(Update: I've just posted an abridged version of this review on Amazon.com, after finishing the rest of the book.)
Reza Aslan's instant best-seller, Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth, runs on two levels simultaneously. On the popular level, and in the chapters themselves, the book is an easy-reading popular reenactment of the Jesus story. (Well, Aslan's one-sided spin on it, that is. More on that later.) Meanwhile, in the back of the book, Aslan carries on a dialogue with various scholars.
This is necessary, because Zealot purports to be a serious and informed argument for a particular interpretation of Jesus. Aslan tells us several times how long and seriously he has studied religion, over "two decades of rigorous academic work," seeming to imply that his academic work was mainly of the historical Jesus. (It was not.) Aslan's claim is that Jesus was in some sense a "zealot." Aslan believes that Jesus' appeal was chiefly political and we should read the gospels through that grid.
Aslan begins by setting the life of Jesus in the context of the rise and fall of Second Temple Judaism within the devouring and unforgiving Roman Empire. He describes the town of Nazareth, where Jesus was raised, the nearby city of Sepphoris, where he thinks Jesus worked, and rebellions and pogroms that swirled through Galilee and Judea and ultimately led to the violent exile of the Jewish people from their native land. Much of the territory he covers parallels that covered by John Crossan in The Historical Jesus, though he draws from other scholars as well.
Zealot is not the worst book I have read on the historical Jesus. The popular-level story is well-written, and contains numerous interesting historical insights. (Such as, for instance, that despite his criticism of the Pharisees, some Pharisees seemed to get on well with Jesus -- Earl Palmer has made a similar point.) Aslan's dialogue in the back of the book does show that the man has read quite a few scholars, most of them respectable.
But at the half-way point, already it is clear that this Aslan is not up to the job of taking on this particular lion.
First ten quibbles, then two vital misunderstandings. (Well, some of the "quibbles" are really quite major, too, and seriously undermine Aslan's argument along with his credibility. But the last two are the real kickers.)
(1) Did the Jews kill everything in Palestine? Aslan gives the impression that the Jews killed every living person and animal in the Promised Land (16), or at least that the Bible claims this.
It was, the Bible claims, only after the Jewish armies had 'utterly destroyed all that breathed' . . . only after every single previous inhabitant of this land was eradicated 'as the Lord God of Israel had commanded' . . . that the Jews were allowed to settle here. (16)
The question here is not whether God is recorded as commanding that slaughter. (Though there is some question even about that: as Glenn Miller points out, the "drive them out" theme actually dominates over the "kill them all" theme, and the latter is probably best understood in terms of the former.) Nor is it even whether such a slaughter actually occurred. (If pressed, Aslan would no doubt deny that it did.) The question is whether the Bible claims that all the people and animals were killed. But all you have to do is read the bloodiest parts of the Old Testament, to see that in fact, they were not. A few cities were fully put to the sword. But most of the locals were either chased out, or remained.
So Aslan misrepresents the text he is criticizing.
His point is that Jews of Jesus' time would have been horrified at being ruled by Gentiles, as was no doubt the case. But they would also have known, if they read the Old Testament, that Israel was never purely Jewish.
(2 + 3) What do we know about Q? How much of the New Testament do the letters of Paul constitute?
The Q material, which was compiled around 50 CE, makes no mention of anything that happened before Jesus' baptism by John the Baptist. The letters of Paul, which make up the bulk of the New Testament, are wholly detached from any event in Jesus' life save his crucifixion and resurrection (though Paul does mention the Last Supper).
That Q existed is a hypothesis. When it was written is just a guess. Mark Goodacre has offered a strong critique of the notion, among others. Aslan should read less Crossan (who engages in similar conjectures, also with great confidence), and more NT Wright, who is more rationally skeptical.
But the really gross error here is Aslan's claim that the letters of Paul "make up the bulk of the New Testament." Actually, they make up about a quarter of the NT by volume. (Even in number, which is not the usual meaning of "bulk," they constitute just half -- that is, assuming Aslan admits all the letters ascribed to him were actually written by Paul, which in fact he does not.)
(4) Did Paul invent Christianity?
