Jesus the misunderstood revolutionary

The latest ‘new discovery’ about Jesus that has been hitting the headlines and topping the best-seller lists is Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth by Reza Aslan. Aslan holds some personal interest in the question, since he was apparently raised in a Christian home but converted to Islam. The blurb on Amazon promotes the book thus:

Balancing the Jesus of the Gospels against historical sources, Aslan describes a complex figure: a man of peace who exhorted his followers to arm themselves; an exorcist and faith healer who urged his disciples to keep his identity secret; and the seditious King of the Jews , whose promise of liberation from Rome went unfulfilled in his lifetime. Aslan explores why the early Church preferred to promulgate an image of Jesus as a peaceful spiritual teacher rather than a politically conscious revolutionary, and grapples with the riddle of how Jesus understood himself.

If you hear some echoes of The DaVinci Code and the (slightly) more serious book behind it Holy Blood, Holy Grail then you would not be mistaken. The central thesis is that Jesus was a political revolutionary, but that the church suppressed this identity and re-invented Jesus as a peace-loving friend of the establishment. This is itself is no reason to write it off—but neither is it a reason in itself to take it seriously. In fact, one of the main things that helped to promote the book was the attempt to undermine Aslan by Fox News and their ill-informed interviewer. You can watch the video here:

Two things are worth noting—the Fox anchor’s argument against Aslan, and his defence. She appears to believe that because he is a Muslim, he has an ulterior motive in trying to discredit the truth about Jesus. His response is that he is a responsible academic historian, legitimately pursuing an academic question. It turns out neither is the case. As John Dickson points out in his excellent review on ABC Religion and Ethics,

Typical of this genre, the author’s principal credentials are not in ancient history, classics, New Testament or Jewish studies—the directly relevant disciplines. Instead, he has a PhD in the sociology of religion and is a “professor of creative writing,” which explains both the riveting prose and eccentric content.

For Dickson, this has a material impact on the credibility of the whole book:

The mismatch between Aslan’s grandiose claims and his limited credentials in history is glaring on almost every page…Naturally, everyone is allowed to express a view on historical matters. All I am saying is that not everyone is allowed to claim the mantle of “expert” in what is a vast and highly specialized field of academic enquiry, in which Aslan has not contributed a single peer reviewed article, let alone monograph.

516rsezvFHLBut the body of Dickson’s review highlights the specific problems with the plausibility of Aslan’s case. He summarises it under three broad proposals: that first-century Palestine was brim-full of violent zealotry committed to insurrection against Rome; that since crucifixion was reserved for political criminals, Jesus must have been such a zealot; and that the Temple incident was a challenge to Rome rather than to the Jewish leaders. The first of these has long been disproved. There were zealot groups for sure, and the Jewish War is well-documented particularly by Josephus. But it has been clear historically for a long time that first-century Palestine contains a range of groups with a wide range of attitudes to the Roman occupation; Aslan’s historical reconstruction is just not plausible. His second thesis seems to require a strange uniformity of historical actions, as done any thesis which says ‘Because X, always Y’, and we know from other examples that the Romans just weren’t that careful about whom they crucified. The third thesis requires a very odd reading of the gospel accounts, and a strange construction of the political dynamics at the time. Aslan comments in an interview:

Now, as all historians recognize, this was the action that precipitated his arrest, his torture and his execution by the state. And there’s a very simple reason for that: The temple was not just the center of the Jewish cult; it was, in many ways, the representation of the power and the presence of the Roman Empire.

I think all reputable scholars would agree with the first point (the Temple incident precipitated Jesus’ arrest), but the second is bizarre. If anything, the Temple was the symbol of the aspiration of Jewish autonomy, so it is no surprise when the Romans demolish it in 70AD and obliterate all traces of it at the end of the Second Jewish War in 136.

There are plenty of other historical sources at the time which make mention of Jesus and the early Jesus-movement, even if you want (for some strange reason) to discount the gospels as historical sources. (There is quite a significant consensus in scholarship that the gospels were written much earlier than Aslan suggests, and a plausible view that they were all written in the lifetime of the first eye-witnesses of Jesus. Just because they have an agenda, does not make them unhistorical; no first-century writer lacked an agenda.) But, strikingly, not a single source suggests that the historical figure of Jesus was a zealot or identified with a zealot movement.

This then raises the question of method: how does Aslan defend his thesis? Apart from offering implausible reconstructions of first-century Judaism and Palestine, Aslan has to treat the gospels very selectively. Although they were thoroughly re-written to cover Jesus’ original intention, this was not done quite well enough, and so leaves clues in the text, such as Matthew 10:34: “Do not suppose that I have come to bring peace to the earth. I did not come to bring peace, but a sword.” This looks like a good candidate, until you read it in context, when it becomes clear (as just about every NT scholar or whatever persuasion agrees) this has nothing to do with revolution against Rome. In fact, Aslan appears happy to dismiss some gospel passages as ‘fabulous concoctions’ and others as ‘beyond dispute’ without any clear rationale.

At a more detailed level, Dickson lists numerous technical errors, and Craig Evans lists basic mistakes in argument, information and terminology in his review. Marina Nemat, in her helpful review on Amazon, cites other critics who have no axes to grind:

For example, in his review of Zealot for The Telegraph, Nicholas Blincoe writes: “It is a politically charged interpretation with a grand narrative sweep but, too often, the decisions underpinning it feel arbitrary.” And Stuart Kelly says in The Guardian: “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.”

But the strangest claim that Aslan makes is that his idea is ‘new’. In fact, it was first proposed by German professor of Near Eastern culture Herman Samuel Reimarus, in 1768, and revived several times, the latest scholarly attempt being by  British priest-theologian S G F Brandon in 1967 Very few followed it then; no-one follows it now. Larry Hurtado, leading NT scholar, labels this (and the previous similar proposals) a ‘zombie claim’—walking around despite being conclusively killed off—and concludes:

So, before people get too lathered up about Aslan’s book, let’s all just take a breath.  It isn’t new in its thesis.  That thesis has been tried out a number of times previously, and it’s been judged in each case fatally flawed.

Does it matter? John Dickson does not think that it will hinder faith, but is concerned that it undermines the credibility of all historical claims; people simply get tired of the debate. But my feeling is that it does give people yet another excuse not to take seriously the claims of Jesus. The Fox News interview shows exactly  the wrong way to tackle such claims. The right way to engage is to explore the claims, and put them clearly under the miscroscope to see whether they stand up to scrutiny. We might even discover new insights in the NT ourselves. And that way, we might generate more interest in Jesus, and less in zombies.

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1 thought on “Jesus the misunderstood revolutionary”

  1. As you note, Steve Brandon advanced this claim nearly 40 years ago and the scholarly guild has, on the whole, rejected this reading.

    I think recent scholarship supports that rejection. As various scholars point out (Dunn comes to mind), “zeal” was a semi-technical term for commited adherence to the Mosaic Law (and to certain “works” of that Law, such as Sabbath observance, food laws and circumcision), so there would have been multiple shades of “zeal”.

    Other readings of the Temple incident (and Jesus’ trial) convincingly present it as either an announcement of the imminence of the eschatological kingdom with a “temple not built by hands” (Sanders) or as an attack on the nationalist tendencies which Josephus recounts (Wright, noting how Josephus uses “lestes” = thieves for the brigands who marauded in the Judaean countryside).


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