Reza Aslan: A Review (by Becky Castle Miller)

Reza Aslan: A Review (by Becky Castle Miller) December 19, 2016

Screen Shot 2016-12-15 at 6.47.32 PMBecky is the Discipleship Director at an international church in the Netherlands and blogs about emotionally healthy discipleship at medium.com/wholehearted. She conveys her five kids around town on bikes and studies theology in the middle of the night via the live streaming program at Northern Seminary.

The choices of Bible teachers can build or destroy a learner’s faith. One victim of poor teaching is Reza Aslan, author of #1 New York Times Bestseller Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth. He tells of growing up Muslim and Persian. When he was 15, he went to a Christian summer camp, where he heard about Jesus and “intimately felt the pull of God.”[1] Because he had previously felt out of place, his becoming a Christian was not only a religious experience but also a cultural one: “Jesus was American…Accepting him into my heart was as close as I could get to feeling truly American.”[2] He enthusiastically shared the Good News with his family and friends.

Those who taught him about the Bible had a rigid literal view, so when he later studied history and discovered “errors and contradictions,” “The sudden realization that this belief is patently and irrefutably false…left me confused and spiritually unmoored. And so, like many people in my situation, I angrily discarded my faith as if it were a costly forgery I had been duped into buying.”[3]

Instead of abandoning his academic work, he decided to continue, “delving back into the Bible not as an unquestioning believer but as an inquisitive scholar.”[4] His research over decades led to the thesis for this book: “The more I probed the Bible to arm myself against he doubts of unbelievers, the more distance I discovered between the Jesus of the gospels [sic] and the Jesus of history—between Jesus the Christ and Jesus of Nazareth.”[5] He has now settled into a strange secular faith, declaring 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. My hope with this book is to spread the good news of the Jesus of history with the same fervor that I once applied to spreading the story of the Christ.”[6]

I wonder if the subtitle of Zealot is a contradictory play on the title of The Life and Times of Jesus the Messiah by Alfred Edersheim. The two titles illustrate the central conflict of Zealot: Aslan sets up a rivalry between Jesus the Nazarean and Jesus the Messiah.

The book is beautifully written, full of tension and intrigue. Aslan uses historical and cultural details and skillful sensory images to make alive the setting of Jesus’s life. I liked the Jesus on these pages. I connected with him as I saw him in his environment, dusty, sweaty, working with his hands and his words.

The book is polemical. When Aslan disagrees with someone’s conclusions he uses bold phrases such as, “This is absurd and can be flatly ignored,”[7] and descriptors like, “simply ridiculous”[8] and “fabulous concoctions.”[9]

Aslan sets the scene of the world into which Jesus was born, one full of wandering messiahs and oppressed Jews, one ripe for revolution. He traces the life of Jesus and contrasts the records of the evangelists with other writers of the time (Josephus, Tacitus, Pliny the Younger). He claims, “There are only two hard historical facts about Jesus of Nazareth upon which we can confidently rely: the first is that Jesus was a Jew who led a popular Jewish movement in Palestine at the beginning of the first century C.E.; the second is that Rome crucified him for doing so.”[10]

He rejects the infancy and childhood narratives in the Gospels, deciding that Matthew added the mention of Egypt to create the illusion of fulfilled prophecy and to make Jesus the new Moses, and that Luke added Bethlehem as Jesus’s birthplace to make Jesus the new David. Aslan affirms that Jesus came from Nazareth and describes it as an “insignificant,” tiny, pauperized town. He says Jesus’s message was that of a true Galilean: God has seen the suffering of the poor.

Aslan sets up Jesus as a disciple of John the Baptist. He writes, “the life of the historical Jesus begins not with his miraculous birth or his obscured youth but at the moment he first meets John the Baptist.”[11] He conjectures that Jesus goes out into the desert after being baptized not to be tempted by the devil but to learn more from John.

