Image: Peter Paul Rubens, St. Simon Zelotes, Museo del Prado, c.1611

REZA ASLAN’S ZEALOT is the latest in what might well be a never-ending series of “lives of Jesus.” The quest for the historical Jesus has had three main phases over the past 200 years, and Aslan’s book benefits hugely from the third of these phases. The first quest came to an end just over a century ago with the publication of Albert Schweitzer’s The Quest of the Historical Jesus (1906). This study of liberal 19th-century lives of Jesus showed convincingly that the portraits of Jesus were closer to idealized self-portraits of the respective authors than to the rabbi from Nazareth. The second quest started in the 1950s and lasted well into the 1970s; it drew on the careful results of the historical-critical method of reading the Bible, though it remained fixed on seeing Jesus through Christian eyes. Only with the third quest, which started in the 1980s, do we find Jesus viewed as Jewish, with a rich harvest of insight gained from meticulous historical criticism of Scripture, done by Jewish as well as Christian authors, from archeological evidence of life in the Holy Land under Roman occupation, and from the sharp lenses of modern historical investigation of the Mediterranean world.

Not all the results of the third quest have equal value. One oddity has been John Dominic Crossan’s work, which has made use of gospels and letters that fall outside the canon of the New Testament in order to present a picture of Jesus as a wandering Cynic philosopher. Doubtless these extra-canonical works illuminate facets of early Christian communities; they can be useful in pointing out the range of what counted as “Christian” in the early Church. But they come far too late to tell us anything reliable about Jesus of Nazareth. Only Q, a hypothetical source on which Matthew and Luke relied when writing their gospels, can be considered to be a document not included in the canon that informs us about Jesus. The Gospel of Thomas comes too late to tell us much, although it is not unlikely that it preserves some sayings attributed to Jesus, if not actually spoken by him. Aslan’s Zealot is less scholarly than Crossan’s work, but is similarly unreliable as a guide to Jesus of Nazareth.

The fullest scholarly account of Jesus and his times is John P. Meier’s four-volume study, A Marginal Jew: Rethinking the Historical Jesus (1991-2009). It is a magisterial study, a summit of the third quest, one that inspired Aslan and on which he relies, along with similarly exacting studies by Raymond Brown, James Charlesworth, Joseph Fitzmeyer, Norman Perrin, and many others. If anyone today wants to find out about the historical Jesus, the best place to go is Meier’s remarkable volumes: they beautifully condense modern scholarship on Jesus and extend it with care and subtlety. Yet Meier’s volumes are substantial, they brim with notes, and while they are perfectly readable, they attract primarily an academic audience. The first volume, for example, is concerned with establishing and defending the criteria for distinguishing the historical Jesus from the biblical Jesus; similarly, the second volume is a detailed analysis of the sources for what Jesus called “the Kingdom of God” and how he made that idea his own.

Aslan’s book tells scholars nothing new; it is a popularization of original research and a highly reductive one. It insists on Jesus as a political rebel, a zealot concerned to have the Holy Land taken from the Romans and returned to God, a man whose image was repeatedly doctored by the early Church, beginning with Paul, until the Christ we encounter today bears little, if any, resemblance to the historical Jesus.

The New Testament is not a historical account of Jesus; its four gospels offer testimony to Jesus as the Messiah (or, to use the Greek word, the Christ), and were written decades after Jesus had been executed, almost certainly by people who had never known him in life. The remainder of the canon turns on the effects of the Christ, not on the life of Jesus of Nazareth. Aslan is entirely correct when he tells us that the gospel writers were primarily concerned with the truth, not with historical fact. So, when we find passages in the Gospels, such as the flight to Egypt, that do not stand up to historical scrutiny, they are given not to mislead us but to indicate that Jesus is the new Moses. Just as Moses escaped Pharaoh and gave his people the law of God, so Jesus evades Herod’s massacre and will give us the true revelation of God. All biblical scholars are finely aware that Scripture presents its narratives in this manner. The Gospels are not biographies of a modern kind, not even biographies of an ancient kind.

When we read James Boswell’s Life of Samuel Johnson (1791) we are fascinated to discover what sort of clothes Johnson wore, how he walked, what he liked to drink, the exact phrasing of his conversation, how he cared for his cat Hodge, and we wonder with Boswell why he kept orange rind in his pocket. This is an early modern biography, based on Boswell’s extensive diaries of time spent with the great man, and Boswell’s extraordinary ability to mimic those people he knew and admired. And when we read later biographies, such as Ian Donaldson’s marvelous Ben Jonson: A Life (2011), a towering achievement, we find a portrait of the man and his times far more exacting than Boswell would have ever thought possible or even desirable. Boswell was content with presenting his image of Johnson, who was 54 years old when they met, and it is the older Johnson who dominates the book. Boswell was not concerned to take a steady, even look at the man’s entire life. We love Boswell’s vividness, of course, and no one would want to lose a word he wrote, but modern biography has set the bar far higher for accuracy and completeness than it was in the late 18th century.

