Reza Aslan’s Zealot

A Review

Review by Perry Kea

From The Fourth R
Volume 26, Issue 6
November/December 2013

Reza Aslan, associate professor of creative writing at the University of California at Riverside, has written a bestseller that is a pleasure to read. In Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth, Aslan argues his theses clearly and vigorously. He has a talent for vivid description. For example, Aslan recounts the assassination of the Jewish high priest Jonathan in 56 CE in a way that explains Israel’s sacrificial system. One can almost smell the flesh of the sacrificial animal as it roasts on the altar. Aslan’s description of the times of Jesus is worth the book’s price.

Aslan finds the link between the times and life of Jesus in Israel’s legacy of opposition to foreign oppressors. Inspired by zeal for God, Jewish groups resisted Roman imperialism and the corruption of the priestly elites who collaborated with Rome. Some of these groups were led by messianic claimants. Aslan draws a straight line between such move- ments and Jesus. He argues that Jesus understood himself to be Israel’s messiah, the earthly king of God’s in-breaking Kingdom.

Consider Aslan’s handling of the “cleansing” of the Temple. “[W]hat is significant about this episode—what is impossible to ignore—is how blatant and inescapably zealous Jesus’s actions at the Temple appear” (p. 94). Aslan relates this act with Jesus’ statement, “Render unto Caesar.” According to Aslan, Jesus was telling his audience to “give back to Caesar” what belongs to him, namely the coin, and to give back to God what belongs to God, the Land of Israel. “That is the zealot argument in its simplest, most concise form. And it seems to be enough for the authorities in Jerusalem to immediately label Jesus as lestes. A bandit. A zealot” (p. 97).

More important for Aslan is Jesus’ crucifixion. “Jesus’s titulus reads KING OF THE JEWS. His crime: striving for kingly rule; sedition. And so, like every bandit and revolutionary, every rabble-rousing zealot and apocalyptic prophet who came before him. … Jesus of Nazareth is executed for daring to claim the mantle of king and messiah” (p. 98).

While his thesis is plausible, Aslan’s support for it is problematic at several points. First is his treatment of Jesus’ parables. Aslan regards Mark 4:11–12 as authentic: “The secret of the Kingdom of God has been given to you to know. But to outsiders, everything is said in parables so that they may see and not perceive, they may hear and not understand.” Aslan interprets this to mean that Jesus used parables to obfuscate his messianic intentions. Aside from the fact that most scholars regard this saying as a later creation, Aslan’s reading of the parables is uncritical. His interpretation of the wedding banquet in Matthew 22:1–14 is a case in point (p. 131). In Matthew’s version, a king sends out invitations for his son’s wedding. When the king’s servants are abused and killed by the invited guests, the king’s army destroys their city. Aslan takes this as Jesus’ thinly veiled allusion to the fate awaiting those who are opposed to God’s kingdom. However, Aslan ignores the versions of this parable in Luke 14:16–24 and Thomas 64. In these versions, there is no king. And, while the initial invitations are declined, none of the servants is mistreated, and no army is dispatched. Clearly, Matthew altered this parable in light of the fall of Jerusalem in 70 CE. The part of Matthew’s parable that Aslan takes as indicative of Jesus’ messianic intention is Matthew’s own allegorization. Beyond this single parable, Aslan’s treatment of Jesus’ parables is sparse (pp. 117–18 and 140). Furthermore, his end notes fail to mention any of the prominent interpreters of the parables. Where others regard Jesus’ parables as essential to his message, Aslan largely dismisses them as “nearly impossible to understand” (p. 140).

Other aspects of Aslan’s treatment of Jesus’ messianic consciousness are likewise uncritical. He treats the transfiguration story (Mark 9:2–8) as an historical event (pp. 145–46). Moses and Elijah suddenly appear with Jesus, and God’s voice declares Jesus to be God’s son. Whatever the origin of this tradition, it is clearly not an historical event. It ought not to count as evidence for what Jesus thought about himself.[two_thirds]

Aslan argues that Jesus’ movement was continued by the Twelve and James, but was transformed into an anti-Law message about the pre-existent, heavenly Son of God by Paul. Aslan’s reading of Paul is provocative, even though it lacks nuance. His use of the Acts of the Apostles is also uncritical at times. Nonetheless, readers will find Aslan’s description of the differences between Paul and James interesting.

Despite these and other criticisms of Aslan’s book, I recommend it for its vivid portrait of Jesus’ times. Readers will appreciate the clarity of his arguments. But, as with all interpretations of the historical Jesus and the early church, the reader must weigh what the author uses as evidence and what he lays aside.

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