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Aslan’s Zealot: Historical Mistakes

Yesterday I pointed out some of the features of Reza Aslan’s Zealot that I found to be commendable. In the next series of posts, starting with today’s, I’ll be pointing out the problems. There are lots of them. Some readers of the blog have objected to my (repeatedly, I’ll grant) pointing out that Aslan is not an expert. Now I’ll try to show why that is both obvious and unfortunate. There are mistakes scattered throughout the book. I’d say 1/3 to 1/2 of the pages in my copy have bright yellow large question marks on them, where (when highlighting) I found factual errors, misstatements, dubious claims, inconsistencies of logic, and so on. I obviously am not going to provide a full list here. In today’s post I’ll begin by mentioning some of the raw, factual mistakes. These are only from his Part I; I’ll probably provide some more in a subsequent post, from other Parts of the book in order to round out the picture a bit (There are other kinds of problems I’ll note in later posts – including mistakes about the New Testament, his primary source of information about the historical Jesus.)

But for now, here are some mistaken historical statements. Some may strike you as picayune, but some of them matter. And there are a lot of them; one wonders why they’re there at all. In each case I’ll cite his claim and then explain the problem.

***************************************************************************************

  • Claim: After the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 CE, the Jews were “exiled from the land” (p. xxix). This isn’t true. The Jews were not exiled from the land of Palestine by the Romans.
  • Claim: Legions of Roman troops were stationed throughout Judea. This is not right. The legions were kept up in Syria. (By saying they were stationed throughout Judea Aslan makes it sound as if Jews were constantly confronted with Roman soldiers. In fact they weren’t. The governor had some troops with him in Caesarea. Otherwise there were not Roman soldiers everywhere – let along legions!)

 

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More Historical Mistakes in Aslan’s Zealot
Aslan’s Zealot: Some Positive Comments

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Comments

  1. Avatar
    Wilusa  December 15, 2013

    Wow. I think some of these errors might be acceptable if Aslan had been writing a historical *novel*, but certainly not when he was presenting the book as a serious theory! I’m eager to read more…of your critique, not Aslan’s book.

    I can’t help thinking that books like this become bestsellers because many people like the idea of being a little “daring,” accepting a view of Jesus that differs from what they were taught in Sunday school. But they want to believe Jesus was an intelligent man, with goals they could understand an intelligent man having. And they *don’t* accept the notion of apocalypticism…they think anyone who would have embraced it was nuts. I myself think Jesus was suffering from unhealthy delusions, but that doesn’t prevent me from acknowledging that he held those views. No predisposition, here, to thinking he had to be a great man!

  2. Avatar
    dennis  December 15, 2013

    My impression of the critical reception given to the book was that it fell into two broad categories : ” thrilling ,bold new view ” or ” fraudulent intrusion of a non properly credentialed amatuer into an area he was not qualified to assess ” . As you have quite clearly shown ( great post ! ) , both miss the mark : it is simply the product of too much 21 st Century biased imagination combined with strikingly poor research . For whatever reason ” Jesus studies ” seem to be particularly prone to the type of nonsense that would not be tolerated at all if applied to a modern historical figure . As you pointed out , the ” howlers ” you identified were not small peripheral oversights but rather core to the book’s central thesis . Imagine for a moment a modern biography of Winston Churchill supposing to show that Churchill had , in fact , been a lifelong supporter of national liberation movements and containing similar misstatements and distortions . I would venture to guess that there would be no critical response because the author would be unable to find a publisher . Any thoughts on why Jesus is approached so differently ?

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  December 18, 2013

      I”ve often wondered myself. My sense is that it’s because *everyone* has an opinion about Jesus and most people don’t have the access to the ancient sources/scholarship that they have with Churchill (who is, of course WAY more documented than Jesus!)

  3. Avatar
    hwl  December 15, 2013

    Many of these are indeed sloppy errors: even non-experts who took the effort to check on Wikipedia would know the distance between Nazareth and Sepphoris; he seems to have confused the aftermaths of the 70s revolt with the Bar Kokhba revolt.

  4. Fearguth
    Fearguth  December 15, 2013

    I realize that Aslan’s ‘Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth’ is all the rage at the moment, but I would like for you to critique S. G. F. Brandon’s ‘Jesus and the Zealots’ for us. If you’ve already done this, please refer me to it.

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  December 18, 2013

      I’ve never done it — mainly because I haven’t read it for many years and most people on the blog have never even heard of it! But Brandon certainly didn’t make these kinds of basic mistakes.

  5. Avatar
    TomTerrific  December 15, 2013

    I don’t see many of these to be picayune.

