What’s the story with Reza Aslan and his Jesus book?

Resa Aslan, author of the new bestseller Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth, is all over the internet, and although his book is #1 on nearly every bestseller list, the reviews and profiles of Aslan haven’t all been positive.

I haven’t yet read the book, so I’m just pointing you to two articles about the man and his scholarship.  I did read his previous bestseller, No god but God: The Origins, Evolution, and Future of Islam, and didn’t like it at all. That one seemed like pure Muslim apologetics: a rewriting of Muslim history to make the religion seem almost completely innocuous, if not beneficial.  Mohammed in particular was thoroughly whitewashed, including his marriage to a nine-year-old girl and his raiding of caravans. But of course the public appetite for books praising their faith, or faith in general, is seemingly insatiable.

I’m not sure I’ll read Zealot, but given the reviews and the brevity of life, I doubt I will.  But here are two new pieces on Aslan, both in respectable places. Both mention the Fox News segment in which interviewer Lauren Green, by going after Aslan in an aggressive and invidous way, actually helped propel Zealot to best-seller status. (You can see that interview here.)

The first piece is by Manuel Rois-Franzia in the Washington Post, “Reza Aslan: A Jesus scholar who’s often a moving target.”  It’s pretty much a takedown of Aslan, going after his credentials and scholarship, though it has some interesting biographical details (born in Iran, he converted when young to evangelical Christianity, and then back to Islam).

Aslan has publicly claimed that he has a doctorate in either “the history of religions” and “the sociology of religions”, but those doctorates don’t exist at the University of California at Santa Barbara, where he got his Ph.D.  He’s also claimed that he is “a cooperative faculty member” in the Department of Religious Studies at The University of California at Riverside.  Well, UCSB doesn’t grant those degrees.  I’m not too bothered about the Ph.D. characterization; yes, you can’t get a formal degree in the areas claimed, but you can get one in sociology, and it’s not really lying, or even exaggerating, to specify the sub-area of your Ph.D. (Aslan’s was on Jihadism).

But the second claim about being a faculty member in Religious Studies at UC Riverside is flatly wrong. The possibility for such a title was discussed between Aslan and the department, but he wasn’t invited to join. Interviewees in the piece claim that Aslan is trying to inflate his academic credentials to give him more street cred.

The main thing that bothered me about Aslan’s book on Islam, and bothers others about his new book on Jesus, is the weak historical scholarship. Aslan said many things about Muhammed in the first book that I couldn’t imagine him documenting; it often read like historical fiction. The same seems true of the new book, as least judging from the excerpts:

Aslan writes with verve, and in some sections, his book moves at a breathless, pulse-pounding pace. Jesus doesn’t just overturn the tables of the money-changers at the Temple in Jerusalem. He is “on a rampage. He is “in a rage.”

“As the crowd of vendors, worshippers, priests, and curious onlookers scramble over the scattered detritus, as a stampede of frightened animals, chased by their panicked owners, rushes headlong out of the Temple gates and into the choked streets of Jerusalem, as a corps of Roman guards and heavily armed Temple police blitz through the courtyard looking to arrest whoever is responsible for the mayhem, there stands Jesus, according to the gospels, aloof, seemingly unperturbed, crying out over the din: ‘It is written: My house shall be called a house of prayer for all nations. But you have made it a den of thieves.’ ”

Well, let’s face it, that’s largely fiction: Aslan’s interpretation of what happened in the Temple. And of course it presumes that episode happened in the first place. As in No god but God, Aslan often takes the stories of scripture as historical truth. Yet that’s at odds with what he says in the interview:

“It’s not [that] I think Islam is correct and Christianity is incorrect,” Aslan says. “It’s that all religions are nothing more than a language made up of symbols and metaphors to help an individual explain faith.”

If that’s the case, and Christianity and Islam are just symbolic languages, why write stories saying what you think really happened? Is he playing both sides against the middle?

Since I’m not an expert on Jesus scholarship, I was interested to note that other authors have raised the spectre of Jesus as Renegade before. As the Post notes:

Some scholars have noted that his main conclusions bear an uncomfortable resemblance to the work of S.G.F. Brandon, author of the well-known 1967 book “Jesus and the Zealots.” In a New York Times book review, Martin, the Yale professor, writes that Aslan “follows Mr. Brandon in his general thesis as well as many details.” Martin and some others would have preferred Aslan give more credit to Brandon; Aslan says the renowned scholar is frequently cited in the book’s extensive notes.

. . . Crossan [“John Dominic Crossan, a former Catholic priest who is a professor emeritus of religious studies at DePaul University and author of many books, including Jesus: A Revolutionary Biography”] says Jesus’s approach was “programmatically nonviolent.” In a Washington Post review, Stephen Prothero, a professor of religion at Boston University, also took issue with that portrayal of Jesus. “What are we to make of Jesus’s apparent lack of interest in doing anything practical whatsoever to prepare for holy war? If he has come to fight for ‘a real kingdom, with an actual king,’ where are his soldiers and their weapons? And why no battle plan? The short answer to these questions is that Aslan is more a storyteller here than a historian.”

But of course Aslan is crying all the way to the bank.


In The Nation, Elizabeth Castelli, Professor or Religion at Barnard College, also questions Aslan’s scholarship in “Reza Aslan: Historian?” She notes that he is an associate professor of creative writing (not religion) at the University of California at Riverside.  Castelli, like me, isn’t too concerned with Aslan’s characterization of his Ph.D., but she is bothered by his scholarship (remember that this is a professor of religion writing):

Aslan’s broader claim to working as a historian, however, is another matter. Frankly, he would probably have been cut a good deal more slack by specialists had he simply said that he was working as an outsider to the field, interested in translating work by scholars of early Christianity for a broader audience. But his claims are more grandiose than that and are based on his repeated public statements that he speaks with authority as a historian. He has therefore reasonably opened himself to criticism on the basis of that claim.

