Jesus, History, and Interpretation: A Response to Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth by Reza Aslan

Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth

by Reza Aslan

272 pp. Random House. $27.00.

I’ll say this up front: New Testament Studies is a hard discipline.  Its difficulty comes from the wide range of academic departments involved in doing it well.  To dig in for real, one must have some facility with ancient languages (preferably Aramaic as well as Koine Greek and Biblical Hebrew); a grasp of Roman, Seleucid, Ptolemaic, and Parthian histories; working familiarity with the rites and sacred texts of half a dozen worship-traditions, most of which are no longer extant; the ability to spot references to the Hebrew Bible at all turns; and a host of other skill-sets that most folks, myself included, simply do not have the drive to master.  Beyond that, she must have the sort of philosophical mind that can situate a two-thousand-year tradition of Scriptural exegesis and theological commentary in some kind of relationship to what’s going on in the text and in the reconstructed historical contexts around all the steps along the way, and doing all of those things in a way that’s adequate to the ways that literary traditions work is just as difficult.  In sum, the skillful New Testament interpreter is a true master of the liberal arts and a specialist, holding very particular bodies of learning in tension with the philosophical and rhetorical moves that the practice of synthesizing that learning requires.  That’s why I always look upon my teachers and colleagues who do New Testament studies with some deference and great respect.

I note all of that because Reza Aslan does some of those things very well.  Sometimes Zealot reveals a fairly strong grasp on the network of overlapping human phenomena that make New Testament Studies so difficult, and sometimes the book seems either unaware of or willfully ignorant of large and important arguments, bodies of knowledge, and traditions of inquiry.  The essay that I’m going to attempt here is no complaint that the book isn’t more than it is; it’s more a call to Christian teachers to look at the assumptions that the book makes (under the cover ID of the historian who does not make assumptions) and to think hard about the ways that we teach the life of Jesus among the faithful.

Roman-Occupied Palestine

Aslan’s book does an exemplary job of situating Jesus in a very particular historical moment, namely the region of Palestine, mostly in Judea but in the end Jerusalem, occupied by the Roman Empire and internally divided among mystics, militants, corroborators with the occupiers, and the masses of the poor who most acutely suffer from all of the above regimes.  He’s absolutely right to insist that, in every case, whether one examines the words or the deeds of Jesus, his followers or his enemies, the first task must be to situate them in that first-century, Roman-occupied-Palestine context, because their words and acts make the most sense as extensions of, reactions to, and other engagements with the historical forces that shaped that moment.  Such is the practice of the best kinds of New-Testament-era history, and so Aslan proceeds.  He leads off the book proper noting Pompey Magnus’s conquest of Jerusalem, the presence of the Roman garrison on the Temple Mount, and other salient facts that give shape to the final days of Jesus in Jerusalem (10).  Moreover he explains well the succession of foreign occupiers, from Babylon through to the Romans, interrupted only by a century of Hasmonean monarchy, a state of affairs sometimes indistinguishable from Greek hegemony (12).  When Jesus shows up, the political scene is a complex one, and all of the sayings and acts of Jesus make more sense when one has a grasp of some of the overlapping political realities.

Of particular interest for a relatively new student of the New Testament is Aslan’s skillful treatment of the word “messiah.”  Noting its roots in the Hebrew verb for “to anoint,” Aslan traces nicely the progression of the term from cultic and royal contexts in the monarchical period of Israel through the Cyrus oracle of Isaiah 45, which says as clearly as one could imagine that Cyrus the Great of the Persians is YHWH’s messiah.  He notes that the most common expectation for the Messiah in first-century Palestine was for a new Mosaic liberator and Davidic king, though certainly the Dead Sea Scrolls indicate expectations for two Messiahs, one a kingly figure and one a new and honest high priest for Jerusalem (19).  Zealot also notes the connotations of several New Testament terms before Jesus comes along: “King of the Jews,” before it’s written on the titulus above Jesus’s cross, is the title given to Herod the Great in the wake of Marc Antony’s re-conquest of Palestine (20).  And for good measure, Aslan notes that “son of God” has both Davidic roots (in texts like Psalm 2) and Roman roots because Caesar was often announced as “son of God” (23).  In other words, this part of New Testament Studies is quite well done in Zealot, and Aslan’s prose style is accessible and interesting.

 The Illiterate Diaspora

Reza Aslan’s historiography is fairly straightforward, even if it begins with some reductionism: whatever Jesus was, one should not posit that he strayed outside the possibilities offered by Second-Temple Judaism.  The Jews of the Roman period expected a new king, so one should not expect that Jesus could have imagined himself as a “divine messiah” (32).  Jewish nationalism of a violent flavor was rampant in Galilee, so the god who orders genocide in Joshua and inspires Psalms about shattering enemies’ heads and children’s heads–“that is the only God that Jewus knew and the sole God he worshiped” (122).  Within the confines of this historiography, Jesus could not be other than a Galilean revolutionary, not much different from Theudas or Bar Kochba or any of the other half-dozen would-be messiahs of the early Roman Empire.  Wherever the idea that Jesus loved all nations comes from, it’s not from the historical person named Jesus of Nazareth.

