Was Jesus a Zealot?
advisor for the Duke Interfaith Project
January 12, 2014
Using two reviews [see below] of the book Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth by Reza Aslan (whose best-selling book sales may have been assisted by a notorious interview on "Spirited Debate," a FoxNews webcast by anchor Lauren Green) as a springboard for discussion, we will seek a better understanding of Jesus in his historical context.
During the discussion, mention was made of another book which ponders many of the same questions as Aslan's book, but reaches some different assessments and implications (which may be more widely accepted among some scholars):
Who is Jesus? by John Crossan and Richard Watts.
The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth
By Reza Asian
Random House, 2013
University of Indianapolis
from The Fourth R, November December 2013
Reza Aslan, associate professor of creative writing at the University of California at Riverside, has written a bestseller that is a pleasure to read. In Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth, Asian argues his theses clearly and vigorously. He has a talent for vivid description. For example, Asian re-counts the assassination of the Jewish high priest Jonathan in 56 CE in a way that explains Israel's sacrificial system. One can almost smell the flesh of the sacrificial animal as it roasts on the altar. Asian's description of the times of Jesus is worth the book's price.
Aslan finds the link between the times and life of Jesus in Israel's legacy of opposition to foreign oppressors. Inspired by zeal for God, Jewish groups resisted Roman imperialism and the corruption of the priestly elites who collaborated with Rome. Some of these groups were led by messianic claimants. Aslan draws a straight line between such movements and Jesus. He argues that Jesus understood himself to be Israel's messiah, the earthly king of God's in -breaking Kingdom.
Consider Aslan's handling of the "cleansing" of the Temple. "What is significant about this episode - what is impossible to ignore - is how blatant and inescapably zealous Jesus's actions at the Temple appear" (p. 94). Asian relates this act with Jesus' statement, "Render unto Caesar." According to Aslan, Jesus was telling his audience to "give back to Caesar" what belongs to him, namely the coin, and to give back to God what belongs to God, the Land of Israel. "That is the zealot argument in its simplest, most concise form. And it seems to be enough for the authorities in Jerusalem to immediately label Jesus as l.e.stes. A bandit, a zealot" (p. 97).
More important for Aslan is Jesus' crucifixion. Jesus's titulus reads KING OF THE JEWS. His crime: striving for kingly rule: sedition. And so, like every bandit and revolutionary, every rabble-rousing zealot and apocalyptic prophet who came before him ... Jesus of Nazareth is executed for daring to claim the mantle of "king and messiah" (p. 98).
While his thesis is plausible, Asian's support for it is problematic at several points. First is his treatment of Jesus' parables. Asian regards Mark 4:11-12 as authentic: "The secret of the Kingdom of God has been given to you to know. But to outsiders, everything is said in parables so that they may see and not perceive, they may hear and not understand." Aslan interprets this to mean that Jesus used parables to obfuscate his messianic intentions. Aside from the fact that most scholars regard this saying as a later creation, Asian's reading of the parables is uncritical. His interpretation of the wedding banquet in Matthew 22:1-14 is a case in point (p. 131). In Matthew's version, a king sends out invitations for his son's wedding. When the king's servants are abused and killed by the invited guests, the king's army destroys their city. Asian takes this as Jesus' thinly veiled allusion to the fate awaiting those who are opposed to God's kingdom. However, Asian ignores the versions of this parable in Luke 14:16-24 and Thomas 64. In these versions, there is no king. And, while the initial invitations are declined, none of the servants is mistreated, and no army is dispatched. Clearly, Matthew altered this parable in light of the fall of Jerusalem in 70 CE. The part of Matthew's parable that Aslan takes as indicative of Jesus' messianic intention is Matthew's own allegorization. Beyond this single parable, Asian's treatment of Jesus' parables is sparse (pp. 117-118 and 140). Furthermore, his end notes fail to mention any of the prominent interpreters of the parables. Where others regard Jesus' parables as essential to his message, Aslan largely dismisses them as "nearly impossible to understand"(p. 140).
Other aspects of Asian's treatment of Jesus' messianic consciousness are likewise uncritical. He treats the transfiguration story (Mark 9:2 - 8) as an historical event (pp.145-146). Moses and Elijah suddenly appear with Jesus, and God's voice declares Jesus to be God's son. Whatever the origin of this tradition, it is clearly not an historical event. It ought not to count as evidence for what Jesus thought about himself.
