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Aslan Zealot: A Deeper Evaluation of the Thesis Itself


I have not completed my evaluation of Reza Aslan’s popular, interesting, and well-written account of Jesus, Zealot.   To this point I have merely tried to show that despite his claims (e.g. in the Fox News interview) of being an expert who is qualified to write such a book, he is not an expert – in the ancient world, in the New Testament, in the Gospels, or in the historical Jesus.   When I began this discussion I understand that a lot of readers thought that I was just being snooty and dismissive by pointing this out;  but in my subsequent posts I’ve tried to show why being an expert really does matter.  Someone who is not an expert makes mistakes – lots of mistakes, and often serious mistakes.  And the problem is that the person doesn’t even know it.  I don’t think Aslan knowingly wrote anything he didn’t think.  The problem is that he doesn’t know the field well enough to know where there are gaps in his knowledge, or where he has accepted incorrect information that he has heard or read one place or another.

And so my first task was to point out some of the mistakes, and we can all be glad that I’m going to stop doing that now.

I am now going to move on to a different kind of evaluation that is at least as important.  For some people it is even more important.   One could think that Aslan may have gotten this, that, or the other fact wrong — about the Roman world, about Judaism, about the Gospels, about the historical Jesus – but that his overarching thesis is nonetheless intact and compelling.   And so now I want to address the thesis itself, that Jesus is best understood as a political revolutionary intent on the military overthrow of Rome – or at least the expulsion of Rome from the Promised Land and the establishment of a sovereign state of Israel, all to be done by force.

As I have stressed early on in this series of posts, this is not a new thesis.  It was in fact the very first thesis ever promoted by someone who wanted to write a “Life of Jesus” based not on a ready acceptance of everything said in the Gospels as religiously and historically accurate, but based on a critical evaluation of these texts, realizing that they contain mis-information, when looked at from a historical perspective.   The author was the late eighteenth century Hermann Samuel Reimarus, a great German theological scholar, who wrote up his views but never published them, for fear of the scandal they would cause.  They were published by G. E. Lessing after Reimarus’s death as the Wolfenbüttel Fragmente.  In them, among other things, Reimarus argued that Jesus was a political revolutionary, but that his message of insurgency was covered up by his disciples after his death, who converted his teachings into a religion of non-violence.  The Fragments were published in 1774-78.

So we’re not talking about something new here.  This view of the historical Jesus has been around as long as there has been critical scholarship on the historical Jesus.  Literally.

Scholars have had all that time to examine every surviving piece of evidence for the perspective, and it’s safe to say that 99% (probably 99.9%!) have found the thesis wanting.  That doesn’t make it wrong, of course, and we have to examine it anew every time it appears.   And now in Aslan’s intriguing account, it has appeared anew.  So I want to examine it and explain why I don’t find it convincing.

Let me say at the outset that I am not personally troubled by it and for personal reasons almost wish it were true.   I am not a Christian who wants to paint Jesus in his own image, and the idea of a political insurgent would sit perfectly well with me.  I just think it’s not historically the most plausible explanation of what we know about Jesus from our surviving sources.

To begin with, I should stress that there are indeed some pieces of information from the surviving Gospel tradition that seem, on first appearance (or twelfth appearance, for some of them!), to be supportive of this view of Jesus:

  • Why did Jesus’ followers have drawn swords when he was arrested, if they were not armed for battle?  (Mark 14:47)
  • Why did Jesus have “Simon the Zealot” among his followers? (Luke 6:15) – doesn’t this suggest his own zealot leeanings?
  • Why did Jesus predict the violent overthrow of the Temple and engage in violent acts against those participating in the Temple cult if he was not in support of a violent overthrow of the established order?
  • Why was Jesus arrested, tried, and executed as a political insurgent if he did not believe in political insurgency?

