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Wednesday, July 24, 2013

A Review of Reza Aslan's Zealot


We at the Jesus Blog are pleased to welcome back Larry Behrendt for a guest post. Larry blogs over at http://jewishchristianintersections.com/. If you've seen one of Reza Aslan's recent interviews, you won't want to miss this:

Did The Second Temple Stink? (A Book Review) 
Larry Behrendt

I am predisposed to like Reza Aslan’s latest book Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth. Aslan is a talented author, he’s not Christian and he’s writing about Jesus. What’s not to like? Another point in his favor: Aslan strives to understand Jesus in the context of Jewish first century Palestine.

But I ran into problems from the outset of Aslan’s book. In the first paragraph of the book’s introduction, Aslan states that “[t]he itinerant preacher wandering from village to village clamoring about the end of the world, a band of ragged followers trailing behind, was a common sight in Jesus’s time – so common, in fact, that it had become a kind of caricature among the Roman elite.” It would be interesting to learn that the roads in Judea and Galilee were so crowded with itinerant preachers and their ragged followers that even Rome took notice! But what causes Aslan to reach this conclusion? His proof is as follows:
“In a farcical passage about just such [an itinerant preacher], the Greek philosopher Celsus imagines a Jewish holy man roaming the Galilean countryside, shouting to no one in particular: “I am God, or the servant of God, or a divine spirit. But I am coming, for the world is already in the throes of destruction. And you will soon see me coming with the power of heaven.”
Wow. So not only was Jesus one itinerant preacher among many, but evidently all of those other first century itinerant preachers sounded like Jesus! This is amazing stuff, or at least it would be amazing if it were true. But if you read the above quote in context, you’ll discover as I did that Celsus is not “imagining” a single Jewish holy man who preached like Jesus. Instead, Celsus was describing what he thought was typical of the ancient Jewish prophets. It was Celsus’ claim that ancient Jewish prophets “prophesied in the same way as we find them still doing among the inhabitants of Phoenicia and Palestine”. It is these prophets from Celsus’ present day (circa 180 C.E., roughly 150 years after Jesus died) who were “accustomed to say, each for himself, ‘I am God; I am the Son of God; or I am the Divine Spirit’.” Celsus also claimed that these prophets made speeches that included “strange, fanatical, and quite unintelligible words, of which no rational person can find the meaning.” This no longer sounds like Jesus to me.

It gets worse. If you read Celsus (or more exactly, if you read Book VII of Origen’s Contra Celsum, a refutation of Celsus that is the only source we have for Celsus’ work), you’ll find nothing about preachers or prophets “roaming the Galilean countryside”. There’s no reference in Celsus to these prophets “shouting to no one in particular” (in fact, Celsus indicates where these prophets spoke: “within or without temples”, “in cities or among armies”). To top it off, Celsus’ reference to prophets in “Phoenicia and Palestine” leaves it unclear whether Celsus was referring exclusively to Jewish prophets (or even to Jewish and Christian prophets).

So, let’s do the math: in Aslan’s description of the person “imagined” by Celsus, (1) he describes the person as itinerant when he may not be, (2) he describes the person as a preacher when he isn’t, (3) he describes the person as Jewish when he may not be, (4) he describes the person as roaming Galilee when he isn’t, and (5) he describes the person as shouting at no one in particular, when the person is speaking to specific persons or in specific places. For good measure, (6) Celsus was describing what “many” prophets say; he was not (as Aslan indicated) lampooning a single “Jewish holy man”.

This is not a promising start to a book about Jesus written by a “scholar of religions”.

Am I nitpicking? Maybe. But I feel like I can’t read more than a few pages of Aslan’s book without encountering something that makes me ask, “really?”

Take, for example, Aslan’s statement that Rome reserved crucifixion as a punishment “almost exclusively for the crime of sedition.” I’m not sure about that one. I’ve understood that crucifixion was a punishment that Rome reserved for slaves and the “worst kinds of criminals”. The online Jewish Encyclopedia indicates that crucifixion was the penalty in the Roman provinces for piracy, highway robbery, assassination, forgery and false testimony.

