Guardian Reviewer Skewers Aslan's 'Zealot': It's Largely 'Vociferous Assertion' in Place of Logical 'Argument'

August 8th, 2013 5:29 PM

The Guardian is unapologetically left-of-center editorially, but being a British publication, its geographical and cultural separation from the journalistic elite on this side of the pond helps inoculate it from venerating the sacred cows and cozying up to the favored pundits of the liberal media here in the States.

A prime example of that is Stuart Kelly's review of UC Riverside professor and Huffington Post blogger Reza Aslan's new book, Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth. Where American reviewers have praised Aslan's writing style if not his chops as a religious historian, Kelly took on both (h/t Michael Gryboski; emphasis mine):

Had Reza Aslan not been interviewed in a gauche and silly fashion on Fox News, I doubt this book would be being reviewed at all. Zealot, to be as kind as possible, trudges down some very well-worn paths; its contribution to studies of Christianity is marginal bordering on negligible; and its breathless style suggests hasty thought.

To take just one example: the Romans are said to display "characteristic savagery" on page 13 and are "generally tolerant" on page 14. Aslan contends that an illiterate "day laborer" called Jesus was part of an insurrectionary tradition in Israel, and the story of this Che Guevara of the early Middle East was co-opted by the dastardly Saul of Tarsus, aka Saint Paul, who defanged the zealot and turned him into an apolitical metaphysician. Frankly, parts of it are closer to Jesus Christ Superstar than any serious undertaking.

If one were minded to follow this line, there are plenty of books that do a more scholarly job, and are written more eloquently. From Nazareth to Nicaea by Geza Vermes should be at the top of the list; AN Wilson's biographies of Jesus and Paul for the more narratively minded; Albert Schweitzer's Geschichte der Leben-Jesu-Forschung of 1906 to put this tradition in context; and Gustavo Gutiérrez Merino's The Theology of Liberation to show how the ideas might be activated without leaving behind the "cosmological Christ". In fiction, Naomi Alderman's The Liars' Gospel deals with many of the same ideas with both scepticism and sensitivity, while Richard Beard's Lazarus is Dead is far more imaginative in its analysis of the Jesus stories.

Aslan's argument is undermined by various facts, which even he admits. The earliest references to Jesus are from Paul, wherein he is not just one of many Messianic aspirants, but more even than that. That the gospels were written later creates his second problem. If, as Aslan contends, the gospels are both infected with Pauline theology and a source for the aboriginal Jesus cult, then how can he tell when they are wrong and when they are right?


When it comes to the resurrection, there is a peculiar hiatus. One would think that any historical reconstruction of the life of Jesus would have to deal, at least briefly, with the apostles' conviction that Jesus had returned from the dead.

Aslan gives numerous examples of Jewish, anti-Roman, and violent individuals who are historically attested to in the period before and after the life of Jesus. His description of the wood manages to ignore the tree. Jesus is not just less violent than his peers; he is the least violent of them. Compared with the Maccabees or the Sicarii, Jesus is strikingly unwilling to shed blood, stopping, for example, Simon Peter from murdering the guards sent to arrest him. Even the cleansing of the Temple stops short of death. The problem with the comparative method Aslan uses is it overlooks important discrepancies in favour of broad-brush correlations.

There is an odd intemperance about the tone of this book, with vociferous assertion often replacing argument. It seems, in its overstatements and oversights, to yearn for the very kind of furore in which it is now embroiled.

In other words, Aslan is a clever marketer and decent creative writer, but his argument is full of inconsistencies and logical holes.