ZealotMr. Aslan has a thesis, and he has written Zealot to prove it. As we soon find out while reading the book, Aslan intends to accomplish his mission at any cost, sometimes even at the cost of betraying logic and the very historical facts he claims to draw his conclusions from.
Very early in the book, Aslan clearly lays out his thesis: Jesus was “a zealous revolutionary swept up, as all Jews of the era were, in the religious and political turmoil of first-century Palestine—[he] bears little resemblaMr. Aslan has a thesis, and he has written Zealot to prove it. As we soon find out while reading the book, Aslan intends to accomplish his mission at any cost, sometimes even at the cost of betraying logic and the very historical facts he claims to draw his conclusions from.Very early in the book, Aslan clearly lays out his thesis: Jesus was “a zealous revolutionary swept up, as all Jews of the era were, in the religious and political turmoil of first-century Palestine—[he] bears little resemblance to the image of the gentle shepherd cultivated by the early Christian community.” Then Aslan goes on to try to prove his theory and tells us: “Crucifixion was a punishment that Rome reserved almost exclusively for the crime of sedition. […] Jesus’s crime, in the eyes of Rome, was striving for kingly rule (i.e., treason), the same crime for which nearly every other messianic aspirant of the time was killed. Nor did Jesus die alone. The gospels claim that on either side of Jesus hung men who in Greek are called lestai, a word often rendered into English as ‘thieves’ but which actually means ‘bandits’ and was the most common Roman designation for an insurrectionist or rebel. Three rebels on a hill covered in crosses, each cross bearing the racked and bloodied body of a man who dared defy the will of Rome. That image alone should cast doubt upon the gospels’ portrayal of Jesus as a man of unconditional peace […]”Aslan goes on to give us a list of the names of the rebels, revolutionaries, and bandits of first century Palestine who saw themselves as “messiahs.” They took up arms not only against Rome but also against the chief priests of the Temple in Jerusalem. The chief priests had deep pockets and exploited the population, deepening the gap between the rich and the poor. Some of the violent revolutionaries were Hezekiah the bandit chief, Simon of Paraea, and Judas the Galilean. These men and their followers robbed armories and fought the Romans and the Jewish elite with swords, spilling blood. Then came the Sicarii (Daggermen), zealots who “had begun their reign of terror. Shouting their slogan ‘No lord but God!’ They began attacking the members of the Jewish ruling class, plundering their possessions, kidnapping their relatives, and burning down their homes. By these tactics, they sowed their terror into the hearts of the Jews so that, as Josephus writes, ‘More terrible than their crimes was the fear they aroused, every man hourly expecting death, as in war.’”Here, I will briefly break down some of the flaws in Aslan’s thesis:1. Aslan expects us to believe that because the other “messiahs” of the first century Palestine were violent zealots, so was Jesus. This is despite the fact that the most violent act Jesus ever committed was to overturn a few tables of money exchangers in the Temple in Jerusalem. A few pigeons and goats were freed, but, from what we can tell, no one was seriously hurt in the process. Jesus was, in a unique way, a revolutionary; his words and actions did not threaten the political establishment but challenged the priestly elite who used religion to get rich and gain more and more power. However, Jesus was not violent. On the contrary, what made him so dangerous was that he claimed his powers came directly from God, and he had his many miracles to prove this. Aslan admits that Jesus did perform many miraculous deeds like curing the sick, but he dismisses Jesus’s miracles as “magic” and says that many other “messiahs” were doing amazing things during the first century. Aslan tells us that what made Jesus different was that, unlike the others, he performed miracles for free. So, Jesus was indeed different from the rest. A question then arises: Why did Jesus perform his miracles for free when all the other healers charged for their work? If he were another violent revolutionary, wouldn’t he need money to fund his movement and arm his disciples?To further prove that Jesus was a violent revolutionary, Aslan quotes the Gospel of Luke: “If you do not have a sword, go and sell your cloak and buy one.” (Luke 22:36) This sentence has been discussed thousands of times, and it feels ridiculously repetitive to talk about it again, but here goes. We have to look at this quote in its context: “And he said to them, ‘When I sent you out without purse and bag, you did not lack anything, did you?’ And they said, ‘No, nothing.’ And he said to them, ‘But now, let him who has a purse take it along, likewise also a bag, and let him who has no sword sell his robe and buy one. For I tell you that this which is written must be fulfilled in me, ‘And he was numbered with transgressors’; for that which refers to me has its fulfillment.’ And they said, ‘Lord, look, here are two swords.’ And he said to them, ‘It is enough.’” (Luke 22:35-38) Jesus was known for speaking in metaphors. Here, he’s telling his disciples that even though during the time he has been with them, they have lacked nothing, the time will come, after his death, that they would have to take care of themselves and be well prepared for their difficult and challenging mission. If Jesus really meant to arm his disciples, would he have told them that two swords were enough? Two swords are enough for what exactly when facing the Roman Empire and the chief priests? Some “messiahs” who had picked up arms around the same time had robbed armories! In the Gospels and all recorded history of the life of Jesus, there is only one time when one of his disciples uses a sword. This happens at the time of Jesus’s arrest when tens of armed men sent by the high priest, Caiaphas, come to the garden of Gethsemane, where Jesus and his disciples have taken refuge after the last supper. Peter panics, pulls a sword, and cuts off the ear of the servant of the high priest. “Then Jesus said to him, ‘Put your sword back into its place; for all those who take up the sword shall perish by the sword.’” (Matthew 26:52) Are these the words and actions of a violent man? Jesus often preached about loving our enemies and praying for them.2. Because Jesus was crucified, we have to assume he was a violent revolutionary.As Aslan tells us, Pilate, the Roman governor of Palestine at the time of Jesus, was a coldhearted man who had no patience for any of the Jews’ religious beliefs and especially for their “messiahs” who saw themselves as kings and thus challenged the power of Rome. During his time as governor, Pilate had seen many so-called messiahs preach about the end of the oppression of the Jews, perform magical acts, begin violent movements, and spill blood. These actions destabilized the region and were a challenge to the power of Rome and the Emperor. It was Pilate’s job to put an end to these movements with an iron fist once and for all, but they kept sprouting. The image that Aslan paints of Pilate sounds relatively accurate, but his conclusions are illogical. There is more than one way to see the situation. For example: Pilate is the Roman governor, and he is cruel. In addition, he is fed up with the “messiahs” and their followers. The Jewish elite despise the Romans, but they have no choice but to work with the occupiers. After all, the top priests’ main goal is to fill their pockets. The Romans can help them do just that as long as the Empire’s share of the profit is guaranteed. It is to the advantage of the priests and the Romans to get along and work together, but serious disagreements are unavoidable, and sparks fly. When Jesus eventually finds his way to Jerusalem from the countryside, the priestly class is alarmed before the Romans are. Romans do not speak Aramaic, the language of Jesus, but the priests do. Jesus has not been violent, so, at least for the time being, he has not set off alarms for Pilate, who is quite busy being the governor of a difficult region. But, of course, Pilate has heard of the peasant who cures the sick and attracts large crowds. However, this peasant has not picked up arms, so the Romans have tolerated him while they deal with more serious threats—and, by Aslan’s own admission, there are many. The priests, on the other hand, are getting more worried by the day. Jesus has some dangerous claims. Even though he doesn’t exactly call himself the messiah yet, he has directly challenged the power of the Temple and the priests. He has cured the “unclean” and has even forgiven their sins! The Temple priests have a complicated ritual when it comes to cleansing “unclean” individuals, a process that is financially lucrative for Temple authorities and demands that the “unclean” offer many sacrifices to the Temple. Who does this Jesus think he is? He might be non-violent, but he is extremely dangerous. After all, he has called himself the Son of Man. The other “messiahs” have never called themselves that. Jesus is different and a threat, yet the Romans are not aware of the terrible problems he can cause. The high priest, Caiaphas, takes it upon himself to make sure this threat is eliminated. In short, Jesus seems to represent a religious threat to the Jewish priests, not a political or military threat to the Romans.3. Aslan tells us that Jesus didn’t call himself messiah or Son of God. Instead, in the Gospels, Jesus calls himself the “Son of Man” about 80 times, “an enigmatic and unique” title. Aslan traces the origin of the term to the Book of Daniel. Son of Man, at least in the context that Daniel and Jesus have used the term, doesn’t just mean “human being”; it is much more than that. In a vision, Daniel sees “‘the Ancient of Days’ [God] sitting on a throne. Thousands serve him as he passes judgment, and this is when Daniel sees ‘one like a son of man coming with the clouds of heaven. He came to the