There is more, obviously.  But not a lot more.   My view is that any examination of the historical Jesus does indeed need to take these data seriously.  But I have three things to say initially about such data, and here again I need to ask you to be patient with me.  What I am going to say now is the overarching summary of what I want to explain in subsequent posts.  Until you see my explanations, I do not expect you to be convinced!  I’m simply now telling you what I am going to try to demonstrate in what is to come.   So, the three points I want to make about such data:

  1. A number of these data do not in fact show that Jesus believed in a violent opposition to the Roman occupying forces.
    1. The predictions of the destruction of the Temple are not predictions of the destruction of the Roman armies.  They are directed against the Jewish hierarchy, not the Romans.  (And I will argue that Jesus did not think that the Temple was going to be destroyed by human force – e.g., by the army he would raise)
    2. The execution of Jesus was not for being an insurgent.  It was for calling himself the future King.  That’s different, very different indeed, and the difference will become clear in a later post.
  2. Such data can be explained better by appealing to another way of understanding Jesus, one that has been the dominant view over the course of the past century, that Jesus, rather than wanting a political revolution against Rome, was principally an apocalyptic preacher who thought that *God* (not Jesus and his followers, or an army he would lead into battle) was soon to overthrow the forces of evil (the Romans and their supporters among the Jewish aristocracy) in  a divine act of judgment.
  3. The data that do seem to support the idea of Jesus as a political revolutionary are very, very few and far between.   They do not comprise the majority, or even a significant minority, of the data we can establish as going back to the historical Jesus.

Let me explain this final point.   Try to imagine the picture of the historical Jesus that emerges from a rigorously, historical, critical examination of our surviving sources as a large tapestry.  The individual threads make up the overall portrait.  There are a few threads here and there that appear out of place at first glance.   But you can’t take these few threads and claim that they represent the overall portrait of the tapestry.  The tapestry has to be understood as a whole, looking for the major features of its portrayal (and of course the stray threads need to be fit into it somehow).

How does one establish the overall portrait of the tapestry?  It has to be done carefully and methodically, by applying rigorous historical criteria to all of our traditions found in all of our sources and seeing which of these traditions can be pronounced as historically probable.   Aslan does not do that.  He does not tell us what criteria he is using (so that he cannot be critiqued for using wrong ones) and he does not tell us how he has applied them (so that he cannot be critiqued for misapplying them, or reaching errant conclusions when applying them).   What he appears to have done (it’s hard to say, since he never tells us) is to choose elements of the tradition that best fit the picture he wants to paint and then – lo and behold! – they do fit his picture, so that it looks like the picture has been constructed by the elements, when in fact the elements have been chosen by the already conceived picture.  That makes for gripping reading, but it does not make for compelling history.

Again, I do not mean for this to be an empty charge.  I want to show how it is true.  But that will have to wait for my next several posts.

Aslan’s Key Chapter
A Holiday Blog Idea



  1. Fearguth
    Fearguth  December 21, 2013

    Thank you for airing out this hoary thesis. I first encountered it in 1972, when I read Brandon’s ‘Jesus and the Zealots’.

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    TomTerrific  December 21, 2013

    In effect a strawman. The tapestry metaphor is excellent.

    This post has a lot of meat.

    Thanks, Dr. E.

  3. Avatar
    RecoveringCalvinist  December 21, 2013

    When I read “Zealot” I found myself thinking “Bart wouldn’t agree with that!” many times. I didn’t think the author made the case for Jesus as a revolutionary at all, but thought that Aslan’s telling of the rebellious history before and after Jesus’ time was very interesting. This remote outpost of the Roman empire seemed like a troublesome one. I think human nature has always been a constant. In the present we are an occupying force in Afganistan and Iraq. They attack our troops and we think “Why do they do that, don’t they know our wish for them is that they become prosperous, free and democratic?!” I guess the answer has always been no, a cohesive nationalistic or ethnic group always desires to overthrow the outsider. We forget our own American revolution.

    • Avatar
      webattorney  December 28, 2013

      Good post as a reminder that USA has gone from a revolutionary colony to a super power.

