Book Review: Zealot

by Element Christian Church

This is a review that I did on my Goodreads page for the book Zealot by Reza Aslan, I thought it would be helpful for you as well.

A friend of mind read this review and said I sounded angry, I don’t think I am angry as much as frustrated. Let me start by addressing something that repeatedly comes up throughout the entirety of Zealot…We all have a bias. Each of us has a worldview that shapes how we process and analyze information. Research shows we are more likely to accept and gravitate toward people, things, and ideas that reinforce our beliefs. This is why critical thinking is so important...we must be willing to have our worldview challenged, but also be able to point to true evidence that reinforces it. Make no mistake when reading Zealot, Aslan has a bias, even though he claims not to. His bias is markedly strong on every page. When I read the book I had to put it down multiple times in order to avoid a metaphorical aneurism.
 
To be upfront about my own bias, I believe the Bible is a truthful, historically valid collection of writings, and that Jesus is the Son of God. I believe these claims have withstood time and the opposing arguments (like Reza Aslan’s) along the way. I wrote this review only after a former youth group kid shared his review of the book and stated, “Zealot is an attempt to look at the historical Jesus of Nazareth. Rather than looking at the founder and reason for Christianity, Aslan looks at Jesus the political revolutionary.” As I said, I had previously tried to read through the entire book, but put it down because it brings up the same arguments that have been disproved for the last 150 years, after the review of this young man, who I love dearly, I finally finished it. I assumed where the book would be going, and it turns out, I was right.
 
Most of my comments throughout this review are made at the times when I put the book down out of frustration with Aslan’s bias, it is why many of the things I say have a frustrated tone. If I could sum up this review in a few words, they would be this: “Aslan claims the New Testament writers were biased in their testimonies about Jesus, but he (Aslan) claims to be unbiased…he is full of BS.” That’s it. Throughout the book, Aslan shows his bias in how he masterfully twists biblical book order, phrases, verses, and history to fit his particular worldview, and yet consistently acts like he is not doing that. You lose credibility as an author if you can’t even cop to your own bias. Many people, if they are not aware of what he is doing, can easily be swayed by his less than true arguments.
 
As an example, Aslan, at the very beginning of the book, completely dismisses ALL of the apostle Paul’s writing in one paragraph—simply because Paul believed and taught the virgin birth, Jesus’ atoning death on the cross, and the resurrection. Seriously, just ONE paragraph to dismiss one of the greatest scholars in the ancient world. However, Aslan has to do this because the rest of his claims wouldn’t stand up to Paul’s theology. If that doesn’t scream “bias,” I don’t know what does. How about Aslan’s central premise (common among liberal scholars) that the synoptic Gospels took their information from an outside document known as “Q”? The “Q” hypothesis argues that Matthew, Mark, and Luke may not have even known each other, and that the Gospels were written after the fall of Jerusalem (70AD – or CE, depending on how you like to refer to the current age); they were a collusion of the church to deify Jesus and fit its theological structure. The biggest issue with this theory is that we have thousands of documents, fragments, and pieces of the synoptic gospels, but not one shred of evidence for the “Q” document/source material other than a bunch of liberal scholars saying “it must exist” because they cannot believe the New Testament could have been written any other way…can you say “bias?”**

 


Aslan repeatedly references the “Q” document throughout his book—as if it is something you could go and look up. He speaks of how Jesus wouldn’t label himself as the messiah (for good reason if you actually read the scriptures), but states Jesus only accepted the title when it was foisted upon him. He then says in Chapter 11, “The same is true for the early Q source material, which also contains not a single messianic statement by Jesus.” That’s because Q material doesn’t actually exist! There isn’t a manuscript to review and make this type of comparison, yet Aslan writes numerous times as if it is a real document, continuing to confuse people who don’t know any different.
 
The amazing thing today is that we do have evidence that Matthew, Mark, and Luke were written well before 70AD. There is new evidence coming to light that Matthew may have even been the first Gospel written AND it may have been written in Hebrew. In the time of Jesus, many people were illiterate, or could barely read, but as it was mostly an ORAL culture. The stories of Jesus would have been written down, because the Jews loved the written word, but for most people, they would HEAR (and retain) the stories told. The apostles telling the stories of Jesus orally, and then writing them down, would make sense as to why much of the Gospels share the same truths. It was a common cultural practice.
 