Ancient of Days and was presented before him. And to him was given dominion and glory and a kingdom, so that all the peoples, nations, and languages should serve him. His dominion shall be everlasting; it shall never be destroyed.’” Aslan concludes that “because he [Jesus] failed to accomplish any of his messianic functions on earth,” early Christians came up with the idea that the Kingdom of God, which Jesus directly linked to his identity as the Son of Man, is not from this world.As Aslan quotes from the Gospels, Jesus “goes on to describe how the Son of Man must suffer and be rejected before being killed […]” These hardly sound like the words of an ambitious and violent revolutionary who wants to oust the Romans and become king. If we go back to the description of the Son of Man in the Book of Daniel, we can easily see that the Son of Man, at least the way Daniel and Jesus see him, is not exactly a worldly figure and is not a “normal” king. Daniel’s Son of Man comes with the clouds of heaven and stands next to God. The Son of Man has dominion and glory and a kingdom and all people eternally serve him. Jews knew very well that even the kingdom of David had ended. Eternity is Godly; it is not from this world. Aslan finds Jesus’s descriptions of the Son of Man contradictory: “He is powerful (Mark 14:62) yet suffering (Mark 13:26). He is present on earth (Mark 2:10) yet coming in the future (Mark 8:38). He will be rejected by men (Mark 10:33), yet he will judge over them (Mark 14:62). He is both ruler (Mark 8:38) and servant (Mark 10:45).” Aslan sees all of these as contradictions, because he is trying to sell us the idea that Jesus wanted to become an earthly king. However, Jesus’s message and approach are fundamentally different. Let’s put all the words that describe the Son of Man together: powerful, suffering, present, coming in the future, rejected by men, judge over men. When these words are put together, just like Daniel’s description of the Son of Man, they vividly describe a king whose kingdom is literally out of this world and challenges old belief systems. This idea seems to confuse Aslan and sends him into ranting loops that make no sense. Aslan’s problem is that he desperately tries to fit Jesus into the earthly mold of a violent man who uses the sword to get his way.4. Aslan claims that “The gospels present Pilate as a righteous yet weak-willed man so overcome with doubt about putting Jesus to death that he does everything in his power to save his life, finally washing his hands off the entire episode when the Jews demand his blood.” Aslan adds: “Either the threat posed by Jesus to the stability of Jerusalem was so great that he is one of only a handful of Jews to have the opportunity to stand before Pilate and answer for his alleged crimes, or else the so called trial before Pilate is a fabrication.” Basically, Aslan claims that either Jesus was a violent revolutionary whom Pilate insisted on executing, or the narrative of his trial in the Gospels is not true at all. In other words, if Jesus were not violent, it would simply mean that he was never brought before Pilate.What seems to be a fabrication here is not at all the Gospels’ description of the last hours of the life of Jesus but is Alsan’s conclusion. These are the same Gospels that Aslan quotes time and time again when he feels he can manipulate them to serve his agenda and prove Jesus to be a mere revolutionary armed with a lot of zeal and a sword, basically what we might call a terrorist today, more or less, a member of an Al-Qaeda style movement in the first century, fighting the Romans.As Aslan has quoted the Gospel of Matthew many times, I carefully read the part of it that has to do with the trial of Jesus. Aslan has claimed that it would have been impossible for Pilate to give a man like Jesus so much of his time, and that even if Jesus were brought in front of Pilate, his trial would have been very quick. Reading the Gospel of Matthew, it is difficult not to notice that Jesus’s trial was indeed very short and arbitrary; the whole episode is described in about 6 lines, which Aslan calls it a long trial, and, as a result, a fabrication and a creation of the Gospel writers. 5. Aslan writes that crucifixions were performed very often and served as a deterrent to others who might wish to defy the state. This is why crucifixions were carried out in public and usually on hills and at crossroads where everyone who walked by could see; “The criminal was always left hanging long after he had died; the crucified were almost never buried. Because the point of the crucifixion was to humiliate the victim and frighten the witnesses, the corpse would be left where it hung to be eaten by dogs and picked clean by the birds of prey. The bones would then be thrown onto a heap of trash, which is how Golgotha, the place of Jesus’s crucifixion earned its name: the place of Skulls.” From what we can tell, it is true that the vast majority of those who were crucified were left on the cross, as Aslan tells us. But there