Argument of Reza Aslan's 'Zealot' So Absurd, Even Liberal Scholar Prothero Dismisses It as Untrue

August 5th, 2013 3:09 PM

In Sunday's edition, the Washington Post perhaps unintentionally did conservative critics of Reza Aslan a favor by printing liberal religion scholar Stephen Prothero's review of the UC Riverside creative writing professor's new book, Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth.

"Aslan is more a storyteller here than a historian" who doesn't bring "much new here other than [his] slick writing and cinematic sensibilities." "In the end, 'Zealot' offers readers not the historical Jesus but a Jesus for our place and time — an American Jesus for the 21st century, and more specifically for a post-Sept. 11 society struggling to make sense of Christianity’s ongoing rivalry with Islam," Prothero argued, adding in closing that in Aslan's eyes:

...Jesus was a frustrated Muhammad — a man who, like Islam’s founder, came to revolutionize the world by force yet, unlike Muhammad, failed. This makes for a good read. It might even make for a good movie. Just don’t tell me it’s true.

While Prothero -- no stranger to our criticism here at NewsBusters -- praised Aslan's ability to weave a good story, one that narrates the life of Christ in a way suitable for a feature film, he called into question just how historically accurate Aslan's thesis could be, poking holes in his illogic (emphasis mine):

Scholars and believers alike tend to contrast sharply the founders of Christianity and Islam: Jesus the apolitical man of peace who turns the other cheek; and Muhammad the politician, jurist and general who takes much of the Arabian Peninsula by force. In “Zealot,” Reza Aslan blurs this distinction, depicting Jesus as a “politically conscious Jewish revolutionary” whose kingdom is decidedly of this world.

Aslan [pictured at right] is an Iranian American Muslim, a religious-studies scholar and a creative-writing professor who lives in Los Angeles, where he runs a company called Aslan Media. So we should not be surprised to encounter in “Zealot” a life of Jesus that reads like a movie treatment, all the way down to these key scenes:



In a moment that “more than any other word or deed, helps reveal who Jesus was and what Jesus meant,” an illiterate peasant is entering Jerusalem, riding on a donkey, as riotous crowds shout “Hosanna!” But Jesus of Nazareth is not demonstrating his humility, as you might have heard in a Palm Sunday sermon. He is demonstrating his kingship. “The long-awaited messiah — the true King of the Jews — has come to free Israel from its bondage” to Rome.


“In a rage,” Jesus lays waste to the public courtyard of the Jerusalem Temple, overturning the tables of money changers, driving out animal vendors and otherwise enraging Jewish priests and Roman rulers alike.

In Aslan’s telling, these two scenes introduce a “revolutionary zealot who walked across the Galilee gathering an army of disciples” to rain “God’s wrath . . . down upon the rich, the strong, and the powerful.” The rest of the book is devoted to fleshing out this portrait and explaining how and why Paul and other early Christians transformed Jesus from a man at war into a man of peace.

Like every other scholar with the chutzpah to try to divide the historical Jesus accurately from the Christ of Christian faith, Aslan does a lot of cherry-picking. Why credit the Palm Sunday story as historical when it so obviously serves to “fulfill” a prophesy from the Hebrew Bible: “Behold, your king is coming to you; righteous and victorious is he, humble and riding upon an ass” (Zechariah 9:9)? More to the point, why credit and emphasize violent passages in the Gospels while discrediting and deemphasizing peaceful ones? Why believe that Jesus really told his disciples, “If you do not have a sword, go sell your cloak and buy one” (Luke 22:36)? Why the skepticism when it comes to “love your enemies” (Matthew 5:44)?

And what about the obvious problems with the argument that Jesus was not just a political revolutionary — as biblical scholar John Dominic Crossan and others have argued — but a violent one? What are we to make of Jesus’s apparent lack of interest in doing anything practical whatsoever to prepare for holy war? If he has come to fight for “a real kingdom, with an actual king,” where are his soldiers and their weapons? And why no battle plan?

The short answer to these questions is that Aslan is more a storyteller here than a historian. Throughout “Zealot,” he refers to selected New Testament passages as “preposterous,” “fanciful,” “patently fictitious” and “obviously contrived.” But Matthew, Mark, Luke and John are not the only ones spinning Jesuses out of fertile imaginations.

Conservative Bible and church history scholars obviously have their own complaints about Aslan, but they are easier for liberal media outlets to dismiss than those of someone as liberal as Prothero.

Additionally, as Prothero (pictured at right) argued, Aslan's vision of Jesus is pretty much a "frustrated Muhammad" who "failed" during his lifetime to effect change by force of arms. That's a pretty strong statement and goes to the legitimacy of Fox News Channel's Lauren Green's interest in why Aslan, a Muslim, took on this project to redefine Jesus as a violent "zealot."

P.S.: The Washington Post's editors did do readers of the print edition a significant disservice by giving Prothero's piece the misleading headline (see below), "Not a prince of peace, but a warrior king," which suggests that Prothero bought into Aslan's thesis, something he clearly did not.