The recent release of the book, Zealot, by Reza Aslan, has been getting a lot of positive press, especially by the liberal media. While it is a highly readable book, it is a disappointing rehash of old, discredited, liberal higher criticism wrapped in an attractive new package.
Nineteenth century higher criticism of the Bible attempted to make sense of the scriptures by first assuming there is no God, or at least no divine inspiration. The Bible needed to be demythologized by the modern scholar for the modern unbelieving mind and a its real underlying message discovered.
The same insurmountable critique that destroyed higher criticism stands over and against Aslan’s effort. In the end it is pure subjectivity. To take Aslan seriously, we must assume he has the ability after 2000 years to tell us what parts of the gospel stories are authentic from those that aren’t. We also have to assume he is merely an objective historian rather than the Muslim apologist he is.
According to Aslan’s methodology, later secular sources regarding Jesus are to be taken as true, but only the parts of the gospels Aslan approves of are reliable. That’s not to say Zealot isn’t seductive or clever. To the uninitiated, Aslan’s positions may appear to be some new startling revelation that finally gets to the truth about Jesus.
So what is that truth?
For Aslan, Jesus of Nazareth is NOT the Christ of faith. The divinazation of Christ is a later invention of the church. Christ’s death was not to atone for sin, but is merely a tragic ending to a failed attempt to destroy Roman rule in the Holy Land. No news here. The rejection of Christ as the Savior of sinners has been the position of Islam for 1400 years and of higher critics for the last 150 years.
The Jesus of Zealot is merely a tragic, failed, nationalistic zealot. Jesus suffered the same fate of other seditious “messiahs” of his time – a criminal’s death on a Roman cross. It was only later that the church surrounded Jesus with legends and myths in an attempt to divinize him.
Of course, as liberal higher critics and orthodox Muslims all assume, Jesus could not have been divine. They arrive at their assumptions for different reasons. Higher critics have a materialistic worldview built on anti-supernatural assumptions. Muslims reduce Jesus to the status of a prophet akin to other mere human prophets so they can elevate Mohammed as a later and therefore more authoritative prophet.
Because higher critics can’t affirm the Bible that we have, they went in vain on a search for the historical Jesus. The journey ended shipwrecked on the rocks of subjectivity. Aslan is merely regurgitating their flawed findings with an Islamic twist.
To find the “historical Jesus” they redacted the Bible, chopping it up into in to a hypothetical source document “Q.” No one has ever seen “Q,” but it must exist for their theory to be maintained. They do this by picking and choosing passages they consider to be true between Matthew, Mark and Luke.
In all their wisdom they discover what only their unbelieving presuppositions could allow, a purely human Jesus. The humanists have given Muslims another way with which to undermine Christianity, but the quest for the historical Jesus was a failure and as wrong as the Islamic view of Jesus.
Aslan constantly makes swipes at the Bible in an attempt to undermine its authority. But even though he attacks the Bible when it contradicts his point of view, he then uses it for his purposes when he needs to advance his argument. So is the Bible reliable or not? Only Aslan apparently has the ability to enlighten us as to what parts of the Bible we are to take seriously.
The best part of Zealot is the history. It is important to place Christ in His proper historical setting and to acknowledge His full humanity. But Christians have always held to the full humanity of Christ as well as His full divinity. While Zealot can be used for general historical purposes, it is filled with many flawed, speculative assertions.
Aslan is keen to not overtly divulge his Islamic faith, but you can see it peeking through in various ways. For instance, he tries in vain to associate Jesus with the sacarri, a vicious, nationalistic band of violent cutthroats. I can only assume this is an attempt at moral equivalency to mitigate the viciousness of the prophet Mohammed, as if Jesus was an advocate of violence, too.
Aslan also makes sweeping and erroneous assertions about the Bible. For example, he declared the Old Testament never prophesied a divine messiah. Except, it does. “For unto us a child is born, unto us a son is given: and the government shall be upon his shoulder: and his name shall be called Wonderful, Counseller, The mighty God, The everlasting Father, The Prince of Peace.” (Isaiah 9:6) Daniel tells us that the coming “Ancient of Days” is “the Son of Man.” (Daniel 7:13)
Jesus, we are told by Aslan, had no affection or concern for anyone other than the Jews and their nationalistic aspirations. The ethic popularly ascribed to Christ to “love your neighbor” means only to love your fellow Jews. But Christ’s parable of “The Good Samaritan” explicitly contradicts this assertion.
Aslan also has to posit Christ’s resurrection as a fraud. But he does not explain why, for no personal advantage, eleven of twelve Apostles, including the Lord’s own brother, James, died for their false testimony of the risen Christ. He simply chalks it up to misguided fanaticism.
Christ’s miracles of healing and exorcisms are too well attested for Aslan to dismiss. So he does what has been done throughout history, he reduces them to magic in an age of magicians. Jesus was different from the healers of that era only in that He performed His magic for free.
One of the principle bad guys in the Christian “hoax” of a divine Christ, according the Aslan, is the scoundrel Apostle Paul. He is the one who corrupted the truth about Jesus the Zealot and advanced new novel doctrines about a divinized Christ. The world has suffered ever since. Except, he didn’t.
From the earliest recorded sermon in the Book of Acts, preached years before Paul was converted, we read the Apostle Peter declaring Jesus is the divine judge, both Lord and Christ. “Therefore let all the house of Israel know assuredly that God has made this Jesus, whom you crucified, both Lord and Christ.” (Acts 2:36)
Stephan, the first martyr of the church, proclaimed in the hearing of Saul, who would later become the Apostle Paul, he saw Jesus standing at the right hand of God. “Look! I see the heavens opened and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God!” (Acts 7:56) Clearly the truth of the divinity of Christ was present from the very beginning of the church.
It’s hard to imagine how or why a small, insignificant group of common people who aspired to follow the highest ethical system the world has ever seen would conspire to deceive the world? They stubbornly insisted Jesus was the risen and exalted LORD even under persecution and to the point of death.
The reason is hundreds of them witnessed Him raised from the dead, (I Corinthians 15:6) and saw him ascend into heaven. (Acts 1:9) Their lives were the supernaturally transformed by the Holy Spirit, promised by Jesus, and who came in power on the Day of Pentecost. (Acts 2)
After hearing all the buzz in the media about Zealot I was disappointed to find a book long on style with helpful historical materials but falling short with old, dubious theological speculation. I suppose if you are a skeptic and enjoy caustic broadsides directed at Christianity Zealot will suffice, but it is simply that. No new invincible or un-refuted arguments here.
Indeed, Jesus was a zealot of sorts, but not the one Aslan contrived. Jesus Christ was zealous for God. Reflecting on Christ’s cleansing of the temple, “His disciples remembered that it was written, ‘Zeal for Your house has eaten Me up.’” (John 2:17 cf. Psalm 69:9)
God also has a zeal for His Christ. “Of the increase of His government and peace There will be no end, Upon the throne of David and over His kingdom, To order it and establish it with judgment and justice From that time forward, even forever. The zeal of the Lord of hosts will perform this.”(Isaiah 9:7)
So which Jesus are we to believe in? Is it the failed, messianic zealot of Aslan’s Muslim imagination or the biblical, risen Lord Jesus Christ- King of Kings, Savior of His Church and Judge of all mankind?