Aslan’s Zealot—The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth:
Zealot’s Flawed Foundation Exposed
By Mike Robinson
Reza Aslan's Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth utilizes the old and negated theory that Jesus Christ's life and work are best defined within the context of the Second Temple Jewish movement known as Zealots. Alslan is a winsome writer but offers nothing new. His treatise is destined for the dark cave of discarded anti-biblical belvederes.
Quasi-Muslim author Reza Aslan claims that Jesus was mainly a revolutionary. He makes this brazen claim without proper rational and linguistic tools, since he is led by his faulty presuppositions (influenced by J.D. Crossan and S. G. F. Brandon). His view of Jesus is a misrepresentation that’s been around for a while, but has spread like a virus over the past few years. It was concocted for theoretical reasons: to boost the prejudices of the Islamic view of Christ, to discount the Gospel narratives, and to simplify multifaceted truths into fashionable religious tales. Many writers do this by isolating and overemphasizing powerful truths while ignoring the full web of historical actualities.
Another distortion concerns a view that downplays the supernatural content of Christ’s death as it plays up a semi-naturalistic view: Jesus was a good teacher, but history cannot speak with authority regarding the atonement and resurrection. An increasing number of modern writers assert that Jesus began and completed his ministry to show men how to live a moral life (O’ Reilly). Christ’s impressive moral ideas are taken as proof that He was a wise sage who offered the world a new philosophy.
The truth is more complicated.
In reality, Christ preached ground-breaking spiritual truths but was not a political revolutionary. Jesus delivered a major sermon that called men to turn the other cheek, do good to those who mistreat you, and pray for those who misuse you. Drastic and far-reaching yes, but not political.
So, Jesus proclaimed a whole grid of potent moral truths, but His main goal was securing the salvation of men through His atoning death (Matthew 26:2 & 28; John 3:15-19). Thus, the radical nature of His ministry involved the redemption of men and not merely offering the world wise ethical sayings.
Aslan’s claim that Christ was a member of the Zealot political party is not possible inasmuch as it was not formed for another 35 years after the resurrection of Christ. Aslan asserts that the chief reason Pilate had Jesus crucified was for political reasons. The priests did press the political aspect of Christ kingship to the governor, but Pilate did not completely affirm this charge. Pilate seemed to want to mollify the Jewish masses more than safe-guarding Caesar’s authority since Rome’s throne was not directly challenged.
Aslan’s Numerous Errors
Aslan makes a number of significant errors: use of Greek definitions not found in any standard Greek lexicon; using the wrong Greek lexicon for the New Testament; incorrect definition of the targumim; unawareness of the evidence for high literacy in ancient Israel; unawareness of literary approaches to the gospels; claims that violence against foreigners was the only faithful Jewish response; claims that Pilate crucified “thousands upon thousands” without trial; very late, unlikely dates for the writing of the four gospels; claims that ancient people did not understand the concept of history; claims that Luke was knowingly writing fiction, not history; claims that Mark does not describe Jesus’ resurrection; and on and on. In many cases, I had to come to the conclusion that Aslan was just not familiar enough with modern scholarship related to the New Testament. … Aslan repeatedly presents highly unlikely interpretations of passages in the New Testament, makes little effort to defend those interpretations, then moves on as if he has made his case. Suffice to say this, as others have said before: there is something a little bizarre about using our only historical documents about Jesus (the New Testament) to come to conclusions quite in opposition to those documents (Gary Manning).
Reza Aslan is not an authority on Christianity, the New Testament, or Second Temple Jewish life. Aslan was asked if Christ claimed that He was divine and he answered, “Absolutely no. Such a thing did not exist in Judaism. … the notion of a God-man is completely anathema to everything Judaism stands for” (National Public Radio: July 14, 2013). Yet, as recorded in the trial, the Jewish leadership adjudged Jesus for blasphemy—they charged that He claimed to be God (the “I AM,” John 5:17-18, 8:58, 10:30; Mark 14:62; Luke 22:70-71). Jesus was crucified because He taught what was considered “completely anathema to everything Judaism stands for.” Additionally, Jesus forgave sins and healed on the Sabbath—actions reserved for God.
In opposition to Aslan’s views, Jesus Christ claimed to:
I. Be God.
II. Be the Redeemer.
III. Die for the sins of humanity.
IV. Rise from the dead.
V. Sit at the right hand of God.
VI. Send the Holy Spirit.
Zealot is yet another modern reconstruction of Jesus. It is not fresh and new, as it claims to be, but reflects longstanding debate. That debate is between those skeptical about the Gospels' portraits of Jesus and those who see them as complementary pictures of Jesus as he was and is. … It's not at all clear, however, that Aslan understands the history of Jesus better than the Gospel writers did. … There are good reasons to suspect the Jesus of history was directly responsible for being confessed as Christ. It was zeal for Jesus' person that drove the earliest disciples to preach him as unique. This is something the disciples not only thought about but also experienced—even to the point of being willing to die for what they knew to be true. Zeal for Jesus arose from his own claims about what God was accomplishing through him (Darrell Bock).
Aslan, at times fixed to an Islamic worldview, misses the essential element of redemption in Christ’s death on the cross. Aslan stresses the idea that Jesus died because He provoked violent political subversion. Jesus may have been considered a threat, but His mission was centered on salvation, not political achievements. Christ did not need to seek or encourage sedition for Pilate to have Him crucified. Jesus was executed because He claimed to be God (Jewish) and He claimed to be a spiritual king (Rome).