He says there is more historical material confirming Jesus’s miracles than his birth or resurrection, and that historians cannot confirm the miracles but can know how people of his time viewed them. There is no doubt about Jesus as a miracle worker who performed healings and exorcisms free of charge, making the priests irrelevant, and sending a message about himself, capable of working by the finger of God. Aslan again brings up his central conflict: “Acceptance of his miracles forms the principle divide between the historian and worshiper.”[12]

Aslan describes the rich Temple priests as lackeys of Rome and shows Jesus opposing both Jewish and Gentile overlords. He says that the triumphal entry and temple cleansing are the moments that declare and define Jesus’s mission, defying the priests and the Romans behind them, and leading to his arrest.

Aslan concludes that the evangelists, writing after the destruction of Jerusalem, tempered the image of Jesus to protect his later followers from Roman attack, changing a zealous revolutionary into a gentle shepherd, a worldly human messiah into an otherworldly spiritual being. He says the evangelists back-filled the details of Jesus’s life to match messianic prophecies because they were “constructing a theological argument about the nature and function of Jesus as Christ, not composing a historical biography about a human being.”[13]

Finally, Aslan follows the development of Christianity through Peter, James, Paul, the Council of Nicaea, and the establishment of the canon. He says Christianity spread outside Jerusalem to Jews then gradually to Gentiles who added Hellenistic ideas to Jesus’s teachings as they wrote in Greek (according to Aslan, because the apostles themselves couldn’t read or write, they had trouble spreading their Jewish version of the story). When James the Just died, the “mother community” in Jerusalem continued until Rome destroyed the city, which cut the link between Jesus the Zealot and the Christian community. Those who gathered in Nicaea in 325 C.E. to permanently define Christianity were Romans, not Jews, because Constantine wanted them to agree on the doctrines of his new religion.

Aslan’s most scathing section is the one on Paul. He thinks Paul not only created a new religion and divorced it from its founder, but also was a contentious egomaniac in the process. Paul gained popularity after the destruction of Jerusalem and hence his writings overshadowed those of Peter and James, actual friends of Jesus, in the canon choices in 398 C.E.

Reza Aslan and the Quest for the Historical Jesus

Aslan’s favoring of Jesus the Nazarean is the opposite of Rudolf Bultmann’s belief about the historical Jesus. Bultmann did not care about the historical material regarding Jesus the man and thought much of it was unbelievable. Instead, he was content with spiritual belief in the spiritual Jesus. Bultmann said, “It is not the historic Christ who is the Lord, but Jesus Christ as he is encountered in the proclamation.”[14]

Bultmann’s student Ernst Käsemann held a middle ground, valuing both the historical Jesus and the spiritual Jesus. Käsemann said, “The problem with the historical Jesus is not something that we have invented; it is the riddle with which Jesus himself confronts us. The student of history can affirm the existence of this riddle, but he cannot find a solution for it. The solution can be found only by those who, since the time of the Cross and the Resurrection, confess that he is…the Lord… For the contingency of history finds its answer in the contingency of faith.”[15]

Aslan at least agrees with Käsemann on the role of faith: “[Jesus of Nazareth] is the only Jesus that we can access by historical means. Everything else is a matter of faith.”[16]

Reza Aslan and History

History can be distorted. Both sides can look at the same facts and interpret them to say what they want them to say. Aslan does this in his book—takes the same historical sources that can lead to faith in Christ and uses them to lead away from him. Two examples are the discussion of the Son of Man and the discussion of pending persecution.

Aslan says that Jesus gave himself the title “Son of Man” over the title “Messiah” that others gave him, that it could mean simply “a man,” that Stephen is the only other person in the New Testament to use that title for Jesus, that the Kingdom of God is linked with Son of Man, and that Jesus is quoting from Daniel. Aslan concludes that Jesus was calling himself king, tried to keep this a secret to prevent consequences, and failed to become a successful messiah.

Chapter 8 of The Kingdom Conspiracy traces an almost identical argument about Son of Man: it’s Jesus’s self-given name, it can mean a human, Stephen uses it, it comes from Daniel. But Scot McKnight comes up with a different understanding: “Jesus chose ‘Son of Man’ to interpret himself because this term ties together both suffering and vindication to his vocation to rule.”[17] McKnight therefore says that Jesus does succeed as Messiah because the Kingdom came with Jesus and will come fully in the Age to Come.

