By Ross Douthat
August 14, 2013
Since I wrote about the latest “real Jesus” bestseller two weeks ago, its author, Reza Aslan, has taken a fairly comprehensive beating in a variety of outlets. The Washington Post ran a skeptical piece about Aslan’s tendency to overemphasize his academic credentials even when he isn’t being cross-examined on Fox News, and his interpretation of Jesus’s life has been treated dismissively by a wide range of informed reviewers, from The Nation to The Jewish Review of Books. The consensus in these pieces is that Aslan’s book makes a hash of more careful scholarship on its way to preordained conclusions, and that his portrait of Jesus as a political revolutionary is just another predictable example of the way that the Nazarene’s contemporary biographers almost aways produce (as The Nation’s reviewer puts it) “theological Rorschach tests that tell us far more about those who create them than about the elusive historical Jesus.”
This dovetails pretty well with my own take on “Zealot.” But after reading some of the takedowns, I feel ever-so-slightly inclined to defend Aslan: Not from the charge of being a self-promoter who’s written an unconvincing book, but from the charge, implicit in some of the reviews, of having done something worse than many more credentialed authors who have published on this topic. The striking thing about “Zealot,” to anyone who follows the historical-Jesus literature closely, is that its rewriting of the gospel narratives is relatively unremarkable. Aslan’s claims are implausible, but they aren’t usually baldly conspiratorial or deeply fabulistic or really wild, and his book is actually free of some of the worst sins of the genre.
Let me give some examples of what Aslan doesn’t do.
1) He doesn’t try to persuade his readers that literature written decades or centuries after the New Testament canon — the so-called “lost gospels,” Gnostic and otherwise, on which so much recent ink has been spilled — have anything like the same historical credibility or significance as the canonical gospels and epistles. Yes, he cherry-picks egregiously from the New Testament sources, using a historical standard that seems to amount to “if it fits my thesis, it’s authentic.” But at least the material he’s cherry-picking from actually dates to the 1st century A.D., and doesn’t require a belief in, say, secret teachings passed down by hypothetical early Christian communities of which no substantial evidence exists. There’s plenty in “Zealot” that’s historically dubious, for instance, but there’s nothing that’s as ridiculous as the recent hype surrounding the “Gospel of Judas,” in which various scholars with more impressive credentials than Aslan’s participated in a media onslaught that both misled the public about the discovery’s significance and probably misrepresented its content as well.
2) Having stripped Jesus’s story down to what he considers its essence, he doesn’t then dramatically embroider it as well. As I noted in the column, one of the striking things about Aslan’s depiction of a political Jesus intent on setting up an earthly kingdom is that his protagonist ends up being relatively boring: The actual figure of Jesus recedes into a larger portrait of revolutionary turmoil, and the Nazarene becomes just another rabble-rouser with relatively unoriginal ideas. But this kind of minimalism is arguably more historically persuasive than the kind of hyper-speculative turn that many revisionist treatments take. For example, the “political Jesus” narrative that you’ll find in 2006’s “The Jesus Dynasty,” by the University of North Carolina scholar James Tabor, overlaps with (and probably influenced) Aslan’s account — but “Dynasty” also offers much, much more elaborate theories about its Jesus’s human paternity, royal genealogy, and political-theological program than does “Zealot.” Tabor has better academic credentials than Aslan, and in certain ways tells a more interesting story. But there’s also sense in which Aslan deserves credit for not going as far as his better-credentialed counterpart, and keeping his speculation straightforward rather than baroque.
3) He doesn’t advance a detailed theory of what “really” happened in the immediate aftermath of Good Friday and Easter Sunday, choosing agnosticism instead. (In his discussion of the resurrection story, he even pauses to offer what amounts to an argument-against-interest, pointing out that Jesus’s earlier followers certainly behaved more like people who believed themselves to have experienced a world-altering supernatural event than disappointed followers of a failed political rebel.) In this, again, “Zealot” contrasts with some of its influences. Aslan’s portrait of Jesus’s ministry and message is heavily indebted to the work of John Dominic Crossan, for instance, but Crossan is famous for arguing that Jesus’s early followers “knew almost nothing whatsoever about the details of his crucifixion, death, or burial,” that what Christians today think of as the Easter story was really about “the origins of Christian leadership, not the origins of Christian faith,” that the idea of an actual resurrection (as opposed to some sort of purely spiritual sense of Jesus’s enduring presence) really only took off with Paul … and so on through an elaborate, conspiratorial, and (to put it charitably)highly speculative account of how the early church took shape. Aslan, on other hand, makes various Crossan-esque assertions about the composition of the resurrection narratives, but he’s much more modest where the original Easter experience is concerned, allowing that “belief in the resurrection of Jesus was among the community’s first attestations of faith,” conceding that “something extraordinary happened” to Jesus’s disciples following Good Friday, the details of which are “impossible to know,” and so on. It’s a relatively cautious, non-conspiratorial approach to the New Testament’s central mystery, and given some of the alternative paths it does him credit to have taken it.
To be clear, these examples are not intended to absolve Aslan of the sin of writing a bad book; they do not suffice to make the argument in “Zealot” convincing; and they don’t justify its self-regarding author in his claims to extraordinary expertise. I agree with his recent critics on those counts and many others. All I’m saying is that by the standards of both the larger genre and Aslan’s specific academic influences, the book could have been a whole lot worse.
Update: An earlier version of this post misidentified James Tabor as a professor at Duke, rather than at U.N.C. Charlotte. My apologies.