. . . Zealot reflects wide reading in the secondary literature that has emerged in the scholarly study of the historical Jesus. In that sense, as one colleague of mine puts it, Aslan is a reader rather than a researcher. Aslan’s reconstruction of the life of Jesus invests a surprisingly literalist faith in some parts of the gospel narratives. For example, he argues, against the scholarly consensus, that the so-called “messianic secret” in the Gospel of Mark (a text written four decades after the death of Jesus) reflects an actual political strategy of the historical Jesus rather than a literary device by which the author of that text made sense of conflicting bits of received tradition. His readings of the canonical gospels give little attention to the fact that the writers of these texts were engaged in a complex intertextual practice with the Hebrew scriptures in Greek, that these writers were interested in demonstrating that Jesus fulfilled prophecies written centuries earlier—in short, that the gospel writers were writers with (sometimes modest, sometimes expansive) literary aspirations and particular theological axes to grind. Biblical scholars have, over many decades, sought to develop methods of textual analysis to tease out these various interests and threads.

But Aslan does not claim to be engaged in literary analysis but in history-writing. One might then expect his reconstruction of the world of Jesus of Nazareth to display a deep understanding of second-temple Judaism. Yet, his historical reconstruction is partial in both senses of the term. For example, he depends significantly on the testimony of the first-century Jewish historian Josephus, taking it more or less at face value (which no scholar of the period would do). Meanwhile he amplifies Jewish resistance to Roman domination into a widespread biblically based zealotry, from which he concludes that Jesus was intent upon armed resistance and the establishment of the kingdom of God on earth. Moreover, his reconstruction of the Judaism of the time is too flat and monolithic. At best, his argument is overstated; at worst, it depends upon scholarship that has been definitively challenged by more recent work in the field and upon a method that cherry-picks from the ancient sources.

She then compares Aslan’s bok to Albert Schweitzer’s famous book on the life of Jesus (Von Reimarus zu Rede: Eine Geschichte der Leben-Jesus-Forschung), in which Schweitzer (yes, the doctor and missionary Schweitzer), after reading dozens of biographies of Jesus, concluded that we could conclude almost nothing about his life that is historically accurate:

. . . Schweitzer’s Quest makes the decisive and incontrovertible point, through careful analysis of dozens of lives of Jesus written over a 200-year period, that efforts to reconstruct the life of Jesus are bound to fail both because the historical archive is so irreparably fragmentary and because every life of Jesus inevitably emerges as a portrait with an uncanny resemblance to its author. Schweitzer didn’t use these terms, but his point is that lives of Jesus are theological Rorschach tests that tell us far more about those who create them than about the elusive historical Jesus.

It is to this history, I would argue, that Aslan’s Zealot belongs. Zealot is a cultural production of its particular historical moment—a remix of existing scholarship, sampled and reframed to make a culturally relevant intervention in the early twenty-first-century world where religion, violence and politics overlap in complex ways. In this sense, the book is simply one more example in a long line of efforts by theologians, historians and other interested cultural workers.

But, as I said, the public, particularly the American public, just loves stories about Jesus, particularly if they’re well written (and Aslan is a compelling writer).  And that public either has forgotten about previous interpretations of Jesus as Renegade, or think that Aslan’s interpretation is brand new.

Castelli’s conclusion is pretty damning:

Simply put, Zealot does not break new ground in the history of early Christianity. It isn’t clear that any book framed as a “the life and times of Jesus of Nazareth” could, in fact, do so. Indeed, if it had not been thrust into the limelight by an aggressive marketing plan, the painfully offensive Fox News interview, and Aslan’s own considerable gifts for self-promotion, Zealot would likely have simply been shelved next to myriad other examples of its genre, and everyone could get back to their lives. As it is, the whole spectacle has been painful to watch. And as it is with so many spectacles, perhaps the best advice one might take is this: Nothing to see here, people. Move along.

With such appraisals by historians, perhaps Zealot should be classified as “historical fiction” rather than religion, just as Stephen Meyer’s book on the Cambrian explosion should be classified as “religion” rather than science.


  1. Posted August 14, 2013 at 5:38 am | Permalink


  2. jesperbothpedersen1
    Posted August 14, 2013 at 5:56 am | Permalink

    I wonder if Aslan has the decency to send Fox News a giftbasket? That interview was the best thing that could happen to him and his book.

  3. Posted August 14, 2013 at 6:02 am | Permalink

    Seems to me that Mr. Aslan is just a new Dan Brown: historical fiction with poor scholarship.

    • Posted August 14, 2013 at 10:44 pm | Permalink

      The difference being that Dan Brown doesn’t claim to be a scholar — just a writer of whirlwind mysteries.

  4. JBlilie
    Posted August 14, 2013 at 6:07 am | Permalink

    I like Castelli’s writing.

  5. Posted August 14, 2013 at 6:17 am | Permalink

    Schwweitzer’s point is most apt: there are at least as many Jesuses as there are Jesus “biographers.” And not a one is reconcilable with any other. Even on simple, obvious, impossible-to-get-worng objective facts — such as the olympiad of the Crucifixion or the names of the Twelve — there’s no agreement. And on top of it all, there’s nary a hint of a whisper of anything vaguely mistrakable as a reference to Jesus or his most remarkable antics for, literally, generations after the “fact.”

    How people can take away from that that there’s somehow some sort of truth to the story is utterly beyond me.



    • jesperbothpedersen1
      Posted August 14, 2013 at 6:21 am | Permalink

      How people can take away from that that there’s somehow some sort of truth to the story is utterly beyond me.

      If you tell a lie often enough….

    • darrelle
      Posted August 14, 2013 at 9:07 am | Permalink

      The age old problem that keeps holding our societies back. Many people do their reasoning backwards.

      They decide on a conclusion and use that to inform their rationalizations of the available information instead of using a rational evaluation of the available information to inform their conclusions.

      • Diana MacPherson
        Posted August 14, 2013 at 9:09 am | Permalink

        The confirmation bias bites again!

      • Posted August 14, 2013 at 9:20 am | Permalink


        Assemble all the evidence there is — and there’s an awful lot — surrounding Jesus, and none of it is objectively consistent with the theory that it’s somehow reflective of actual persons and events. But all of it is perfectly consistent with the theory that Jesus was, as described by no less an authority than Justin Martyr himself, yet another run-of-the-mill Pagan demigod.


