Jesus the Zealot— Retredding Ground already Buried


by larryhurtado

One of the things variously amusing and annoying is the re-appearance of ideas and claims in my own area of expertise as if something new, something suppressed (e.g., by us scholars supposedly) and reeeeally racy and sensationally important that are in fact simply re-hashings (or re-packagings) of previous claims that were quite adequately and convincingly discredited years (or even decades) ago. I call these “zombie claims”: No matter how often you kill ‘em off with the facts, they come back again, typically after sufficient years have passed that the news media will have forgotten the previous appearance(s) (and the memory of today’s news media is impressively short).

Indeed, in today’s world of internet and e-communication, such zombie claims get a new life rather quickly, and get buzzed around the world almost overnight. The latest zombie claim to come to my attention (at least in my field) is pushed in Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth, by Reza Aslan.

Aslan (a PhD in Sociology of Religion, and with his own marketing firm, and with a university connection in creative writing, but no training or demonstrated expertise in ancient Judaism, early Christianity, Roman history, or any of the subjects relevant to the book in question) pushes in sensationalist prose the supposedly shocking idea that Jesus was actually a political revolutionary who advocated an armed struggle against Roman occupation of his homeland. Apparently, since a recent Fox TV News interview, sales of the book have gone through the roof (and with that Aslan has got at least one of his main objectives, perhaps his principal one, there being no such thing as bad publicity when you want to market books, movies, etc.).

I’m not going to review the book. There are already a number out there to consult available on the internet (although I couldn’t find a single one by a scholar with established expertise in the topic of the book). My points here are these: (1) For anyone who knows the literature in the field, there isn’t anything really new or shocking about the book; and (2) Aslan’s zombie claim has been put to death in appropriate scholarly fashion several times already (i.e., in evidence and method shown to be fatally flawed).

Let’s track backward chronologically through some of the various prior appearances of this particular zombie. We can start with Jesus and the Zealots: A Study of the Political Factor in Primitive Christianity, by S.G. F. Brandon (Manchester University Press, 1967). Brandon was a respected scholar and presented what is still probably the best scholarly attempt to proffer the idea that Jesus was (or aspired to be) a political revolutionary.

A few years earlier, there was the more “popular” oriented book by Joel Carmichael, The Death of Jesus (1963), which even made it into a Penguin edition (1966) and was translated into German (1965) and French (1964).

A few decades earlier, we have the works by Robert Eisler, e.g., The Messiah Jesus and John the Baptist (New York: Dial Press, 1931).

But the “granddaddy”-predecessor of them all, perhaps, was the 18th century figure, Hermann Samuel Reimarus, whose manuscript on Jesus as failed revolutionary lay unpublished for a number of years until Lessing discovered it. English translations of a couple of Reimarus’ works = Reimarus: Fragments, ed. C. H. Talbert, trans. R. S. Fraser (Fortress Press, 1970); and The Goal of Jesus and his Disciples, trans. with introduction by G. W. Buchannan (Brill, 1970).

As I said, in each successive presentation, this idea has been engaged patiently by scholars and shown to be variously selective in the data (it’s called nowadays “cherry-picking” what fits your pet theory and discarding the other bits with slashing claims that they’ve been added nefariously), and inconsistent (or incoherent) in method. The result is each case is that the idea was dust-binned as a failure, and scholarship gets on with trying out and critically testing ideas and evidence. And the general public goes on to other fads and fashions.

But, wait for it, like a zombie, this sort of claim rears up again, typically presented by somebody lacking in the scholarly expertise required to test the claim adequately, but full of enthusiasm (and prospects for the income and visibility that the claim will bring). As I say, for those of us familiar with the history of matters, it’s a bit tiresome.

As an example of a critical refutation of this particular zombie claim, see Martin Hengel, Was Jesus a Revolutionist? (Fortress Press, 1971). As a summary, there are the “six theses” that Hengel published separately: (1) Any theory of Jesus as revolutionist is based on a highly selective use of the sources; (2) There was a Jewish revolutionary movement in Jesus’ time; (3) There are some similarities between Jesus’ position and that of these revolutionaries but also major points of difference; (4) The fundamental differences between Jesus and these revolutionaries were more numerous and major; (5) The evidence suggest that Jesus was hated by these revolutionaries as much as by the Jerusalem authorities; (6) Both “right-wing” and “left-wing” extremes in the ancient Jewish setting likely viewed Jesus’ teaching and actions as provocative.

So, before people get too lathered up about Aslan’s book, let’s all just take a breath. It isn’t new in its thesis. That thesis has been tried out a number of times previously, and it’s been judged in each case fatally flawed. The current controversy will sell Aslan’s book, and perhaps even generate a program (likely on Discovery Channel), and will certainly prompt lots of comment in news media, cocktail parties, and in other social settings of “the chattering classes,” largely because most won’t realize that they’re being sold a “zombie claim” (an unacknowedged re-tread). But those acquainted with the field know that “we’ve been there and done that” and it’s not worth the lather.

(If you’re seriously interested in Jewish revolutionary movements in Jesus’ time, the “daddy” study remains Martin Hengel, The Zealots: Investigations into the Jewish Freedom Movement in the Period from Herod I until 70 A.D. (T&T Clark, 1989; latest German edition, Die Zeloten, Mohr-Siebeck, 2011; original edition, 1961).

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  • Thomas_Blaney

    On the contrary, Fox is the perfect platform for discredited, zombie news!

  • James Mace

    On the other hand, it may be a good thing to know the enemy (so Sun Tzu wrote). Makes me think of some liberation theology, similar to that embraced by Cone, Jeremiah Wright, and his star parishioner Obama. If people want to understand the way Marxist “social justice” types have abused Jesus for their own ends, this may be a helpful depiction.