No matter what the truth is, Aslan seems to ignore it as he keeps trying to make the same arguments that have been disproven for the last 200 years. As a matter of fact, Dan Barkman points out that “Aslan attempts to revive the thesis of the eighteenth century scholar Herman Reimarus who argued that Jesus is best seen as a kind of failed political revolutionary (or zealot).” Reimarus’ arguments have been resoundingly squashed for the last couple of centuries, but hat never stops people trying to rehash old arguments.

Aslan loves to pick bits and pieces from the Gospel accounts and twist them to try to prove his points. In Chapter 8, titled “Follow Me” he says, “Nor is there anything in the gospels to indicate that Jesus’s family rebuffed his messianic ambitions.” He says this to try to show that Jesus’ family was in on the Messiah claims. His statement tells you to look in Mark 3:31-34…completely dismissing Mark 3:21, which says, “And when his family heard it [speaking of Jesus’ teaching and disciple making], they went out to seize him, for they were saying, ‘He is out of his mind.’” The scriptures clearly show his family did initially “rebuff” Jesus’ messianic claims, but are then confronted with the truth after the resurrection. (Again, Aslan dismisses the reality of the resurrection.)  
 
When I first started writing this book review, I was keeping track of every bias; in the end, I had to stop because the review would have been as long as the book. Aslan says numerous times it’s impossible to really know the true historical Jesus, but then goes on to tell you exactly what he thinks Jesus was saying and doing. In Chapter 9, May Your Kingdom Come, Aslan really hits his stride by completely misunderstanding what Christianity teaches about Jesus and His mission; it makes you wonder if his claim that he was once a Christian is true (many claim it isn’t, but I didn’t care enough to research it).
 
Whenever possible, he throws in words or phrases meant to tear down any faith in Jesus’ sanity piece by piece. He questions Jesus’ unified vision of the Kingdom of God, Jesus’ view of the sovereignty of God, Jesus’ commitment to true peace (between us and God), and Jesus’ care for the lost. I feel bad, and a little angry, that many Christians can read this book and simply accept the lies presented in this book, not seeing the blatant bias the author portrays page after page. Aslan even changes Jesus’ message to one of war when he says, “The designation of the twelve is, if not a call to war, an admission of its inevitability…” Aslan will say that this is why Jesus went to great lengths to “hide the truth about the Kingdom of God from his disciples.” Page after page he tries to systematically destroy the picture of Jesus that was given by those who knew Him best.
 
Listen to some of the words Aslan uses throughout the book and see if these don’t sound like he has a bias of his own (words in parentheses are mine). “Obviously contrived” (you could say that about his book, too), “nonsensical,” “a story concocted” (sounds like Aslan’s hope), “inconceivable,” “factual accuracy was irrelevant” (this again sounds a lot like Aslan’s book), “pure fiction”… all of these words, and much more, are used in Zealot to describe the Gospel writers’ accounts. He constantly and consistently argues for the late dating of the Gospel writings for one simple reason: if they were written before 70AD by the people who said they wrote them, his entire argument will fall to pieces.
 
When thinking of bias, imagine how Aslan must perceive first century Christians. He sees them as gullible, naïve, and at a loss of understanding their very own culture. He seems to think that earlier followers of Jesus weren’t smart enough to figure out, like he has, that surely the Messiah, the Christ, could not have really been God in the flesh. At the near end of the book, he has a section called “God Made Flesh” where he essentially dismisses the early church’s beliefs as products of an uneducated mass of Jews returned from the Diaspora (the Jewish dispersion). In his mind, this could be the only reason Stephen (from Acts 6-7), Mark, Matthew—and even Luke (who many believe to be a Gentile)—could believe Jesus was God in the flesh.
 
Just take a step back for a moment and think about what Aslan is asking you to truly believe…that he, a Muslim from the 21st century, knows better than Jews from the first century, what actually took place. He wants you to believe that he understands their culture better than they did! He wants you to believe that he is more unbiased than Jews who believed so strongly in monotheism, who would never worship a false god, that they were wrong in their worship of Jesus and he is right. And again, his only evidence hinges on his claim that the Gospel writers weren’t actually the Gospel writers…it hinges on the theoretical Q document that doesn’t even exist. Now, you tell me who is biased!
 
