Was Jesus a Zealot?

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In response to this question I asked the questioner: “Why do you ask?” The answer: “I have just read a #1 New York Times bestseller that claims Jesus was a zealot.”

Reza Aslan’s book ZEALOT: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth presents a picture of what Judith Shulevitz calls “a passionate Jew, a violent revolutionary, a fanatical ideologue, an odd and scary and extraordinarily interesting man.” While The New Yorker says “Aslan synthesizes Scripture and scholarship to create an original account” the fact is what he offers is neither a synthesis of Scripture and scholarship nor original, though quite readable and misleading!

By Workshop of Titian - [1], 2006-06-22, Public Domain, Link

By Workshop of Titian[1], 2006-06-22, Public Domain, Link

I have not only been asked the above question, but I have been given a copy of this book to read, digest, and review.

First, let’s answer the question and then review the book. Was Jesus a zealot? The answer is simple and straightforward: No, Jesus was not a zealot! He is what The Seattle Times acknowledged modern Christianity believes: “The peace-loving, turn-the-other-cheek, true Son of God.”

Our image of Christ is founded upon New Testament writings drawn from eyewitness accounts recorded within the first century that provided the basis for a world changing movement based on love and forgiveness, not violent aggression and conquest!

Meanwhile, Reza Aslan’s effort to “knock down that image” is, in the words of the Apostle Peter (II Peter 1:16), one of “the cleverly devised myths” built upon theoretical speculation without historical substantiation, colorful conjectures couched in well-written prose overlaid with something supposedly new and different, but which is actually old and untrue. As Peter wrote so wisely long ago, we as Christians are not to “follow cleverly contrived myths … instead we are to rely on him and other “eyewitnesses of His majesty.”

Who is this author who claims to have better insight into the real Jesus than those who wrote the New Testament? What are his supposedly better or more reliable sources of information?

Reza Aslan begins his “Author’s Note” with this striking statement: “When I was fifteen years old, I found Jesus.” He explains how he was “raised in a motley family of lukewarm Iranian Muslims and exuberant atheists.” Then he found Jesus at a youth camp, but lost Jesus as “Lord and Savior” during his higher education when he came to disbelieve the Bible is “God-breathed and true, literal and inerrant.” In fact, he bases his whole book on his belief that “the Bible is replete with the most blatant and obvious errors and contradictions” – at least when the passages don’t support his particular views.

Although he identifies himself as a “genuinely committed disciple of Jesus of Nazareth” – the Zealot, not the Christ or Savior, he has returned to Islam. He is a Board member of the National Iranian American Council, a lobbying group for the militant and terrorist-supporting Islamic Republic of Iran.

John A. Jillions (PhD in New Testament) observes: “Curiously, Professor Aslan himself is neither an historian, nor a biblical scholar, but a sociologist of religion and Professor of Creative Writing.” As a truly “creative” writer he has authored what Professor Daniel Hoffman accurately assesses his work as “a rehash of mostly discredited theories of earlier critics, such as S.G.F. Brandon” whose “main thesis” was that “the Jesus of history was a Jewish revolutionary seeking to liberate Israel from Roman rule.”

Does Aslan substantiate his main thesis? Not at all, though he wraps his thesis in a well-written novel that has gathered reviews like “lucid, intelligent page-turner” from the Los Angeles Times and has lured many readers – in spite of his lack of compelling and convincing evidence! Reza Aslan’s book offers us as Christians a look not only at a small but influential group of scholars with their unscriptural and unchristian opinions of Jesus the Christ, but also offers a look inside their ever-so-flawed scholarship.

Next time we shall examine how he not-so-humbly sets himself up as judge and jury as to what to accept and reject in the New Testament, how he veers far afield from scholarly consensus, how he uses his central text out of context, how he weaves a “rope of sand,” and how in the final analysis he rejects Jesus the Christ for Muhammad of Mecca who actually might be legitimately called a zealot.

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