  6. Posted August 14, 2013 at 6:21 am | Permalink

    For a real account of the origin of Islam, try “In the Shadow of the Sword” by Tom Holland.

    • iariese
      Posted August 14, 2013 at 6:40 am | Permalink

      I second this recommendation.

  7. potaman
    Posted August 14, 2013 at 6:22 am | Permalink

    I am really surprised people are able to read these books.Since Reza Aslan has been described as a Muslim Karen Anderson, I am assuming that the writing style is very similar. I tried one of hers (The book or something like that) . The tone of the book just put me off. I couldn’t read more than 10 pages.
    If you are writing a history, you need to at least try to be dispassionate about it.

    • Marta
      Posted August 14, 2013 at 9:34 am | Permalink

      Did you mean to say Karen Armstrong?

      • potaman
        Posted August 14, 2013 at 10:38 am | Permalink

        Oh. yeah. she is armstrong..Thanks. can’t read her at all..

    • Posted August 14, 2013 at 7:31 pm | Permalink

      There is a point to say Aslan is muslim Armstrong (I read her too). The similarity is in the concept, both try to understand religion as a complex interaction of human in human societies in a specific times (maybe surprising, but Karen is a bit more woo-ish – that’s why a lot of atheists hate her).

      Aslan is more matter of fact here, maybe for some base reasons (he wants to blaspheme Jesus / xtian). The main difference is in level of scholarship, Karen is much more elaborate, Aslan is more barebones (some places remind me of that whatsisname woo-meister from Turkey).
      But if you dislike textbook style-readings (a lot of people do), Aslan is much easier read.

      And, I used to enjoy Karen’s initial books, later ones are worse (come to think of it, I used to like Teilhard in my younger days ..).

  8. Reginald Selkirk
    Posted August 14, 2013 at 7:14 am | Permalink

    Reza Aslan interviewed on The Young Turks
    Accepts the Josephus verses with no apparent skepticism.
    18:38. After ~ 16:00 he goes into the “I believe in God, not in religion” schtick.

    He does have good hair. I wonder if it’s real.

  9. Blondin
    Posted August 14, 2013 at 7:57 am | Permalink

    I saw his TYT interview and I also saw him with John Oliver on the Daily Show. In both cases he made statements about not being concerned with facts or real events but rather with “truth”. He gave a couple of examples of descriptions of events that he stated the people of the time would have understood were not be be taken literally.

    WTF? What surprised me most was the way John Oliver lapped this all up and heaped praise on Aslan and his book for intensifying his “personal relationship” with Jesus.

    • darrelle
      Posted August 14, 2013 at 9:10 am | Permalink

      Couldn’t agree more. I also was surprised by John Oliver’s responses to Aslan in that interview. Oh well, nobody is perfect.

  10. Posted August 14, 2013 at 8:08 am | Permalink

    I have read Zealot, and I find it entertaining. The idea of a kind of human historical Jesus is definitely a put-down for most xtians, esp Catholics, and this may influence my enjoyment of reading the book.

    Think it again, yes, I have doubts on Aslan’s researches (“he is more a reader rather than researcher” rings true. ” .. like Dan Brown” yes in a way .. ), or even originality (I do not have exhaustive research of historicity of Jesus).

    I read Castelli’s piece in Nations, I agree mostly. Aslan is no researcher.

    Still, Zealots is a good read, entertaining Jesus idea that’s stronger than Dan Brown’s Davinci Code, with more wooden prose (if you think it is possible with Brown).

    And the fact that he has no problem to say what he wants to say about Jesus …

    • Posted August 14, 2013 at 8:16 am | Permalink

      Similar enjoyment (more satisfying) when I read Robert Spencer’s Did Mohammed Exist (2012) about Islam.

      I enjoy the idea that Jesus ‘n Mo were humans, human of their times. Even decent human beings. Quite intelligent, knowledgeable of their socio-environments, and acting reasonably sensible in their predicaments.

      Definitely not son-of-anything, or prophet-of-gods. More like Mormon’s Smith a thousand year later, or Scientology next century (if religions are still around that time, which I personally very much doubt, few more decades, most religions are today’s Thor and Zeus).


      • Posted August 14, 2013 at 9:18 am | Permalink

        There’s a couple problems with your ideas.

        First, the earliest Christians were not only quite explicit that Jesus was a divine being of the spiritual realm, they even went to great lengths to equate Jesus with all the other Pagan demigods of the era. Justin Martyr, for example, writing in the early second century, emphatically and repeatedly compares Jesus with Mercury, Bacchus, Perseus, Bellerophon, and others. That is, not only is there no evidence of a mortal Jesus, not only is there only evidence of an immortal Jesus, the mere idea of a mortal Jesus was an unthinkable heresy.

        And, second, Joe Smith was an infamous conman before he founded the Moronic Cult, and L. Ron’s credentials are equally besmirched. And neither are themselves the divinities of their cults nor good models for Jesus; rather, they’re good models for Paul.

        (Incidentally, Paul’s official biography seems to have as little bearing on reality as L. Ron’s. — to the point that it probably doesn’t make much sense to think of Paul as an historic figure, either.)


        • Posted August 14, 2013 at 7:14 pm | Permalink

          Your comment is exactly the example I want to stress for us atheists when we discuss concepts such as religions. And Aslan stressed some of these in the book.

          First, we cannot see the historical figures with current knowledge CSI. Most of leadership types are psychologically problematic (that’s the reason for their willingness to be grandiose about something). Mohammed are most likely OCD. Jesus, John the baptist are martyr-type, as well as most of catholic saints. While Zeus, Mars, Thors are the aggresive tyrants. J. Smith is total liar, psychopath as most clairvoyants are. Hubbard is con-man, an elaborate one actually.

          In any case, all of these people are product of their time. Jesus was born in period of turmoil, where people were waiting for messiah (Egypt now?). Arabia during Mohammed is a small pawn among giants, maybe similar to what Genghis-khan and Hannibal felt.

          J.Smith is a product of his time as well, when americans looking for spiritual guide in the strange land. A lot tried, mormonism just one that succeed. The same for Hubbard’s scientology.

