Zealot, the Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth, by Reza Aslan (New York: Random House, 2013), 216 pp. plus xxxiv, cloth $27.00
For some inexplicable reason Zealot has become a best-selling sensation, yet there is absolutely nothing new or profound revealed in the book. Zealot is merely warmed up, liberal theology that has been around since German rationalism and higher criticism of the 18th century. It is the same poor scholarship and skepticism that infiltrated the major American denominations toward the end of the 19th century and resulted in the doctrinal deconstruction of much of Protestant Christianity in the early 20th century. Today such denominations, no longer having a unique reason to exist, are in deep decline, although with the appearance of the emergent church in the early 21st century some of its doctrine and emphasis have become fashionable again.
The thesis driving Zealot is that there is a massive divide between the Jesus of the Gospels (the Christ) and the historic Jesus (Jesus of Nazareth). The Jesus of the New Testament is an invention of the early church (pp. xxx, 30, 33, 35-37, 86-89, 104, 124, 133-135, 144, 148-153, 156, 170-171, 176, 182, 184). The only way, therefore, to discover the real Jesus is to strip away the layers of myths, legends and fabrications and unleash the Jesus of history. This search has traditionally been termed “quests for the historic Jesus,” of which there have been three major ones to date.
It is vital to understand that so-called “historic quests for Jesus” dismiss almost completely any Gospel witness as tainted and turns instead to extra-biblical records. But here is the problem: by the liberal scholar’s own admission, including Aslan, these records don’t exist (see pp. xxvi-xxvii). Aslan relies heavily on the mythological “Q source” (pp. 29, 111, 136, 153, 175, 190, 214) but if asked to show his readers a copy he would have to embarrassingly mumble that there is none. Having then dismissed the biblical accounts as rubbish, and latched on to non-existent documents and unreliable sources such as Josephus, Aslan is claiming to provide for his readers a more accurate portrait of the Jesus who existed in the first century. A couple of quotes would be helpful.
As has been repeatedly noted, the gospels are not about a man known as Jesus of Nazareth who lived two thousand years ago; they are about a messiah whom the gospel writers viewed as an eternal being sitting at the right hand of God. The first-century Jews who wrote about Jesus had already made up their minds about who he was. They were constructing a theological argument about the nature and function of Jesus as Christ, not composing a historical biography about a human being (pp. 133-134).
The only means the modern reader has at his or her disposal to try to retrieve some semblance of historical accuracy in the passion narratives is to slowly strip away the theological overlay imposed by the evangelists on Jesus’s final days and return to the most primitive version of the story that can be excavated from the gospels. And the only way to do that is to start at the end of the story, with Jesus nailed to a cross (p. 154).
Aslan believes the Bible is full of error (pp. xix, 47, 81, 83, 85, 94, 148, 157, 166-171, 203), but apparently the Gnostic Gospels p. xxvii), Josephus (p. 82), and legends (pp. 197, 209-210) are more reliable.
The author states that Jesus made no claim to being divine and that He was actually little more than a disciple of John the Baptist (pp. 87-89, 97-98, 111, 127) and a performer of tricks (pp. 102-104). Everything from Jesus’ divinity to His resurrection was invented by the early church (pp. 175-177) and primarily by Paul. It is Paul who reinterprets Jesus and creates Christianity as we know it today (pp. 184-196, 212-216, 265). Aslan claims: “Paul’s lack of concern with the historical Jesus is not due, as some have argued, to his emphasis on Christological rather than historical concerns. It is due to the simple fact that Paul had no idea who the living Jesus was, nor did he care” (p. 187).
According to Aslan, James, the brother of Jesus, was the true leader of the first century church, and was at odds with Paul. While alive James’s influence kept the apostle Paul, and his theology, under control (pp. 203-212). But primarily due to Paul’s epistles, Christianity was hijacked and mutilated into the Pauline version, and the historic Jesus was lost to future generations (p. 212).
As stated in the introduction of this review Zealot presents nothing new or shocking. It is the standard rhetoric of liberal theologians for the past 300 years. The only reasons for conservative Christians to read such a book are to get a clear presentation of liberal theology and to be aware of what many, perhaps some in their own churches, are reading. Even here, most would not need to read all 300 plus pages. Everything the author is going to say is found in the “Author’s Note” and “Introduction” which amounts to 14 pages. All subsequent material is merely embellishing these introductory sections.
Reviewed by Gary E. Gilley, Pastor-teacher, Southern View Chapel