In Jesus’ baptism, the Son is in the water, the Father is speaking, and the Holy Spirit descends upon the son. It is an image of recreation showing that Jesus has come to restore his creation as the Word of God in the flesh.
In Chapter Eight, Aslan discusses Jesus’ ministry in Galilee. He overstates his case concerning the rebelliousness of Galilee, noting that Solomon was not able to “tame Galilee.” The main point of this chapter is to try to paint Jesus as a prophet preaching a message of economic and political liberation. He misinterprets the parable of the Good Samaritan, not understanding that in the parable Jesus himself is the Good Samaritan. Jesus was rejected by men and yet he paid all in order to save us and redeem us from death, even shedding his own blood. He wasn’t afraid to get dirty to save us, unlike the self-righteous priest and Levite in the story. Of all people, Jesus as the holy Lord God in the flesh has the right to be aloof and far off; yet, he comes to us to save us, getting dirty and sweaty and bloody on the cross to do so. Aslan, though, doesn’t recognize this. He views Jesus as “just another traveling miracle worker and professional exorcist roaming through Galilee performing tricks” (Aslan 102).
Chapter Nine is interesting in that Aslan admits that no one in the ancient world ever doubted Jesus’ miracles. Instead, his enemies sought to explain them away as magic or as works of the devil. Aslan also tries to paint Jesus as one among many “magicians” in the ancient world. He discusses “magic” versus “miracle,” but doesn’t really explain the difference between the two. Magic, in the ancient world, was the art of manipulating gods and powers to achieve a desired result. A miracle, on the other hand, was something brought about by God due to His own volition. Thus the debate between Jesus’ supporters and detractors: if he performed miracles, this meant he was God – if he was a magician, this meant he manipulated the spirits.
Aslan seems to favor the interpretation that Jesus was a magician. In support of this he cites the cases where Jesus used his touch or his spit in his healing of someone. In particular he refers to the instance in Mark 7:31-35 where Jesus healed a man who was deaf and had a problem speaking. Jesus put his fingers in his ears, spat, touched his tongue, and said “Be opened;” the man was then healed. Aslan thinks this is a magical ritual. I see this as God working through His creation to heal His creation (a theme I’ve written about previously). God came in the flesh to heal His creation. Here is Jesus, God incarnate, healing his creation, and he uses parts of his creation as his means of healing. We have a similar thing with Baptism and the Lord’s Supper; God coming to us through the waters of baptism and with the bread and wine of the Supper. God also comes to us through His spoken and written Word. We, as embodied creatures, are approached by God through embodied means.
Aslan even seems to begin to understand the implications later when he says that Jesus’s miracles are the sign that “God’s reign has begun” and “are thus the manifestation of God’s kingdom on earth” (Aslan 111-112). Earlier where Aslan painted Jesus as a magician, one among many, here he is acknowledging the implications of Jesus’s miracles.
Aslan also refers to the account in Matthew’s Gospel of Jesus healing a leper (Matthew 8). Jesus heals the leper and then tells the leper, in Aslan’s translation, “Go show yourself to the priest… Offer him as a testimony the things that the Law of Moses commanded for your cleansing” (Aslan 112). Aslan believes that Jesus is joking and that he is trying to show up the priests at the Temple. He says that Jesus is not telling the healed leper to go and offer the sacrifices prescribed in the Law. However, if you look at Matthew 8, this is exactly what Jesus is telling the man. He says to him, “See that you say nothing to anyone, but go, show yourself to the priest and offer the gift that Moses commanded, for a proof to them” (Matthew 8:4). The proof that the man was once leprous is the fact that he is giving the gift that Moses commanded in the Law for a person who had been healed of leprosy. Jesus has come to heal and to fulfill the Law, so he tells the man he healed to go and do according to the Law. It’s not a joke! Jesus really is telling the man to go do this.
In Chapter Ten, Aslan discusses the concept of the Kingdom of God and what it means. He rightly says that “Practically everything Jesus said or did in the gospels served the function of publicly proclaiming the Kingdom’s coming” (Aslan 116). However, he misses the mark in his definition of what the Kingdom of God is. He views the Kingdom as a real, earthly kingdom with a king in a political sense. He sees this Kingdom as a new type of political and economic order on earth, even interpreting the Beatitudes in this light. Aslan gets close to the truth here, but doesn’t get all the way there. The Kingdom of God proclaimed by Jesus is God’s “active reign” on the earth. The “Kingdom” is not a place, it is God’s reign where He brings His grace and mercy and healing through Jesus.
So, the things Jesus does are proclaiming the coming of this active reign; every person he forgives and person he heals shows the coming of God’s reign among His people. God is establishing His Kingdom, His reign, on earth; it is among His Church. The promise of redeemed Israel given in Exodus 19 for them to be a “kingdom of priests and a holy nation” is fulfilled in the Church, which is God’s people Israel. Christ is the head of the Church, and the Church is his people. Among his people there is a foretaste of what is to come. Within the Church there is forgiveness and restoration to God and each other, but only in part. We await Christ’s return when he will complete all things and we will be fully restored, along with all creation. Everything will be healed. So, Christ’s healing miracles are pointing to how he will heal all things at his return. Aslan misses all this greatness of Christ’s work, though, and focuses his sights so narrowly on a political kingdom on earth (sadly, many Christians make the same short-sighted error). He therefore interprets Jesus’s sayings in light of his notion of the Kingdom as a political entity which is in opposition to Rome.