Where, then, did the nonviolent image of Jesus that we see in the gospels come from, then?  Since Jesus himself was incapable of imagining things beyond the bounds of Galilean nationalism, it must have come from somewhere else, and in Aslan’s account, that somewhere has to do with diaspora Jewry.  According to Reza Aslan, the only Jews in the first century who really knew their Bibles were those in Jerusalem.  Jesus and his fellow Galileans were more than likely illiterate (34), and Jews from outside of Jerusalem never had an opportunity to hear the Bible read out loud (166–one wonders what they were doing in their Synagogues, but that’s for another conversation).  If they had, they would clearly know what Reza Aslan no doubt picked up in his undergraduate religion classes, namely that the Torah and Psalms and Prophets do not really make reference to a Messiah in the way that Christians would come to understand the word, so their reading, which seems to alienate the Temple authorities before and after the crucifixion, must result from a lack of familiarity with the text, according to Reza Aslan.

Here is where Zealot reveals just how difficult New Testament Studies can be.  After all, Aslan has the Roman history down.  He knows about the diversity of Judaic sects.  He’s got the modern-hermeneutics background to know that eisegesis ultimately runs risks of distortion.  One of the only places where I disagree with his reading is in the area of the history of Biblical interpretation, and yet one difference out of four makes all the difference.  Let me attempt to articulate how I differ.

In the centuries immediately surrounding the life of Jesus, as an examination of the Dead Sea Scrolls, the Rabbinic Midrash, the Mishnah, and other Jewish documents will reveal, hermeneutics was not the exact science that Aslan can’t find among the diaspora Jews and the Galilean revolutionaries.  The ways that people read things were not first and foremost to find a “literal” sense to stand alone (although that was also important, as a figure as late as Augustine will demonstrate) but to hear the text as a divine voice, something that can speak on a plurality of registers.  So the moves that we moderns call allegorical, anagogical, typological, and visionary readings were not decorative frames that supplemented an otherwise self-contained sacred text; they were  the modes by which one arrived at the sacred, with the text being the prime instrument.  In other words, although Aslan nails most of the political and military history, he renders Bible-reading an ahistorical practice, one that people get “right” or “wrong” but which knows no real historical contingency.

Adding the contingency and temporal particularity of Bible-reading to the historical mix, the transformation of Galilean nationalism into something like second-century Christianity does not require a mass delusion, a gigantic textual mix-up, or any such conspiracy.  It only requires a human being something like the Jesus that one encounters in the synoptic gospels, someone whose interpretive moves, among other history-shaping moments, allow Jews to imagine Israel and Israel’s God in registers that violent nationalism had made them forget.  In order to move from second-temple Judaism into second-century Christianity, one does well to go through Jesus of Nazareth as presented in the New Testament.  I did not come up with that thesis, of course; it’s the main claim of N.T. Wright’s magisterial book The New Testament and the People of God (a book that Aslan does not ever address, though he does mention that Wright wrote a book on the doctrine of resurrection (261)).  In other words, given the same set of historical data, one can construct two very different accounts of how first-century Bible-reading and first-century political history related to one another.  I would maintain that the one I was taught (by some very skilled New Testament professors as well as by Wright’s books) is more adequate to the history of interpretation, but that claim does not stand alone as a “purely historical” perspective any more than Aslan’s does; history remains an inherently rhetorical enterprise, and how one frames the data will always matter.

No Room for Dialectic

At stake when histories clash is not merely the history of hermeneutics, of course: on a larger scale, there’s the question of how historical change happens in the first place.  The way that the historians I’d read before tended to narrate the emergence of second-century Christianity out of second-temple Judaism followed roughly the outline that Wright articulates: the horizon of possibilities for Jewish traditions in the first century included, but was not limited to, the nationalist-revolutionary possibility, certainly, but that tradition, because of the inherent plurality of the Scriptures (especially those read in Synagogues, since those included the prophets) also involved texts like Genesis 12, in which God promises that Abraham’s seed will bless all nations; Isaiah 2, in which the nations come to Jerusalem not as conquered prisoners but as seekers of wisdom; Jonah, in which a thoroughly wicked pagan city turns to YHWH in recognition of its own wretchedness; and Daniel 1-6, in which a succession of pagan monarchs, because of the faithfulness of exiled Jews, come to embrace the true God YHWH.  Those currents of Biblical witness do not eliminate rabidly nationalist texts like Joshua and Ezra and Nahum; but neither do the nationalist texts nullify the universalist ones.  Instead, according to Biblical theologians like Walter Brueggemann, that tension results in a dialectic tension between the two historical possibilities.