Aslan really has it in for St. Paul, and twists his words wildly to make him look bad. For instance, he makes it sound as if his concern in Galatians were just a power trip, and that when he wrote, "I am amazed at how quickly you have deserted the one who called you," he was talking about himself, not Jesus. That's a grotesque misreading, especially when Paul follows by saying "even if WE preach another gospel," let him be condemned. Nothing is clearer than that Paul is talking about Jesus, not himself. But dissing Paul is important for Aslan's thesis that Christianity is the real "other Gospel," so he keeps at it unrelentingly.
My own view, contra Aslan, is that there is a great deal of the historical Jesus in Paul. Compare, for instance, the Sermon on the Mount to I Corinthians 13. Anyhow, Richard Bauckham demonstrates, in Jesus and the Eyewitnesses (if it weren't obvious, which it rather was), that the authors of the gospels had more direct sources for the life of Jesus than the Apostle Paul alone.
(5) Were the ancients ignorant of critical history?
"Luke would have had no idea what we in the modern world even mean when we say the word 'history.' The notion of history as a critical analysis of observable and verifiable events in the past is a product of the modern age . . . "(30)
I wonder what Aslan means by saying modern history is about "observable" events in the past. By definition, past events are not observable, as least not at sub-astronomical distances. No one today can observe Abraham Lincoln take a bullet in the head from John Wilkes Booth.
Anyway, Aslan's generalization about ancient writers is nonsense. Thucydides introduced a clear concept of critical historical analysis almost 500 years before Luke wrote:
"I have made it a principle not to write down the first story that came my way, and not even to be guided by my own general impressions; either I was present myself at the events which I have described or else I heard of them from eye-witnesses whose reports I have checked with as much thoroughness as possible."
Aslan's depiction of Luke is patronizing nonsense. Luke was an educated man, who would have been familiar with earlier historians, almost certainly including Thucydides. His accounts have been consistently found to be extremely accurate, with dozens of historical facts he mentions having been verified. (See also here.)
It may be, however, that Aslan himself fails to make a sufficient distinction between myth and history, since he is himself in the business of producing a myth of a Jesus fit for "pale clerics and pious ladies" (as Dorothy Sayers put it) in the secularist camp.
(6) Was Jesus illiterate?
"It is estimated that nearly 97% of the Jewish peasantry could neither read nor write . . . Whatever languages Jesus may have spoken, there is no reason to think he could read or write in any of them, not even Aramaic. Luke's (accounts) . . . are fabulous concoctions of the evangelist's own devising. Jesus would not have had access to the kind of formal education necessary to make Luke's account even remotely credible." (34)
Actually, one study that gives this 3% literate rate adds two facts: (a) men were more often literate than women, and (b) those who moved to the city were more often literate than peasants who stayed on the farm. (As Jesus obviously did not.) Aslan neglects to inform his readers of these additional considerations.
Let us set aside for the moment these figures, which are in fact disputed. Aslan is playing a game here, that is in any case simply not legitimate, for an historian.
Luke relates that Jesus could and did read. That itself is a reason to think he could read and presumably write. One cannot legitimately cast historical accounts into the trash bin on "general considerations."
Every life story includes many details that may seem a priori improbable. I was born in Seattle, out of thousands of cities in the world. Does that mean you should disbelieve the story that I was born in Seattle, because a priori odds against it seem so high?
Or let's offer a more relevant parallel. William Carey was a 18th Century shoemaker who taught himself ancient languages while cobbling shoes. He went on to introduce modern agriculture, printing, botany, and other sciences to India, translating the Bible into many Indian languages, and helping to ignite the Bengali Renaissance.
How likely is that story? No one else in history has ever done all that. By Aslan's standards, should we then reject accounts of Carey's life as "not even remotely credible?"
Learning Greek letters is easy -- it took me less than an hour to begin to get a grasp on their shapes. If you know the written language, and if the language is written as it sounds, as Greek is much more than English (an anomaly among languages with alphabets, in that regard), then the rest will follow with a little practice. I don't know Aramaic, but imperial Aramaic only appears to have had 22 letters. Chinese and Japanese are vastly more difficult written languages, yet I taught myself the latter entirely, and the former to a large extent. And I'm not as smart as Jesus, nor did I have any chance to see Greek letters in the streets of Taipei where I studied them, as Jesus must have sometimes seen Aramaic in Palestine. I see no reason why a smart and ambitious young man could not have easily mastered the art after hours, with or without goading from his father. A few hours work, and there you are.
