Baker Academic

Saturday, August 17, 2013

More Errors in Aslan's Zealot... and Its Fatal Flaw - Le Donne

I mentioned in my review of Aslan's Zealot that I found errors on about every third page of the book.  I listed ten and then decided to take a nap (frequent cat-naps; that's why my friends call me Whiskers).  I've been meaning to offer a more thorough catalog of problems but it seems that several other reviewers have filled in many gaps. For example, here is an excerpt of Craig Evans' review:

Zealot is riddled with errors, probable errors, and exaggerations. Aslan tells us a builder (Greek: tekton) in Nazareth had “little to do” (p. 34). Excavations at Nazareth and nearby Sepphoris suggest otherwise. Being a builder (or “carpenter”) mean that “Jesus would have belonged to the lowest class of peasants in first-century Palestine” (p. 34). Where does this come from? Sepphoris, a major city of Galilee, is said to be “a day’s walk” from Nazareth. Actually, it takes a jogger about 45 minutes. Scholars will be surprised to learn that Jesus ben Ananias (d. 70 CE), mentioned by Josephus, prophesied the “imminent return of the messiah” (p. 53). He did no such thing. 
Aslan would have us believe that in an interval of one or two years (the time Jesus spent with John the Baptist) Galilee had become “urbanized, Hellenized, iniquitous” (p. 93). Previously it had been a place of family farms and open fields and blooming orchards. Excavations at Sepphoris indicate that even this large, somewhat Hellenized city had not adopted foods and customs contrary to Jewish law and traditions in the time of Jesus. In fact, excavations throughout Galilee have revealed how faithful to the Law of Moses the people were. When Jesus commands the cleansed leper to show himself to the village priest and do as Moses commanded, Aslan thinks “Jesus is joking” (p. 112). The discussion of magic and miracles (pp. 105–9) is confusing and inconsistent. 
When transliterating the Greek for the nominative plural “apostles” Aslan gives us the genitive singular apostolou, instead of the expected apostoloi. Aslan assigns Eusebius to the third century, but the Christian apologist and historian flourished in the fourth century (p. 149). Aslan assumes throughout that Jesus and his disciples were illiterate (e.g., p. 171: “they could neither read nor write”; 178: “illiterate peasants from the backwoods of Galilee”). There is no engagement with scholarship that suggests otherwise. We are also told that James the brother of Jesus wore “simple garments made of linen, not wool” (p. 197). But linen was worn by the wealthy (see Luke 16:19), not the poor and simple.
To be fair to Evans, these three paragraphs don't even touch his chief criticism of the book. If you're interested, read the full review.  I have done my best to avoid making my criticisms about his credentials or his religion.  I truly believe that a book should be assessed by the worth of its contents, not the prestige or ideology of the author.  But this brings us to the fatal flaw of the process.

Aslan's book was published too soon and without enough peer assessment.  Part of being an established scholar within an academic field is the network that one has created.  This is miles more important than fancy letters or titles or institutions.

Example: our own Prof. Chris Keith is the world's leading expert on literacy in Jesus' world.  This is undisputed.  He actually has a WWF-styled championship belt that says "πῶς ἀναγινώσκω;"
in diamonds.  Still, he took the time to have several other expert eyes look over his latest book to avoid any potential misreadings or (unthinkably) the occasional error.  Because Chris is an established scholar within a particular field of study, his published work will always be fortified by several other experts.  I would be very interested to know if Aslan consulted anyone with any expertise in Second Temple Judaism.  I care much less about the topic/field of his PhD and much more about the expertise of his proof readers.

I would guess that this book did not receive a full peer-review process just from the many errors it has. But I don't have to guess because I know that the book was rushed to press after the vaudevillian FOX News interview with Lauren Green.  In fact, the only reason that I was able to read the book as soon as I did was because I received an MS-word document of the book (it wasn't even at the galley/proofs stage) from a friend in the publishing world. I have heard from a very unreliable source (I choose to believe him anyway) that the publishers wanted to exploit the buzz of the FOX News interview. This is just good marketing... but it is bad scholarship. And that, my friends, is what Zealot is: bad scholarship.


Anthony Le Donne (PhD) is the author of Historical Jesus: What Can We Know and How Can We Know It?


  1. I have always seen myself rather as the Ultimate Warrior, but I appreciate the compliment!

    1. Don't dis the prayer, training, and vitamins, dude.

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  3. You make a very good publicity for this book:) But
    maybe it's time to engage in something more serious? For example, B. L. Mack and his friends from The Seminar on Christian Origins?
    It would be an awesome realisation of the first phase of the hegalian dialectic: a path from A - Jesus a Zealot, to non A - Jesus a Cynic:)

  4. Misunderstandings, f.ex.: "Sepphoris: a peasant boy in a big city.Six days a week, from sunup to sundown, Jesus would have toiled in the royal city, building palatialhouses for the Jewish aristocracy during the day, returning to his crumbling mud-brick home at night." (Zealot). Like you Aslan thinks it is one day trip to Sepphoris and back.
    Aslan says the same: There was a difference between Sepphoris and Galilee: "Although Sepphoris was a predominantly Jewish city, as evidenced by the synagogues and ritual bathhouses that have been unearthed there, these were a wholly different class of Jews than those found inmuch of Galilee. Rich, cosmopolitan, deeply influenced by Greek culture..."
    Like you Aslan does not see Jesus as a member of the Zealot Party or as a violent revolutionary: "To be clear, Jesus was not a member of the Zealot Party that launched the war with Rome, because nosuch party could be said to exist for another thirty years after his death. Nor was Jesus a violent revolutionary bent on armed rebellion, though his views on the use of violence were far more complex". He risked some violence under his followers...