Asian argues that Jesus' movement was continued by the Twelve and James, but was transformed into an anti-Law message about the pre-existent, heavenly Son of God by Paul. Asian's reading of Paul is provocative, even though it lacks nuance. His use of the Acts of the Apostles is also uncritical at times. Nonetheless, readers will find Asian's description of the differences between Paul and James interesting.
Despite these and other criticisms of Asian's book, I recommend it for its vivid portrait of Jesus' times. Readers will appreciate the clarity of his arguments. But, as with all interpretations of the historical Jesus and the early church, the reader must weigh what the author uses as evidence and what he lays aside.
Under a Violent Arc
by Art Dewey
from The Fourth R, November December 2013
A remarkable interview happened last summer. Reza Aslan thought he would be discussing the merits of his new book on Jesus. But the Fox interviewer, showing no interest in history or Aslan's credentials, never stopped asking why a Muslim would have any interest in Jesus. The interview, quickly dubbed the "dumbest interview ever"  went viral on the Internet and helped turn a scholarly study into a bestseller.
Reputation is not the final arbiter of scholarship. Fifteen-second sound bites are no substitute for genuine thought. Honoring a scholar's work entails critically examining the claims, inspecting the evidence presented, and detecting any unspoken frames and assumptions.
Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth strategically begins with the savage assassination of the high priest Jonathan only a few years before the Jewish revolt in 66 CE. From the outset of the book Asian frames his case for Jesus under the over-arching narrative of a revolutionary "era marked by the slow burn of a revolt against Rome." Despite acknowledging that Jesus was not a member of the Zealot party (which would not exist until thirty years after his death), Asian contends that Jesus grew up in the aftermath of Rome's traumatic suppression of the revolt of Judas the Galilean in 4 BCE, took his initial lead from the radical voice of John the Baptizer, and zealously led a failed nationalistic revolutionary movement.
Asian's contention that this perspective on the historical Jesus can be unearthed from subsequent attempts of the later Jesus traditions to cover up both the failure and the apocalyptic project of the man who would be Messiah is not new. Samuel Reimarus led this charge in the eighteenth century, while at the beginning of the twentieth century, Albert Schweitzer argued for Jesus' apocalyptic debacle. More recently, Bart Ehrman produced a Schweitzer-lite re-prise. By situating the story of Jesus within the frame of the Jewish rebellion against Rome, Aslan graphically throws the reader into what he sees as Israel's bloody saga.
Asian's Jesus is a predictable pastiche. He accepts the "cleansing of the Temple" as fact; then he moves quickly to Jesus' association with the Baptizer, then on to a brief messianic career. While Aslan notes the existence of Q as well as the various other gospels, there is little indication of a consistent use of critical criteria to determine whether a saying or an act of Jesus might be historical. He picks and chooses evidence to fit his profile of Jesus. Aslan, for example, reads the story of "A man going down from Jerusalem" as an example story (thereby uncritically accepting Luke's redaction of the parable) of loving one's neighbor and a scolding of the Temple authorities. But the bite of the parable is lost; Asian does not see the story's challenge to tribal thinking, in which one falls into the hands of the enemy and comes out the better for it.
The canny speech of Jesus falls on deaf ears. There is no sense that Jesus provoked his listeners, even toyed with how God's empire could be imagined. Instead, Asian's Jesus "merely reiterates what the zealots have been preaching for years" (p.118), looking forward to a reality in which "God's wrath rains down" on the rich and powerful. Because Jesus was a Jew, his God was "the same God whom the Bible calls 'a man of war' (Exod 15:3), the slaughtering god, the blood-splattered God (Ps 68:21-23)." "That," Asian contends, "is the only God that Jesus knew and the sole God he worshipped" (p.122).
An ancient proverb advises: to a hammer everything is a nail. Aslan has nailed the evidence for the historical Jesus by pinning difficult fragments to a tailored outline. But where is the shrewd peasant offering his listeners an unexpected vision of God's presence? What of the healings and table fellowship that were inextricably tied up with that surprising vision? Was it really all about the would-be messiah? What about the people discovering the atmosphere of God in their lives?
It is telling that Aslan never mentions Jesus' saying about a God who delivers benefits unconditionally, not in the future, but in the present (Matt 5:45). Such a God was embedded in the complexity and wisdom of human life - not a hoped-for, purifying avenger. Perhaps that is because, for Aslan, the God of Jesus had never left Babylon. The God ascribed to Jesus is actually the well-known warlord who eviscerated his mother Tiamat, insuring cosmic order and justice through controlled violence. The decision to frame the story of Jesus within the seething cauldron of the Jewish War takes on a deeper perspective. The God Aslan discloses still survives through the centuries: there is no other god but Marduk.