are exceptions to almost any rule. The Gospels, which Aslan has quoted time and time again, tell us that “And when it was evening, there came a rich man from Arimathea, named Joseph, who himself had also become a disciple of Jesus. This man went to Pilate and asked for the body of Jesus. Then Pilate ordered it to be given over to him. And Joseph took the body and wrapped it in a clean linen cloth, and laid it in his own new tomb, which he had hewn out in the rock; and he rolled a large stone against the entrance of the tomb and went away.” (Matthew 27:57-60) Thousands of people had followed Jesus, and even though he had 12 main disciples, he had many friends and followers, some of whom were rich and powerful. He had cured many, and these individuals had families and neighbors. From this story, we can tell that Joseph cared deeply about Jesus, and this is why he gave him his own tomb. Pilate allowed it, as he probably just wanted to get done with this whole Jesus thing even if the main reason for it was that his wife had been nagging about it! There were many other corpses left on Golgotha to serve as a deterrent to dissidents and revolutionaries. 6. Aslan writes: “Then something extraordinary happened. What exactly that something was is impossible to know. Jesus’s resurrection is an exceedingly difficult topic for historians to discuss, not least because it falls beyond the scope of any examinations of the historical Jesus. Obviously, the notion of a man dying a gruesome death and returning to life three days later defies all logic, reason, and sense. One could simply stop the argument there, dismiss the resurrection as a lie, and declare belief in the risen Jesus to be the product of a deludable mind. However, there is this nagging fact to consider: one after another of those who claimed to have witnessed the risen Jesus went to their own gruesome deaths refusing to recant their testimony. That is not, in itself, unusual. Many zealot Jews died horribly for refusing to deny their beliefs. But these first followers of Jesus were not being asked to reject the matters of faith based on events that took place centuries, if not millennia, before. They were being asked to deny something they themselves personally, directly encountered.” Aslan goes on to tell us: “It was precisely the fervor with which the followers of Jesus believed in his resurrection that transformed this tiny Jewish sect into the largest religion in the world.”Indeed, many have dismissed Jesus’s resurrection as a lie, and we can see that Aslan would have loved to do the same. Yet, as he puts it so well himself, there is a “nagging fact to consider.” Jesus’s disciples, the ones who knew him personally and had claimed to have seen him after his resurrection, bore witness to what they had seen, even under torture and to horrific deaths. This is a truth worth pondering.History can be used and abused, shaped and reshaped. It is sometimes extremely difficult to separate fact from fiction, even when it comes to what happened last year, let alone two thousand years ago. Many times, we are left with not much more than witness testimonies. Are witness testimonies perfect and entirely accurate? No. Memory filters everything, emotions affect the way we remember, and trauma can distort images. Yet, there is something powerful about the witness, especially a witness who would rather die than recant his testimony. Maybe this is exactly where the truth lives in all its mystery.As other reviewers of Aslan’s Zealot have mentioned, this book, which now sits on top of various bestseller lists, would not at all have received so much attention if it were not for the controversial Fox interview conducted by Lauren Green that has been viewed a million times on YouTube. Green demands to know why a Muslim such as Aslan should be interested in the life of Christ. To me, as a writer and reviewer, Aslan’s religion doesn’t matter. If I have issues with a book, I address them in a direct and civilized manner after reading all the book and carefully analyzing its arguments. It is amazing how many of the people who have very strong opinions about this book have not read it. But, there are a few well-written reviews about it available. For example, in his review of Zealot for The Telegraph, Nicholas Blincoe writes: “It is a politically charged interpretation with a grand narrative sweep but, too often, the decisions underpinning it feel arbitrary.” And Stuart Kelly says in The Guardian: “To take just one example: the Romans are said to display ‘characteristic savagery’ on page 13 and are ‘generally tolerant’ on page 14. Aslan contends that an illiterate ‘day laborer’ called Jesus was part of an insurrectionary tradition in Israel, and the story of this Che Guevara of the early Middle East was co-opted by the dastardly Saul of Tarsus, aka Saint Paul, who defanged the zealot and turned him into an apolitical metaphysician. Frankly, parts of it are closer to Jesus Christ Superstar than any serious undertaking.”Marina NematAuthor of Prisoner of Tehran and After Tehran ...more