Two scholarly reviews of Aslan’s Zealot

Whatever the fallout from the interview, and the bestseller status achieved by Aslan, I’m doubtful that New Testament scholars, or the more narrow circle of historical Jesus scholars, will agree with much of Aslan’s account of Jesus.

Anthony Le Donne is scathing:

Jesus’ preaching about God’s kingdom is undoubtedly political.  It makes sense that this teaching was directly related to the title posted on the cross (and/or the symbolic value of that title in Christian memory).  This much is not all that controversial.  Defining “political” is the key problem.  Reza Aslan’s book barely touches the vast sea of literature on this problem.  In short, this book is a surface-level (albeit well-promoted) rehash of an old puzzle in Jesus research.  Unfortunately, Aslan brings nothing new to the table that will help us solve the puzzle. He simply dismisses all of Jesus’ sayings about nonviolence as Christian invention.  This move isn’t unheard of, but he fails to make his case for invention adequately.

Greg Carey is more charitable:

I would add that Aslan provides some of the most helpful discussions I have yet encountered regarding the accounts of Jesus’ healing ministry and of his resurrection. These stories represent minefields for any historical investigator. Aslan handles them with sympathy, imagination, and critical judgment.

At the same time, I have some serious reservations about Aslan’s portrait of Jesus, and I suspect that most professional biblical scholars will share some of them. First, the book contains some outright glitches, things a professional scholar would be unlikely to say. Aslan suggests there were “countless” revolutionary prophets and would-be messiahs in Jesus’ day. Several did appear, but “countless” is a bit much. Aslan assumes near-universal illiteracy in Jesus’ society, an issue that remains unsettled and hotly contested among specialists. At one point Aslan says it would seem “unthinkable” for an adult Jewish man not to marry. He does mention celibate Jews like the Essenes, but he seems unaware that women were simply scarce in the ancient world. Lots of low-status men lacked the opportunity to marry. Aslan assumes Jesus lived and worked in Sepphoris, a significant city near Nazareth. This is possible, but we lack evidence to confirm it.

Some musings on the Reza Aslan controversy

No, I haven’t read the book, nor even watched the infamous interview. It’s much more fun simply to watch the outrage (on all sides). There are a few voices of reason, however, though mine is unlikely to be one of them.

First off, it’s perfectly legitimate to ask an author why he wrote a book, and why as a Muslim, he was interested in writing about Jesus. Pascal-Emmanuel Gobry makes the case for the question’s appropriateness:

“Why did you write this book?” is literally the most common interview question asked of authors! It is so common, it is such a cliché, that it is a joke in literary and media circles! This is also true of the variation “[Tidbit of author’s personal history], so why did you write this book?”

Aslan’s personal history is relevant to how he tells the story, a convert to Christianity who becomes disillusioned and eventually converts to Islam. His background is relevant just as Bart Ehrman’s personal history helps to explain his scholarly prejudices.

Did Aslan respond in the way he did because he suspected it might contribute to book sales? It’s curious that he was willing to talk about his religious background with Terry Gross of NPR, and not with Fox.

Second, the book is largely a rehash of recent New Testament scholarship. Alan Jacobs points out Aslan’s dependence on Crossan, and also several places where Aslan makes much bolder claims than most (trained) biblical scholars would, and much bolder than the slim evidence warrants. Huffington Post has the book’s introduction, which shows his debt to contemporary Jesus scholarship.

Adam Kirsch offers a sober, even-handed review of Aslan’s book.

Why would largely second-hand scholarship arouse such interest and passion? Precisely because Aslan is Muslim and probably at least in part because of his desire to create publicity. In fact, I wonder whether he would have found a publisher for this work if he were not a Muslim.

I’m curious about the way progressive Christians have responded. I was surprised to see that he was booked for All Saints’ Episcopal Church in Pasadena (one of the flagship progressive parishes in the Episcopal Church) for a Sunday adult forum within days of his book’s publication. And his schedule also includes appearances at Protestant churches across the country.

Now, I’ll grant that the interview on Fox News was appalling. It was also great theater, giving people on both sides (conservative and progressive) just what they want–controversy to stoke the flames of anger and outrage. And Aslan will take it all to the bank.