          Lastly, when you mentioned Jesus as immortal divine being, that’s exactly one of Aslan’s topic, that everything we have now about xtians (even the name christians) are Paul’s creation, with the gospels selected to reflect that sentiment (actually davinci-code popularize this gnostic concept).

          Isaac Newton is a believer, by our standard now even he is a crackpot.

          And, of course, each of these human are unique, specific human-being with individual traits. I would say historical Jesus is much more peaceful than historical Mohammed, and Genghis Khan. Siddharta is intelligent, Lao-tse is scholarly, Jain is a peacenik. Julius Caesar is megalo etc etc.

          Everybody is and individual that is also a product of their times, we rationalist humanist are the ones that need to understand them. We are not the same as those psychopaths who happen to lead the human-flocks.

          Actually, we should be able to understand them as they really were, not as a divine being as their followers say, but not total jerk as most knee-jerk reactions suggest.
          A human like you and I, with individual traits, individual situation, individual choices and actions.

          That’s each of us.

          • Posted August 14, 2013 at 7:20 pm | Permalink

            Of course this way of thinking is a total blasphemy for all religion concerned. That’s what Aslan did to Chritianity in the book Zealot, if I were a fundie, I will really hate Aslan for this.

            The same what Spencer did to Islam in his book (Did Mohammed exist), a brave book.

            That’s the reason those books are interesting for me (even though the scholarship may be lacking sometimes).

          • Posted August 15, 2013 at 9:09 am | Permalink

            I think something must have gotten lost in translation. Shirley, you can’t be suggesting that you think that Zeus, Mars, Thor, and the rest were actual historical figures?


            • Posted August 15, 2013 at 6:53 pm | Permalink

              Well, we may never know, but like Gilgamesh, most likely Zeus Thor Mars were at one time modeled for one or a group of people too … very mean ancient people, Laverne.


              • Posted August 15, 2013 at 7:03 pm | Permalink

                So, what about Harry Potter? Darth Vader? Paul Bunyan? Count Dracula? Titania and Oberon? Merlin? Beowulf?

                There’s this concept known as, “fiction.” You would do yourself a service to recognize it.


              • gbjames
                Posted August 15, 2013 at 7:12 pm | Permalink

                Ben! Maybe Paul Bunyan was fiction but Babe was real! I saw a statue of him!

              • Posted August 15, 2013 at 7:28 pm | Permalink

                Oh, that’s nothing. I saw Cthulhu in the checkout line at Whole Paycheck the other day. Things got a little crazy….


              • Posted August 16, 2013 at 6:15 pm | Permalink

                This is another unnecessary broad strokes (moi and fictions? meh). I recognize fictions (actually I enjoyed a lot of fictions), their limitations, and their uses.

                When we look at long historical accounts, like who Julius Caesar is, a lot of things needs to be considered .. like the current fictions of the times he lived.

                We cannot derive actual objective historical hard facts only – about Jesus (or Julius in a sense), we need to infer them (inferring – like in fossils – is a concept for you to recognize too).

                And when we infer something so long in history, yes, even Harry Potter or Dracula is worthwhile to consider. Dracula gives us a picture of 19th century horrors, the same as Harry Potter gives us a 21st century longing of the myths.

                Messianism gives us ideas about what to think like Palestinians in the 1st century. So that we may INFER on who historical Jesus was, inferring only as far as we can, of course.

                Well, some people are so caught up with certain fixed ideas ..

              • Posted August 16, 2013 at 7:13 pm | Permalink

                I’m sorry, but if your definitions of “historical figure” extends to Harry Potter, then no reasonable discourse is possible.


        • Dermot C
          Posted August 15, 2013 at 2:23 am | Permalink

          @ Ben Goren
          Posted August 14, 2013 at 9:18 am

          Now, Ben, as I assume you count Justin as one of the earliest Christians, you have to demonstrate that all of his references view Jesus as Doherty’s divine being in the spiritual realm.

          So you need to analyse all Justin’s references to the writings of Christians earlier than him: to Matthew, the ideas of the Gospel Harmony School with which he may have been associated, to Revelations, to Romans, to 1 Corinthians, to Galatians, to Ephesians, to Colossians and to 2 Thessalonians; yes, he refers to pseudiepigraphical epistles, maybe to 4 other letters.

          So, a detailed analysis and explanation of all the instances of Jesus’ existence in the spiritual realm would be very interesting; and of course, it would be fascinating to read a refutation of any passages which appear to posit Jesus’ corporeality.

          • Posted August 15, 2013 at 9:12 am | Permalink

            Dermot, don’t be silly. I’m not going to do the work of a dissertation in response to a comment on Jerry’s Web site.

            I mean, really. I doubt anybody could answer your challenge with less than a year’s worth of intensive research, or keep the page count in double digits.


            • Dermot C
              Posted August 15, 2013 at 4:41 pm | Permalink

              OK, Ben, late reply as I’m on holiday with friends, and busy, so apologies for that.

              I’ll answer my own questions, then. Justin believed in the existence of Jesus – references to JC and the River Jordan, Jesus’ sayings, OT prophets as predicting his life, made manifest in the flesh, crucified, risen etc. He also thought of him as the Logos incarnated (Philo never viewed the Word as made flesh, for him it was in the past).

              On Justin as evidence for Christian plagiarism of the pagan demi-god idea, two points. As you know there is no example of a pagan demi-god being connected to Christian ideas of salvation, neither to the early Christian idea of God’s kingdom on earth, nor to the subsequent notion of the delayed Second Coming. Secondly, your general concept of a pagan demi-god would have a lot more credibility if the Virgin Mary were a lot more referenced and worshipped in the very early Church; she isn’t. Thecla, a female Saint, and Paul’s co-evangelist, was. Mary doesn’t get that much of a look-in until the European Middle Ages.

              None of this tells us whether Jesus existed, but it is difficult to use Justin’s own writings as evidence for an early Christian who believed that. Marcion yes, Justin, no.

              • Posted August 15, 2013 at 5:18 pm | Permalink

                Dermot, of what relevance could Martyr’s own opinion about the true nature of Jesus possibly be?

