Reza Aslan’s “Zealot” exposes Christianity’s revolutionary roots

Reza Aslan’s recent book Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth has touched off a storm of Islamophobic reaction, starting with Laura Green’s interview with the author on Fox News. Green showed off not merely her Islamophobia but her complete ignorance not only of Islam but also of Christianity and of historical research into its orgins.

Here’s one measure of the reaction: as of August 2, 581 reviews of the book -which was released only three weeks ago-had been posted on Amazon, of which 184 were one star, mostly vitriolic and often Islamophobic denunciations, generally revealing the same depth of ignorance as the Fox interviewer. For comparison, the book Meeting Jesus Again for the First Time by a leading Christian scholar, Marcus Borg, giving a similar perspective on Jesus, by Marcus Borg, released in 1995, has garnered 120 Amazon reviews, with only 13 being one star denunciations.

But what should non-Islamophobes, and particularly progressives, think of Aslan’s book? I can speak to this, because I, like Aslan, have scholarly training in Judaism and early Christianity (a Ph.D. from the Unversity of California Berkeley and the Graduate Theological Union)-and I’m a believing Christian.

First, I have to say that Zealot is no anti-Christian diatribe. Aslan does raise questions about some traditional Christian beliefs, but his portrayal of Jesus and early Christianity is no more radical, indeed in some ways a good deal less radical, than that of some respected Christian scholars.

Second, contrary to Green and to the more benighted commentators on the Amazon website, the book is certainly not a Muslim attack on Christianity. In fact, Aslan’s picture of Jesus differs in key respect from Muslim tradition, which holds Jesus to be a revered prophet (but not a social revolutionary-see below). Aslan, for instance, questions the Virgin Birth, which the Qur’an affirms, and insists that Jesus was really crucified, which the Qur’an denies, holding that Jesus was taken up to heaven before the crucifixion and his place taken by a man who merely looked like him. There is nothing particularly Islamic about Zealot; if Aslan did not identify himself as a Muslim on page 2, there would be no way of knowing his faith committment.

Third, and most important, Zealot is a great read and something that progressives should not only read themslves but also recommend to all the Christians they know (at least those who don’t have their minds tight shut as a clam). For Aslan does an excellent job of showing that Jesus was unquestionably a revolutionary, directly challenging the dominant powers of his day-not only the Roman Empire, but the local elite collaborating with it. He starts by pointing out (as do many other scholars, including the quite orthodox Catholic scholar John Meier) that Jesus was crucified-a punishment the Romans reserved for political criminals. Any portrayal of Jesus has, therefore, to show how he wound up on a Roman cross.

And, as Aslan expertly reveals, there’s no lack of evidence both from the Gospels and from other sources to explain that fact. Presenting the socio-economic situation of the Palestinian peasantry at the time and the massive repressive apparatus that Rome wielded, he shows that Jesus was quite correctly perceived as a danger to the established order, a leader building a movement threatening both Rome and the Judean elite.

Aslan does not encumber his text with footnotes, but he provides a hundred pages of end-notes that cite not only the authorities that support his views but also those that contest them. From my knowledge of the field, I can affirm that he has certainly done his homework; he has read and intelligently evaluated most of the key scholarship that bears on the subject.

That is not to say that I agree with all of his views; like any effort in reconstructing ancient history, there is variety of views held by responsible scholars. Aslan’s book is an well-written and engaging presentation of one possible perspective.

I find his final chapters, dealing with Paul and the decades (and centuries) after Jesus, to be the weaker part of the book. The root of the problem there, in my opinion, is that Aslan fails to appreciate the relationship between Christianity (including Pauline Christianity) and at least some forms of pre-Jesus Judaism (as documented by my teacher Daniel Boyarin in his recent book The Jewish Gospels). This leads him to argue that Paul, whose writings had a decisive influence on all later Christianity, broke radically with Jesus the Jew and instituted a new religion having little to do with the historical Jesus. While I disagree with him here, his position is shared by some responsible and respected scholars, and in his end-notes Aslan cites all sides of the debate.

Of greatest value in his book is unquestionably his portrait of the revolutionary Jesus. And he leaves readers with a question which, curiously, he does not even attempt to answer. He holds, correctly in my view, that Jesus organized and inspired a revolutionary movement; but he also holds-contrary to most New Testament scholars-that the statements attributed to Jesus predicting his (and his followers’) death by crucifixion were not inserted after the fact but stem from Jesus himself. This raises the question: how could Jesus recruit and lead a band of rebels, urging them to fight for Israel’s freedom, when he openly expected that their struggle would lead them all to Roman crosses? The answer, as I see it, can only be that he saw his own earthly career and that of his immediate followers as only the opening salvo in a much longer and much bigger struggle for human freedom-as indeed the Christian church has (often only very dimly) understood. This struggle, however, is not, as the ecclesiastical establishment has often maintained, a purely “spiritual” struggle divorced from the material social existence of humanity. Jesus was too much a Jew, too rooted in the earthy spirituality of his people, to imagine or advocate anything of the sort. Zealot is a call to Christians to remember their Jewish and revolutionary roots. I thank my Muslim brother Reza for reminding us Christians of this simple reality of our faith and its founder.

“Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth”

2013, Reza Aslan, Hardcover, 336 pages


Henry Millstein
Henry Millstein

Hank Millstein is a long-time peace and labor activist. He's a fiction writer and journalist and a member of the National Writers Union.