Fr. Robert Barron on Reza Aslan’s Jesus

Fr. Robert Barron on Reza Aslan’s Jesus August 7, 2014

Word on Fire by Robert Barron:

The Jesus that Aslan wants to present is the “zealot,” which is to say, the Jewish insurrectionist intent upon challenging the Temple establishment in Jerusalem and, above all, the Roman military power that dominated the land of Israel. His principle justification for this reading is that religiously motivated revolutionaries were indeed thick on the ground in the Palestine of Jesus’ time; that Jesus claimed to be ushering in a new Kingdom of God; and that he ended up dying the death typically meted out to rabble-rousers who posed a threat to Roman authority. Jesus, he argues, fits neatly into the pattern set by Menahem, the heroic defender of Masada, Judas the Galilean, Simon son of Giora, Simon bar Kochba, and any number of other revolutionaries who claimed Messianic identity and who, in the end, were ground under by the Romans. On this reading, Jesus indeed died on a Roman cross, but he didn’t rise from the dead; instead, his body was probably left on the cross to be devoured by dogs or the birds of the air. 

Now questions immediately crowd the mind. What about Jesus’ extraordinary stress on non-violence and love of enemies (hardly the stern stuff we would expect from a zealot)? Oh, it was made up by the later Christian community that was trying to curry favor with Roman society. What about Jesus’ explicit claim that his kingdom was “not of this world”? Oh, those were words placed in his mouth by John the evangelist. What about his practically constant reference to prayer, the spiritual life, and trust in divine providence? Oh, that was pious invention. What about the stories of his outreach to the Woman at the Well, the man born blind, and Zacchaeus? What about the healing of Bartimaeus, the raising of Lazarus, and the raising of the daughter of Jairus, actions having precious little to do with anti-Roman activism? By now, you can guess the answer, and I trust you see the problem: huge swaths of the Gospel and the early Christian witness have to be cut away in order to accommodate the portrait that Aslan paints. 

Some news media are repeating a story where Reza Aslan accuses health and wealth preachers of reducing the message. The same can be said of him.


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  • Rory Tyer

    Your last comment is very astute.

  • Andrew Dowling

    The problem with this is that Aslan’s thesis is very much a discredited and (heavily) minority view among biblical scholars and historians, but in reaction those on the conservative side end up spouting off things that are just as off-base and displaying ignorance of centuries of scholarship.

  • Having carefully read and reviewed Aslan’s book on my blog (and annotated on Amazon), I find this article confusing and a bit misleading. For one, it is too brief and superficial to accurately represent Aslan’s position(s) about who Jesus was and how his striving for the Kingdom of God related to the many similar (yet different) efforts of both lower and upper case zealots/Zealots (the latter being part of a somewhat organized “party”.

    As I recall (I don’t have the book now to re-check), Aslan is careful to call Jesus zealous in his cause (as do the Gospels) without calling him a Zealot or as being a typical leader of armed insurrection, as several others were. My review of “Zealot” is fairly substantive, not so much of extensive content it presents, but of the surrounding issues re. the scholarship, how the book was responded to, etc. I noted that Aslan makes some statements and seems to come to a conclusion (which I quote there) at the end that is often overlooked: basically that he also respects and “believes in” Jesus, although not as divine savior of the world.

    Again, the best I recall Aslan’s description of Jesus’ efforts to reform the Temple and bring in the Kingdom of God, I think he follows what the Gospels themselves present: a lack of clarity to just what role, if any, some form of violence may have played, or at least preparation for it, among Jesus’ disciples, under his direction. Some of the Gospel accounts describe at least minimal self-defense efforts (two or so swords, one of which Peter supposedly used against a Temple guard, cutting off his ear). The picture in the Gospels remains murky and I think we can and should grant Aslan (or any writer) a little lee-way to follow suit.