Ask Reza Aslan Anything: Responding To Criticism

In the latest video from the Zealot author, he considers the negative response to his book as well as claims that he cherry-picked his research:

Readers have contributed their own criticisms as well. One warns that Zealot is riddled with historical inaccuracies, quoting from one of Christianity scholar Bart Ehrman’s many posts challenging the book:

Aslan maintains that the fundamental charge against Jesus, leading to his death, is one that in fact never appears in any of our sources. He argues that because Jesus was zealous for the land to be returned to Caesar, this was “enough for the authorities in Jerusalem to immediately label Jesus as a lestes,” that is as a bandit/zealot opposed to the political forces in control of his land.  This then is what led to his arrest and crucifixion.

And what’s the evidence that Aslan cites for the authorities designating Jesus as a lestes?  None.  And why?  Because there is none.  In none of our accounts of Jesus arrest, trial, and crucifixion is he ever called a lestes, by the Jewish authorities, by the Roman authorities, by his friends, by his enemies, by the Gospel writers, by himself, by anyone.  So why does Aslan maintain that this is how Jesus was described by his enemies as the reason for killing him?  Because it is central to his thesis.  It is in fact his thesis.

Another reader addresses Reza’s claim that Jesus was a revolutionary:

Jesus also opposed the different approaches that various other Jewish groups adopted to confront Rome: the Pharisees, the Essenes, the Temple cult and Herod, and the Zealots. He opposed collaboration with the values of Rome, but also armed attacks against them – which was also a kind of collaboration! These were the ways Israel had betrayed God’s will centuries earlier, leading to its conquering by Babylon. If it kept going down this road, he felt, they’d face the same divine judgment, this time at the hands of Rome.

Jesus was thus more revolutionary than the others because he insisted – contrary to all Jewish notions of the messiah – that Israel’s goal was not to gain its own nation with a political king. Rather, it’s mission was for the whole world – God’s promised land was the entire earth, not just Judea. He took that mission on himself. He offered God the obedience of the ideal Israel. Likewise, Israel’s means for achieving God’s purpose was not to be armed revolution – violence was the tool of their oppressors, after all, and against God’s will. Jews were to stand for God’s desire for reconciliation, and thus were to practice love of enemy to the point of death – even as they struggled zealously to stop their enemies from committing injustice.

Again, Aslan’s right that Jesus called for radical social justice – the inverting of social and economic relationships. But this critique was aimed at both the Jewish state as much as the Romans. And a key component of this new society was the laying down of the sword and the welcoming of the outsider and the enemy. His was a revolution of love – love of God and other.

He also responds to Reza’s assertions about the role Paul played in forming Christianity:

Aslan presses the old saw that Paul “invented” Christianity by turning Jesus’ social movement that fixated on the kingdom of God and the salvation of the poor into a religious group that worshiped him as the Son of God. He wants to cleave the two so as to put distance between Jesus and the church. Again, there is a critical distance, for sure. But belief in the divinity of Jesus did not develop gradually. Larry Hurtado has demonstrated that the claim that Jesus was God did not evolve after decades of pagan influence and philosophical speculation. It existed as an existential part of the community within a few short years of his death/resurrection. From the beginning, Jesus was associated with the devotion reserved for the One God. This never had happened with any of the prominent figures in Judaism before. Hurtado uses historical tools to demonstrate the inexplicability (at least in terms of history) of this event. These were strict monotheistic Jews who exploded in worship of Jesus soon after his death. No other historical factors can account for this change, except that something happened to those people.

And that something happened to Paul, too. He went from being a zealous Pharisee in conflict with this new Jewish movement, to adopting its very core belief that Jesus was the chosen one of God, resurrected and alive as Lord. And, contrary to Aslan, Paul did not seek to pacify Jesus to make him more palatable to Romans and his Gentile listeners. Quite the opposite. Michael Gorman argues persuasively in books like Reading Paul that the Apostle desired to create Christian communities that would exist as counter-cultural enclaves within the Empire. Where the state proclaimed Caesar as Lord, these house churches proclaimed the Crucified Christ as the only Lord. Where Rome exercised slavery, violence, and subjugation of women, these communities were places of freedom, equality, and love among all races, sexes, and classes. There was a political aspect to all of this, even as it was religious. Such a movement was in accord with what the historical Jesus sought to bring about.

It’s worth remembering, too, that Paul’s writings are the earliest texts in the New Testament. If the Gospels highlight more of Jesus’ message of justice for the poor, they came through oral tradition added to the existing Passion narratives, and at a later date. Paul wrote just a few years after Jesus and he’s already developed a high Christology. He didn’t deviate from the message of the first generation of Christians. Both the message of Jesus as God and God’s love for the poor were part of the oral tradition and immediate reaction to Jesus.

But another reader not only found Zealot convincing, but that it bolstered his overall faith in people:

I’ll start off with a little background. I’m the son of a Walsh and a Callahan – both, obviously, very Catholic. I was the kid who wanted to become a priest, and imagined blond, blue-eyed Jesus scowling whenever I felt guilty about some minor transgression. I can’t remember the exact turning point, but it may have been when Father Moriarty berated a girl with cancer for not taking her hat off in Church. Or when my friend who was getting interested in Buddhism, but still taught CCD, was banned from attending Mass. In any case, I drifted from the Church.

As it stands now I’m just not a person who accepts any aspect of the supernatural. But I’ve still got a deep cultural grounding in Catholicism and I’m very interested in religious history. So when my folks gave me a gift certificate to the Strand for Christmas, I bought Reza Aslan’s book.

I loved it. I found it entirely credible, and it made sense of a lot of things I’d read that didn’t quite seem to add up. And it actually made me more positive toward Christianity (or, at least, toward Christians). The fact that the Church took the teachings of “a Jewish itinerant preacher swept up in apocalyptic fervor” and turned them into a message of universal love, peace, equality, and forgiveness is an incredibly optimistic statement on humanity. And not even modern humanity! This was an era where people were nailed to a post for political dissent! How crazy is that?

I don’t think I’ll ever be a Christian again, because at a fundamental level God doesn’t make sense to me. But understanding what Jesus was actually about makes the Gospel interpretation of his message fill me with a bit more hope for people.

Watch all of Reza Alsan’s videos here. Our full Ask Anything archive is here.