We know far, far more about Johnson and Jonson than we do about Jesus. When we talk about the “historical Jesus” we are talking not about the itinerant rabbi who lived 2000 years ago but about the Jesus who comes into view using the techniques of modern historiography. Throughout, Aslan fails to distinguish sufficiently sharply between the two. We know a fair bit about the economic, political, and social milieus in which Jesus lived, however, and Aslan uses this material to produce a portrait of Jesus and his times. It is a lively story that he tells, and if one reads it as a historical novel it is engaging, but once one regards it as anything more than a piece of creative non-fiction it must be seen as an enterprise of doubtful value. If we knew as much about Jonson or Johnson as we know about Jesus and reconstructed their lives and times by using historical information, we would most likely come up with very flat or distorted images of them. We would lose what makes them particular, unusual, extraordinary; we would lose precisely each man’s genius. What we find in Zealot is a Jesus drained of what is most distinctive and challenging about him: his preaching of the Kingdom of God and his resurrection from the dead.

For those readers unfamiliar with modern historical analysis of Scripture, there will be discomforting things to read in Aslan’s book. For example, when Jesus is referred to as “Mary’s son” (Mark 6:3) we can sense a small-town scandal: any legitimate Jewish boy would be referred to as his father’s son. Orthodox Christians will of course see this as a sign of the virginal conception and point to how Mary had to suffer ignominy for bearing the Messiah. Others, from early on in the Christian era, simply thought that Jesus was born out of wedlock. Aslan does not consider the doctrine of the virginal conception (and in fact confuses it with the doctrine of the virginal birth). The whole book exists within the horizon of naturalism. Yet it is naturalism overly spiced with a desire to make a readable book, with the result that the reader will not always know the difference between history and imaginative reconstruction. The gospel is sometimes recast as though it is dialogue in a modern novel, and touches are given that have no ground in history. The Fathers of the Council of Nicaea are referred to as “balding, gray-bearded old men”; but this is just fancy: apart from some Fathers whose bodies bore the marks of persecution, we know next to nothing about how they looked.

For Aslan, Jesus’s preaching of the Kingdom of God has been misinterpreted. It is not “a celestial kingdom existing on a cosmic plane” or a future kingdom but “a physical and present kingdom”. So, when the Jesus came to the attention of the Romans in Jerusalem, he was seen immediately as a seditious rebel, challenging the authority of Rome. The consequence was torture, followed by crucifixion. There is little doubt that the cleansing of the Temple was the trigger for the Passion of Jesus, and there is little doubt also that Pilate was highly unlikely to spend much time pondering the fate of a rabble rouser when Jerusalem was brimming with people at Passover. The death of Jesus, which Christians see as a major event, was for the Romans nothing remarkable. Yet Aslan confuses what Jesus preached with how it was received.

Jesus taught the coming of the Kingdom of God, which is living according to the two most important commandments: loving God with one’s whole heart and loving one’s neighbor as oneself. His parables, his sayings, and his actions all point to this Kingdom, which he probably drew from various sources, including John the Baptist, the Targum of Isaiah, and 1 Chronicles 28:5. The Kingdom is within (in one’s love of God); it is without (in one’s love of neighbor); it is here (in the fellowship of the disciples) and it is to come (in the consummation of history). Jesus was, as Aslan indicates, a reformer, at times close in spirit to the Pharisees. Yet something utterly amazing happened to him: the one he called “Father” raised him from the dead. Now, no historical critic will countenance the resurrection; it does not come into focus using the tools of modern history and textual analysis. Even if the New Testament had a hundred pages of documentary evidence supporting it, the resurrection would still not pass muster for the modern critic. This is not because, as Aslan would have it, one must have faith in order to believe in the resurrection. It is because the criterion of evidence in modern history excludes it from the start. Once one is dead, historians say, one does not come to life again.

Yet Christians maintain that God raised Jesus from the dead, and with the bodily raising of Jesus, the preaching of the Kingdom was raised as well. God vindicated the Kingdom not as one philosophy among others, but as the way of life that is most pleasing to Him. It is the resurrection of Jesus on which Christianity stands or falls, and the immense testimony of the first Christians is that Jesus was the first of those to be raised from the dead. Without this belief, it becomes well nigh impossible to see why people would expose themselves to torture and death by following Jesus. From the beginning of the era, Christians marked Sunday as a day on which something foundational happened. Belief in the resurrection was not a subjective disposition; it was a matter of Jesus’s friends and family encountering him alive when he had died.

Christians have produced much of the historical material on which Aslan’s book depends: Brown, Fitzmeyer, and Meier are all Catholic priests. Their probing historical studies have not destroyed their faith. Yet, as Aslan says at the start of his book, his faith was undercut by what he learned of biblical scholarship. Like many another young evangelical, he accepted a pre-critical conception of the Bible as an inerrant text, and when he saw that it is pockmarked with transmission errors, and not always historically reliable in the modern sense of history, his faith collapsed. Yet he admires Jesus the radical Jewish nationalist, who is the hero of his book. Zealot does not convince me that Jesus is no more than a rebel; the book lacks counter-examples that would test the author’s hypothesis, is marred by tunnel vision, and is chiefly content to tell a good yarn, one that might be applauded in a world influenced by the new atheism. For all its reliance on modern scholarship, Zealot gives us a Jesus that pleases the author, perhaps one whose political passions are part of an idealized self-image. In the end, it is a belated liberal life of Jesus. 

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