But more fundamentally, serious historians simply cannot accept this sort of argument as in any way historical. It would lay waste to all human history, including any future biography of you or I.
(7) Matthew and Luke "were completely unaware of each other's work." (36)
There is reason to suspect Luke did read Matthew, as Goodacre also argues.
(8) . . . John, who presents Jesus as an otherworldly spirit without earthly origins . . . " (36)
Poppycock. If anything, the Gospel of John lends special emphasis to the flesh and blood physical reality of Jesus: "He poured water into a basin and began to wash the feet of the disciples." "One of the soldiers pierced his side with a spear, and immediately there came out blood and water." "Reach your finger here and see my hands; reach and thrust your hand into my side, do not be faithless, but believe."
Aslan repeats this nonsense again and again; it's as if he's never read the Gospel. Maybe AN Wilson's pre-Christian biography, Jesus: A Life, would be a good corrective for him.
(9) Did the gospels fictionalize Pilate?
"The gospels present Pilate as a righteous yet weak-willed man so overcome with doubt about putting Jesus of Nazareth to death that he does everything in his power to save his life . . . This is pure fiction." (47)
What Aslan says here is indeed rather fictional. The gospels depict Pilate as troubled, partly because his wife has had a bad dream about Jesus. But Luke also relates how Pilate had mixed the blood of another group of Galileans with their sacrifices -- hardly what one would call weak-willed, or righteous, for that matter. Pilate does not want to give in to the Jewish crowds and hang someone up just on their say-so; is that really so crazy?
But again, as with (6), this sort of "historical argument" is rarely legitimate. People do not always act "in character," or under the influence of one single, unambiguous, and driving motivation. Sometimes careful people are reckless. Sometimes kind people are cruel. Rulers who are under authority, with complex webs of competing commitments and desires, dealing with old enemies and allies we can at this distance hardly hope to sort out, cannot be "read" and predicted so simply as Aslan seems to assume, here.
In fact, Aslan has no real grounds whatsoever for rejecting this story, but he does this constantly: he alternates between hypercriticism and utter credulity, picking and choosing depending largely on which text from which source fits his theory.
(10) Is the Sea of Galilee a salty arm of the ocean? Does salt form into clouds? Is it good for plants?
"Capernaum was the ideal place for Jesus to launch his ministry . . . the seaside village of some 1500 mostly farmers and fishermen . . . the entire village stretched along a wide expanse of the seacoast, allowing the cool salt air to nurture all manner of plants and trees."
Capernaum was on the "Sea" of Galilee, which is, and was . . . FRESH water.
This book was published by Random House. Did none of the editors there know where the Sea of Galilee is? This blunder is particularly embarrassing, coming from someone who keeps telling us what a serious scholar he is.
And of course, even if the lake were salty, the air would not be, on this planet. And if it were, the salt would kill, not "nourish," the "plants and trees." (And isn't a tree a kind of plant?)
But enough small ball. We've established that Aslan is a fallible writer, to put it mildly, and that Random House needs better editors. Let's go on now to two of Aslan's more important arguments, the interpretive key he brings to the life of Jesus, and his attempt to undermine Jesus' miracles.
II. Jesus, the Zealot?
Aslan begins Part II of his book by focusing our attention on Jesus' cleaning of the temple, which he notes that all four gospels relate:
"Of all the stories told about the life of Jesus of Nazareth, there is one . . . that, more than any other word or deed, helps reveal who Jesus was and what Jesus meant . . . All four evangelists present this monumental moment in a casual, almost fleeting manner, as though they were either oblivious to its meaning or, more likely, deliberately downplaying (it). . . "
Several times Aslan does this -- he cites NT writers and then claims they were "forced" to write some important truth against their wills. What this should tell Aslan, is that the authors of the gospels were honest men. He thinks they found these stories embarrassing, yet told them, anyway.
But placing the cleansing of the temple (in most cases) just before Jesus' crucifixion, the climactic event of Jesus' life, it is silly to claim the evangelists "downplay" this act. In fact, they clearly recognize the incident's importance, and deliberately draw their readers' attention to it. For Matthew in particular, placement of an episode in his gospel is more powerful than rhetorical histrionics such as you might get on a cable news station. (Pick your villain.)
