I’ve been doing some work recently on the theory that Jesus Christ was a legendary figure, so I thought I should read Reza Aslan’s Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth. Plenty of other people have been reading it. It’s a #1 New York Times Bestseller, and has been named one of the year’s best books by Good Housekeeping, Booklist, Publishers Weekly, and Bookish, according to its Amazon web page.
I’ll say this much for it: it’s a well-crafted tale. It’s also terribly difficult to take seriously.
The argument of the book runs something like this:
The political and social situation in 1st century Israel was ripe for the appearance of messiah-figures, of which Jesus of Nazareth was one of many. Because he was a messiah, his primary concern was the political and religious liberation of the nation. We find hints of that throughout the New Testament. We also see signs in the New Testament of how his followers sanitized his memory after his death and especially after the destruction of Jerusalem, making his memory more palatable to the Romans, for example by making him an other-worldly king rather than the earthly King of the Jews. We also see the bitter division between Paul and James, which remained unresolved until their deaths. Thus we can be confident that Jesus was a messiah among messiahs, whose primary concern was the political and religious liberation of Israel.
In other words, Aslan went looking for a certain Jesus of Nazareth, and found him because that’s who he was looking for. Through this book he pronounces his discovery with nothing less than complete certainty, never noticing the circularity of the approach that got him there. He is too sure of himself to notice.
“There are no resurrection appearances in the gospel of Mark,” he tells us, “as it is the unanimous consensus of scholars that the original version of the gospel ended with Mark 16:8.”
That’s a good example of his tendency to (shall we say) overstate the authority of his conclusions. A more nearly unanimous consensus would be that “unanimous” means “everyone,” and lots of scholars are uncertain or even openly disagree that the original ended there. Reza Aslan has spoken their opinion out of existence. Fiat poof.
An episode near the end of the book illustrates just how breezily he forces his conclusions on the text. When Paul visited James and the other leaders in Acts 21:18-26, the passage there tells us
After greeting them, he related one by one the things that God had done among the Gentiles through his ministry. And when they heard it, they glorified God. And they said to him, “You see, brother, how many thousands there are among the Jews of those who have believed. They are all zealous for the law, and they have been told about you that you teach all the Jews who are among the Gentiles to forsake Moses, telling them not to circumcise their children or walk according to our customs. What then is to be done? They will certainly hear that you have come. Do therefore what we tell you. We have four men who are under a vow; take these men and purify yourself along with them and pay their expenses, so that they may shave their heads. Thus all will know that there is nothing in what they have been told about you, but that you yourself also live in observance of the law. But as for the Gentiles who have believed, we have sent a letter with our judgment that they should abstain from what has been sacrificed to idols, and from blood, and from what has been strangled, and from sexual immorality.” Then Paul took the men, and the next day he purified himself along with them and went into the temple, giving notice when the days of purification would be fulfilled and the offering presented for each one of them.
Reza Aslan, however, knows the secret code behind what was going on:
Considering Paul’s view on the Law of Moses and the Temple of Jerusalem, his forced participation in such a ritual would have been hugely embarrassing for him. The entire purpose of the rite was to demonstrate to the Jerusalem assembly that he no longer believed what he had been preaching for nearly a decade. There is no other way to read Paul’s participation in the Nazirite vow except as a solemn renunciation of his ministry and a public declaration of James’s authority over him—all the more reason to doubt Luke’s depiction of Paul as simply going along with the ritual without comment or complaint.
Apparently he hasn’t read 1 Corinthians 9:19-23. There actually is another way to read Paul’s participation in the rite.
These two passages, especially the latter one, are representative of many where Aslan’s confidence shines through. He knows whereof he speaks. He knows the truth. He knows what everyone would have done, and if the evidence indicates they did something else, then the evidence be damned, that’s what they did! In fact, it’s all the more reason to dismiss what the text actually tells us about what happened!
We know little of Jesus, he says, except for all the verses he picks out of the text and teaches from with all the confidence of a fundamentalist. Just one example (again, there are many): the resurrection is a fiction made up after the fall of Jerusalem in 70 C.E. (A.D.), but Stephen’s speech to the Sanhedrin in Acts 7 provides detailed insight into what was going on in the church in its earliest years. “What Stephen cries out in the midst of his death throes is nothing less than the launch of a wholly new religion.”
His handling of the Resurrection is especially interesting. It “is not a historical event…. The event falls outside the scope of history and into the realm of faith.” But later he adds,
An entirely new edifice needed to be constructed to replace the one that had crumbled in the shadow of the cross. The resurrection stories in the gospels were created to do just that: to put flesh and blood upon an already accepted creed; to create narrative out of established belief.
This is intriguing: he acknowledges the established belief. He recognizes that it goes back to at least the early 40s in the form Paul passes along in 1 Corinthians 15:3-6. He agrees that at least some of the disciples died for this belief. For the historian, he says, this is problematic. Actually, it’s even more so in view of his recognition that,
Nothing quite like what these followers of Jesus were contending existed at the time. Belief in the resurrection of the dead could be found among the ancient Egyptians and Persians, of course…. But the concept of an individual dying and rising again, in the flesh, into a life everlasting was extremely rare in the ancient world and practically nonexistent in Judaism…. The fact is that belief in a dying and rising messiah simply did not exist in Judaism.
These unlettered men somehow made up the world’s most enduringly gripping, world-changing fiction, and then died for that lie, by Aslan’s own admission. Yet it was all for a simple messiah, one of many, who tried and failed to bring liberate his nation and his religion. Reza Aslan knows. He knows what would have happened. He expresses not the slightest doubt regarding the main plot of his story, and most of its details besides.
I’ve been around religion for a long time, and I have trouble remembering anyone so dogmatically self-assured of anything with so little reason to be that way.