- Dr. Reza Aslan’s book “Zealot” sparks major controversy among the faithful
- Author, a Muslim, claims that Jesus never considered himself God and that he was a revolutionary
- Aslan claims the Bible is “replete with the most blatant and obvious errors”
- Christian faith leaders respond to his claims that the holy book is not historically accurate
Dr. Reza Aslan has sparked a plethora of controversy with his new book, “Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth.” The author, a Muslim, says he penned the book in an effort to shed light on the Christian savior’s life. Since its release, though, controversy has abounded — and for good reason.
Some of the conclusions Aslan comes to in the book are frustrating followers of Jesus who contend that the academic is misrepresenting facts and recycling old and debunked theories and ideas generally embraced by Islamic adherents. His views and the accusations being waged against him are complex, so TheBlaze consulted with a number of Christian experts to better understand them.
Before we get into the finer details, let’s look at some of the author’s more divisive and contentious claims.
SOME OF THE MOST CONTROVERSIAL CLAIMS IN “ZEALOT”
In an article about the book published on Tuesday, The Daily Beast’s Lizzie Crocker admitted that, upon reading “Zealot,” it’s understandable why “some Christians have found it so explosive.” As the reporter noted, there are a number of key claims that are overtly shocking — not the least of which is Aslan’s claim that Christ was “a man of profound contradictions.”
To begin, Aslan argues that Jesus was born in Nazareth, not Bethlehem as is recorded in the New Testament. And rather than the “prince of peace,” Christ is depicted as being more of a rabble-rouser who, at moments, condoned violence. While Aslan claims that Jesus didn’t promote unrest, the author does claim he didn’t avoid it.
While Christ’s many miracles were documented in the Bible and through external sources, Aslan argues that this has more to do with the time period — one in which many “magicians” roamed around (Jesus, in the author’s view, was seemingly just another one of these individuals who was able to “perform” intriguing acts, or who, at the least, was said to in literature) — than it does reality.
As for the crucifixion, Aslan’s argument is that Jesus was put to death for violating the law and that his murder had nothing at all to do with saving humanity from its sins. Crocker explains:
When Jesus marched into Jerusalem around A.D. 30, flanked by a chorus of followers singing, “Blessed be the coming kingdom of our father David!” he was announcing himself to the city as the messiah and ancestor of David, King of Judah. Then, like a true revolutionary, he forced the city’s vendors out of the temple’s public courtyard—a “blatantly criminal act,” Aslan writes. “After all, an attack on the business of the temple is akin to an attack on the priesty nobility, which, considering the temple’s tangled relationship with Rome, is tantamount to attack on Rome itself.”
With that sweeping gesture, Jesus’s message was simple: the land didn’t belong to Rome but to God, and it was time for Caesar to concede power to Hossana, the real King of Jews. This was sedition and the punishment was crucifixion. The New Testament says Jesus’s crucifixion was a cruelly special punishment for a man who sacrificed himself for humanity’s sins, but history tells us that he was no different from “any other criminal who hangs on a cross.”
Perhaps most controversially — and piggybacking off of this latter claim – Aslan holds that Christ never considered himself a deity, calling into question central Biblical tenets. Generally speaking, this is consistent with the Islamic view of Christ, as he is seen as a messenger and not God’s son (while Muslims do not believe that Jesus was crucified, Aslan does, indeed, embrace this notion).
The author drove these ideals home by plainly outlining his beliefs.
“I wouldn’t call myself a Christian because I do not believe that Jesus is God, nor do I believe that he ever thought that he was God, or that he ever said that he was God,” he recently said in an interview with NPR.
HOW ASLAN CAME TO REJECT JESUS CHRIST
It’s impossible to understand “Zealot” without looking at the author’s rejection of Jesus as he is shown in the scriptures. Aslan, who was once a Christian, recently detailed his de-conversion in an article for CNN entitled, “Why I Write About Jesus.” In it, he explained that the more he discovered about the Jesus of the gospels, the more he learned of the disparity between the religious view of the man and the historical figure.
Aslan said his doubt fully emerged in college after he began studying the history of world religions (note: Aslan has been accused of misrepresenting his scholarly credentials; First Things, among other blogs, claims that he does not have a degree in religious history as he stated during his contentious Fox News interview). Of particular note, the author said that he found himself unable to accept the notion that “every word of the Bible is God-breathed and true, literal and inerrant.” This, of course, is an essential belief for those who embrace an evangelical mindset.