There are numerous problems with Zealot, not least the fact that it heavily relies on an outdated and discredited thesis. But it also introduces a number of its own novel oddities and implausibilities. Aslan has canvassed much of the responsible scholarship in the field, but he does not always choose his options prudently. He often opts for extreme views and sometimes makes breathtaking assertions. I cannot help but wonder if Aslan's penchant for creative writing is part of the explanation. Indeed, Zealot often reads more like a novel than a work of historical analysis (Craig Evans).
Aslan also affirms an outmoded and unsound notion vis-à-vis Christological development. According to that timeworn idea, Christ was a good teacher and an influential prophet, but it took hundreds of years for the doctrine of His divinity to evolve. Aslan envisions the Greek-leaning Paul and his Gentile disciples as the ones who began the corruption that finally ends with the canonization of Jesus’s divinity at Nicaea in the fourth century. Paul, Aslan thinks, gave us the idea of Jesus as the “Christ” and later Nicaea gave us the idea of the “God-man.”
Nonetheless, Paul was a Jewish contemporary of Jesus; he spoke the same language, walked the same streets, and was immersed in the same traditions and culture as Christ. It only seems to make sense to trust one submerged in the customs and language of Jesus over an outsider 2000 years removed from the ethos and culture of Jesus. Paul's association to Christianity can be traced back to a few years after Christ’s crucifixion. In Paul’s writings (47-60 A.D.) we find him affirming that Christ is God. I will reject an outsider’s opinion and take the opinion of Jewish man who visited the same Temple, had the same dust on his feet, and drank from the same streams as Jesus. I will trust Paul and not Aslan. I will trust the Gospels and not Bart Ehrman. I trust God’s word and not the trendy critics seeking to make money with impudent and unfounded claims about Jesus of Nazareth.
And it’s good to know that I can reject every foolhardy scheme that contradicts the biblical accounts of the life of Christ because in every examination of Christ’s life, naturalistic presuppositions must give way to the underpinning of intelligibly: God. Naturalistic thought is, in principal, empty of any genuine concept of truth. One needs the Christian worldview, which alone provides the universal necessities required for historical investigation and analysis.
In this way, hyper-critical thought regarding Christ’s life are upended using arguments from ultimate criteria (God vs. unaided human reason). The skeptic accepts the reality of historical analysis, the necessary condition of which is God. This problem is disabling for the critical program of Aslan. This is the case not merely because of cynicism’s irresolute consistency, but because of its ontological restraint—it is devoid of a basis that is airy and grandiose enough to provide universal immutables utilized in historical analysis. Christ died for the sins of humanity and rose again in triumph. If one’s worldview lacks the resources to account for the universal operating features of reason, as Aslan’s does, it is unqualified to underwrite a project that analyses such.
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1. Reason is limited by the finitude and sinfulness of mankind. People lack the ontological capacity to understand and experience all of the potentialities within the cosmos and there are knowledge and ontic realms he simply cannot experience. His rational ability is inadequate to account for the tools of reason employed to investigate the death of Christ. People cannot understand everything that they encounter and know. All the combined minds of humanity throughout all of history could not understand complete reality, yet selected scholarship stresses that we should understand God’s word by naturalistic presuppositions. The consequence is an incoherent and unbiblical view of Christ as well as a jaundiced understanding regarding the meaning of His life, death, and subsequent resurrection. Their presupposition about the reliability of naturalistic concepts makes it and not revelation their ultimate locus. The logic of these assumptions ends up excluding Christ from a discussion about His own life and death. In an analysis of Christ’s death, naturalistic assumptions must give way to the foundation of intelligibly: God. Naturalistic thought is principally void of any genuine notion of truth or knowledge. The alternative is a thoroughly scripture-based worldview, which alone provides the universal necessities required for historical exploration and further analysis. In this way skepticism regarding Christ’s life and death are overturned using arguments from ultimate criteria (the Christian worldview vs. a non-theistic worldview) which has a mutable non-universal foundation.
2. The skeptic accepts the reality of historical analysis, the necessary condition of which is God. This problem seems to be disabling for the semi-skeptical program of O’Reilly, Ehrman, and other similar biblical fallibilists. This is the case not merely because of skepticism’s dubious coherence, but because of its ontological limitation—it lacks a source that is lofty and majestic enough to provide universal immutables utilized in historical analysis. In rational pursuits, including historical investigation, there is no ontic cheating: you either have the goods or you do not. If one’s worldview lacks the resources to account for the universal operating features of reason, it is incapable of underwriting such an enterprise altogether. God furnishes all the a priori essentials; the necessary epistemic equipment utilized in all analytical pursuits. God has the ontic attributes of omniscience, immutability, and omnipotence (He has universal reign) thus enabling Him to be the ground for the universal and immutable laws of logic that are utilized in all thought and analysis. Any position that rejects the true God, as the epistemic (knowledge) base, not only leaves an unnerving fissure, but hopelessly fails too. Consequently, whatever evidence one discovers must be discerned and processed with the rational implements that arise from Christian theism and the worldview that emanates from God. The immaterial, transcendent, and immutable God supplies the indispensable pre-environment for the use of immaterial, transcendent, universal, and immutable laws of logic. Atheistic thought, because it rests upon mutable and non-universal ground, cannot furnish the necessary preconditions for the immutable universal laws of logic; therefore it results in futility because of its own internal weakness.