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Aslan’s Key Chapter

After his 70-page introduction to the history of first-century Palestine, which I enjoyed, even if it was skewed to set up his thesis of Jesus as another-one-of-those-zealots, Aslan sets the stage for his entire discussion of the historical Jesus, in Part II, with his Prologue, “Zeal for your House.” Aslan sees the set of stories relates in this chapter as paradigmatic for understanding Jesus’ message and mission. As he says, this story, “more than any other word or deed, helps reveal who Jesus was and what Jesus meant…. So revelatory is this single moment in Jesus’s 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” (p. 73).

Wow. That’s a lot. The story he chooses is actually a collection of stories having to do with Jesus’ final trip to Jerusalem: these stories include (a) The Triumphal Entry; (b) The Cleansing of the Temple; and (c) the Question about Paying Tribute to Caesar; and (d) Jesus final arrest and crucifixion. Through these stories Aslan wants to demonstrate that Jesus is best understood as a nationalistic Jewish zealot – that is, someone who favors the violent overthrow of the Roman oppressors so as to allow Israel once again to rule its own Promised Land. In this chapter Aslan claims that Jesus was not “a violent revolutionary bent on armed rebellion,” but in other parts of his book it becomes clear that even if Jesus was not “bent on” an armed rebellion, that’s what he wanted – the political and military overthrow of the Roman overlords. As such he was an insurgent — sometimes called a “bandit”; the Greek word is lestes, which means something like an armed guerilla soldier.


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Fundamental Problems with Aslan’s Thesis
Aslan Zealot: A Deeper Evaluation of the Thesis Itself



  1. Avatar
    Wilusa  December 22, 2013

    About the “Triumphal Entry”: I remember, years ago, someone suggesting in a TV discussion that the few followers who were with Jesus during that “Entry” – naive Galileeans who’d never been in Jerusalem during Passover week before – misunderstood the “normal,” rowdy celebration of the crowd, and thought they were excited about Jesus. Their later tales about it were reflected in the Gospel accounts.

    Do you think that’s the case – that there really was a misunderstanding by Jesus’s followers at the time? Or did they understand perfectly well what was happening, and were the later stories simply “made up”?

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  December 23, 2013

      My sense is that Jesus did show up in Jerusalem, and later his followers made it inot a processional event that historically it was not.

      • Avatar
        judaswasjames  December 23, 2013

        How can we know the whole arrival scenario isn’t made up for literary needs, like most other things in the NT – even the ‘historical’ Jesus?

  2. Avatar
    RonaldTaska  December 22, 2013

    The points about the “Triumphal Entry” and the shutting down of the entire temple not being historical are really good points. Your many discussions about contradictions and historical discrepancies in the Gospels are the parts of your work that have been most helpful to me. I also like the accounts of your personal experiences. Happy holidays.

    The magazine (News Week? Time?) article you wrote and published on your blog last year about the differences in the Matthew and Luke birth of Jesus stories might be worth repeating this Christmas.

    I thought Aslan wrote a recent article claiming that the “Triumphal Entry” was not historical because it would have resulted in the immediate arrest of Jesus. Did Aslan change his view on this matter?

  3. Avatar
    LJuedes  December 22, 2013

    The continuing rise in the popularity of “historical fiction” genre has certainly made it more difficult for writers of historical non-fiction. After all, a book replete with graphic, movie-worthy scenes will probably sell more copies than one that presents the facts and draws conclusions. Emotion sells, even when it is purely speculation.
    Maybe what is needed here to put these historical events into their proper emotional perspective is a better understanding of Jewish culture. I think it is safe to say that most New Testament scholars are not Jewish. From my experience, I can say that most “cradle” Jews have very little knowledge about what the Gospels say. This creates an educational divide. The people interested in doing NT research often don’t have a Jewish background, and the people who do have a Jewish background aren’t interested in doing NT research..
    Is there any consensus within the community of New Testament scholars about the necessity of becoming more familiar with the Jewish culture to gain a more accurate perspective of these gospel narratives? Conversely, do you know of a Jewish scholar (non-Messianic) doing NT research? I often hear “Jesus was a Jew” but I am not sure that most people using that phrase really understand what it means.

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  December 23, 2013

      Yes, I’d say all scholars of the NT think that one needs a wide and deep understanding of first century Judaism to understand the historical Jesus. And yest, there are plenty of Jewish NT scholars (among the famous ones: A. J. Levine and Paula Fredriksen)

  4. Avatar
    toejam  December 22, 2013

    The other problem with the Triumphal Entry, is that it’s linked to Old Testament prophecy, which again makes it suspicious, historically. I think by the time of the writing of the gospels, Christians were so intent on linking Jesus to OT prophecy that it becomes very hard to say anything about Jesus beyond “boring” details (as Dale Allison puts it).

    Mr. Ehrman, two quick questions: 1) Do you know when the re-release of Morton Smith’s “Jesus the Magician” is coming out? 2) What are your thoughts on Maurice Casey? He’s next on my list for Historical Jesus reading.

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  December 23, 2013

      1. Sometime in the Spring I think; don’t know the exact date; 2. He’s a very bright and interesting scholar, with very different points of view.

  5. Avatar
    ben.holman  December 23, 2013

    “Pilate brought his soldiers into the city only once a year – just at this time (the Passover celebration) – precisely to quell any possible nationalistic fervor that could lead to trouble.”

    What source(s) do we know this from? Just the gospels, or do other sources detail these procedures?

