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.
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 Liberationto 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'sLazarus is Dead is far more imaginative in its analysis of the Jesus stories.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.
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?
That he frequently invokes the Q hypothesis – the idea that behind the gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke lurks an incontrovertible true document – shows just how out of touch with theology he is. If Aslan's version were true, surely the wicked Paul would not have left behind references to show how he subverted a genuine radical movement. Aslan requires Paul to be cleverer and stupider at the same time.
But these are niggles compared with the major flaw in this work. Aslan simultaneously disparages and relies on the gospels. If a verse fits, he snatches it: if it contradicts his thesis he takes it as proof of the unreliability of the source. When he requires Celsus, the vehement antagonist of Christianity, to be true, he takes his work as such (without ever mentioning we only have Celsus in fragments preserved in Origen's rebuttal); when he wishes it otherwise, Celsus is "so clearly polemical he cannot be taken seriously". He does not actually read the texts. Rather, he sifts them, making the story less important than the detail.
The gospels are not history. The idea that they are a wholly new form of literature might, in itself, be reason enough for us to read them more subtly. Aslan refers to Mark's gospel as being written in a "coarse, elementary Greek" – which nevertheless is supposed to appeal to cultural, Hellenised Jews rather than illiterate Galileans. One might, on a similar basis, say that Irvine Welsh not writing like David Hume is proof that he was not Scottish. Mark may not write like Xenophon, but the idea that he had a different audience in mind does not mean he is lacking in literary skill. Rather, his skills are more oblique and nuanced. Mark lacks the infancy narratives of Luke and the resurrection stories of Matthew because they were already known – things are written down as they pass from memory. But Mark, like the other Synoptic gospels and the gospel of John, has what I would call the divine comedy that other writings of the period lack.
Where else do we have such empathetic misunderstanding? Jesus is not impatient, but he is wry as time and again the disciples fail to get the message. Socrates was tetchy by comparison. Even Mark's Gospel includes sly interventions: when Pilate asks the crowd if they want Barrabas or Jesus, the earliest readers would have found the pun.
"Barabbas" was a name taken by zealous anti-Roman terrorists, and means "Son of the Father" – so the Son of the Father and "my ain Dad's bairn" are exchanged, literally. It also means that Jesus is crucified instead of the kind of terrorist Aslan claims he was, and crucified under the very name the Pharisees had sought to use as justification for his death – there is a profound, sardonic humour in Pilate's "What I have written, I have written".
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.