Aslan also claims that “Jesus was concerned exclusively with the fate of his fellow Jews. Israel was all that mattered to Jesus” (Aslan 121). Again, Aslan misunderstands the mission of Jesus and the identity of Israel. Israel is all those people gathered by God around the promised Messiah, or Christ; Israel is the Church. The Old Testament saints, from the time of Adam through Seth through Noah through Abraham through Isaac through Jacob and through the people called Israel are the Old Testament Church. They looked forward to the coming of the Christ. The New Testament saints, from the time of Christ’s incarnation until now, are the people of Israel who live in the light of the incarnation, death, resurrection, and ascension of Christ. All people of all times and places have only ever been justified by God one way: by His grace through faith in Christ.
The Old Testament Israel’s mission, in fact, was to be a light among the nations. They were to be the Lord’s (Yahweh’s) witnesses on earth among the nations (the Gentiles). So, there was God’s nation, Israel, and the other nations, the Gentiles. This continues in the New Testament where God’s nation Israel is sent among the nations to bear witness to the coming of the Christ. We call this New Testament Israel the Church. It’s mission, as given in Matthew 28 by Jesus Christ himself, is to go and “make disciples of all nations,” that is to say the Gentiles. In addition, in the Gospels Jesus is seen interacting with Gentiles, even healing the servant of a Roman centurion and praising the Roman’s faith. It is disingenuous for Aslan to paint Jesus as unconcerned with the Gentiles. Aslan even tries to interpret “neighbor” as referring only to the Jews, but Jesus’ own parable about the Good Samaritan was precisely given to broaden the conception of neighbor to encompass all people (in fact, the hero of the story, the Samaritan, was not a Jew). The rest of Chapter Ten of Aslan’s book contains other misinterpretations of Jesus’s sayings as Aslan attempts to shoe-horn them into his contention that Jesus was advocating a political kingdom and overthrow of Roman rule.
Chapter Eleven continues this theme of Jesus promoting “a movement of national liberation” as a disciple of John the Baptist (Aslan 127). Aslan also says that Jesus was taking up the mantle of Elijah and trying to identify himself with Elijah; this is a completely false statement (as is the statement that Jesus was a disciple of John the Baptist). Just a few pages later, though, Aslan admits that Jesus has come to succeed John, Elijah, and Moses. He sees this, however, as an attempt by the Gospel writers to make Jesus out to be the Messiah or Christ. He correctly points out that Jesus did not fit pre-conceived Jewish notions of what the Messiah would do when he arrived. This is why in the Gospels opposition to Jesus increases towards the end of his life, he is not coming to liberate the Jews from Roman occupation as many of them expected. The rejection of Jesus by the people is precisely because he did not come to do what Aslan says he came to do; Jesus did not come to bring a program of “national liberation,” he came to usher in the in-breaking of the reign of God.
Chapter Twelve tries to further paint Jesus as a political “zealot” bent on liberating the Jews from Roman rule. Aslan becomes even more dramatic in this chapter, describing Jesus’ arrest at Gethsemane as some sort of battle between Jesus’ disciples and the soldiers sent to arrest him. There are many problems with this chapter. One is the false dramatization of Jesus’ arrest. Another is Aslan’s late dating of the writing of the book of Daniel. Another is Aslan’s odd and false statement that the Temple in Jerusalem was “the principle symbol of Rome’s hegemony over Judea” (Aslan 147). Another is Aslan’s contention that after the Roman destruction of the temple in 70 AD (odd, given that the Temple was supposedly the symbol of Rome’s power over the region) Christians sought to separate themselves from Jews to avoid persecution. Aslan seems to forget that Christians were very much persecuted by the Romans, more so than the Jews in fact.
Aslan also views most of the description in the Gospels of Jesus’ arrest and trial as fabrications. He even lays out a bizarre argument that the laws and regulations for trials before the Sanhedrin as described by the Jewish Mishnah show that the accounts in the Gospels are incorrect. The Mishnah was written about 200 AD. Aslan acknowledges that the rules in the Mishnah did not apply in the 30′s AD when Jesus was arrested. His argument, though, is that since the Gospels were written much later and they did not reflect later Jewish practice in their account of the trial of Jesus, that they therefore “cast doubt on the historicity of the trial before Caiaphas” (Aslan 157). This is a circular argument. Aslan claims that the Gospels were written near the end of the first century (and into the second), and that they do not reflect Jewish practices of that time, but of an earlier time. He concludes, therefore, that they are incorrect. An alternative explanation is that the Gospels were, in fact, written much closer to the events they describe and therefore accurately reflect practices at that time. The reason they don’t reflect later Jewish practices is that these practices weren’t in existence at the time the Gospels were written! This seems to be a much more logical explanation to me than Aslan’s circular argument.
Chapter Twelve is followed by another Prologue, this time to Part III of Aslan’s book. The next installment of this review will continue with this Prologue.