Regarding the potential crucifixions of Jesus’s disciples, Aslan says that Jesus saw his coming death on the cross not as self-abnegation but as a punishment for sedition that he was willing to risk. Jesus warned his disciples it might happen to them too if they followed his zealous ways.[18] N.T. Wright also talks about Jesus’s warning his disciples that they would die if they followed him, but interprets it to mean a willing sacrifice as well as a literal one: “When he told his followers to pick up their own crosses and follow him, they would not have heard this as a metaphor.”[19]

Reza Aslan and Faith

Aslan rejects the Christianity that, in his perspective, Paul invented, but he maintains his affinity for the man Jesus. He declares that he believes only in Jesus of Nazareth. I wonder why he pledges this allegiance at all. After his faith suffered, he could have released a hold on Jesus entirely. It seems the concept of belief in Jesus still has a hold on him. Aslan ends his book with another statement of his secularized faith: “the one thing any comprehensive study of the historical Jesus should hopefully reveal is that Jesus of Nazareth–Jesus the man–is every bit as compelling, charismatic, and praiseworthy as Jesus the Christ. He is, in short, someone worth believing in.”[20]

Aslan states that his rejection of faith came from the shock of realizing his early Bible teachers had been wrong. This leaves me quaking in my boots as a Bible teacher. I want to do well at understanding the Bible and teaching it accurately. I want to set up my kids and the people in my church with an accurate view of the Bible that is infused with scholarship, not an unstable view that could lead to a crisis of faith when challenged with history. I want to encourage learning and questioning and diversity of perspectives as I continue to grow. I don’t want to believe that I can have all my theology perfectly correct and then pass on that dogmatism to other people, nor control their access to different opinions and sources. In a community as diverse as my international church of 80+ nations, we embrace the freedom to disagree in order to keep our fellowship in unity.

I mentioned to Dr. McKnight my fear that the way I talk about Biblical interpretation can shake people’s faith so severely. He said, “This kind of crisis caused by bad, non-demonstrable, and too-easy-to-falsify views of the Bible can be a major stumbling block for many, and it can be resolved if people have the fortitude to face the facts and reality.”

What book would Reza Aslan have written if his early Bible teachers had been scholars?

Bibliography

Aslan, Reza. Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth. 8th edition. New York: Random House, 2013.

 

Käsemann, Ernst. Essays on New Testament Themes: Studies in Biblical Theology #41. Alec R. Allenson, Incl., 1964.

 

McKnight, Scot. Kingdom Conspiracy: Returning to the Radical Mission of the Local Church. Brazos, 2014.

 

Neill, Stephen, and Tom Wright. The Interpretation of the New Testament, 1861-1986. 2nd edition. Oxford; New York: Oxford University Press, 1988.

 

Wright, N. T. The Day the Revolution Began: Reconsidering the Meaning of Jesus’s Crucifixion. HarperOne, 2016.

 

[1] Reza Aslan, Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth, 8th edition (New York: Random House, 2013), xviii.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid., xix.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ibid., xx.

[7] Ibid., 266.

[8] Ibid., xxix.

[9] Ibid., 35.

[10] Ibid., xxviii.

[11] Ibid., 86.

[12] Ibid., 104.

[13] Ibid., 134.

[14] Stephen Neill and Tom Wright, The Interpretation of the New Testament, 1861-1986, 2nd edition (Oxford ; New York: Oxford University Press, 1988), 291. Quoting Bultmann, “The Significance of the Historical Jesus for the Theology of Paul,” 1929.

[15] Ernst Käsemann, Essays on New Testament Themes: Studies in Biblical Theology #41 (Alec R. Allenson, Incl., 1964), 25.

[16] Aslan, Zealot, xxxi.

[17] Scot McKnight, Kingdom Conspiracy: Returning to the Radical Mission of the Local Church (Brazos, 2014), 131.

[18] Aslan, Zealot, 122.

[19] N. T. Wright, The Day the Revolution Began: Reconsidering the Meaning of Jesus’s Crucifixion (HarperOne, 2016), 58.

[20] Aslan, Zealot, 216.


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  • Patrick

    Reza seems to have lost his faith like Bart Ehrman. In each case, they worshipped the bible at least as much as the Christ. Biblicists.