                Martyr made it quite clear that he was convinced that Jesus was the Real Deal, and that evil demons with the power of soothsaying and foresight knew Jesus was coming and thus planted all those false Pagan stories in order to lead men astray and convince them that Jesus was just the Christians crying, “Wolf!”

                Is that your thesis?

                A sane, rational, modern observer will see that, in some of the earliest extant Christian writing, the very first defense of Christianity against Pagan criticisms was to detail all the ways in which Christianity was no different from Paganism. Clearly, the earliest Christians forcefully believed that Christianity was no different from Paganism, except for the particular gods whose temples they worshipped at.

                And that’s the alpha and omega of my thesis: that Christianity is no different from Paganism, except for the particular gods whose temples they worship at.

                Are you going to claim that Orpheus must be a real historical figure because no previous demigod was ever depicted as a singer who could move the stones to weep? Are you going to claim that Bellerophon must be a real historical figure because no previous demigod was ever depicted as riding a winged horse into the heavens? Are you going to claim that Set was a real historical figure because no religion had previously thought that the dead were judged by weighing their souls against a feather?

                Please. You’re taking inconsequential minor theological details and elevating them to cosmic significance. Of course Christianity has unique elements — if it was identical to, say, Zoroastrianism, it would be Zoroastrianism!

                The question isn’t whether you can find something unique about Christianity. The question is whether any of its differences are of a different category from the other religions. And clearly — and even according to the earliest Christians — such is most emphatically not the case.



              • Dermot C
                Posted August 15, 2013 at 6:34 pm | Permalink

                Ben Goren
                Posted August 14, 2013 at 9:18 am

                I’ve just spotted this of yours, Ben, and the final phrase has a 99% chance of being plain wrong.

                Justin Martyr, for example, writing in the early second century, emphatically and repeatedly compares Jesus with Mercury, Bacchus, Perseus, Bellerophon, and others. That is, not only is there no evidence of a mortal Jesus, not only is there only evidence of an immortal Jesus, the mere idea of a mortal Jesus was an unthinkable heresy.

                That is not Justin’s idea. Why else would he write the lost Against Heresy by Marcion, who did think that Jesus only appeared to be human? That he was a divine being who somehow only appeared human?

                Why do you ascribe to people ideas which they don’t propound?

              • Posted August 15, 2013 at 6:55 pm | Permalink

                Not very good with the oddsmaking, eh?

                Here is the heart and soul of Martyr’s First Apology; all else is commentary:

                Chapter 23. The argument

                And that this may now become evident to you — (firstly) that whatever we assert in conformity with what has been taught us by Christ, and by the prophets who preceded Him, are alone true, and are older than all the writers who have existed; that we claim to be acknowledged, not because we say the same things as these writers said, but because we say true things: and (secondly) that Jesus Christ is the only proper Son who has been begotten by God, being His Word and first-begotten, and power; and, becoming man according to His will, He taught us these things for the conversion and restoration of the human race: and (thirdly) that before He became a man among men, some, influenced by the demons before mentioned, related beforehand, through the instrumentality of the poets, those circumstances as having really happened, which, having fictitiously devised, they narrated, in the same manner as they have caused to be fabricated the scandalous reports against us of infamous and impious actions, of which there is neither witness nor proof — we shall bring forward the following proof.

                How you can get from that that Martyr thought Jesus was anything other than the temporary incursion of the timelessly immortal divine spirit of Jesus into human affairs is utterly beyond me.

                I mean, really. Have you ever even read those words before I just posted them? Have you never been to a modern Christian service in which the exact same message is preached to this very day?

                Do you know anything at all about Christianity?

                Or are you just so committed to your notion of Jesus as a rebel commando in the employ of the Romans that all you’ll do is cherry-pick out-of-context fragments that don’t exactly contradict your fantasy reconstruction?


  11. @eightyc
    Posted August 14, 2013 at 8:14 am | Permalink

    [In The Nation, Elizabeth Castelli, Professor or Religion at Barnard College, also questions Aslan’s scholarship in ”Reza Aslan: Historian?” She notes that he is an associate professor of creative writing (not religion) at the University of California at Riverside.]

    lol. Well that’s some creative writing alright! haha

  12. JonLynnHarvey
    Posted August 14, 2013 at 8:15 am | Permalink

    I think Castelli has “nailed” it.

    It should be added that as Robert Price has pointed out, Schweitzer’s own Jesus reconstruction was the only one embarrassing to all schools of thought, a failed apocalyptic prophet who falsely believed in a cosmic cataclysmic end-time apocalyptic event about to occur, which didn’t. This continues to dominate much non-Christian scholarship including the work of Bart Ehrman and Paula Fredriksen.

    Now in the context of Schweitzer’s reconstruction, one can postulate that Jesus also displayed insurrectionist tendencies and was executed as an insurrectionist (as Reza Aslan beleives), but the !*context*! of that insurrectionism is radically removed from any commitment to the Zealot movement!!!!!

    Aslan’s viewpoint isn’t new at all. It’s the same notion of Jesus in a 2007 book by Jesus Seminar member Paul Verhoeven (Yep- the !*same*! guy who directed “Robocop” and “Basic Instinct”!!). PV is planning to make a movie based on his work, but FOX probably isn’t interested in him, since he’s not a Muslim.

    • JonLynnHarvey
      Posted August 14, 2013 at 8:17 am | Permalink

      Verhoeven retains the eschatological/apocalyptic framework for Jesus that Aslan has discarded however.

    • Reginald Selkirk
      Posted August 14, 2013 at 9:17 am | Permalink

      a failed apocalyptic prophet who falsely believed in a cosmic cataclysmic end-time apocalyptic event about to occur, which didn’t.

      Shades of William Miller and the Great Disappointment.

    • godsbelow
      Posted August 14, 2013 at 9:52 am | Permalink

      “the !*context*! of that insurrectionism is radically removed from any commitment to the Zealot movement!!!!!”

      Moreover, the idea that there was an organised anti-Roman movement at the time Jesus is supposed to have flourished, an idea championed by Martin Hengel, has largely been abandoned by scholars.