Aslan has decided this story will be his clue to interpreting the rest of the gospels. Like many scholars before him, Aslan is thus like the blind man who grasps hold of one part of the elephant, and declares the creature a snake:
"Jesus was crucified by Rome because his messianic aspirations threatened the occupation of Palestine, and his zealotry endangered the Temple authorities. That singular fact should color everything we read in the gospels about the messiah known as Jesus of Nazareth . . . "
To one with a hammer, all the world looks like a nail. In Tristram Shandy, Lawrence Sterne described an intellectual hazard that Shandy's father often fell into, to which historical Jesus studies seem particularly vulnerable, that we call confirmation bias:
"It is the nature of an hypothesis, when once a man has conceived it, that it assimilates everything to itself, as proper nourishment; and, from the first moment of your begetting it, it generally grows the stronger by everything you see, hear, read, or understand . . ." (Sterne I. 44)
The danger of "confirmation bias" is great when one reads the gospels, precisely because Jesus is greater than the sum of our expectations. Thus, we get the Cynic Jesus, the prophet Jesus, the Gnostic Jesus, the Jesus who traveled to India and learned magical tricks, the Aryan and Marxist and bodhisattva Jesus. Our churches also split Jesus up, and make him a magical savior and neglect his social teaching, or a pillar in the Welfare State, or some other partial Christ.
But wisdom, as Jesus himself said, is affirmed by all her children. The gospels are read like the blind men read the elephant, because Jesus is greater than the sum of our philosophies.
Or in C. S. Lewis' great words, Aslan (the other Aslan) is "not a tame lion." The goal of this book, in effect, is to tame Jesus for this Aslan's present worldview, to make the "lion of Judah" a "housecat" for "pale priests and pious old ladies" in the secularist camp, to cite Lewis' friend Dorothy Sayers.
Following Aslan, let me simply suggest that this whole book is best read in the light of Sterne's warning, and Jesus' aphorism.
III. Just Another Miracle Worker?
One aspect of Jesus' character that the modern world has little room for, is the supernatural power by which he healed the sick, walked on water, and raised the dead. The simplest solution is to cut all this out, as Thomas Jefferson and Leo Tolstoy did. Others use this as an excuse to throw the whole story out as myth.
Aslan takes a somewhat subtler approach. Following Morton Smith, he recognizes that the miracles of Jesus really cannot be expunged from the gospel records: they are found in every single layer of gospel material, as Smith explained. And how likely is it that Jesus' first disciples would simply and unanimously invent so important a trait of their master, as that Jesus healed blind people and caused the lame to walk?
But magicians were common in those days, Smith claims, and Aslan and others echo him. (Obscuring the difference between miracles and magic, which they simply do not recognize.)
For the vast majority of Jews in Palestine -- those he claimed to have been sent to free from oppression -- Jesus was neither messiah nor king, but just another traveling miracle worker and professional exorcist roaming through Galilee performing tricks. (102)
In first-century Palestine, professional wonder worker was a vocation as well established as that of woodworker or mason, and far better paid. Galilee especially abounded with charismatic fantasts claiming to channel the divine for a nominal fee. Yet from the perspective of the Galileans, what set Jesus apart from his fellow exorcists and healers is that he seemed to be providing his services free of charge. (103)
This was a world steeped in magic and Jesus was just one of an untold number of diviners and dream interpreters, magicians and medicine men who wandered Judea and Galilee. (105)
If that is so, why do people in the gospels always seem so astonished at Jesus' power, which they often recognize as unique and unprecedented? "Go away from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man." "All the people were amazed and said to each other, 'With authority and power he gives orders to evil spirits and they come out!'" "Since the beginning of time, no one has caused the blind to see." "After the people saw the miraculous sign that Jesus did, they said, 'Surely this is the Prophet who was to come into the world."
Others became angry, and accused Jesus of black magic.
They reacted, in other words, very much as we would, if we witnessed such things, not at all like people who are just witnessing another flamboyant preacher, like watching a mime at the beach on Saturday afternoon.
So I was amused, but not one bit surprised, to find Aslan pointing to the same usual three suspects to support his claim that miracle-workers were a dime a dozen in ancient Israel: Honi the Circle-Drawer, Hanina ben Dosa, and Apollonius of Tyana.
