Academics, chief among them theologians, are deeply envious of Reza Aslan’s stroke of luck in encountering a particularly stupid Fox News reporter during his round of publicity interviews for this book. Apparently having got no further than the publisher’s blurb in wrestling with the work, she asked Aslan why he as a Muslim had written a study of the life of the founder of Christianity. He replied rather testily that he was a scholar of religions, with four degrees, who just happened to be a Muslim. She asked much the same question again; he replied in much the same fashion, and again, and again, and mercifully never quite lost his temper. His interlocutor also appeared to believe that he ‘had never disclosed’ that he was a Muslim in media appearances, and that exhausted the ideas on her prompt-card. To expect that she might be at all aware of Jesus’ presence in the Quran would have assumed too high a level of sophistication. Aslan won hands down. Altogether it was the sort of TV that you end up watching from between your fingers – and naturally the clip went viral, to the huge benefit of Aslan’s bank balance. A bestseller was born.
Will the book disappoint the many who will have bought it after enjoying the Fox encounter? Probably not, and they will learn a good deal, though they would have learned much the same and more from the many masterly works on Jesus and Judaism by Geza Vermes, or from Martin Goodman’s thrillingly epic overview of the same period, Rome and Jerusalem: The Clash of Ancient Civilisations. Aslan writes clearly and sensibly, though he is overfond of snappy two-word punchlines as narrative punctuation, and his publisher has forced him to dispense with reference numbers in the text, which might have guided the curious more speedily through his very meaty footnotes. That’s a pity, because he has read the right things and drawn the right sorts of conclusion from them, so his audience will gain a pretty good notion of the state of modern biblical scholarship on the origins of Christianity. Aslan says what all scholars not in thrall to blinkered religious conservatism say: when reading the New Testament, we have to fight through several filters of authorship to get any idea of how these sacred texts relate to a life lived in first-century Palestine. All the works included in the New Testament canon were written in a language different from Jesus’ native tongue, and even the earliest among them were written by someone who never met him in his earthly life; the latest may postdate his death on the cross by about a century. They are coloured by preoccupations which were not those of Jesus himself, and they fuelled the development of a church which became radically different from anything Jesus or the first generation of his followers could have envisaged.
Is there much that is original or distinctive in the treatment here? The book’s title suggests that we are in for a pretty radical new view of Jesus as a militant intent on revolution, but the text itself reveals Aslan using ‘zealot’ in two different ways. The first usage is set in Jesus’ own time, and has a rather broad sense, to describe a general frame of mind which could be described as ‘zealous’. Such zealots might calibrate their zeal on any point of a wide spectrum. So the word might at one extreme simply indicate a strict adherence to Jewish law as embodied in the five books from Genesis to Deuteronomy (to which Greek-speaking Jews gave the collective title Pentateuch), or to the wider concept of Jewish law comprehended in the term ‘Torah’. These people would be what contemporaries called Pharisees, and despite the sneering connotations the word has acquired in Christian discourse thanks to its use in the Gospels, it is commonplace among New Testament scholars to see Jesus’ outlook as nearer to that of the Pharisees than to any other of the varied Jewish identities of his time. The other extreme in this first variety of zealotry extended as far as revolutionary fury at the Roman occupation of the Promised Land. Such zealots in Jesus’ age might indeed long to re-enact the Hasmoneans’ successful military expulsion of foreign power a century and a half before the birth of Jesus.
Aslan then rightly makes a distinction between this extremely broad and broadly based band of sentiment, which did exist during Jesus’ lifetime, and the much more clearly bounded grouping of Zealots, undeniably militant, coalescing three decades after his crucifixion, when in 66 CE hatred of Roman rule erupted into full-scale national rebellion. Jesus was not a zealot like that, because such zealotry lay in the future. Given this necessary qualification, does Aslan make his case for Jesus being on the militant end of the earlier zealous frame of mind? One piece of evidence worth considering is Jesus’ interesting reply, variously recounted in three Gospel writers (Matthew, Mark and Luke), to a group of hostile questioners (Aslan, with an excessively broad brush, reduces them to ‘the Temple authorities’). They ask Jesus if it is lawful to pay tribute to the Roman emperor, Caesar. His response, they hope, will commit him one way or another on the propriety of Jewish acquiescence in Roman rule, and that will bring trouble on him from either Romans or those who hate the Romans. Jesus turns the discussion with two questions, first asking for a coin, and then for a description of its design: the emperor’s portrait and titles. His conclusion is to make a distinction: ‘Give back to Caesar the property that belongs to Caesar, and give back to God the property that belongs to God.’ For Aslan, this is a statement of a thoroughgoing ‘Zealot’ position, for it rests on the Jewish conviction that God’s property is the land of Israel, which he has given his people. Logically that would imply that Rome and its armies had no place within God’s property. Certainly the incident is placed in the Gospels not long before Jesus’ arrest, trial and death. This was undoubtedly Roman retribution for Jesus’ supposed sedition, even though the Gospel writers, terrified of being tarred with the same revolutionary brush, did their narrative best to shift the blame for Jesus’ death away from the Romans to an artificial caricature of the Jewish people, both leadership and bloodthirsty mob. The proof that the Romans regarded Jesus as a political revolutionary comes from what might seem a rather technical detail, whose authenticity is nevertheless strongly suggested by its presence in all four Gospels: on his cross was affixed a label or titulus styling him ‘King of the Jews’, not in sarcasm but as a bureaucratic explanation of his punishment. Aslan’s Jesus is revolutionary not merely in his answer about tribute, but in many other respects – among them, his violent ‘cleansing’ of traders from the outer court of the Jerusalem Temple, for which there was no good precedent.