    “How exactly did Jesus stop all the activities in the Temple? Surely something is exaggerated here.”

    Didn’t SGF Brandon argue that was exactly what happened (i.e. stoping activity)… that Mark highly edited and toned down what was originally a story of Jesus and an army taking control of the temple?

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  December 23, 2013

      Good question — I think this comes from Josephus, but offhand I don’t recall the exact passage. And I think Brandon did argue this in Jesus and the Zealots, but it’s been a long time since I looked at it. For both issues, I’d suggest you look at E. P. Sanders, Jesus and Judaism.

  6. Avatar
    judaswasjames  December 23, 2013

    #2 “As is his want” > The word you ‘want’ is “wont”, Bart. Means “customary practice. 🙂 Thought I’d help out a little. Merry Christmas.

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  December 23, 2013

      Yup, that’s what I meant!

      • Avatar
        judaswasjames  December 23, 2013

        These fictional narratives you say Aslan is adding is just what the gospel authors did to “fill in the gaps” in THEIR needed storyline:

        But Aslan not only takes it as a historical event as described more or less in the Gospels (so that this would fit under my category 1 above) he adds his own fictional flourishes, for example when he talks about Jesus driving “out the vendors hawking cheap food and souvenirs” (p. 74). Huh?

        What about: “And having dipped the bread, he gave it to Judas Iscariot, the son of Simon.” -John 13:26. The Gospel According to the Hebrews records it as “he gave the sop to James”. Why is it suddenly Judas who gets the bread? Or for that matter, the kiss given, which is from James in First (and Second) Apocalypse of James. These are early traditions, so we have to engage them.

  7. Avatar
    judaswasjames  December 24, 2013

    #4. He repeatedly makes historical assertions that lack credible basis


    Like for example, you claiming that Jesus was betrayed by Judas: ‘Multiply attested’ by one source — Mark.

  8. Avatar
    Steefen  December 24, 2013

    Bart Ehrman:
    Are we to imagine that the throngs filling Jerusalem during this incendiary time (a festival celebrating God’s deliverance of his people from a foreign oppressor!) lined the streets singing their hosanna’s to the coming King — and the Roman authorities simply let it pass? Pilate’s soldiers would have turned a blind eye on this? Really?

    Rev. Walt Marcum at Highland Park United Methodist Church / Kerygma service instructs his congregation that Jesus entered Jerusalem from one direction while Roman soldiers entered Jerusalem from another direction.

    Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem LOOKED peaceful enough–what(?) a man on a donkey and 12 followers. The man on the donkey was the great healer and teacher, why should the crowd not gather?

    Come on, how many community leaders did cause the crowd to congeal?

    John the Baptist when he went to the Temple, Queen Helena (after she saved the city from starvation) when she went to the Temple, Agrippa when he went to the Temple. Whoever the celebrities were, there was some “recognition”. That would be a memorable moment of the pilgrimage: the great people you would get to see in the big city.

    The crowd was happy and cheering, they weren’t an angry mob. A happy crowd is not cause for Roman concern. (Now, when Jesus starts kicking things over, according to your take on Roman crowd control, I’m surprised neither Roman nor Temple guards arrested him right then and there. Usually, messing with cashiers gets a person confined. I mean, if we want to be real about it–as my nephew would say.)

  9. Avatar
    bobnaumann  December 24, 2013

    I think the “Triumpful Entry” as attested to in the four Gosples could very well be historical. It is not as if the event would been announced in advance, so there would have been no crowds awaiting his appearance. Jesus, assuming that he was the Messiah and knowing what was expected of the Messiah from Zakariah, would likely have chosen this symbolic entry into Jerusalem. The good Jews who happened to be in the vicinity recognized the symbolism and waved palm branches and cheered. But the whole thing could easily been over before the Roman soldiers even became aware of it and even if they saw what was happening, they wouldn’t have understand the symbolism and have seen only a man riding a donkey and people cheering him. I don’t believe they would have arrested Jesus just for riding a donkey.

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    kidron  December 29, 2013

    While criticizing Alsan for not being a historian, one might also suggest that even those ‘acceptable’ New Testament historians are too often influenced by the literal reading of the gospel texts. In my opinion the final journey to Jerusalem was NOT to the Passover in the Spring but rather to the Feast of Tabernacles in the fall. A more important date for the installation of a new king. There are too many references to events that would have occurred at this later festival and NOT the Passover. (donkey, palm fronds, hosanna, rooftop meals, etc.) The choice of moving the venue to the Passover is very obvious based on later Christology. It was important to have the death of Jesus associated with the slaughter of the lamb without blemish. The gospel writer John even shifts the crucifixion time to the time of the slaughter of the lambs in the Temple. Probably the best gospel reference to understand the idea of Jesus and his brothers going to Jerusalem for the Feast of Tabernacles is in the 7th chapter of John. As to the issue of the source of many of the details of the final events in Jerusalem told by Markl, I think that Paula Fredricksen’s idea that many of the details were ‘text mined’ from the book of Zechariah. The question remains … did Jesus follow and acted out the prophecies in Zechariah or are all the evens fictional?

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  December 29, 2013

      I think the event is fictional, made up in part because of the knowledge of Zechariah. I don’t know of any tradition that ties the death of Jesus to Tabernacles, but the Passover connection is emphasized everywhere. (If the Triumphal Entry is a fiction, then that would undercut the reason for connecting it to Tabernacles, I should think.) But it’s an interesting idea!

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