Another example: in the main body of the book, Aslan cites Josephus’ “reliable nonbiblical reference to Jesus”, found in Book 20, Chapter 9, 1 of the Antiquities ("the brother of Jesus, who was called Christ, whose name was James"). But in the main text of his book, Aslan ignores Josephus’ longer reference to Jesus, the one found in the so-called Testimonium Flavianum (Book 18, Chapter 3, 3 of the Antiquities). In his Notes, Aslan reveals the reason for his slight: according to Aslan, the Testimonium Flavianum “has been so corrupted by later Christian interpolation that its authenticity is dubious at best, and scholarly attempts to cull through the passage for some sliver of information have proven futile.” Really? No doubt that this passage is disputed, and that it’s not beyond the pale to dismiss the entire passage. But I think most scholars are willing to accept that at least a portion of the passage was written by Josephus. In Volume 1 of A Marginal Jew”, p. 61, John P. Meier is able to “cull through” this passage in a way that at least some scholars (Raymond Brown, Bart Ehrman) are willing to accept. To say that such “culling through” is impossible badly misrepresents the current opinion of most scholars.

In his Epilogue, Aslan describes the council of Nicea as having debated whether Jesus was human or divine. Aslan writes that one group of debaters, consisting of an Alexandrian priest named Arius and his “Arian” followers, “seemed to suggest” that Jesus was “just a man – a perfect man, perhaps, but a man nonetheless”. This is nonsense, straight from the Gospel according to The DaVinci Code. I’ll turn to Bart Ehrman’s book debunking The DaVinci Code:  “From the very beginning – as far back as we have Christian writings … -- it became commonplace to understand that Jesus was in some sense divine.” Even Arius – about as radical an Arian as there ever was – agreed that Christ was “preexistant” and had divine status. The question debated at Nicea is better understood as, how was it that Jesus was both divine and human? Aslan gets Nicea wrong in a second way: he states that after the Nicene council, those who disagreed with the Nicene Creed “were immediately banished from the empire and their teachings violently suppressed.”  But the aftermath of Nicea was much more complicated than this. The story is well told in Richard Rubenstein’s terrific book When Jesus Became God. In essence, after Nicea the Arians made something of a comeback, and the battle between the Arians and the Niceans went on for 60-odd years, until (arguably) the matter was settled when the Nicene Creed (in revised form) was affirmed by the Council of Constantinople in 381.

Here’s my favorite bugbear (so far) from Aslan’s book: his description of what it would have been like to witness an animal sacrifice at the Temple in Jerusalem:
“The stink of carnage is impossible to ignore. It clings to the skin, the hair, becoming a noisome burden you will not soon shake off. The priests burn incense to ward off the fetor and disease, but the mixture of myrrh and cinnamon, saffron and frankincense cannot mask the insufferable stench of slaughter.”

As a Jew, I’ll admit: this passage stung my pride a bit. Is it true, is it really true, that the Temple stank? 

Sometimes it seems, there’s a book written in response to any crazy question I might ask. In this case, the book is Scenting Salvation: Ancient Christianity And the Olfactory Imagination, by Susan Ashbrook Harvey. I have not read the whole book, but courtesy of the Internet, I’ve sniffed my way around it (couldn’t resist). Here’s a particularly fragrant passage from Harvey’s book:
“From the simple to the complex, Mediterranean sacrificial practices could be—and in ancient texts almost always were—characterized by the smells they generated. Incense was burned along the route the ritual procession would follow, and at the location where the rite was held. Flowers, wreaths, and perfumes adorned altars, cult statues, sacrificial victims, ritual leaders, ritual garments, and participants. Libations added the scent of (perfumed) wine. On the occasions of animal sacrifice, the smell of blood and roasting or boiling meat deepened the multiple aromas. Because fire was a frequent component, these smells were associated further with their accompanying smoke. In the smoke, the combined smells of the ritual process could be seen to pass, literally, from earth to heaven … to the ancients—whether Greek, Roman, Egyptian, Syrian, Jew—the savor of sacrifice required “beauty” if it was to be worthy, or even appropriate, for the deity to whom it was offered. Fragrance was itself an attribute of divinity, and of everything characterizing the divine.”
So, perhaps, the Jerusalem Temple did not smell like a stockyard. But Aslan has a vivid imagination, and if he wants to think of the Jerusalem Temple as a slaughterhouse, who am I to say no? Let’s keep in mind that Aslan has advanced degrees in religion, but he makes his living as an Associate Professor of Creative Writing, and his Jesus book is, well, creative. It has a, well, loose feeling to it. Not only does Aslan occasionally play loose with the facts, he also makes a series of odd statements that lead me to wonder what creativity he’s up to. For example: when Aslan cites Jesus’ statement in Matthew 15:24: “I was sent solely to the lost sheep of Israel” – Aslan characterizes this statement as “a message of racial exclusion”. Really? Were first century Palestinian Jews members of a different “race” than Samaritans, Syrians, Canaanites, Phoenicians and Nabataeans? Who thinks this? Since when is “race” a first century concept?