    The mistakes are piled on higher and deeper. (No pun intended.) 😉

  6. Avatar
    Shubhang  December 15, 2013

    An author concerned with the expulsion of a people from their homeland. I mentioned this in another thread in passing, but I can’t help but form a view of Reza Aslan’s political views. I may be way off but I think he is clearly influenced by another expulsion in the Holy Land somewhat closer to our times.
    On your second last bullet, could Reza Aslan have taken the 2 denarii (or was it shekel) tax that was imposed by the Romans on all Jews as evidence of collective punishment? Or am I remembering that instance wrong

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  December 18, 2013

      Interesting question about the Fiscus Judaicus; I don’t know if that’s what he had in mind or not….

  7. Avatar
    drdavid600  December 15, 2013

    How many sources are there for false messiahs killed by the Romans around the time of Jesus? I remember reading Crossan on the historical Jesus that there were quite a few. If a culture produced them, what’s one more in Jesus?

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  December 18, 2013

      The main source, as for most things about first-century Palestine, is Josephus. And yes, there were some!

  8. Avatar
    donmax  December 15, 2013

    Looks to me like you’ve managed to expose the principle weakness of Aslan’s book. In light of that, would you still recommend it as something worth reading? or should I trust your judgment and pass it by??

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  December 18, 2013

      It’s a great read! It’s just filled with mistakes, and I think the overall thesis is problematic….

  9. Avatar
    kat127  December 15, 2013

    I would love to see a debate between the two of you!

  10. Avatar
    toejam  December 15, 2013

    Prefect of Procurator, anyone?? 😉

    I agree that some of these are insignificant on the surface, but they do add up. I’ve heard that Aslan’s book is primarily based off S.G.F. Brandon’s book “Jesus & the Zealots”. Does Brandon make the same mistakes by any chance?

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  December 18, 2013

      Brandon was a real scholar; I don’t recall seeing anything like these kinds of mistakes in his work.

  11. gmatthews
    gmatthews  December 16, 2013

    I’m sure someone else has pointed it out by now, but your explanations for each of your claims didn’t show up in your blog post.

  12. Avatar
    nicholasmolbert  December 16, 2013

    Professor Ehrman & anyone else interested,

    I’d like to point out that Daniel Boyarin’s “The Jewish Gospels” is almost entirely about giving an argument for your third claim. To clarify, his position states (in part) that “Son of Man” refers to the divine nature of the Redeemer (see “the one like a son of man” in Dan. 7) and that “Son of God” was commonly used to designate earthly kings. I am about halfway through the book myself – interesting stuff.

    Nick M

    • Avatar
      nicholasmolbert  December 16, 2013

      Also,

      that the idea of the merging of the earthly king/divine god-man Messiah was commonplace BEFORE Jesus came on the scene. As you said Dr. Ehrman, Enoch in the end of the SImilitudes was recognized as this. I’m not sure whether the people that composed this document were familiar with the Jesus movement. I would think not.

  13. Avatar
    dennis  December 16, 2013

    To clarify the above comment : I am NOT suggesting that books about Jesus approach the subject with any special reverence or special caution . Merely that ” bold , new , ground-breaking ” studies of ANY subject have the burden of proof on them and not on the widely accepted opinion . From your above analysis , it would appear that Aslan repeatedly made the classic amateur error of relying on half remembered secondary sources rather than carefully consulting an easily available primary source ( Josephus ) . While such behavior might be acceptable in frat house bull sessions ( especially after the third beer ) , it is both immoral ( dreck is being sold as if it were not dreck ) and dangerous ( Aslan’s flawed work then becomes someone else’s secondary source . My point was that ” Jesus studies ” would appear to be somewhat more prone to this sort of thing .

  14. Avatar
    asjsdpjk  December 16, 2013

    Robert Eisenman has a similar thesis to Aslan?

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  December 18, 2013

      There are some HUGE Eisenman fans on the blog: maybe they’d like to take this on.

    • Avatar
      judaswasjames  December 26, 2013

      He says the Qumran refugees were Zealots. Not much about Jesus being one. Not much about Jesus at all.

  15. Avatar
    JacovZ  December 17, 2013

    Dr. Ehrman,

    Thank you for your assessment. As I read this I got reminded of your debate with Dan Wallace and his claim of a first-century manuscript he was sworn secrecy on. Any news on this new and amazing discovery which got all Evangelicals on their wits’ end?

    Thanks,

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  December 18, 2013

      It was supposed to be published this past January, if I remember correctly. So far, nothing. Dan Wallace refuses to say anything about it, probably because he signed a non-disclosure agreement.

