Zealot and the zombies

When Reza Aslan went on Fox News at the end of July for an interview about his new book, Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth, he was handed an unexpected marketing boost.

Interviewer Lauren Green repeatedly quizzed him about why he, a Muslim, had written a book about the founder of Christianity. Clips of the interview went viral – with 5.5 million views clocked up on Buzzfeed alone – which added up to book sales gold. Zealot became Amazon’s No. 1 US bestseller.

Contrary to what Fox was trying to insinuate, the book does not give a Muslim perspective on Jesus. Aslan believes that Jesus was crucified, for instance, where traditional Islamic teaching says he was not. Instead, Aslan argues that Jesus was a messianic revolutionary who sought the violent overthrow of the Roman occupation in Israel. His mission failed when he was crucified by the Romans as a rebel.

The reason this picture of Jesus failed to come down to us, says Aslan, is because the first Christians turned him into a teacher of peace and non-violence and proclaimed him as the Son of God. In this, Zealot is essentially a conspiracy theory.

Since the interview, the book has been talked about and reviewed on countless blogs, including the excellent Larry Hurtado blog. Hurtado, unlike Aslan, is an expert in the area of Christian origins and says that Aslan’s argument is a retread of a view of Jesus that has been convincingly discredited many times before. He calls such arguments ‘zombie claims’, because no matter how often they are killed off by the facts, they rise again in the media as sensational, bestselling books.

Hurtado helpfully gives a thumbnail summary of the arguments which have previously defeated the view that Jesus was a revolutionary:

(1) Any theory of Jesus as revolutionist is based on a highly selective use of the sources; (2) There was a Jewish revolutionary movement in Jesus’ time; (3) There are some similarities between Jesus’ position and that of these revolutionaries but also major points of difference; (4) The fundamental differences between Jesus and these revolutionaries were more numerous and major; (5) The evidence suggest that Jesus was hated by these revolutionaries as much as by the Jerusalem authorities; (6) Both “right-wing” and “left-wing” extremes in the ancient Jewish setting likely viewed Jesus’ teaching and actions as provocative.

Stephen Protheroe, a professor of religion at Boston University, agrees with Hurtado and other critics when he notes that Aslan cherry picks in the four Gospels to show Jesus was a violent insurgent.

When Jesus throws the merchants out of the temple, or asks his disciples if they have a sword, Aslan says this is good evidence for what Jesus was really like. But in neighbouring verses where Jesus tells his followers to turn the other cheek or forgive those who persecute them, Aslan says these verses were inventions of the early church. Which raises the question: how does he know which is which?

Although Zealot is well written, has some helpful sections on the world in which Jesus lived, and engages positively with the strong eyewitness evidence for the resurrection, it remains a book which pushes an argument that has been made and lost several times before.