ZEAL FOR BIAS: ZEALOT THE LIFE AND TIMES OF JESUS OF NAZARETH by REZA ASLAN

♦ (out of 5)

The bottom line: A prejudicial, slanted assessment of the biblical Christ that purposely uses selective data to delude the reader and to paint its own portrait of Christ as a political and national zealot, contrary to the vast reserve of scriptural data that suggests otherwise.

One need not be a devout follower of anything to understand the reservations I have about this book. Zealot presents not a complete whole, but a piece of the pie and then extrapolates vividly, from a portion of the facts, while adding its own false flavoring. The book dares to present half-truths and deception as complete and correct. If you have a preference for the whole story, or the truth in general, then you should not read this book.

Let’s start off with one small highlight: it provides some interesting historical background on the economic, political, societal, and cultural dynamics of Palestine in the time of Christ and quickly allows the reader to “take the pulse” of the community of that era. This provides some intriguing insight into how the societal order of the time shaped the interactions between different people and groups, thus adding a level of significance and understanding to certain biblical events that would not otherwise be recognized. Particular words in Greek and Aramaic, and their subtle change of meaning in translation to English, also highlight some little known language nuances in our current understanding of the biblical scriptures.

Beyond this one point, the book is offensive, derogatory (the author refers to several authors of the New Testament as illiterate peasants), divisive, anti-Semitic (he frequently refers to Jews as belonging to a cult), and is a thinly veiled attempt to mock and demean the deity of Christ, Christianity in general, and those who claim to be Christians. The author suffers from a zeal of his own—an unwavering, caustic, single-minded dedication to strip the man referred to as Jesus Christ of all spiritual and religious significance, demoting him to a political figure whose true purpose was limited to his context—in order to bring freedom and restoration to the nation of Israel in a time of Roman oppression. Mr. Aslan accomplishes this task by selectively picking and choosing the historical evidence that supports his argument while either sneakily ignoring or dismissing evidence to the contrary. While solitary verse analysis may yield an insight some of the time, the Bible contains over 31,000 verses, so to select one out of a hat and use that in isolation as a template is an incorrect approach to biblical interpretation. Moreover, no one is suggesting that anybody should ignore what is in certain sections of the Bible, but effective elucidation involves understanding what was stated before the verse, what was stated after, and also understanding the context in which it was said. As long as this rule is applied globally to the whole text without variation, proper scientific and analytical analysis of the scriptures can be carried out, without overemphasizing or underemphasizing any one fact. Without question, in Zealot, a biased conclusion was developed first, and the evidence was selected as secondary. A disheartening fact is that if one has never read the Bible, they may assume Zealot is completely valid and uphold the book as the work of a true scholar. Instead, anyone who has actually read the Bible, even in a cursory and disinterested manner, will soon realize the book’s flaws.

As an aside, Mr. Aslan was born in Iran and is admittedly a Muslim. Of course this does not disqualify him from writing on religion but I ask: Can a man of faith construct an objective, non-biased book on any religion other than his own? His misunderstandings and misconceptions about the basic, central tenets of the Christian faith become quickly apparent as one moves through the text.

Although Zealot would like its readers to believe that Christ had strictly national and political aspirations, nowhere in the book does it state why Christ came in his own words. Jesus proclaims his own mission statement in Luke 19:10 stating, “[I] came to seek and save that which was lost.” In other words, to save those who have fallen down the slippery slope of sin, and in turn offer grace and salvation. In Matthew 20:28 Christ says, “Just as [I] did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give [my] life as a ransom for many.” How could any credible work assign a mission statement to a man who has explicitly declared his purpose to be otherwise on multiple occasions through words, deeds, and actions?

The book’s downfalls are numerous but I will expand on some specific examples:

On page 26, Mr. Aslan details an alleged discrepancy between the details of Christ’s birth. In the books of Matthew and Luke, the New Testament describes Bethlehem as Jesus’s birthplace. Yet, the author creates a conflict by stating that Christ was not in fact born there since he is repeatedly called “the Nazarean” and thus points to Nazareth as his true place of birth. The resolution to this “dilemma” is very simple: Christ was born in Bethlehem, and then fled from Israel as a child to escape Roman persecution (Herod was slaughtering babies) only to return several years later and settle in Nazareth with his family, hence “the Nazarean”. This is all detailed in Matthew 2:13-23 and Luke 2:39 but conveniently excluded from Zealot. This is comparable to anyone nowadays being born in New York but then moving to Boston as a toddler—they may refer to themselves as a Bostonian, but this does not invalidate their original place of birth in the Big Apple.

On page 31, the author suggests that in the ancient world, there was no clear distinction between myth and reality, so people at the time would be more interested in what things meant as opposed to what actually happened. The suggestion is that several key elements of Christ’s story are concocted, and do not serve as historical record, but rather are intended to illustrate a theme. First, if that is true, then why do so many prophecies, from different individuals separated in time and space, exist in the Old Testament (hundreds of years pre-Christ) describing exact and specific events in the life of Jesus (i.e. Is 7:14, Micah 5:2, Jer 31:15, Hosea 11:1, Zec 11:12-13, Ps 69:8, Exo 12:46, Mal 4:5-6, II Sam 7:12-13, Num 24:7, Gen 3:15)? Of note, this non-exhaustive list of verses disproves the statement in page 135 that, “Jesus did not fit any of the messianic paradigms offered in the Hebrew Bible”. Actually there are more than 40 paradigms prophesized in the Old Testament and then fulfilled in the New. Second, if Christ truly was insignificant and fabricated, then why did so many different people after his birth bother to record the minute details of his life and document his deeds and travels?