  16. TracyCramer
    TracyCramer  December 17, 2013

    Dear Bart,
    Thanks for outlining the process (getting a PhD) that someone has to go through to just begin to become a professional within their field. That is then followed by *many* more years in active “conversation” with other scholars (researching, writing, attending conferences, presenting, talking, researching, writing…) before one really begins to mature as a thinker and scholar, I would think. So, as you point out, to then write about a topic that is not one’s area of expertise (Mr. Aslan is an Associate Professor of Creative Writing at the University of California, Riverside according to Wikipedia), oversights and errors are inevitable. But the errors that Mr. Aslan made seem a little elementary, especially as they are directly connected to his thesis. And this brings me to my question: just how much can the uninformed public (such as myself) rely on non-specialists to write informed history? Specifically, and this is off topic, but the writer Karen Armstrong is highly regarded, and she has been recommended to me, but she is, basically, a popular writer who draws from her lifetime of experience with things religious, to write the history of various religions and religious personalities. Would you recommend her writing be taken with a grain of salt for the reason that you take Mr. Aslan’s?

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  December 18, 2013

      I”m afraid I haven’t read her work (I tend not to read popular treatments when I am overwhelmed just trying to keep up on scholarship), and am not an expert in the things she’s written — so I can’t say! But my sense is that she is a responsible scholar.

      • TracyCramer
        TracyCramer  December 18, 2013

        Thanks for letting me know. tracy

  17. Avatar
    AndrewBrown  December 21, 2013

    You’re being too kind. There are lot more mistakes than these in the introduction and opening chapters of “Zealot.”

    There is also this:

    p. xxxi “Scholars tend to see the Jesus they want to see. Too often they see themselves — their own reflection — in the image of Jesus they have constructed. ”

    Aslan is apparently immune to irony. He supports political revolutionaries, so he constructs a Jesus to fit this image. The same old thing.

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  December 22, 2013

      He supports political revolutionaries? What makes you think that?

    • Avatar
      judaswasjames  December 28, 2013

      Most everybody sees the Jesus that they want to see. I don’t. however. I know he isn’t the savior, apocalyptic prophet. zealot, or Broadway star. He is a fictional invention of some clever fiction writers.

  18. Avatar
    stephena  December 23, 2013

    “The Jews were not exiled from the land of Palestine by the Romans.” Did the war in AD 66-70 not result in the Diaspora and the beginning of the Synagogue being the focus of the religion? Josephus speaks of a bloodbath and people running for the hills. This surely resulted in some depopulation, though perhaps not to the extent Aslan wants to portray.

    While troops weren’t EVERYWHERE, surely, they were indeed in Jerusalem in force (as you say elsewhere) during the Passover, therefore making it unlikely for someone to have made an ‘entry’ in one of the many gates entering the city, it wasn’t impossible, especially if they were simply greeting a great Rabbi – the head of a new school of thinking (which I believe early Judean Christianity certainly was) – into Jerusalem. If that was what happened, and I in no way believe he was greeted as a Military Messiah or as the NT portrays the event, then I can see Roman troops definitely ‘allowing’ this to happen, and perhaps not even understanding it. And wouldn’t groups of pilgrims “triumphally enter” Jerusalem this way during the Passover and perhaps at other holidays ALL THE TIME?

  19. Avatar
    stephena  December 23, 2013

    “Caesar gave orders that they should now demolish the entire city and temple, …it was so thoroughly laid [to waste] even with the ground by those that dug it up to the foundation, that there was left nothing to make those that came there believe it had ever been inhabited.” Josephus, Wars of the Jews, 7:1:1. Does this not speak of a depopulated Jerusalem? Or was Josephus exaggerating? (Possible.)

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  December 23, 2013

      Yes, there is archaeological evidence for a Jewish community there, active, until the second revolt.

  20. Avatar
    Steefen  January 3, 2014

    The first bullet point and the last bullet point are the same. Let’s add some detail to the point you’re making.

    #1 Vespasian and/or Titus did grant Judean land to members of the Roman military.
    #2 Vespasian and/or Titus did grant land to both Josephus and Yohannan ben Zakkai.

    Now, #2 will show that Josephus and Yohannan ben Zakkai knew each other or were each other. Both were saved by Vespasian and given land in the same area if not on top of each other with Josephus owning the land under the university. How can you have a university and the most important historian at that time not be associated with it?

    Both lived in Galilee.
    Both are rabbis.