None of those possibilities, unfortunately, shows up in Zealot.  To read Reza Aslan’s account of the Hebrew Bible, the entire text is nothing but Jewish nationalism, page after page of xenophobia without exception.  If anything like the universality of John 3 or Matthew 28 or Acts 1 creeps into the story of Jesus, it must have happened because Diaspora Jews, eager to flatter their new Roman masters after the fall of Jerusalem, inserted those passages to falsify the true nature of Jesus.  If Jesus used the phrase “kingdom of God,” it was “a call to revolution, plain and simple” (120).  Anything that suggests a more capacious (and philosophically complex) notion of the kingdom of God, especially one that isn’t secured by armed force, must be a move to placate the Romans (150).  Aslan’s view of Jesus’s reception is a zero-sum game: if the violent revolutionary is to diminish, it can only give way to philosophical schools (like those of the Diaspora Jews) that already existed.  There is no room for the tensions inherent in the Biblical tradition, not to mention the broad international phenomenon of post-exilic Judaism, to blossom, with the help of a revolutionary figure (my pick would be Jesus of Nazareth) to take Judaism in directions that Judaism had trouble, in that moment, imagining.

I prefer to think of history as inherently dialectical, that Jesus, considered in historical terms (I also confess Jesus as a Person of the Trinity, but one gets to the Trinity only through the Palestinian Jew on a cross, I’m inclined to think), might have been a figure who could grab hold of the universalist AND the nationalist strains of the Hebrew Bible, insisting that the ethics of the Kingdom would be an intensification rather than a nullification of the Torah (which also seems to be what Paul was doing, but more on that later) AND envisioning something like what Isaiah and Daniel set forth as coming to its fullness in his own moment, in his own person.  Such a figure might look a fair bit like the Jesus that one finds in the synoptics, just as Wright indicates, and once again the strident opposition between the “Christ of faith” and the “Jesus of history” becomes an unfortunate missed opportunity to talk about both rather than dropping one or the other.

A Fourth Guy Named John

When I’ve taught the book of Revelation in churches (which has been all too frequently lately), one question that surfaces early is whether the same John who was the son of Zebedee is the one in exile on Patmos.  In response, I usually ask a counter-question, namely how many people named John appear in the New Testament.  It usually doesn’t take long to generate at least three: John the Baptist, John the son of Zebedee, and John-Mark, who appears in Acts.  There might be more, but those three suffice for the explanation.  If there are three men named John that we can remember that fast, I ask, what’s the probability that they were the only three men named John in the early church?  The point is that I don’t put much stock in questions of New Testament authorship (the contests over such things don’t, in my own theology, matter nearly as much as questions of the history of the texts in their role as canon), and I’d say it’s at least as probable that there’s a fourth guy named John, who composed Revelation but neither the gospel nor the epistles, as it is that there were only three Johns affiliated  with the New Testament.

All of that is to note that early Christianity seems to have grown broad fairly quickly, encompassing people from all sorts of tribes inside of and outside the Roman Empire within a couple centuries.  In order to account for that, Reza Aslan articulates a hypothesis regarding the career of Paul which seems to assume several difficult things.  One must assume that there was only one group in early Christianity interested in the Torah of Moses, and that was the Christian assembly in Jerusalem.  One must assume that any appearance of reconciliation between Antioch and Jerusalem in the New Testament is an act of deception.  One must assume that James and Peter remained enemies of Paul for the course of all the men’s lives.  One must assume, again, that no new thought is possible, that any change must result from the zero-sum destruction of one community and the rise of another.

Never in Reza Aslan’s telling of the story is there room for two groups concerned with the Law, perhaps one with its base in Jerusalem and another in the synagogues of Galilee, or for that matter any other group anywhere else.  If there were people trying to turn the churches in Galatia and Corinth towards adherence to circumcision and kosher-diet laws, they must have been agents of James, the brother of Jesus, according to Reza Aslan.  Such does not have to be the case, of course.  The way I was taught in New Testament studies classes and in my own previous reading, the book of Galatians, as well as passages from other Pauline epistles, arise as a response to a group that scholars have designated “the Judaizers” because little is known about them beyond their penchant for convincing converts from outside of ethnic Judaism to undergo circumcision and to eat kosher so that they can become “real Christians.”  (That makes them somewhat akin to the angel-cult referred to in the early verses of Hebrews and the proto-Gnostics against which 1 John seems to inveigh.)  Paul, according to my own reading, does battle with this group because they defy the content of the gospel, which has emerged in the wake of the work of Jesus, and those folks are seeking to undo that.  In the way that I learned, back in the mid-nineties, such groups are historically the “losers” of a grand contest but theologically those rough edges against which the early Church sharpened its own doctrines of Christ for the benefit of future generations.  Either way, the historical speculation that there was only one Torah-concerned group of Jesus-followers in the entirety of the first century is an unnecessary narrowing of possibilities.