I mentioned this same troika, used by John Crossan for the same purpose, already in Why the Jesus Seminar can't find Jesus, and Grandma Marshall Could. In fact, none of the three is a serious analogy to Jesus, as anyone who bothers to read the accounts ought to recognize. But what is striking, is that having made this claim, Aslan "just happens" to go to the same three miracle-workers that Crossan did. And in two out of three of my debates, my opponents (Robert Price and Richard Carrier) also brought up Apollonius, in an attempt to make Jesus seem less unique. In fact, citing Apollonius (the other two are even less convincing) as a parallel to Jesus as a miracle-worker has become a bad habit, like making peace in the Middle East, and just as mythical.
Like Aslan, both men forgot (for one thing) that Apollonius lived after Jesus, and his life was recorded (with much embellishment) more than two centuries later, in a biography sponsored by an opponent of Christianity. That alone should make one highly suspicious of citing him in this context.
Even so, read these cases, and the alleged parallels are far-fetched and weak. They serve to show, not how common miracle-workers were in Jesus' day, but that as usual, the evangelists were spot on in depicting reactions to Jesus' utterly unprecedented works. Honi and Hanina were nothing at all like Jesus: they were men who prayed to God and, on rare occasions, God responded favorably, for instance by bringing needed rain. Apollonius, I see as a kind of wandering Saturday Night Live skit, sent down from heaven to make skeptics who cite him look silly. (See my analysis in Why the Jesus Seminar can't find Jesus, or read Apollonius of Tyana for yourself. Also see my analysis of Carrier's argument here.)
Aslan also mentions several ancient exorcists, including this account in Josephus:
God also enabled him [Solomon] to learn that skill which expels demons, (4) which is a science useful and sanative to men. He composed such incantations also by which distempers are alleviated. And he left behind him the manner of using exorcisms, by which they drive away demons, so that they never return; and this method of cure is of great force unto this day; for I have seen a certain man of my own country, whose name was Eleazar, releasing people that were demoniacal in the presence of Vespasian, and his sons, and his captains, and the whole multitude of his soldiers. The manner of the cure was this: He put a ring that had a Foot of one of those sorts mentioned by Solomon to the nostrils of the demoniac, after which he drew out the demon through his nostrils; and when the man fell down immediately, he abjured him to return into him no more, making still mention of Solomon, and reciting the incantations which he composed. And when Eleazar would persuade and demonstrate to the spectators that he had such a power, he set a little way off a cup or basin full of water, and commanded the demon, as he went out of the man, to overturn it, and thereby to let the spectators know that he had left the man; and when this was done, the skill and wisdom of Solomon was shown very manifestly . . .
No doubt there were such exorcists in ancient Israel, giving glory to Solomon and some crude, ginned-up "science" of this sort - or with a string attached to a cup, perhaps.
The reader of this blog no doubt easily recognizes the differences with gospel exorcisms. Jesus did not use magical props, he commanded, and the demons left. Jesus made no mention of Solomon, the demons themselves recognizing that someone greater than Solomon was on hand. Nor did Jesus put on a magic show afterwards: his point was to liberate the person afflicted, not to overturn cups of water.
Furthermore, as N. T. Wright pointed out, the works of Jesus fit seamlessly into the total story that the gospels tell:
The mighty works do not in any way protrude from the rest of the narrative, as they ought to if they had been added to the tradition by people interested in telling stories of a Hellenistic-style wonder-working hero-figure. Rather, they fit remarkably well into the complete picture of Jesus' ministry. (Jesus and the Victory of God, 189)
No doubt an exorcist could draw a crowd -- they still draw crowds, in many countries, and sell movie tickets in the US. But it is just silly to say people only followed Jesus because he didn't charge for his healings. That contradicts both the reasons actually people gave, as recorded in the earliest accounts -- and one should not toss out historical records on a whim -- and clear and powerful differences between what Jesus did, and what his alleged "competitors" are said to have accomplished. Aslan seems not to have noticed those vast differences, but the crowds obviously did.
To prevent this post from getting too long, at this point let me refer interested readers to this exert from a chapter in my Jesus and the Religions of Man, on the difference between miracles and magic. This is a two-part essay: a link is provided at the end of Part I to the second part of the chapter.