      As D. M. Rhoads (Israel in Revolution: 6-74 C.E.: A Political History Based on the Writings of Josephus, Philadelphia 1976) points out, Josephus’ accounts nowhere suggest that there was any kind of consistent opposition to Roman rule (as opposed to the intermittent troubles occasioned by specific events) before the 50s A.D. In fact, Josephus only uses the term ‘zealot’ as a political moniker to refer to one particular revolutionary faction, that of Eleazar son of Simon, which was active during the Great Revolt, not before.

      • Posted August 14, 2013 at 3:17 pm | Permalink

        “Moreover, the idea that there was an organised anti-Roman movement at the time Jesus is supposed to have flourished, an idea championed by Martin Hengel, has largely been abandoned by scholars. ”

        Oh noes, you mean The Life of Brian isn’t true?

        • Posted August 14, 2013 at 3:20 pm | Permalink

          It has to be true, or else I’ve wasted my life savings on that shoe gourd shoe collection!


  13. Diana MacPherson
    Posted August 14, 2013 at 8:18 am | Permalink

    As soon as I saw that he was using Josephus as a source for details about Jesus and his time, I realized if he is a historian, he’s a bad one. It’s well understood that Josephus comments sparingly about the time of Jesus and only from the perspective of someone looking backwards into the past, not as a participator. Azlan probably knows this! Jeez, I know this!!

    The FOX interview actually made me wonder about him as well because he seemed to just accept as fact that Jesus existed and had quite a few historical attributes to him that most people know are impossible to corroborate with sources outside the biblical ones.

    I didn’t know Aslan’s work was considered history…sigh don’t tell me I have to go on another letter writing campaign! 😉

  14. eric
    Posted August 14, 2013 at 8:39 am | Permalink

    If that’$ the ca$e, and Chri$tianity and I$lam are ju$t $ymbolic language$, why write $tories $aying what you think really happened?

    Does that help explain it?

    • darrelle
      Posted August 14, 2013 at 9:22 am | Permalink

      I was in a daze when I first skimmed your comment. On seeing all the dollar signs I was trying to find some meaning having to do with programming (for example to distinquish absolute references from relative references), and I just couldn’t make any sense of it. Finally it dawned on me you meant just that $$$. Duhh.

    • Richard Olson
      Posted August 14, 2013 at 9:42 am | Permalink

      $o $ay$ you$e, $ir$!

  15. DrBrydon
    Posted August 14, 2013 at 9:06 am | Permalink

    It’s ridiculous to think that one could actually write a biography of Jesus, anymore than one could of Apollo. There are no credible sources, and even those we have conflict. That is the truth that underlies Schweitzer’s comment about as many Jesuses [What’s the plural of Jesus? And don’t say the Trinity….] as there are biographers. When you have no facts, you have to make it up, and that’s just fiction, regardless of any element of realism the setting imparts.

    • Posted August 14, 2013 at 3:11 pm | Permalink

      Are you kidding about Apollo? Millions of people witnessed Apollo’s epic battles against The Italian Stallion, and there is recorded video evidence of Apollo’s demise at the hands of the mighty Drago.

  16. godsbelow
    Posted August 14, 2013 at 9:19 am | Permalink

    Aslan’s depiction of Jesus certainly isn’t new: idea that Jesus was a political revolutionary is pretty widespread, particularly among American scholarship. It isn’t a very convincing interpretation, however. As Helen Bond (University of Edinburgh), commenting on her own research, note:

    “Much has been written lately about Jesus’ supposed antagonism towards ‘imperial Rome’ (it’s never simply ‘Rome’); Jesus, we’re told, set himself against imperialism, or, more broadly, the ‘dominating system(s)’ of his day. This is particularly strong in US scholarship and reflects (I assume) a certain degree of American angst regarding its own ‘imperial’ standing in the world…But I don’t see anti-imperialism as a central theme in his preaching. Jews over the centuries had developed many theological strategies to explain and come to terms with foreign rule, most commonly that God (the ruler of history) was chastising his people for a time before a great final vindication when Israel’s enemies would be swept away and God would clearly reign. In this apocalyptic scenario, there’s no point in setting oneself against empires, because their frailty and false-pride will soon be exposed for all to see. What we have here in scholarship that puts an anti-imperial agenda to the fore in Jesus’ teaching, it seems to me, is the desire for a useable Jesus – someone who will speak to modern day liberal Christians who want to critique their own government’s imperialist practices.”

    • Posted August 14, 2013 at 9:22 am | Permalink

      the desire for a useable Jesus someone who will speak to modern day liberal Christians

      That’s all that Jesus — or any deity — is or ever has been: a convenient mouthpiece of unquestionable authority to speak your own words on your behalf.


      • darrelle
        Posted August 14, 2013 at 11:12 am | Permalink

        Not that the thought is new of course, but very nicely composed. Tight, concise, smooth and witty. Wish I could do that every now and then.

        • Posted August 14, 2013 at 11:30 am | Permalink

          I’m sure you have. I wouldn’t recognize your avatar if not….


    • darrelle
      Posted August 14, 2013 at 9:26 am | Permalink

      “This is particularly strong in US scholarship and reflects (I assume) a certain degree of American angst regarding its own ‘imperial’ standing in the world…”

      Ziiinnnnggg! Direct hit. Ouch.

    • godsbelow
      Posted August 14, 2013 at 9:34 am | Permalink

      That’s from this article: http://www.bibleinterp.com/articles/bon368024.shtml

      Another point against the interpretation of Jesus as an anti-Roman zealot is that the gospels depict him as a Galilean, and Galilee wasn’t actually under Roman rule during the time in which he is supposed to have lived. It was administered on behalf the Empire by a Herodian dynast until its formal annexation by in A.D. 44.

    • Diana MacPherson
      Posted August 14, 2013 at 9:40 am | Permalink

      You have to ask if regular people would be thinking about the “Empire”. Who would actually contemplate what Rome was or even know…they just knew they were under the authority of a foreign power that would seriously kick their asses if they caused a big fuss. It does appear anachronistic and inaccurate to suggest otherwise and reminds me of Monty Python….in particular when Pilate has a friend named Biggus Dickus and he threatens to make anyone else who laughs at the name into a gladiator.

      • bric
        Posted August 14, 2013 at 12:53 pm | Permalink

        I hereby nominate that scene as the funniest in any film ever. Now if the Bible had jokes like that . . .