“The sudden realization that this belief is patently and irrefutably false, that the Bible is replete with the most blatant and obvious errors and contradictions — just as one would expect from a document written by hundreds of different hands across thousands of years — left me confused and spiritually unmoored,” he wrote.
Aslan makes it clear that there is a major distinction between “Jesus Christ” (that is, the God-man shown in the Bible) and “Jesus of Nazareth.” Through years of religious study, he claims that he became attached to the latter and that he is a more committed follower of the human (a man that he believes was, in reality, entirely different from his Biblical depiction) than he ever was of the deity.
“The Jewish peasant and revolutionary who challenged the rule of the most powerful empire the world had ever known became so much more real to me than the detached, unearthly being I had been introduced to in church,” he continued. “Today, I can confidently say that two decades of rigorous academic research into the origins of Christianity has made me a more genuinely committed disciple of Jesus of Nazareth than I ever was of Jesus Christ.”
All this in mind, let’s take a look at some of the general critiques that have been waged against his contentions.
GENERAL CRITIQUE OF THE IDEAS ESPOUSED IN “ZEALOT”
Considering that nearly all of these tidbits Aslan embraces cast doubt on the Jesus story that has traditionally been told, it’s hard for many Christians to digest. Critics like Dr. William Lane Craig, a Christian thinker and the founder of the online ministry ReasonableFaith.org, maintain that the book includes debunked assertions and patent falsities.
“Aslan has offered nothing new under the sun when it comes to offering a critique of the historical Jesus,” Craig said in a recent press release distributed in an effort to decry the book. “In fact, he is attempting to revert scholarship back to the early 1900’s by echoing Albert Schweitzer’s book, ‘The Quest for the Historical Jesus.’ Like Schweitzer, Aslan claims that Jesus is historically unknowable and we can never get back to the real Jesus.”
Dr. Darrell Bock, professor at Dallas Theological Seminary and author of “Who Is Jesus?: Linking the Historical Jesus with the Christ of Faith,” also gave a wide-sweeping decry of Aslan’s work in an e-mail to TheBlaze, calling it “hype on old stuff.” While he has not yet read the text, the central ideas, he contends, have been spouted in the past.
These two intellectuals aren’t alone, either.
John S. Dickerson, a pastor at Cornerstone Church in Arizona and the author of “The Great Evangelical Recession: 6 Factors that Will Crash the American Church…and How to Prepare,”recently penned an op-ed in which he lambasted “Zealot” and Aslan’s claims that he provides a historical analysis of the book.
“His book is not a historian’s report on Jesus. It is an educated Muslim’s opinion about Jesus — yet the book is being peddled as objective history on national TV and radio,” Dickerson wrote. “Aslan is not a trained historian. Like tens of thousands of us he has been formally educated in theology and New Testament Greek.”
The pastor went on to call Aslan “bright” and to note that he has every right to share his views on Christ. That said, he believes it’s essential to remember that the Jesus story in “Zealot” is being told through a Muslim’s eyes and that this sentiment impacts its central message.
“Aslan informs us that we cannot trust the Gospel of Mark — because it was written 40 years after Jesus’ death. He then chides us to trust his new book, written almost 2,000 years later,” Dickerson says, providing a specific example that gets at the heart of critics’ issues with the book.
JESUS AS A REVOLUTIONARY
Was Jesus really a revolutionary? That depends, of course, on how one defines the term. If the standards of “radically new” or “outside or beyond established procedure” then, by all means, many would that Christ meets the dictionary’s standards. However there are some important distinctions that critics point out when considering Aslan’s views on the matter and interpretation of the term.
“[That] Jesus was a revolutionary is an idea that has been around among more skeptical readers for several decades,” Bock said. “The simple answer to this claim is, how does someone rebel who never even tries to raise an army against Rome? Jesus was hardly a Zealot.”
Theologian R.P. Nettelhorst also addressed this “revolutionary” theme, noting that Christ was a zealot (or a member of the Zealot movement to revolt against the Roman empire) would require ignoring much of the information present in the New Testament. In describing Jesus’ character, Nettelhorst makes it clear that the only information we have about Jesus — or the only reliable information, rather — comes from the New Testament (Aslan, too, actually admits this in how own book, which we will discuss later).
