Scholars Respond to Reza Aslan's 'Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth'

2 photos(Photo: Random House/Hilary Jones)Reza Aslan, author of Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth.

Reza Aslan, "an internationally acclaimed writer and scholar of religions," according to his online biography, has gotten a boost in sales and popularity from his "embarrassing" interview with a Fox News anchor about his new book, Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth. But those familiar with the Harvard graduate and former Christian's work say Zealot is re-hashed scholarship that ignores much of what the New Testament actually says about Jesus.

Aslan has written an account of how he "found" Jesus as a teen at an evangelical youth camp but years later returned to Islam after his studies led him to doubt the veracity of the Christian Scriptures, which he says are "replete with the most blatant and obvious errors and contradictions."

"The more I probed the Bible to arm myself against the doubts of unbelievers, the more distance I discovered between the Jesus of the Gospels and the Jesus of history – between Jesus the Christ and Jesus of Nazareth," Aslan wrote. "In college, where I began my formal study of the history of religions, that initial discomfort soon ballooned into full-blown doubts. ...

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"And so, like many people in my situation, I angrily discarded my faith as if it were a costly forgery I had been duped into buying."

But Aslan remained in admiration of Jesus of Nazareth, while rejecting Jesus the Christ, "the celestial spirit whom many Christians believe sacrificed himself for our sins."

Charged in his Fox New interview that his personal faith journey somehow overshadowed his academic objectivity, Aslan insisted: "Well, to be clear, I am a scholar of religions with four degrees, including one in the New Testament, and fluency in biblical Greek, who has been studying the origins of Christianity for two decades, who also just happens to be a Muslim."

"It's not as if I'm just some Muslim writing about Jesus. I am an expert with a Ph.D. in the history of religions," he added.

While his claims to being a "scholar of religions" and an "expert with a Ph.D. in the history of religions" have been challenged, those familiar with the contents and claims of Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth say Aslan has presented nothing new, although his meticulous research is evident.

Among some of the claims in Zealot, a biography in the top five of The New York Times Best Seller list and the leading book in a few Amazon categories, is that: Jesus was a revolutionary and a zealot who advocated the use of violence; as a devout Jew Jesus would have rejected the idea of an incarnate God; Jesus was crucified for sedition against the Roman Empire and not for the world's sins.

"Aslan has offered nothing new under the sun when it comes to offering a critique of the historical Jesus," William Lane Craig, a philosopher of religion and a Christian apologist, has said. "In fact, he is attempting to revert scholarship back to the early 1900s by echoing Albert Schweitzer's book, The Quest for the Historical Jesus. Like Schweitzer, Aslan claims that Jesus is historically unknowable and we can never get back to the real Jesus."

American Conservative writer and Baylor University professor Alan Jacobs argues that Aslan's work follows closely along the lines of Biblical scholar John Dominic Cross's 1994 title Jesus: A Revolutionary Biography.

"Aslan makes no new discoveries, and makes no arguments that haven't already been made — in some cases very long ago," writes Jacobs, suggesting that this is partly the case because "Reza Aslan is not a New Testament scholar."

"In Zealot, he is writing well outside his own academic training. This does not mean that his book is a bad one, or that he shouldn't have written it, only that it is primarily a sifting and re-presenting of the work of actual NT scholars."

Jacobs concludes in his critique, "Reza Aslan's book is an educated amateur's summary and synthesis of a particularly skeptical but quite long-established line of New Testament scholarship, presented to us as simple fact. If you like that kind of thing, Zealot will be the kind of thing you like."

Dr. Darrell Bock, senior research professor of New Testament Studies at Dallas Theological Seminary who has written extensively on the historical Jesus, has agreed that Aslan's Zealot was "hype on old stuff," although he had not read the book.

"[That] Jesus was a revolutionary is an idea that has been around among more skeptical readers for several decades. The simple answer to this claim is, how does someone rebel who never even tries to raise an army against Rome? Jesus was hardly a Zealot," added Bock.

Dr. Danny Burk, an associate professor of Biblical Studies at Boyce College, the undergraduate arm of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, suggested that Aslan was "selling a historically reconstructed Jesus, not the Jesus that appears on the pages of Scripture."

"And that's the bottom line here. The author doesn't take the testimony of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John as reliable eyewitness testimony," Burk added. "It is bad history to argue that Jesus' crucifixion means that he must have been an insurrectionist — especially given what we know about the brutality of the Romans and in particular of Pontius Pilate."

Dr. Greg Carey, professor of New Testament at Lancaster Theological Seminary states in his review of Zealot that "Aslan seems to have bought into an outdated model of Christian development."

"According to that model, Jesus was a mighty prophet, but it took decades for the idea of Jesus' divinity to take shape," Carey continues. "Aslan imagines a Jewish Jesus tradition that developed without the trappings of a divine Jesus. It took the Hellenized Paul and his circle of Gentile converts to start the church on the path to Nicea. Paul, Aslan asserts, 'created' the figure of Jesus as 'Christ.'

"The old model that Paul 'invented' devotion to Jesus the Christ, particularly devotion to a divine Jesus, simply does not hold."

Aslan, who also authored the popular No god but God: The Origins, Evolution, and Future of Islam, is, however, "a spectacular writer" whose "portrait of Jesus is spiritually if not intellectually compelling," concludes Carey.

In a tweet this week, Aslan thanked Carey "for the thoughtful and tough scholarly criticism."

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