Frankly, it’s exhausting to read a book like Zealot, and constantly have to pause in mid-thought to ask if Aslan is giving me the straight dope. I’m not a Ph.D. like Chris or Anthony; it’s not clear to me from page to page when I can trust Aslan to lead the way. Still, I suppose that when I’m dealing with an author who could write an older book as good as No God But God, I owe it to myself to keep reading the newer book and try to find its central point. Which I will do.

Wish me luck, I think I’m going to need it.

Thank you kindly, Larry. 
For my review of Zealot click here.
            -Anthony Le Donne, Ph.D.

22 comments:

  1. Well analysed Larry. You have exposed Aslan and his motives, especially as one who sees it through the lens of his previous book. What surprises me is this: while Aslan negates the Gospels as myths, he quotes it repeatedly to prove that Jesus was just a zealot. Either he should accept the Gospels or he should discard it totally. However, Aslan selectively chooses passages from the Gospel, while selectively discards many. Isn't his agenda then clear as a crystal? Thanks for exposing the shallowness of Aslan's book "Zealot".

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    1. First: thanks.

      Second: what Jack said below, and what the other Anonymous said below. I'm critical of Aslan, but I do not suspect his motives. We're all free to write about Jesus, and non-Christians like me are likely to come to this subject with a different perspective than my Christian friends and neighbors. That being said, I expect my Christian friends to examine my arguments on their merits.

      Aslan did not invent the method of treating some Gospel stories as myth and others as fact. I can point to dozens of Christian authors who have done the same thing. In fact, unless we're dealing with a devotional work, I think we all expect scholars to critically engage the Gospel material.

      Finally, to clarify: I don't think Aslan's work is "shallow". I am still working my way through it, but what I think so far is that it isn't very good.

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    2. "I am still working my way through it, but what I think so far is that it isn't very good."

      I am really interested in what you and others have to say as I am trying to decide whether the book is worth buying. In my opinion, Aslan's writings (and public speaking engagements) on Islam aren't very good. He presents himself as an expert there but often doesn't know what he is talking about. I suspect it will be the same with regard to the topic of Jesus.

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    3. I'm no expert on Islam, but I much enjoyed Aslan's "No God But God." I expected to like this latest book, and I'm disappointed that (so far) I do not.

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  2. Thanks for this. We can say with a fair certainty that this book. and its thesis, is going to be picked up by Muslim teachers and communities in their assessment of Jesus. Those of us involved in interfaith dialogue and mission to Muslim communities in the West are going to run into its arguments. So being forewarned as to the issues and having informed answers is a big help.

    Thanks again, and I look forward to further insights.

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    1. I don't know if most Muslim congregations are any more enamored of academic-minded Creative Writing professors than conservative Christian congregations. And Aslan's take on Jesus actually runs counter to Islamic teachings--so I don't think Zealot is going to be a big hit in religious Muslim circles. Just FYI.

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    2. Thanks James. Whilst, in general, you're right, there are usually a few people in each community who look for anything that highlights weaknesses in Christianity. This infiltrates to others. A book by a Muslim on Jesus will certainly be picked up on. On the basis the the enemy of my enemy is my friend, then even those that may not like his stance on other things will find common cause with him on this. I was in a mosque on Friday and we were talking about Sufi guides, but when I mentioned Jesus 2 of the Ahmed Deedat style questions were brought up straight away.

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  3. Anonymous: I think it's possible to think someone is factually incorrect without assuming they have an "agenda." There are other scholars who have advanced the same arguments. I don't find anything radical in Aslan's thesis; I just don't think it cuts the evidentiary mustard.

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  4. Thanks, Larry. He apparently has a degree from the Iowa creative writing program and, as you note, holds a teaching position in that field. But he presents himself very differently in the Fox interview Anthony commented on. Not sure what's going on.