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    RonaldTaska  December 21, 2013

    This has been an interesting, but challenging series of blogs and I look forward to reading the rest of the series. I have been reading “Zealot” and your points are quite helpful. Thanks.

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    AndrewBrown  December 21, 2013

    “The execution of Jesus was not for being an insurgent. It was for calling himself the future King. That’s different, very different indeed, and the difference will become clear in a later post.”

    I think Aslan would argue that that version of the execution was part of the post-70 reinvention of Jesus, whose main goal was the depoliticization of Jesus.

  6. Avatar
    maxhirez  December 22, 2013

    For a primitive Jewish hillbilly like Jesus would the distinction between “political revolutionary” and “self-coronating apocalyptic prophet” really be apparent or does it take two millennia of retrospection and social evolution (much of it under the shadow of a power structure descended from events in that hillbilly’s story) to create those two contexts?

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  December 23, 2013

      Yes, I do think so, absolutely. The key is whether one wanted to attack Romans militarily or not. Even a backwoods rural person could tell the difference between a yes and no answer to that one.

      • Avatar
        webattorney  December 28, 2013

        Dr. E, how often were there instances of Jewish rebellions to attempt to overthrow the Roman rulers? Do we know how much tax they collected from the Jewish people?

        • Bart Ehrman
          Bart Ehrman  December 29, 2013

          There were.

          Taxes were about 1/3 of income, for Jews and most everyone else in the empire. That all is worked out by E. P. Sanders in his book Jesus and Judaism (I *think* I’m remembering his bottom line correctly)

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    Anthony Nuccio  December 22, 2013

    I am fascinated by your portrait of historical Jesus. I have actually been working on a research project that I will present at NCUR this year. Using JDC’s Jesus: A Revolutionary Biography, Gospel of Peter, and Gospel of John, I argue that Jesus was in opposition to the Jewish hierarchies of the time period, but his message was taken out of context by the Romans, who elected to execute him. In turn, I think that the conflict between Jesus and the Jews separated the two (which is historically accurate, in my opinion). This is turn led to the origins of anti-Semitism, and we all know that history. After reading Zealot, I started to question my thesis, but then I realized that we all have our own individual thesis. Some see them as credible, and others do not. Part of the journey of studying religion is to explore every angle, and we need people to challenge the status quo, as well as redefining it.

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    willow  December 22, 2013

    Okay, so, I’m going to be sitting here patiently waiting….

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    judaswasjames  December 22, 2013

    B. Ehrman:
    Someone who is not an expert makes mistakes – lots of mistakes, and often serious mistakes. And the problem is that the person doesn’t even know it. I don’t think Aslan knowingly wrote anything he didn’t think. The problem is that he doesn’t know the field well enough to know where there are gaps in his knowledge, or where he has accepted incorrect information that he has heard or read one place or another.

    B. Wahler:
    We can all be glad you will stop doing it to Aslan now, but the pot needs to know when it is black! Everybody is a kettle regarding some subject or other. Your ‘kettle’ is Mysticism. Any biblical “scholar” who tries to provide exegesis of a subject as fraught with pitfalls as Mystic spirituality, as is the New Testament, without expertise in it is doomed to provide false teaching regarding it! What is your training in mystic theology? Any at all? I don’t see any evidence of it. There is enough information on it out there to float a battleship, but I have yet to encounter any scholar in biblical criticism who knows the first thing about it!

    You probably think a “Guru” is a man in a turban who has a fleet of 50 Rolls-Royces or gets his kicks chasing Beatles’ girlfriends. But there are real mystic masters in the world today who can teach you a lot, Bart. They are the true living Masters of Sant Mat. They’ve been around at least 500 years continuously since Nanak. They go back biblically at least as far as Genesis 4 and Seth. And, yes, James was a Master.