  • Matthew Hamilton

    As far as credible reviews, I know that Anthony Le Donne has reviewed it. I would think his qualifications are sufficient. He even manages to talk not only about Jesus and Reza Aslan, but also about C.S. Lewis and Ron Burgundy (from the movie “Anchorman”).

  • SpyPlus

    Is it possible to say anything thing about the life of Jesus external to the claims in the Bible?

  • Ethan Davidson

    The Fox interview consisted of a woman repeatedly telling Asian that, as a Muslem, he had no right to write a book about Jesus, And Asian saying yes, he did, he knew his stuff.

  • BenW3

    Of course it is. Indeed there is a whole book Eerdman published on Jesus outside the NT— from both Greco-Roman and Jewish sources. BW3

  • BenW3

    Yeah, but in fact I know plenty of Muslims who know the historical Jesus stuff far better than this guy, who seems clueless he is doing a straight up re-run. So in fact Ethan… he may know the stuff better than the Fox person, but that is not saying much. He really is vastly ignorant of the scholarly discussion on this for over 50 years. BW3

  • Vaughan

    John Dickson has reviewed it at in which he considers the damage that books like this do to the public perception of history.

  • Lothar Lorraine

    I trhink the main problem of Aslan’s unproven these is that Jesus was just ONE apocalyptic zealous messiahs among many others, then why on earth did only the first Christians develop a faith in him as the risen son of God?


    Lothars Sohn – Lothar’s son

  • Leigh Anne P

    Quote- I’m not going to review the book.

    Response- Did you read it? I read it and thought it was very well put together. An interesting read. ANYTHING that will get those in the pews to actually THINK about their religion deserves a positive nod.

  • BenW3

    Leigh Anne, the comment was made by Larry Hurtado, not by me. While the book may be said to be well written, the contents are old news, and more to the point old well critiqued news. The problem of course is that most of the people in the pews: 1) do not know their ancient history; 2) nor are they Biblically literate and so 3) they are in no position to critically evaluate the truth or errors in the book. While some like yourself may read the book and simply say– interesting, it made me think. That is not the typical reaction of most lay people when they read such a book. Some will feel threatened, others annoyed and really angry, and it will simply confuse others and muddy the waters. None of that is helpful. BW3

  • Leigh Anne P

    BenW3 I actually quoted the article, not you. As a minister who holds degrees in religion, I am very HAPPY the book is muddying the waters and confusing people. Confusion makes us uncomfortable and we have two choices with that…to ignore the discomfort…or to change. Christians too often think they “understand” God…when most spend VERY little time studying OR experiencing the Divine. Yes, the book rehashes much old information….but now it is being brought to people’s attention…chuckle…thanks to FOX….and making them think. And I am glad. Anything to get people away from the apathy.

  • Leigh Anne P

    He WAS just one of MANY messiahs of the time….that much is historical fact. Why did Christianity develop around him??? I suggest you spend some time studying to find out…might give you some insight.

  • Ken Temple

    The biggest problem is that in sound bite media and Reza Aslan’s interviews (like on PBS programs and the Daily Show and Huffington Post type blog/video interviews, his views are “baptized” in the general idea that “The Christ of History” is separate from “The Christ of Faith”, and that seems to be overall worldview of most liberal and modern scholars today – John Dominic Crossan, Marcus Borg, Bart Ehrman, etc. – they don’t allow truth of theology and miracles to be brought into history or historical research. Doubt and skepticism toward the gospels and Bible are the takeaway message in our sound-bite culture.

    Most people seeing these things (interviews, media videos and blogs) don’t care about Reimarus or S. G. F. Brandon, (Though it is good for thoughtful readers to know about that and that has already been dealt with); but what dumbs everything down and the basic message that gets spread, is that Jesus existed and was crucified, but beyond that, we cannot trust anything else, because it is out of the realm of the canons of historical research to allow miracles or theology into it.

  • Joseph Higdon

    I disagree with Larry. It is not presented as something new. It is only new to those who have not considered that the historical Jesus was likely an apocalyptic prophet. I appreciated Aslan’s efforts in taking time to illustrate how the events of the time period supports the idea of an apocalyptic prophet. Muddying the waters? What does that mean? A lot of Christian material makes for muddier waters.

  • Michael L Hays

    Too much vitriol went into this pretended non-review review of Aslan’s book to think that the author has not written a useful book. So what if the subject of Jesus as revolutionary bandit has been and continues to be explored and restated; a recasting can be instructive. Moreover, this complaint can be made of almost any book on Jesus as a Jesus this or a Jesus that, including Jesus who became the risen Christ. How many books have been written by academics on that subject? What is the need for one more?

    Too much bile went into attacking Aslan’s credentials or lack thereof to think that the reviewer does not feel offended by competent work by someone who is not a member of his club. The non-reviewer implies, with the usual snobbery of academics, that, without formal study in selected relevant studies provided by institutionalized academics, no one trained as a scholar in a related field can master material in an adjacent field. We have heard that before, so what is the need for this restatement of academic snobbery?

    That Ben Witherington has whole-heatedly endorsed this review comments on his debased judgment. But then the risen Christ implies no ethics at all, only belief in him.

  • Tom Thurston

    After 250 years of critical biblical scholarship, virtually every theory about Jesus has been explored by someone and refuted by someone else. Does that make them all “zombies”? The effort is to compile a mass of evidence in a compelling way and make it reputable and persuasive. I can see a place for a sociologist of religion to do this.
    Presenting “the truth of miracles” doesn’t get us very far. Even in the New Testament, Jesus and his followers do not have a monopoly on miracles. In places outside the reach of modern medicine, they’re not that uncommon. While Aslan seems to say that the resurrection requires a supernatural explanation, no one says that post-mortem sightings of Elvis or Michael Jackson require supernatural explanations.