“Some may argue that various Gnostic texts also give us some information but given their general late date — much later than the New Testament texts — and from the Christian perspective, the simple fact that the Gnostics are, for wont of a better word, heretics, I am not willing to put much stock in them,” he said in an e-mail interview with TheBlaze. “For an analogy, the Gnostic documents are to the New Testament texts about Jesus as 21st century biography of Lincoln written by members of the Ku Klux Klan.”
Through this lens, then, the Bible would be seen as the most viable basis through which one could — or should — view Jesus Christ. While Nettelhorst doesn’t see the savior as a revolutionary, he does see how some might argue that he was. At the time of Christ’s life, revolutionaries were, indeed, fighting against the Roman government — but the Bible speaks nothing of the Christian savior seeking to do the same.
Still, questioning on this issue, he argues, isn’t entirely out of bounds. The theologian noted that even Jesus’ disciples might have assumed that Christ would overtake the Romans (he mentions Acts 1:6, which reads, “Then they gathered around him and asked him, ‘Lord, are you at this time going to restore the kingdom to Israel?’”).
But again, this revolutionary notion of what Aslan assumes Christ might have been isn’t shown anywhere in the New Testament, Nettelhorst argues. Of course, none of the theologian’s arguments would sway the author, as he doesn’t put much credence in the Bible.
This aside, Nettelhorst makes some fascinating points about what we do know about Christ — mainly that he had an overt focus on God’s kingdom.
“The New Testament record in all four gospels paints a different picture of Jesus. It portrays the disciples as being confused about his mission, and holding the expectations and hopes in keeping with the prevailing popular expectations of the time,” he said. “But it portrays Jesus as having a mission at odds with the popular expectations. He keeps telling his disciples stories beginning with the phrase, ‘the kingdom of heaven’ or ‘the kingdom of God is ‘like’ — and then he compares God’s kingdom to everything but a political kingdom.”
Nettelhorst went on to say that God’s kingdom is never compared to the Roman government or the kingdom of David. Also, Jesus tells Pilate, the Roman governor, that his kingdom is “not of this world.” This theme continues even after the crucifixion.
After Christ’s death, his disciples aren’t preaching about revolution; in fact, they are encouraging people to repent and to join them in following Christ. Salvation, based on Jesus’ death, became the message — and politics, at least concerning the Bible’s account, played little role.
Pastor Phillip Dennis of New Hope Christian Church in Monsey, N.Y., brings up another fascinating point: If Roman authorities viewed Jesus as a true threat — or as someone really looking to move on political fronts — they would have also arrested those closest to him. But Christ’s disciples went free.
“If the authorities had thought Jesus was organizing an armed rebellion, or even anything that might turn into an armed rebellion, his lieutenants — the disciples — would certainly have been arrested and tried along with him,” Dennis said. “That is not what happened.”
JESUS’ BIRTH AND CRUCIFIXION
Dr. Denny Burk, associate professor of biblical studies at Boyce College, the undergraduate school of The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky, added to the discussion, telling TheBlaze in an e-mail interview that Aslan’s views about Jesus are “patently false.” While he has not read the book, the Christian thinker spoke about the theology of the issues presented within it.
“Aslan is selling a historically reconstructed Jesus, not the Jesus that appears on the pages of scripture. And that’s the bottom line here. The author doesn’t take the testimony of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John as reliable eyewitness testimony,” Burk wrote. “It is bad history to argue that Jesus’ crucifixion means that he must have been an insurrectionist — especially given what we know about the brutality of the Romans and in particular of Pontus Pilate.”
Burk also tackled the notion that the gospels are inaccurate. Based on Aslan’s book, the contents of the biblical stories are obviously called into question. Among them, he explores the virgin birth and attempts to question the history surrounding it. Burk took issue with this sentiment.
“It is often claimed that the canonical gospels are mythical. There are a number of problems with this claim, not least of which is the fact that the authors of the gospels did not claim to be writing myths,” he added. “Luke, for example, claims that his account is based on eyewitness testimony (Luke 1:1-4). The earliest Christians recognized that if the claims of the gospels were mythical, then the Christian faith falls to the ground (1 Corinthians 15:14).”