    • Avatar
      Steefen  December 24, 2013

      B. Wahler, mysticism is only as good as the Astrology upon which it is built.

      For Jesus and Paul to overstate the transition of the Age of Aries to the Age of Pisces as they have in the New Testament is so misleading.

      What I can say in support of Jesus and the Age of Pisces is that a Temple of animal blood spilling is SO Age of Aries. The destruction of that temple is a great marker for the end of the Age of Aries.

  10. gmatthews
    gmatthews  December 22, 2013

    Thanks for the continued discussion of Aslan’s book! I’m really enjoying it. I’d like to ask a quick off-topic question though. Do scholar’s generally translate the Greek word “doulos” as servant or slave? I’m seeing various explanations when googling this (mostly depending on who’s writing of course!). There’s a heated discussion on the line over this concerning why the anti-gay crowd ignores the fact that slavery was commonplace in the OT (and obviously later in Rome in the NT). My stance is that these somewhat fundamentalist friends of mine cherry pick which Mosaic laws and customs to observe and rally against. Thanks

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  December 22, 2013

      It means slave. There is a different word for someone who is a servant but not owned by the master.

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    gabilaranjeira  December 22, 2013

    Hi Bart,

    I am sorry to raise such a primary question, but I am not familiar with the Zealot movement. After reading your posts my understanding is that they were a group of Jewish men (women too?) that formed an organized movement to rebel against the Roman domination by force of arms. Is that correct? Is it known where it originated? Were they particularly active in Galilee? Did it become a significant movement during the time of Jesus or afterwards? Did they have the approval of the other Jewish sects and Jewish leaders?

    Thanks a lot!

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  December 22, 2013

      Yes, that’s pretty much it. They became a signficant movement during the Jewish revolt in 66-70 CE, and were seen as standing over-against other groups.

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    Steefen  December 22, 2013

    Jesus speaks of the Kingdom. What sort of king would Jesus make?

    1) Those who would not me as king, bring them here and slay them before me. Luke 19: 11-27

    2) A king prepares a wedding banquet for his son. His servants are sent to invite guests. Some of the king’s servants are mistreated and even killed. The king was enraged. He sent his arm and destroyed not only the murderers but he burned their city (harming those who did not commit the crime and some who were not even accessories to the crime).

    The latter is mentioned in Reza Aslan’s Chapter Ten: May Your Kingdom Come, ps 115-116.

    The first parable speaks directly to Bart Ehrman.

    Bart Ehrman:
    And so now I want to address the thesis itself, that Jesus is best understood as a political revolutionary intent on the military overthrow of Rome – or at least the expulsion of Rome from the Promised Land and the establishment of a sovereign state of Israel, all to be done by force.

    How can the parable stand without those who have ears hearing Jesus would have Caiphas and any other of the brood of vipers killed before him? Craig Evans says Caiphas and Pilate enjoyed a partnership of longevity. So, Jesus would have Caiphas and Pilate killed before him. Pilate was not about to want Jesus as his king.

    How did Jesus use Queen Helena, King Izates, Manu V of Edessa, Manu VI of Edessa (remembering Em-Manu-El: God is with Manu)? We know by the time of the Jewish Revolt help from beyond the Euphrates had come to help liberate Jews from Rome

    Eusebius links Jesus to Edessa/Osrhoene with his Abgar/Agabar – Jesus letter writing correspondence. See the connection between Abgar and Manu here: http://www.nestorian.org/kings_of_edessa.html

    Help from beyond the Euphrates had royals who wore crowns of thorns. So, the line of royalty from Queen Helena and Monobazus who had a prince who was his father’s “only begotten son” wore crowns that appear in the mocking of Jesus before his death. Look at the coins. Google Images for Ancient Kings of Edessa. You will see a woven crown of thorns mentioned in the mocking of Jesus in the Bible.