        • Diana MacPherson
          Posted August 14, 2013 at 1:04 pm | Permalink

          I also liked when they called the Romans “big nose”.

  17. Marta
    Posted August 14, 2013 at 9:29 am | Permalink

    This was a very good read!

  18. Diana MacPherson
    Posted August 14, 2013 at 10:01 am | Permalink

    If anyone is interested in the whole Josephus thing, Richard Carrier discusses Aslan’s use of the Testimonium Flavianum and Josephus.

  19. Posted August 14, 2013 at 10:15 am | Permalink

    I’m not going to read Zealot, but I will look into Castelli’s books.

  20. potaman
    Posted August 14, 2013 at 10:40 am | Permalink

    The best version of the jesus story that I’ve read is in the master and margarita. It is completely fictional but it is awesome.

  21. W.Benson
    Posted August 14, 2013 at 11:06 am | Permalink

    If Fox hated it, it can’t be all bad!

  22. Bob Carlson
    Posted August 14, 2013 at 11:45 am | Permalink

    What a gold mine! Amazon says the book became available on July 16, and it already has 790 reviews. I wonder when it will overtake Proof of Heaven, currently at 5,527 reviews. Alas, The Way of Science: Finding Truth and Meaning in a Scientific Worldview is still stuck at a single review. That book doesn’t bash the faithful; it mostly suggests that our schools do a poor job of teaching about the scientific method, making it all the easier for the faithful to reject evolution in favor of some form of creationism.

  23. Daryl
    Posted August 14, 2013 at 2:18 pm | Permalink

    I’m always surprised when Schweitzer’s work comes up and he’s portrayed as a kind of historical sceptic. Yes, he made the acute observation that much historical Jesus scholarship reflected the personal views of scholars rather than any first century Jew, but what I got from reading ‘The Quest of the Historical Jesus’ was the impression that he viewed much of the gospel story (particularly as depicted in Matthew and Mark) as pretty reliable history. He’s actually way to the right of scholars such as Strauss and Wrede.

    Still a excellent scholar, though. ‘The Quest’ is a great read.

  24. quine001
    Posted August 14, 2013 at 3:41 pm | Permalink

    I did read the book, and recommend it to all here, especially if you are going to write anything about it. It is not much of a Jesus biography, because almost no historical evidence for Jesus is reliable. That is made clear. What it is mostly about is the historical picture of fist century Palestine, the Jewish political system, and how that interacted with the Romans. The book is also not about Christianity, because that did not get going until long after Jesus (even if you believe in an historical Jesus).

    I believe the academics are complaining about the book because the history in it has been known in the classroom since Schweitzer, and what can be nailed down well enough to qualify for professional history would make a book that would sell to, maybe, a few hundred other academic buyers, not millions of the general public. The problem is that the general public (mostly Christians) doesn’t even know what Schweitzer wrote more than a century ago. Reza’s book tells the general public things like the Gospels being written much later by unknown authors, and that the stories in the Gospels can’t exactly fit with what is know about the Roman occupation. He sets the stage for the idea that Jesus was a peasant street preacher who ran afoul of the combined Jewish/Roman power structure in a time when rebels were numerous and regularly being executed in full display as examples.

    I expect the book to start a wave of questioning in the public debate, especially when people find out that their pastors leaned much of this in seminary, and never bothered to tell them. The first reaction is to deflect based on Reza being a Muslim, or “not a serious historian” or any other personal attack they can make on him. I am not interested in any of that, or if his other books are good or bad, just the content of this book, and what that content will start in the way of public questioning.

    • Posted August 14, 2013 at 7:42 pm | Permalink

      Yes, I found the book interesting as well.

      The depiction of Jerusalem around Jesus’ times are interesting and give some new thoughts. I understand Aslan’s thesis about who Jesus is, based on circumstantial evidence of the time.

      That there was a lot of oppression by Roman occupation and the corrupt Temple system. And that a lot of other messiahs had tried many combinations between full militaristic and full-martyrdom concepts. All to no avail. Ended in the 73CE Roman genocide. And what happened afterward (all gospels were written after the genocide), the birth of xtianity, which have little connection with “Jesus movements” which was continued by James (Jesus brother) until the massacre.

      I know that these thesis are not original with Aslan, but he combine them into a good narrative that is unkind to christianity.

      Still a readable book.

    • Reginald Selkirk
      Posted August 15, 2013 at 7:35 am | Permalink

      I expect the book to start a wave of questioning in the public debate, especially when people find out that their pastors leaned much of this in seminary, and never bothered to tell them.

      I don’t. This has been the case for about a century, and no other book (a few by Bart Ehrman come to mind) has started such a wave. Meanwhile, the masses of believers have been drifting from the “mainline” denominations to the more fundamentalist, anti-intellectual denominations. They have no desire for such questioning as you suppose.

      • Posted August 16, 2013 at 6:48 pm | Permalink

        If that happens, means the xtian fundies succeed in suppressing the issue, using lies like Fox’ Aslan is muslim rhetorics. And that’s a shame.

        But Spencer’s book on Islam last year also failed to start healthy discussion on whether Mo exist.


  25. Steven Obrebski
    Posted August 14, 2013 at 4:30 pm | Permalink

    I read Zealot and found it entertaining. I
    hope the stuff on the Jewish political system and interaction with the Romans was approximately true since that is what I retain from it most vividly. I probably
    would not have read it after reading this
    WEIT and other commentary that has since appeared. I know that I will most certainly and definitely read Jerry’s book on the foibles of theology when it appears.

    • Diana MacPherson
      Posted August 14, 2013 at 4:41 pm | Permalink

      Yeah I probably won’t read it because, as Jerry said, life is short.also I have 90 books in my backlog stressing me out as it is, so if I wanted to read a Jesus book I’d want it to be historically accurate. So, really if I’m going to read about to first C AD or so, I’d rather read a book about Augustus instead & if I want to think about the dark ages (when Jesus was popular) I’ll just avoid the European dark ages altogether and read about the end of the Mycenaean civilization (The End of the Bronze Age: Changes in Warfare and the Catastrophe CA. 1200 B.C. by Robert Drews is on my giant long list).