He writes, “Practically every word ever written about Jesus of Nazareth, including every gospel story in Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, was written by people who, like Stephen and Paul, never actually knew Jesus…” This again is assertion based upon his own biased views of the New Testament writers, and NOT upon actual facts. There is even some very good modern day evidence that Saul, who later became the apostle Paul, did in fact at least see Jesus before his death. Aslan would respond to my last sentence as speculation, but it is no more speculation (and better documented if that) than everything he states in his book.
 
Let me finish this by talking about the apostle Paul. Aslan reveals a special place in his heart reserved for trying to ignore, destroy, and/or altogether demean Paul; I assume this is because Paul is one of the earliest writers and completely destroys Aslan’s arguments if his words are allowed to stand. What Aslan does, as stated earlier, is dismiss Paul entirely...until the end of the book where Paul is portrayed as a self-aggrandizing opportunist. He says Paul “demands to be called an apostle” and sees himself as superior to the other apostles, even though that is the furthest thing from Paul’s writings. (“Worst of sinners,” anyone?) He calls Paul’s conversion to a follower of Jesus “propagandistic legend” and calls Luke (the writer) “Paul’s sycophant,” which again makes me ask, “Who is biased here?” Aslan says Paul may have considered himself an apostle, but it seems that few, if any, of the other movement’s leaders agreed. It seems odd, then, that Peter, in one of his letters, would put Paul’s writing on par with sacred Scripture (2 Peter 3:16).
 
I feel like a broken record, skipping back to the same points over and over, but I am not the only one to point out Aslan’s bias in how he views the New Testament Church, Paul, James, and Peter. Aslan goes out of his way to stir imaginary conflict between Luke’s book of Acts with Paul’s writing to the gentile churches. He portrays them as a clash between the ruling church council and an out of control, self-appointed apostle on a mission to destroy any semblance of the real Jesus…after reading chapter 14, it seems Aslan has already done that job himself. He quotes things out of context of culture, not giving credence to the disparate cultural differences between the audiences of the two . He even goes so far as to say that Peter and Paul were preaching different gospels—that Paul had little to no converts in the city of Rome where he was imprisoned. These statements are blatantly false. Zealot paints Paul as a figure running from his own embarrassment in front of the Jewish leaders.
 
I get angry at Aslan and yet also feel sorry for him, because if he ever previously had some type of faith in Jesus, he certainly never understood it. To have to impugn and destroy someone like Paul who had already given up so much in his life to live for the call of Jesus seems petty. Every argument he tries to make about Paul has been made and refuted over the last 150 years. It is absurd for Paul, a Pharisee and  disciple of the most respected Rabbi in his day, to have a 21st century critic question his understanding of Judaism and boldness in preaching Jesus as Messiah and God in the flesh. There is bias here, but it is not in New Testament authors—it is in Reza Aslan’s one-sided, cherry-picking views that seeks to destroy the simple good news of the Gospel…that our God is on a rescue mission for us. We are so self-important that we do not see our need for a savior, but Jesus came anyway because the love of God knows no bounds.
 
Dan Barkman concludes his review of Zealot the way I would like to as well: “While the book is well written and is certainly engaging, this work contains no compelling alternative to the portrait of Jesus that has been held by Christians for nearly 2,000 years. Aslan has failed to provide any good reason to believe that the "Christ of faith" is substantially different from the Jewish carpenter who walked the streets of 1st century Palestine.”
 
I would also point you to David Wenham’s thoughtful analysis on the RZIM website at: http://www.rzim.eu/a-response-to-reza-aslans-zealotor Equip.org’s article here: http://www.equip.org/article/reza-aslans-revisionist-view-of-the-historical-jesus/and also Dan Barkman’s short review here: http://christianapologeticsalliance.com/2013/11/29/reza-aslans-zealot-the-life-and-times-of-jesus-of-nazareth/
 
**As a note on the Q material quoted throughout Zealot, Q is merely an unsubstantiated hypothesis. While the sayings of Q do exist today, it is NOT an early church document; it is a collection of overlapping stories/sayings put together by MODERN scholars. The Q theory is relatively new in terms of biblical scholarship. I love that even Wikipedia gets it right when it says, “The Q source (also Q document, Q Gospel, Q Sayings Gospel, or Q from German: Quelle, meaning "source") is a hypothetical written collection of Jesus's sayings (logia).” After reading the book, you will see that most, if not all, of Aslan’s arguments rise and fall on a document that exists only in the theoretical…did I already say “biased?”