The trouble is that this line of argument doesn’t tell us much that we didn’t already know, nor does it do full justice to the range of jigsaw pieces which seem to reach back to Jesus’ lifetime, once his Gospel portraits have been sifted to separate out later ideological spin. Naturally we are inclined to ask what was ‘new’ or ‘original’ in what Jesus said, but that question may be misguided and distort what was important in his teaching. Aslan is well aware that in the turbulent atmosphere of first-century Palestine there were a good many wandering teachers like Jesus; like him, they healed people and worked miracles. Among the contemporaries of Jesus was the engaging Hanina ben Dosa. On one occasion Hanina was bitten by a poisonous snake but simply went on praying, and it was the snake that slunk off and died. ‘Woe to the man bitten by a snake, but woe to the snake which has bitten ben Dosa!’ his astonished disciples cried. Jesus, the evangelists Mark and Luke record, had likewise been given authority to tread on serpents. It may have been precisely the ideas and modes of behaviour which Jesus shared with his contemporaries and predecessors that were most significant at the time; they first won a hearing thanks to their familiarity to the local audience. One of Jesus’ central commands is a commonplace of ancient philosophy, indeed a conclusion at which most world religions eventually arrive: what has come to be known as the Golden Rule, ‘whatever you wish that men would do to you, do so to them.’ Not much revolution there, and also another sign of that even-handed wit which is one way of interpreting Jesus’ quip about Caesar’s coin.
Above all, in his concentration on his Jesus as Zealot theme, Aslan says virtually nothing about one of the most memorable aspects of Jesus’ teaching: his parables. It is always difficult to catch irony and humour across a gap of centuries; but they are very audible in these miniature stories which illuminate aspects of his message; zealots don’t usually have much sense of humour. There is nothing like the parables in the writings of Jewish spiritual teachers before Jesus used them: interestingly, parables only emerge as a literary form in later Judaism after Jesus’ death. Was this form of his teaching so successful that it impressed even Jews who did not become his followers? Because the parables are stories, they have woven themselves into general memory more than any other aspects of Jesus’ message: the Good Samaritan; the Wise and the Foolish Virgins; the bad and good use of talents – a word which has itself been enriched thanks to the parable of the talents, whose original reference was simply to coins called talents, and not to gifts of personality.
There is a wonderfully quirky, counter-intuitive character to the things that happen in Jesus’ parables. Certainly, they are full of a sense that things are going to change very soon. Jesus did have an arresting vision of a kingdom, which he generally called the Kingdom of God – maybe a worldly kingdom, maybe not. It would have been a polity that radically changed many of the rules one would expect not just in first-century Judaism but in most sane societies. ‘The last shall be first, and the first last’ (Matthew 20.16); ‘let the dead bury their dead’ (Matthew 8.22), a shockingly transgressive command which the later Christian Church has steadfastly ignored. When Jesus created a new prayer for his followers, the ‘Lord’s Prayer’, its first petition addressed to the Father-God was ‘Thy kingdom come.’ There is no question but that Jesus assumed this to be an event in the near future, both cosmic and historically concrete: that idea has been a constant problem for the many generations of Christians thereafter, who have had to live with the fact that it proved not to be. Nor did such a kingdom come for the Zealots whom the Romans destroyed, together with the Temple in Jerusalem, between 66 and 70 CE, as they brutally ended three decades of growing unrest and violence in the Holy Land. Both Christianity and Judaism are radical reconstructions of the religion which, bereft of the Temple, was so traumatically disrupted in those years. Christianity created most of its sacred literature after 70 CE, while Judaism similarly produced voluminous new commentary on its existing sacred books, themselves codified from radical variants of the venerable texts in much the same period as the New Testament was being finalised. Both resulting religions would have seemed strange to the carpenter’s son from Nazareth.
If anything, Aslan’s treatment of New Testament texts is conservative by the standards of the modern academy. There is a methodological temptation in analysing the New Testament hall of mirrors to mistrust the text until it suits one’s argument to trust it; so Aslan is inclined to cite that extremely slippery narrative known as the Acts of the Apostles when it will back up what he wants to say. Nor does he question the ancient and still too little challenged assumption that Acts was written by the same man who created the gospel attributed to Luke. Rather surprisingly, he is prepared to accept the traditional biblical explanation of the peculiar pseudonymity of most of the books and letters in the New Testament: he tells us that there was a literary genre in the ancient world in which people would honour an admired personality by writing new literary works in their name. Bart Ehrman’s recent gritty study Forgery and Counterforgery: The Use of Literary Deceit in Early Christian Polemics has provided plenty of reasons to suppose that this is a piece of modern Christian wishful thinking, designed to avoid the embarrassment of recognising that people in the ancient world knew perfectly well what a forgery was, and that they didn’t hold with it.Aslan’s last chapter has a distressing trail of howlers on the Council of Nicaea of 325 CE and its aftermath. It forms too hasty and scrappy a conclusion to an argument which in its controlling narrative of a first-generation struggle for the future of a newly institutionalised Christianity, between James of Jerusalem and Paul of Tarsus, would not have been unfamiliar to those great bookends of 19th-century early church scholarship, Ferdinand Christian Baur and Adolf von Harnack. Still, there’s no harm in going down that road again, since the complexity and multi-layered nature of the New Testament repeatedly seems to come as a surprise to the faithful sitting in the pews – partly because most clergy feel that it’s more than their job’s worth to let the faithful know about it.