      • Steven Obrebski
        Posted August 14, 2013 at 6:05 pm | Permalink

        If you want an interesting read on Biblical history consider the work of Donald Redford who won the “Best Scholarly Book in Archaeology” from the Biblical Archaeology Society for his book on “Egypt, Canaan and Israel In Ancient Times” to be followed by “The Bible Unearthed” by Israel Fink and Neil Silberman. Both books provide evidence showing that there was no mass exodus of Jews from Egypt or a conquest of Canaan. Being in the process of reading a new book by Russell Doolittle on the evolution of blood clotting, which requires of me some careful and slow concentration, Zealot was, unfortunately, a racy distraction.

        For a good read try Johan Huizinga, “The Waning of the Middle Ages”. I read it years ago when my wife and I lived in a somewhat isolated community, with no TV, and read a whole bunch of stuff on the Middle Ages. This was an interesting excursion into the mentality of the times.

        • Diana MacPherson
          Posted August 14, 2013 at 6:06 pm | Permalink

          Oh noes, that puts my book list way past 90 now! 🙂

          • Steven Obrebski
            Posted August 14, 2013 at 6:17 pm | Permalink

            My apologies! But I couldn’t help it.

            • Posted August 14, 2013 at 6:22 pm | Permalink

              I understand this one be Hector Avalos is the ultimate one of the genre.

              “Ultimate,” as in, “last, after which none can follow.”


            • Diana MacPherson
              Posted August 14, 2013 at 6:33 pm | Permalink

              Ha ha! I’ve added them to my list!

          • Posted August 14, 2013 at 11:57 pm | Permalink

            Only double figures?


  26. Dermot C
    Posted August 15, 2013 at 8:23 pm | Permalink

    Ben Goren
    Posted August 15, 2013 at 6:55 pm

    Again, apologies for the delay: my computer died; it is now resurrected, ergo Jesus.

    Oh dear, Ben; you’ve gone off on one again re: your rant that doesn’t demonstrate at all what you want it to prove. Look, to use Tony Blair’s phrase when patronising an interviewer, these people thought in a different way to you and me: dualistically. Justin could easily think that Jesus was the pre-existing Word, mortal and divine; that’s the claim. It’s nonsense, and it has loads of weird corollaries. Socrates, for instance, was a proto-Christian because of his understanding of virtue; he was part of wisdom, which was only perfected in the life of Jesus.

    Your faux-naïf doubt of my knowledge of Christianity deserves the observation that is almost a witty rhetorical point.

    To business: the following was what I wrote before you lost your rag again; calm down!

    At last, Ben, a reasonable and respectful discussion of Christianity and its origins. I have as developed a sense of humour as the next Woody Allen, but when it comes to discussions on the existence or otherwise… especially in anti-theist circles, I think we have to be rigorously honest and demonstrate, at least between ourselves, and to others, that we are committed to what we believe is most likely to have happened in the past.

    You are a funny writer, Doherty’s thesis is captivating, Price and Carrier have done the academic work far more than I, and I suspect you, am capable of, have the time to, or am willing to do. But I don’t buy, especially, Doherty; frankly, I found large portions of his ideas laughable, even though I can only admire his auto-education.

    You ask – well I’m not sure what you ask – how Christianity is different to other religions, mebbe? Well, it ain’t, and it is; one way is in its historical genesis and there is a lot of evidence that a charismatic, apocalyptic Jew ministered, probably for no more than 6 months in early first century Palestine; around whom a world religion coalesced.

    The fact that you or I may wish JC never to have existed has no bearing on whether he did: after much reading on the subject, as opposed to research, defined earlier in this thread, I tend to think it more than likely that JC, as I defined him above, probably existed; until I am convinced otherwise.

    At the moment, I think only Carrier could convince me otherwise; and after seeing the rather silly and euphoric iconoclasm of his presentation on Bayesian analysis and the historical method, he has a lot of work to do.

    Finally, you wrote, “The question is whether any of its differences are of a different category from the other religions. And clearly — and even according to the earliest Christians — such is most emphatically not the case.” I agree with all of that, except the phrase between hyphens. You have summed up the case as far as I’m concerned.

    You will know that I disagree with your interpretation of early Christian history; and you’ll be aware, although I have never explicitly said it, that I think that you back-project medieval and post-medieval Christian doctrine onto pre-Nicene orthodoxy and heresy.


    • Posted August 16, 2013 at 6:27 pm | Permalink

      Well said.

      We may or may not wish that historical Jesus may or may not exist, and that has no bearing on whether Jesus actually exist or not.

      And the reason we would like to discuss this thing (whether Jesus exist) is because this is a big issue with a lot of people nowadays, much more than those who discuss whether Temujin (google him) exists.

      A lot of people – both in the past and current – are idiots, but the other coin, a lot of them same people (you and me included) might be right sometimes …

      Being a skeptical humanist trying to be objective, we learn about all of them, without prejudice (or unnecessary awe) as most as we can, unlike them faith-heads ..

      • Posted August 16, 2013 at 7:21 pm | Permalink

        Wishing has nothing to do with it.

        There are no contemporary or near-contemporary reports of anything vaguely resembling Jesus or the wondrous acts which are the very essence of his biography — this despite a most comprehensive extant contemporary record.

        All depictions of Jesus from later generations portray him as indistinguishable from any of the other popular pagan demigods of his time, including each and every one of the stories in his biographies. And the earliest Christians vigorously attested to that fact.

        The earliest Pagan mentions of Jesus are all as the object of worship by a lunatic fringe upstart religious cult causing problems, and they’re described the same way we today would describe the Raelians or the Branch Davidians or the like.

        In other words, you have no evidence of Jesus as an historical human figure, overwhelming evidence of Jesus’s absence from the historical record, and overwhelming evidence of Jesus as yet another bog-standard Pagan demigod invented by yet another upstart religious cult, just like the uncountable hundreds of others just like him, none of whom anybody else even pretends for a moment were actual historical figures.

        How anybody can get anything out of that resembling historicity — aside, of course, from invoking the infantile self-deception of “faith” — is utterly beyond me.


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