Book Review: A Historical or Fictional Jesus



By Walter Fenton –

In his book Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth, Reza Aslan never tires of impugning the claims of the gospel writers: Luke’s infancy narrative is “preposterous.” The account of John the Baptist’s death is “far too fanciful and riddled with too many errors to be taken as historical.” And Jesus’ appearance before Pilate is “a flat-out fabrication.” Of course, Aslan does not expect much from the authors since he is quite confident they are actually “uneducated,” “illiterate” men who all had ulterior motives for their particular portrayals of Jesus. As he puts it, for the gospel writers “factual accuracy was irrelevant.”

Aslan’s damning indictment of the gospel writers is rather odd given his heavy reliance upon them for his own particular reimagining of the historical Jesus. But then again he exudes confidence in his ability to, as he puts it, “expose the claims of the gospels to the heat of historical analysis.” Having done so, Aslan promises, “We can purge the Scriptures of their literary and theological flourishes and forge a far more accurate picture of the Jesus of history.”

Once the “purge” is completed, this, in brief, is the historical Jesus Aslan gives us.

Yes, Jesus was from Galilee, and he was a carpenter’s son, but he did not work in his tiny hometown of Nazareth, rather he worked in the larger, neighboring city of Sepphoris. A city re-built by Herod Antipas, Sepphoris was, Aslan tells us, a cosmopolitan, urbane and wealthy city, populated by Greeks and Romans, and “those wealthy, wayward Jews who spent as much time praising the emperor of Rome as they did the Lord of the Universe.”

It was as “a peasant boy in the big city,” that Jesus’ zeal for the Lord and for the poor took shape. In Sepphoris, Aslan assures us, Jesus “witnessed the divide between the absurdly rich and the indebted poor,” and “spent [his] days slogging bricks to build yet another mansion for yet another Jewish nobleman.” At some point, Jesus traveled to Judea, was baptized by and served as a disciple of John the Baptist. He returned to Galilee, embarked upon his own career as an itinerant preacher and opponent of the Romans and the despised Jewish priesthood that collaborated with them. Fired by the injustice he saw in Sepphoris and the wickedness of the Jewish priesthood, Jesus gathered a like-minded group of Galileans — as equally uneducated and illiterate as he — and set up his headquarters in the city of Capernaum.

After spreading his message in the cities and towns of Galilee, Jesus headed for the province of Judea and ultimately to Jerusalem. For Aslan, Jesus’ ride into the City of David, coupled with his cleansing of the Temple, are the keys to the historical Jesus. As he puts it, “So revelatory is this single moment in Jesus’ brief life that it alone can be used to clarify his mission, his theology, his politics, his relationship to the Jewish authorities, his relationship to Judaism in general, and his attitude toward the Roman occupation.” Jesus was a zealot. His zeal for the Lord and his people drove him and his followers to a violent confrontation with the Jewish authorities and the Romans. But alas, like so many other messiahs, Jesus was captured, crucified, left hanging on a cross for several days for birds and dogs to devour, and then his corpse was “thrown onto a heap of trash.”

This version of the historical Jesus is by no means new. Aslan is heavily indebted to liberal biblical scholars like Marcus Borg, John Dominic Crossan, Richard Horsely, and Gerd Ludemann who, in one form or another, have either made the same or similar outlandish claims.

Unfortunately, as is so often the case, popular media greets books like Aslan’s as if they are telling us something new and fresh about the historical Jesus. Aslan’s book certainly is not. Rather, what Aslan actually presents us with is his own speculative, reimagining of the historical Jesus.

There is no mention of Sepphoris in the New Testament, let alone a biblical or extra-biblical source that puts Jesus in Sepphoris. Aslan wants to connect Jesus to Sepphoris because it suits his overall thesis. For Aslan, Jesus becomes something like a “99 percenter” while working as young man in Sepphoris. It just galls Jesus that he has to slave away on building another “Jewish nobleman’s mansion” for low wages, so he turns to rallying other disaffected Galileans to a protest movement against the Romans and rich Jews who conspire with them.

Furthermore, it is ironic that Aslan’s “historical Jesus” depends so heavily on two events we only know of from the Gospels: Jesus’ ride into Jerusalem and his cleansing of the temple. One wonders why, after excoriating the Gospel writers as men for whom “factual accuracy was irrelevant,” he is willing to trust them here? After all, Aslan refers to Luke as Paul’s “sycophant,” writing a Gospel that conforms to Paul’s heavily theologized vision of Jesus. As for the other Gospel writers, Mark “concocts” stories, Matthew copies them for his own slanted purposes, and John’s Gospel is so late (100-120 A.D.) and so spiritualized that it is hardly of any historical value at all.

He does realize he has some serious explaining to do for his historical Jesus to be creditable. If Jesus died like all the other first century Jewish messiahs, why are we still talking about him today? How did his followers come to worship a dead messiah?

Unfortunately for Aslan, his explanations collapse under scrutiny. He’s not quite sure why Jesus’ earliest followers believed he was physically raised from the dead. He allows that perhaps it was “cognitive dissonance,” an inability to absorb the tragic truth of Jesus’ death, so they simply believed God had raised him up. After all, Aslan tells us, Jesus’ post-resurrection followers were “a group of illiterate ecstatics” peddling an “unorthodox messiah.” And yet, people did believe them.

Aslan believes much of this was actually Paul’s fault. Jesus’ closest followers, being uneducated and poor, simply did not have the intellectual and financial resources to spread the Good News. Paul, on the other hand, represented a more cosmopolitan, educated, and Hellenized Judaism that “transformed Jesus from a revolutionary zealot to a Romanized demigod … a celestial being wholly uninterested in any earthly matter.” Moreover, Paul either had the resources himself, or knew the right people, so that he could travel and share his version of Jesus Christ, a person nothing like the historical Jesus. “Paul,” Aslan tells us, “had no idea who the living Jesus was, nor did he care.”

Aslan’s version of earliest Christianity is once again almost entirely dependent on the New Testament, particularly Acts, and it beggars the imagination. We have to trust that Aslan knows when it is safe to believe the New Testament authors and when we must doubt them and believe him instead. But in fact, Aslan offers no sources for why we should believe him rather than Luke. His version of early Christianity is simply an imaginative and speculative construal.

Aslan’s book has gained far more attention than it deserves. One broadcaster conducted a rather embarrassing interview of him in late July, and ever since Aslan has been doing rounds of interviews and writing articles. In late September the Washington Post had him write a segment in their popular “five myths” column. Aslan dutifully obliged by providing five myths about Jesus. PBS Newshour’s Ray Suarez conducted a soft interview with him where he never pushes or prods Aslan to contend with biblical scholars with more traditional views of the historical Jesus.

In fact, in his book, Aslan fails to grapple with the likes of N.T. Wrights’ Jesus: the Victory of God, Larry Hurtado’s Lord Jesus Christ, or Luke Timothy Johnson’s incisive critique of the whole quest for the historical Jesus movement in his The Real Jesus. Instead, Aslan largely works with sources that confirm his own views.

In the “About of the Author” section at the close of Aslan’s book we learn that he holds a Ph.D. in the sociology of religions, but perhaps more telling is his master of fine arts in fiction. With all due respect, Aslan’s “historical Jesus” is far closer to a “fictional Jesus,” and a not very convincing one at that.

Walter B. Fenton is an ordained United Methodist clergyperson and the director of development for Good News.


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