Reza Aslan, for whom there is no historical dialectic, will hear none of it.  In his version, the “Judaizers” can only be agents of James, the brother of Jesus, who tells Paul to his face, in Jerusalem in Acts 15, that Gentiles need not be bound by the Torah, save for those regulations governing resident aliens, but waits until Paul leaves Jerusalem to start sending agents into the cities where Paul has evangelized in order to do just what he promised not to do (192).  Within the lifetimes of James and Paul, Jerusalem became ascendant among the new Jesus movement, so that James was the “uncontested leader” (200) of the first-century movement.  But as Zealot tells it, the influx of Gentiles into the diaspora assemblies, along with the death of James and the destruction of Jerusalem, led to the ascendancy of Pauline Son-of-God worship–which is an entirely different religion from the Jesus-following of James and Peter (196)–and the eventual relegation of the true Christianity of James and Peter to the heresy-label of Ebionite (272).  So in the story that Zealot tells, James, the good guy, eventually loses, posthumously, to that grand villain Saul of Tarsus.  Never mind that Paul’s ethical teachings, whether one looks at Romans or 1 Corinthians or Philippians, seem to be rooted intelligibly in Torah traditions, modified (not unlike in Acts 15) for the sake of unity among the faithful.  James is the good guy, so what he does to Paul is because Paul hates the Torah.  (Can I hear a me genoitai?)

Considering the outright duplicity of James in Aslan’s reading (he does, after all, crawfish on St. Paul), the final full chapter of the book is a bit surprising.  Having established Paul as the great villain of early Christianity, Aslan turns back to James, the brother of Jesus, to establish him, at the end of the book, as the true hero of the story, perhaps moreso than Jesus himself.  A man concerned with Israel and Israel only, Zealot paints him as someone who resists the Roman temptation of Stephen and Paul to maintain a truly local religious tradition until the same empire that so loves Christianity, Paul-style, crushes it underfoot.  Aslan identifies himself as “a committed disciple of Jesus of Nazareth” (as opposed to Jesus the Christian figure) in the book’s introduction (xx), but the last chapter shows that Jesus, for Zealot, is largely a cipher, a bit of blank space that precedes the real hero of the story, James the Just.  Historical orthodox Christianity, in the story that Zealot tells, is an unfortunate usurper of the true Christianity, a Roman religion almost entirely unrelated to the teknon from Nazareth, and with the stoning of Stephen, the historical Jesus disappears from the religious world (169).

 A Manifesto of Sorts

Aslan has protested in interviews that I’ve heard, but I still maintain that I for one would never have heard of him had his Fox News interview in July not gone viral.  My hunch is that most of our readers would not have either.  But that’s beside the point now: Reza Aslan is, for the moment, a name that church folks have heard, and that presents an opportunity for Christian teachers.  With a bit of reading (I recommend Wright’s New Testament and the People of God, or The Challenge of Jesus for a briefer, more accessible read) and some research at a local library, we can take advantage of the increased awareness of and interest in the historical contexts of the New Testament, and with a book like Zealot in the spotlight as solidly as it is, the rhetorical character of his thesis is quite evident.

Christianity, we must say and repeat and insist upon, has nothing to fear from responsible history.  As I noted above, the military history, political history, and etymological work that Reza Aslan does is perfectly fine; the difference is not that the Christian faithful deny the historical data but that we insist on interpreting it in ways that acknowledge that they’re interpretations.  That’s the real sticking point here: where historians deny that they’re being rhetorical, we Christians need to be clear that our histories, their histories, and any history worth calling history is always interpretation, always the disciplined arrangement (that’s one of the canons of rhetoric) of what investigations yield.  That’s what makes history so interesting, and when people try to cut out that part of things for the sake of scoring points with the credulous (or for book sales, let’s be honest), then we must be on hand to offer a compelling alternative, one that reminds any with ears to hear that stories are always stories, and the true stories are true not because they stop being stories but because they disclose truth where other stories ignore what is true.

If Reza Aslan remains visible for very long (which is never guaranteed, especially as prone to diversion as we are in 2013), I would recommend that Christian teachers get a copy of his book (the image above links to the amazon page for it) and prepare to have conversations about history, truth, and other reasons for our hope.  My hunch is that such confidence in our confession could only stand to benefit the Way that we proclaim.



5 comments for “Jesus, History, and Interpretation: A Response to Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth by Reza Aslan

  1. Kyrie
    12 May 2021 at 8:09 PM

    Thanks for this post. I have agnostic and atheist friends who have read or are interested in reading this book, and I have started reading also to engage them in dialogue about Christianity. Your post gives me an example of how to priase the book for what it does well, and yet to stand firm in what I believe.

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