    Both Johanan and Josephus surrender to Vespasian during a siege.
    Like Josephus, Johanan prophesied imperial honors for the general Vespasian, quoting the words of the prophet Isaiah: “Lebanon [that is, the sanctuary] shall fall by a mighty one” (Isa.x. 34).

    Both have their lives spared.
    Both are granted requests for the assistance they have given.
    Both ask for the lives of wounded close companions or family for whom one or more physicians are required. Johanan needs a physician’s help for a rabbi. Joseph (Latinized Josephus) needs a physician for one who was crucified like (Rabbi) Jesus. Is Johannan’s Rabbi Zadok, Jesus, the King of Justice and Righteousness?

    Both are granted land outside of the destruction of Jerusalem in the plains. Johannan gets Yavne. It doesn’t seem Josephus is too far away from there.

    Both died believing in the Jewish Messiah, Josephus as Saul-Paul and Johanan as follows.

    His pupils were present at his death. The solemn conversation between the dying master and his disciples (Ber. 28b) begins with a question from the latter: “Light of Israel, pillar of the sanctuary, strong hammer, why dost thou weep?” These remarkable epithets characterize the work of Johanan and his importance for his period. The blessing which just before his death he pronounced upon his pupils at their desire consisted of the prayer: “May it be God’s will that the fear of heaven be as strong in you as the fear of flesh and blood” (ib.). His last words were: “Put the vessels out of the house, that they may not become unclean, and prepare a throne for Hezekiah, the King of Judah, who is coming” (ib.). By this puzzling reference to Hezekiah, Johanan plainly meant the coming of the Messiah, of which he was thinking in his last moments.
    – Jewish Encyclopedia

    SINCE YOHANNAN BEN ZAKKAI AND JOSEPHUS HAVE THESE SIMILARITIES ABOUT LAND, ABOUT THE MESSIAH, THE TESTIMONIUM FLAVIANUM IS PROBABLY LEGITIMATE, CONTRARY TO THOSE WHO SAY IT’S NOT.

    Here is where Johanan’s “Confession” is stronger than the Testimonium Flavianum:

    Reason #3 – Both Held Heretical Beliefs
    Rabbi Simeon ben Lakish said: Woe unto “him who makes himself alive by the name of god.”
    Rabbi Johanan (ben Zakkai) replied: Woe to the nation that attempting to hinder the Holy One when he accomplishes the redemption of his children: who would throw his garment between a lion and a lioness when these are copulating?
    – Talmud IV Sanhedrin 106a

    This extract says that Rabbi Lakish condemns “the one who resurrects himself by the name of god.” This is actually a coded reference to Jesus and the Talmudic notes confirms this. However, Rabbi Johanan ben Zakkai defends Jesus in strident terms even by invoking the imagery of god (the lion) having sex with a woman of the tribe of Judah (Mary the Virgin, the lioness).
    The Lion of Judah is the symbol of the Israelite tribe of Judah. Judah, the fourth son of Jacob, is said to be the tribe’s founder. The association between Judah and the lion can first be found in the blessing given by Jacob to Judah in the Book of Genesis. Both King David and Jesus hail from the tribe of Judah. The Lion of Judah is also a phrase used in the Book of Revelation to represent Jesus.
    But here is Johanan ben Zakkai, a very senior Jewish rabbi–in fact, the most senior Jewish rabbi of his day–and he is defending the Christian teaching that god had sex with a woman of the line of Judah (Mary); that Jesus was therefore the son of god; and that Jesus resurrected. These doctrines are contrary to all Judaic teaching, so what kind of senior rabbi would be making such statements and supporting these heretical beliefs? The answer is Rabbi Joseph (Latinized: Josephus).

    When they saw (Josephus) in the temple, they stirred up all the people and laid hands on him. Crying out, Men of Israel, help: This is the man that teaches all men everywhere against the people, against the law, and against this Temple.
    Acts 21: 27-28

    Johanan ben Zakkai had the same belief system and was indulging in the same contentious debates as was Josephus. (It was also Johanan ben Zakkai who made the derogatory remarks about Mary Magdalene being ‘the descendant of princes and governors who played the whoe with carpenters’, a comment (Talmud IV Sanhedrin 106a) which displays an intimate knowledge of NT material.

    This comment was made possible by a chapter (Josephus and Modern Judaism) in the book King Jesus by Ralph Ellis.

    • Avatar
      Steefen  January 3, 2014

      Acts 21: 27-28 refers to Saul-Paul. The biographical similarities of Paul and Josephus are too simliar. I’ve posted that here before. I need to repost it on my own website and just link to it whenever I need it. I’ll work on it and add a reply so you can see it.

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