Baker Academic

Tuesday, December 17, 2013

In My Zeal, I Corrected Reza Aslan Incorrectly - Le Donne

I need to correct an error I made when discussing the concept of "zeal" with Reza Aslan. In this exchange I claim that there is no example of Jewish zeal directed outward and against a foreigner. I would like to apologize to Dr. Aslan and the listeners of Premier Christian Radio.  This is obviously incorrect.  Indeed, the example that I give (a story that I tell in the podcast) of Josephus' "zealous" Jews who stage a nonviolent demonstration against Pilate's adornment of Jerusalem (J.W., book 2.169-174) would be an obvious counter example. I misspoke.

What I meant to say was that zealous acts as manifested violently are indicative of internal Jewish conflict about devotion to God and against idolatry. Indeed, my comments do not make sense without this important qualification.

The parade examples of those "zealous" for Torah are Phinehas, Mattathias, and Saul. In these cases, acts of violence described as "zealous" are directed against a fellow countryman who is perceived as a transgressor of Torah. This is not to say that gentiles are not harmed (they obviously are), but the notion that one is a "transgressor" of Torah presumes that the person in question is expected to live within the confines of Torah (i.e. Jewish).

The "Zealots" (circa 66CE) who rise up against Rome might be an exception to this rule.  However, I think that projecting the title onto Jesus (as Aslan does with the title page of his book) is anachronistic and misleading. In Dick Horsley's Jesus and the Spiral of Violence he writes: "there is simply no evidence for zeal as a passion for freedom from alien rule generally, much less as the primary motivating factor in some supposed fanatical Jewish drive toward violent rebellion against Roman domination" (p.129).

The more important point is one that I will reiterate here. Josephus writes:
Now Pilate, who was sent as procurator into Judea by Tiberius, sent by night those images of Caesar that are called ensigns into Jerusalem. This excited a very among great tumult among the Jews when it was day; for those that were near them were astonished at the sight of them, as indications that their laws were trodden under foot; for those laws do not permit any sort of image to be brought into the city. Nay, besides the indignation which the citizens had themselves at this procedure, a vast number of people came running out of the country. These came zealously to Pilate to Cesarea, and besought him to carry those ensigns out of Jerusalem, and to preserve them their ancient laws inviolable; but upon Pilate's denial of their request, they fell down prostrate upon the ground, and continued immovable in that posture for five days and as many nights. 
On the next day Pilate sat upon his tribunal, in the open market-place, and called to him the multitude, as desirous to give them an answer; and then gave a signal to the soldiers, that they should all by agreement at once encompass the Jews with their weapons; so the band of soldiers stood round about the Jews in three ranks. The Jews were under the utmost consternation at that unexpected sight. Pilate also said to them that they should be cut in pieces, unless they would admit of Caesar's images, and gave intimation to the soldiers to draw their naked swords. Hereupon the Jews, as it were at one signal, fell down in vast numbers together, and exposed their necks bare, and cried out that they were sooner ready to be slain, than that their law should be transgressed. Hereupon Pilate was greatly surprised at their prodigious superstition, and gave order that the ensigns should be presently carried out of Jerusalem.
In this case, we see that being "zealous" manifests as nonviolent resistance. This episode should not be overplayed, but it does nuance our understanding of "zeal".  Dr. Aslan refers to this episode vaguely (Zealot, ch. 5) but fails to tell his readers that these Jews were nonviolent. While Aslan casts doubts on Jesus' supposed violent stance against gentiles, he repeatedly leaves out these kinds of details.  The image of Jesus that has allowed him to sell books is that of a revolutionary who eschews what he calls "pacifism".  Aslan clearly wants his readers to think of Jesus as political revolutionary and therefore must downplay or neglect all evidence to the contrary.  My review takes him to task for this and many other failings.

All the more reason to correct myself for my own error. I apologize.



  1. Are we suggesting that "political revolutionary" and "pacifist" are mutually exclusive?

    1. This is indicative of the problem, Thom.

      Dr. Aslan tells us that we've misunderstood Jesus' statements about "loving enemies" and "turning the other cheek" and then (mis)uses categories to suggest violent revolution. No doubt, "political revolutionary" and "pacifist" are not polar opposites, but when framed as such we get a vague impression of an anti-Rome Jesus who praises those to use violence to usher in the Kingdom of God (this is how he interprets Matt 11:12).


    2. Thanks, Anthony.

      Yeah I think it's a poor dichotomy and that would be an atomistic reading of Matt 11:12. On the other hand, I wouldn't want to deny that Jesus was anti-Roman. I think that's pretty clear in a number of places—just as clear as his insistence on nonviolence in the interim before the coming of the Son of Man. But there, in the Olivet Discourse, I would argue there are clear illusions to a violent overthrow of Roman rule, when heaven opens up and collides with earth.

  2. I believe his book is going to be made into a movie! Depending on how good they make it and promote it, the image of Jesus the (semi) violent revolutionary will be etched into this generation's collective consciousness. Just what we need with certain sections of society that place Jesus and guns together so closely.

    I recently came across an extremely good PhD thesis by a student from a faculty in Divinity in the U.K. that argues for a Zealot background to Jesus' life; although he argued (if I can remember his talk correctly) that Jesus then reacted against this and extolled pacifism. It doesn't seem to have been upploaded yet on any PhD dissertation websites though, but I will try and track it down.

  3. I think that Aslan is right when he discribes Jesus as a kind of troublemaker with a complex view on violence. In ancient times the doctrine - even if ment metaphorically - of dividing a familiy with a sword was considered as extreme and somehow violant. Peace in the family was regarded as the greatest gift from god. For an ancient reader this passages talk of a social revolutionary that even doesn`t stop at the boundaries of family. Jesus was much more a troublemaker than we think today. For us it is normal that some family members don´t talk to each other, have different believes or don´t help each other. In ancient times this was a sign of social revolution. Teaching new concepts of the messiah, the kingdom of god and the new concept of eternal hell for disbelievers was a big (political, social) revolution. Jesus apparently knew that this would cause a lot of trouble and must lead to some violance. This is why Jesus taught his followers to arm themselves to defend against the disbelievers. This was not a Gandhi sitin with the hope that everybody will meet in the end in heaven. Jesus was convinced that a big part of mankind will go to hell for ever and is not worth of living with the righteous. It was obvious that the new non rightheous would fight violant against this new believes to stay in power.