Yes, there are some variations in the Gospels, but given the era in which they were written (first century), books were essentially non-existent, most people were illiterate, and a vast majority of religious teachings were passed along via oral tradition. Hence, in the ancient Middle East, anywhere from 10-40% of any record varied from person to person with some unalterable facts. The disciples then, were present at key events in Christ’s life and then recorded them on paper (papyrus) several years later. It would have been more suspicious if the different accounts from different viewpoints agreed 100%. That’s like picking a handful of people at random today, who each were eyewitnesses to an event and then challenging the event’s very existence based on variation in the stories. Different viewpoints yield different perspectives.

Chapter 7 attempts to portray John the Baptist as Christ’s superior and labels Christ as John’s disciple but this ignores the fact that, before ever actually meeting Jesus, in John 1:29, John sees Christ coming toward him and says, “Behold, the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.” John then goes on to explicitly declare himself not to be Christ and then refers to Jesus in verse 34 as “the Son of God.”

Probably the most egregious and blatant misrepresentation of the New Testament occurs on page 121 where Mr. Aslan states, “Jesus was concerned exclusively with the fate of his fellow Jews. Israel was all that mattered to Jesus.” This not only contradicts Christ’s universal global mission statement mentioned previously, but again, is in direct opposition to what is stated elsewhere. In Matthew 28:19, Christ describes the “great commission” where he tells his disciples, “Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations.” Notice Jesus did not limit his command to Israel, the Jews, or any other sect, but to all nations and every human being on the face of the planet.

Finally, on page 144, Christ is described as a “failed messiah” because he did not establish the Kingdom of God on earth. Well, of course not, because the book of Revelation tells us that this event will happen at the end of time or the apocalypse. This assertion also denies what the rest of scripture says about Christ’s mission; which was not to establish the Kingdom here and now but to offer a path of grace for all those who would accept his mission. The reward for such obedience is not meant for enjoyment here on earth, since godly obedience is slanted towards future-preference and the receipt of eternal life upon our earthly death. After all, that is kind of the point: as God so loved the world that he gave his only Son (John 3:16); in turn, Christ so loved us that he voluntarily sacrificed himself, motivated by love, and gave his life so that all may be free from sin and live with him (eventually) in paradise, so that death is not an end but a transition. This is the true message of Christ’s gospel: a message rooted in grace, founded on universal love, grounded in peace, and based on sacrifice and the giving of oneself—not a one-nation, one-sect, exclusive cult that is based on zeal, prefers violence, and aims for political independence. This point becomes evident to any rational person that reads the Bible and does not pick-and-choose, in order to sell books or serve secondary agendas.

For a real exercise in scholarly study, I would recommend The Case for Christ by Lee Strobel. It not only refutes everything Zealot proclaims but it also scrutinizes itself, challenging its own assertions to produce intelligible conclusions.

Dr. C.H.E. Sadaphal

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4 comments on “ZEAL FOR BIAS: ZEALOT THE LIFE AND TIMES OF JESUS OF NAZARETH by REZA ASLAN
  1. J. Dibb says:

    I think you missed the point: Aslan doesn’t need to write about facts, he just needs to write a few things slightly controversial about a controversial figure to fuel the zeal for cash begins.

  2. Cedric says:

    This is what Aslan is notorious for doing-picking and choosing which passages he takes literally and completely and which he dismisses with distain. Another reviewer called him an elephant in a china shop, but I think he’ more like the elephant in a china shop on the 4th of July while it happens to be snowing. This book is popular solely because of its ignorance and it tells John Q Public what he wants to hear about Jesus and the Bible. He presents nothing in this text that is “new” knowledge, only data that has been debated for centuries: much of what he says in known by even the casual scholar who is familiar with the historical-critical approach. Yet, Aslan claims a form of diety himself in the dismissive, arrogant way he shares the information.

    Can a Muslim be trusted to write an objective, reliable, non-biased account of Christ? Nope.

  3. theOldMan says:

    People tend to rate this book on the stance they’ve taken beforehand, whether this is a book on theology or one on history. If you assume its the former, you’ll become irate and frustrated; the latter, likely enlightened. All else aside, I haven’t read anything that talks so well about the history and politics of 1st century Jerusalem, as well as the early Jewish diaspora. The notes at the end of the book after the formal “book” is done could be made into another book themselves.

  4. Mao says:

    I’m not a “Muslim-hater”, nor am I a devout, fired-up Christian so I guess that means I stand in the middle of all the fervor surrounding this book. Ironically, Mr. Aslan has created zealots of his own on all sides of his book, so no wonder he’s selling them like hot cakes.

    What most people don’t realize is that this is NOT a work of original research with new ideas but instead it reiterates what has already bee said before by many others (i.e. Crossen and Hansen). Aslan is very well-read, but this doesn’t mean he’s very insightful.

    He glances over MANY serious controversies, while using the ancient Hebrew manuscripts as his only source for a large chunk of Israel’s history while criticizing the same manuscripts in other areas. He has to choose: either the Hebrew bible is wrong and dismiss it, or its true and valid. There’s no in between. He does a better job of making arguments against the new testament chapters.

    I agree that although Aslan would argue that he has written a historical critique/reconstruction of Jesus, he has a difficult time not merging from the lane of objectivity to one who subjectively critiques from the position of another faith. I am not a devout follower of anything, but I got the impression that he subliminally was taking jabs. Again, he really isn’t saying anything new, he just has MUCH MORE press behind him.

    So, if you have an interest in the history and politics of the time, buy this book. If you have unwavering religious convictions and refuse to even listen to any alternative interpretations, don’t even bother.

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