Aslan does accept that Christ was crucified, although not under the same pretenses that the Christian Bible details. So on that front, Burk and the author are in agreement. But on the purpose of the crucifixion they are not. The eyewitnesses shown in the Bible, though, hold that Jesus was crucified and that he later rose from the dead.
“If apostles didn’t believe it to be so, they hardly would have let themselves become martyrs for a lie,” Burk said. “To ignore the central claims of the eyewitnesses is to ignore the testimony of those closest to the historical Jesus.”
Pastor Dennis also addressed the Bethlehem issue, noting that there’s a significance in the Bible that likely isn’t being given its due attention. The faith leader called the evidence “quite strong” on this front. The Christian texts, he argues, repeatedly mention that Bethlehem is Jesus’ birthplace. Matthew, Luke and John, all books with different literary traditions, corroborate this.
“When working with ancient history, to have three independent attestations to a fact such as that is considered very strong evidence indeed,” he said. “The fact that Mark’s gospel says nothing at all about Jesus’ early life, such as his place of birth, is irrelevant.”
THE RELIABILITY OF THE GOSPELS
Aslan argues that the gospels were written after 70 A.D. and that they must be seen through the lens of turmoil. Here’s what he said in his NPR interview earlier this month:
“In the year 66 [common era], [a Jewish revolt resulted in] actually throwing Rome out of the Holy Land and keeping them at bay for three and a half [to] four long years. Of course, in 70 CE the Romans returned and ended up destroying Jerusalem, burning the temple to the ground, slaughtering hundreds of thousands of Jews and scattering the rest to the winds. …
“What I think is important for Christians to understand is that every Gospel story written about Jesus of Nazareth was written after that event, this apocalyptic event which for Jews signaled the end of the world as they knew it.”
The only problem here is that only some scholars would side with Aslan’s assessment of the time frames during which each book was written. Others claim that the New Testament books were penned before the Roman slaughter. But this is an example that shows, again, that he views the gospels as entirely unreliable.
Ironically, despite these declarative statements, Aslan himself notes the difficulties of writing about Jesus. He addressed these issues in “Zealot,” noting that he is essentially basing much of his work on “educated guesses.”
“Granted, writing a biography of Jesus of Nazareth is not like writing a biography of Napoleon Bonaparte,” Aslan wrote. “The task is somewhat akin to putting together a massive puzzle with only a few of the pieces in hand; one has no choice but to fill in the rest of the puzzle based on the best, most educated guess of what the completed image should look like.”
WAS JESUS GOD?
As mentioned, the author contends that Jesus never saw himself as God. By essentially dispelling the information we do know about Jesus Christ (i.e. the gospel mentions of the savior), Aslan corroborates his argument.
Of this general notion that Jesus never claimed to be God, though, Bock said that the assertion, based on the context of the time, doesn’t make sense.
“There is no incentive for those who believed in Jesus to invent this as Jews unless something moved them in this direction,” he noted. “There was too much danger in the claim for it to be made up later and for those like Paul to preach it so early after Jesus’ ministry.”
While Aslan might possibly contend that it was the Roman destruction of Jerusalem that colored these claims in the gospels (this is an “educated guess”), the debated time frame wouldn’t make such a notion so definitively clear.
Nettelhorst adds that the scriptures repeatedly call Jesus “Lord” and that Christ, himself, in verses like John 8:58, is quoted as saying the same.
“It should also be pointed out that Jesus was [frequently] referred to as ‘Lord,’” he concluded.
Burk, too, held similar views, specifically commenting as well on John 8:58.
“In John’s gospel, Jesus even takes the divine name for himself saying, ‘Truly, truly, I say to you, before Abraham was born, I am,” he recounted. “With the term ‘I am,’ Jesus takes to himself the divine name revealed in the Old Testament (Exodus 3:14).”
“This was no accident. Jesus knew what he was saying. So Aslan obscures this eyewitness testimony to what Jesus said about himself,” Burk added.
In the end, these are only some of the debates and elements surrounding “Zealot.” And whether readers agree with Aslan or his critics, it’s fair to say that book is one of the most controversial on Jesus to come along in recent memory. That said, readers shouldn’t shy away from wrestling with the book and drawing their own conclusions.