Reviewing Aslan’s “Zealot”
The New Yorks Times #1 bestseller right now is Reza Aslan’s new book, Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth (Random House, 2013).
It recently received a publicity boost from an awkward interview, which Joe Carter analyzes here. (But amidst the hub-bub about the interview, which focused on why a Muslim would write a book on Jesus, Joe wonders why people aren’t snickering at Dr. Aslan himself, who seems to be more of an amateur historian—with no teaching experience on, or peer-reviewed academic articles about, historical Jesus research—who is implying that he is an expert in the field. As Alan Jacobs notes, “Reza Aslan’s book is an educated amateur’s summary and synthesis of a particularly skeptical but quite long-established line of New Testament scholarship, presented to us as simple fact. If you like that kind of thing, Zealot will be the kind of thing you like.”)
Ross Douthat has a good post on the book, and Mike Bird will be reviewing the book for TGC.
The Good Book Company Blog also has a review by Gary Manning Jr., associate professor of New Testament at Biola University’s Talbot School of Theology.
Here’s the conclusion:
Finally, despite his generally good understanding of the field, Aslan makes a number of significant errors. I took pages of notes just on historical and linguistic errors in Zealot. Here are only a few examples of significant scholarly 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.
There are numerous other problems with Zealot, too numerous to address in an already-too-long blog post. 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. There is a good reason to believe that Jesus claimed to be a divine king and savior who would die and rise again, and would one day return to judge the world: All four gospels, and indeed the entire New Testament, make this claim. You can deny that this claim is true, but it is scholarly folly to deny that Jesus and the early Christians believed it.
You can read the whole thing here.