    But let me, without the help from beyond the Euphrates, comment. Did Moses seek to be king of Egypt? No. Did Moses seek to be high priest / spiritual leader of Egypt? No. However, Moses confronts a military and political challenge. But Acts of God/Nature fought his battle: volcano, locusts, etc. Since Jesus supposedly had a transfiguration experience with Moses, Jesus must have thought or was inspired to think God would fight the Romans as God fought the Egyptians.

    So, this is one way Bart Ehrman is semantically correct. Jesus wasn’t going to take it by force, God was going to take it by force; and, God was going to make him the first Son of Man king who was going to have his enemies brought before him and killed before him.

    Dr. Erhman, are the two parables above authentic?

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  December 23, 2013

      The passages about killing (the Jews) are almost certainly later accretions.

      • Avatar
        Steefen  March 11, 2014

        Let’s add another instance of Jesus’ violence:

        Jesus is like a stone, he on whom it falls will be utterly crushed. – Matthew 21: 44.

        Reza Aslan’s depiction of Jesus as a non-pacifist, violent, zealot is justifiable.

        Dr. Ehrman, we have the two parables and Matthew 21: 44.

        Thank you.

  13. Avatar
    judaswasjames  December 23, 2013

    You said maybe the “huge Eisenman fans here” will take Aslan on. That’s me. Eisenman says next to nothing about the historical Jesus. And for good reason. He is not the main figure of first century Palestinian Messianism. JAMES THE JUST is. The focus is why is he minimized to oblivion? Eisenman got so close to the answer to this question that you knock him into it with a feather: “Who and whatever James was, so was Jesus” is his conclusion. Esienman has no awareness of living Masters. I DO. James was THE SUCCESSOR SAVIOR to JESUS CHRIST. The evidence for this literally tumbles forth from every conceivable source for this concept (and TWO would suffice) that this conclusion is unavoidable. The early church wanted TO HIDE James as successor Christ so it could advance the false Pauline church doctrine of blood salvation, which stems from a parody of blood purity observances at Qumran. That’s the thesis in a nutshell.

    This is why I get so livid when you say JESUS is the sacrifice at the climax of the Gospel of Judas. The Gospel of Judas is the single most important source yet discovered to prove that the canon is falsified. You don’t look to gJudas as “true” — just as cypher for INTERPRETING the canon. JAMES is ‘Judas’. HE is the sacrifice, so he can take over the reins of the ministry from ‘Jesus’, whoever he was. This is what hides in the four-gospel rewrite of succession known as “the Betayal”. The Gnostics, who were beaten, wrote gJudas as their counter-point to the lies of the canonical authors. The Nag Hammadi First and Second Apocalypses of James, represented in the Codex Tchacos by “James” — pages 10 to 30 — provide important support for what is in gJudas as a remake of ‘the Betrayal’ as succession event. I CAN PROVE IT.

    You still don’t admit that this thesis, the natural next step from Eisenman, is A CREDITABLE SUBJECT FOR DISCUSSION, since you treat my posts like a noxious infection or something. I’m sorry I have no Ph. D., Bart. But would that really help me, anyway?

    I currently have 45 PAGES of evidence to support this, and plan a new book on it when I get the nerve to tackle it.

    I can’t stop posting this thesis wherever there is discussion of the New Testament even if I wanted to (I thought about it this morning) because this is that important. It WILL be brought out one day, if we survive the expected religious conflagration, because it is already on the Internet (http://www.judaswasjames.com/) and it won’t go away, whether I am the one delivering it (‘paradidomai’!) or not.

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    yes_hua  January 12, 2014

    Having actually been taught by Reza several years back, and personally liking him, I knew then he didn’t have serious New Testament scholarship. He’s a fine writer and I think a good popularizer, if that’s a word. But he’s no Bart Ehrman or Crossan or Allison or you name the scholar. From what I know of the content, from Reza’s own words, he really wanted to paint Jesus as a (z)ealot and even to divorce him from any violence or use of the term (Z)ealot. So what? Kind of a waste. I like the guy. I enjoy the writing. But I don’ t take him too seriously.

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