    I used to as well, I am intimately familiar with the problem.

    I’m no teacher, but, if I was, I would start by teaching a reasonable hermeneutic. Every church should have a course for that issue alone.

    BTW, we don’t have to lose our faith if we’re raised with a crass literalist hermeneutic, I was. I learned better and still worship The Lord Jesus.

  • Ted Johnson

    Excellent insightful review and summary. Well done. Thank you!

  • I wouldn’t say Aslan worships the Bible. He flatly contradicts of lot of what the Bible says.

  • RAngison

    In reading this review, I wonder if our sympathies towards those who have walked away from Christianity colored the review too much. Azlan’s book is a shallow work of discredited views of the historical Jesus that is more interested in being fantastical than offering an erudite and discerning work on about its topic. The numerous credible reviews and critiques of the text have adequately handled the primary issues. While I appreciate the mindfulness of the reviewer here to extend grace to those who struggle with Christianity, she seems to overlook the significant problems with Azlan’s volume. If someone wishes to critique Christianity, particularly from the vantage point of a leaver who questions the validity of the central figure of our faith, they need to do better than Azlan. They need to look beyond discredited late 19th century (maybe early 20th) quests from the historical Jesus and into substantive engagement. Azlan never is able to raise his investigative work to see how these specific claims have been dealt with and who/what is being articulated in the 21st century. The Jesus that Azlan casts in his work is not the Jesus of history or faith that we find in the Gospels and New Testament. As a result his book is simply more about being zealous in critiquing Christianity based on discredited points than a critical inquiry on present day debates and dialogues.

  • Mr. Hawk

    “Aslan rejects the Christianity that, in his perspective, Paul invented, but he maintains his affinity for the man Jesus. He declares that he believes only in Jesus of Nazareth. I wonder why he pledges this allegiance at all. After his faith suffered, he could have released a hold on Jesus entirely.”

    I suspect his revised view of Jesus came about, in part, because it fits in well/better with how Jesus is understood by Muslims (now that he’s converted back to Islam). So, this conveniently allows him to hold on to the things he agrees with, without directly contradicting his current faith.

    His book No god but God is very good, by the way.

  • Patrick

    While he was a Christian only.

  • chris

    Question: If Reza is a Muslim, does he apply the same historicity to his own religious texts? It would be interesting to hear him comment on the Koran and compare it to his approach to the Bible.

  • Mark Edward

    Ehrman maintains he lost his faith over ‘the problem of evil’.

  • Bert

    This is a timely review for me, as I’m about to start leading a youth bible study group for the first time. I appreciate your last three paragraphs here in particular. Thanks!

  • Patrick

    Mark,

    Originally, Bart lost his faith over discovering the ancient bible manuscripts were not pristine as he had imagined when he attended Wheaton, I have heard him say this in his opening statement at a debate.

    Later in his life, the problem of theodicy caused him to go from skeptic to atheist. He said that as well at the debate.

  • Patrick

    Chris,

    Reza would not be considered a Muslim by mainstream Islam. If you read what he says, he claims Islam was “made up” for the betterment of society.

    As opposed to SOP Islam, i.e. Mohammad got a revelation from Gabriel.

    If you would enjoy an insider look at a text critical approach to Koran & Hadiths( often more important to Islam than Koran, BTW), check out Nabeel Quereshi’s latest, “No God but One”.

    He knows Islam from the angle of an adherent and a critic as a Christian evangelist.

  • chris

    Thanks Patrick!

  • Andrew Dowling

    Aslan mixes what is generally mainstream scholarly conclusions (the historical Jesus story starts as a disciple of John the Baptist, Paul went in a largely different theological direction than the Jewish disciples etc.) with incredible conjecture based on, ironically, some extreme literal readings of the Gospel accounts to make Jesus into some freedom fighter.
    He definitely has a good publisher because he got way more press for this book than far more deserving scholars do . . .

  • Adam

    This book started my journey into atheism because just like this article, I have yet seen a critique of the book that deals with the archaeological evidence that is brought up that is so damning to the Bible. I will credit this author with not doing what the other critiques do by just trying to attack the author instead of dealing the arguments