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    1. Niccolo, thanks back. I brought up Aslan's creative writing background because he can, well, write creatively. In hindsight, maybe that was a mistake on my part. Aslan has serious scholarly credentials, and I did not mean to suggest that he's not a qualified scholar.

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    2. Niccolo DonzellaJuly 30, 2013 at 5:42 AM

      I didn't take it that way. I thought you were commenting on his accuracy or completeness in terms of NT and Jewish materials -- the "Really" moments. It seems to me that that is what really matters here, and I am waiting to hear what the Ph.Ds have to say. My impression from the interview was that he was saying that he teaches religion or religious studies "for a living," as he put it, and has a Ph.D supporting that endeavor. The fact that he holds a degree and a teaching position in Creative Writing does not mean he doesn't do both, but it isn't what one would expect of someone who does that "for a living."

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    3. I'm not sure why this matters, except maybe to set the record right, but Aslan doesn't teach religion for a living.

      -anthony

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    4. Niccolo DonzellaJuly 31, 2013 at 4:59 AM

      Some narratives die hard.

      Larry -- I believe your instincts will be proven correct. Thanks, again.

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  5. I'm no fan of Aslan and suspect he is out of his league on this topic. However, the criticism flying around the web at the moment is that Aslan has a Muslim agenda. Whatever his motives, that isn't one of him as his thesis contradicts Muslim teaching on Jesus on many basis points.

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  6. Its interesting that in his book "No God but God" Aslan is a real pains to distance the prophet Muhammad from any association with military Jihad. Whilst in his new book on Jesus he shows him as a Zealot (c.f. a jihadi).

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  7. That's probably not an accident. Aslan's worldview is that Islam gets a bad rap in the West and he needs to correct all of our misunderstandings (this is not a religious view per say as many non-Muslims make the same arguments, Karen Armstrong being a prime example). Making Jesus more political and less peaceful than he is commonly made out to be is the other side of the same coin.

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  8. I was only able to stomach a few chapters because too frequently I also had to pause in order to research what he presents as fact only to find often his facts were inaccurate or in the least debatable by other scholars.

    What I disliked the most of his book is that he uses inaccurate or questionable statements in order advance his views that the new testament is flawed with intentional lies and Jesus was only a man and no more than a prophet.

    Aslan might advance other thoughts that may be honorable, but I can not continue something that appears to me to be False Teachings.

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    1. Patrick, I think that you and I might come to very similar conclusions about Aslan's Jesus. Namely that his reconstruction of Jesus does not make the best sense given the available evidence.

      But I think that it is fundamental unchristian (I assume that you are Xn) to refuse to converse with an academic offering simply because it looks to be contrary to Christian doctrine. The gracious step forward would be to enter into the conversation and hear the best arguments on all sides and to do so respectfully. If you decide at the end of the day to disagree, so be it. What you're suggesting sounds dangerously close to anti-intellectualism.

      -anthony

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  9. Aslan uses a Historical-Critical method to analyze the scripture which I admit I am not a big fan of, but my problem is with his narrow or mis-translations of scripture and historical inaccuracies which he uses to try to make his points.

    If it is anti-intellectualism for me to have a hard time with someone trying to disprove the truthfulness of something using untruthfulness then I am guilty.

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  10. This is really just a stray comment (and if I am overlooking someone else's mentioning of it I apologize), but has anyone noticed how similar Aslan's thesis is to Karl Kautsky's in his Foundations of Christianity?

    That's really my biggest qualm with Aslan's scholarship; Jesus as proletarian rebel isn't actualy that novel of a position. Seems like a lot of retread.

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    1. Anonymous, you are quite right. I explain this further in my review.

      http://historicaljesusresearch.blogspot.com/2013/07/a-usually-happy-fellow-reviews-aslans.html

      -anthony

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  11. I'm drawing this from Pagels, but I think Aslan is failing to understand the blanket Greek-language term 'lestes,' literally 'bandit' or 'robber,' (see: 'The Origin of Satan pg.7) that Josephus also used for describing seditious anti-Roman Jews. So, while crucifixion was nominally a punishment for theft or violent crimes, later commentators sometimes used the same word for 'traitor' as they would 'highway robber.'

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