If you, like me, are interested in Reza Aslan's book, Zealot, and the surrounding controversy, be sure to read John Dickson's review, "How Reza Aslan's Jesus is giving history a bad name", on the Religion and Ethics website (Australia). Here is a key section:
A third problem with Aslan's revival of Reimarus's thesis is that no one seems to have remembered it.
There is not a scrap of real evidence that any Christian traditions -
any traditions at all - recalled Jesus urging rebellion toward Rome.
Where are the stray sayings of Jesus that imply insurrection? Where are
the hints in Josephus or Tacitus? There is simply nothing.
thinks he finds a hint in Matthew 10:34, the opening quotation of the
book: "Do not suppose that I have come to bring peace to the earth. I
did not come to bring peace, but a sword." Quoted on its own and put on
the lips of some other first-century figure, this might read like a call
to arms. But I would wager my annual book allowance that 99.9% of
specialists in the field would echo Ulrich Luz, perhaps the leading
authority on the Gospel of Matthew today, that "our saying does not
reveal a revolutionary Jesus. The immediate context, vv. 35-36, makes
this interpretation impossible." In this passage, Jesus is speaking in
classic Jewish imagery of the dividing lines his message will bring
among families. This is exactly what the following verses go on to say.
But by ignoring evidence that doesn't fit and stretching evidence so
that it appears to fit, Aslan is able to make the "impossible" a
reality: the sword statement, he assures us, is a relic of an earlier
the "love" sayings, by contrast, were either inventions of the Gospel
writers or originally focused on the love of one's fellow disciple and
collaborator against the powers. Aslan insists, "After the Jewish revolt
and the destruction of Jerusalem (in AD 70) the early Christian church
tried desperately to distance Jesus from the zealous nationalism that
had led to that awful war." This is pure revisionism that gains its
plausibility in the way doubts about the 1969 lunar landing do.
thesis requires us to believe that the Gospel writers were crafty enough
to invent a Jesus who regularly called for humility, service and the
"love of enemies" but stupid enough to leave traces in their works of a
Jesus who endorsed fighting Roman enemies. It's the stuff of conspiracy
theorists: dismissing evidence that contradicts your theory as
"manufactured," while simultaneously interpreting the massive lack of
evidence as proof of suppression.
discipline of history cannot work like this. Rarely can a theory be
taken seriously that is not based on evidence attested across sources.
Deleting, cherry-picking and imagining are no substitute for the
even-handed sifting of evidence that characterizes historical enquiry.
This is why almost no one followed Reimarus back in the eighteenth
century and why Brandon's revival of the thesis in the mid-twentieth
century is typically found today only in a footnote. I predict Aslan's
work won't even find its way there.
Worse for Reza Aslan, there is overwhelming positive evidence that Jesus, far from being a closet zealot, directed his teaching against that
tradition. That his message focused on love and, in particular, love of
the unlovely and the enemy, is richly attested across the historical
traditions left behind by those closest to him.
not a case of looking up Bible verses and choosing our favourite ones.
The study of the historical Jesus is a fundamentally "secular"
discipline, applying the same tests of historicity one finds in all
historical investigation. A key criterion is known asmultiple attestation,
which affirms that when multiple sources independently offer roughly
the same portrait of a person or event from the past, that portrait
takes on greater plausibility.
is where Aslan's theory must finally give up. Few contemporary scholars
- whether Christian, Jewish or non-religious - doubt that the New
Testament sources (known as Mark, Q, L and Paul) were written independently of
each other: in other words, the authors of these texts did not have
access to the writings of the others. Just as few specialists would
dispute that all four of these sources portray the message of Jesus as
involving a radical ethic of non-violence, inclusivity and love. The
source known as Q, dating from around the 50s AD, even contains a story
of Jesus' compassion toward a Roman soldier and his scolding of Israel
for not having the faith of this pagan overlord.
this gives the competent historian a high degree of confidence that,
whatever else may be doubted about him, Jesus was about as far from
being a political revolutionary as a first-century Jew could be.
Dickson goes on the outline several
specific errors (a "litany of errors")many of them quite
embarrassingfoisted upon readers with great confidence by
the (ahem!) über-credentialed, heavily educated, and thoroughly objective Dr. Aslan.
Elizabeth Castelli, Ann Whitney Olin Professor of Religion at Barnard
College at Columbia, reiterates similar criticisms:
Aslan does not claim to be engaged in literary analysis but in
history-writing. One might then expect his reconstruction of the world
of Jesus of Nazareth to display a deep understanding of second-temple
Judaism. Yet, his historical reconstruction is partial in both senses of
the term. For example, he depends significantly on the testimony of the
first-century Jewish historian Josephus, taking it more or less at face
value (which no scholar of the period would do). Meanwhile he amplifies
Jewish resistance to Roman domination into a widespread biblically
based zealotry, from which he concludes that Jesus was intent upon armed
resistance and the establishment of the kingdom of God on earth.
Moreover, his reconstruction of the Judaism of the time is too flat and
monolithic. At best, his argument is overstated; at worst, it depends
upon scholarship that has been definitively challenged by more recent
work in the field and upon a method that cherry-picks from the ancient
One could go on through Zealot, pointing out places
where Aslan represents a particular issue as straightforward and
uncontroversial when, in fact, the matter remains the subject of
considerable debate among specialists. Or one could ask about the method
for his selection of scholarly works on which his discussion
dependsand why many important works that would complicate his narrative
are missing from the bibliography of the book. (The absence of
traditional footnotesthe sine qua non of scholarly documentationmakes
it quite difficult, if not impossible, to trace the lineage of many of
the claims in the book, the lengthy bibliography at the end
notwithstanding.) These would be among the numerous legitimate
criticisms that historians of early Christianity and biblical
scholarsspecialists in the fieldmight lodge. ...
is a cultural production of its particular historical momenta remix of
existing scholarship, sampled and reframed to make a culturally
relevant intervention in the early twenty-first-century world where
religion, violence and politics overlap in complex ways. In this sense,
the book is simply one more example in a long line of efforts by
theologians, historians and other interested cultural workers.
Simply put, Zealot does not break new ground in the history of early Christianity.
Read more on The Nation site.