2 votes, average: 5.00 out of 52 votes, average: 5.00 out of 52 votes, average: 5.00 out of 52 votes, average: 5.00 out of 52 votes, average: 5.00 out of 5 (2 votes, average: 5.00 out of 5)
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Aslan’s Zealot: Some Positive Comments

I begin my assessment of Reza Aslan’s Zealot by saying a few things about what I appreciate about the book. In subsequent posts I will talk about the mistakes that pervade it, and about my view of the overarching thesis that Jesus was principally a zealot in favor of a violent insurrection against the Romans.

But first, the positives. As everyone has said, over and over again, the book is extremely well written. It reads more like a novel than a historical reconstruction – it flows very well on the sentence level, it tells a gripping narrative in a gripping fashion, and I appreciate very much the narrative structure of the book. Aslan is an expert in creative writing – it’s his day job – and unlike others who teach a subject (such as writing) but cannot do it, he himself has the gift.

I appreciate very much the historical focus of the book. This is its outstanding quality. More than most non-experts who try to write a book about Jesus, Aslan is intent and determined to situate Jesus in his own historical context. That in fact is the overarching theme of the book: Jesus cannot be understood outside the historical, social, and political realities of first-century Palestine. That is why Aslan spends so much of his time on these matters. Some readers may think its overkill, to give us this much information about the political plight of Palestinian Jews and their active resistance to foreign domination; but it’s the point of the entire book and completely welcome from my perspective. (Some readers have wondered if there is something else driving this concern; is there, in the back of Aslan’s mind – or even in the front of it – a question of the situation of *modern* Palestinians and their unjust treatment by a far more powerful oppressor who has taken over their land? I have absolutely NO way to answer that question; I don’t know a single thing about Aslan’s political views)

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Aslan’s Zealot: Historical Mistakes
About the Blog and Two Clarifications about Reza Aslan’s Zealot



  1. Avatar
    stephena  December 14, 2013

    I know this is the positive review, but… the entire thesis Aslan puts forward seems ridiculous on its face. If what we know about Jesus is true, he not only doesn’t condone violence, he is adamantly opposed to it and to those who advocate it. This idea of Jesus being a militant, military Messiah was big in the ’60s and didn’t seem to take hold then, either.

    All I can assume is that theories like this are some kind o fa way to absolve the Jewish leaders of guilt, and as a PC exercise, it’s rather weakly buttressed by the Gospels themselves, even considering later re-writes to make the Jewish people seem MORE at fault for Jesus’ death.

    Had Jesus been a military leader, wouldn’t his entire history have been written differently? (See: Bar Kochba.) Ironically, had he actually BEEN a military leader, rousing people to rise up against Rome, we’d likely have a lot more “evidence” outside the Gospels about Jesus – or so I believe. Dr. Ehrman, am I right? Can’t wait for the second shoe (critique) to drop on this.

    • Avatar
      ajh22  January 7, 2020

      Jesus advocated deferred violence. The coming of the son of man was suppose to be violent toward nonbelievers. I recommend reading Bad Jesus by Hector Avalos. Jesus was not the moral sage everyone thinks.

  2. Avatar
    DarylIverson  December 14, 2013

    Thank you.

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    hwl  December 14, 2013

    When you teach your students about why Jesus was crucified, do you find:
    1) They focus extensively on theological reasons;
    2) When they do give historical reasons, they put the blame primarily on the Jews who were fearful of Jesus’ popularity thereby undermining their own, who disliked Jesus’ teachings and were angered by Jesus’ claim to divinity (John 8), who felt personally insulted by Jesus’ criticism of the scribes and pharisees (i.e. the prima facie perspectives of the gospel authors)?

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  December 15, 2013

      Actually, most of my students adopt to the historical methods pretty quickly; I’m not sure what they think *before* the class, but after it they tend to think that the Romans were the ones who did it. But I should say, it does seem to me that it was the Jewish leadership in Jerusalem (members of the Sanhedrin) who were the ones who wanted him to be disposed of.

      • gmatthews
        gmatthews  December 16, 2013

        Have you read “Jews, God and History” by Max Dimont? I read it about 15 years ago and a strong case is made for the Jews being *completely* innocent in having anything to do with Jesus’ arrest and crucifixion. I forget the details of the argument made, but at the time it seemed compelling.

  4. Avatar
    hwl  December 14, 2013

    If your 1st & 2nd year PhD students write an extended essay of a quality and depth (but of course shorter in length) comparable to Aslan’s book, along with the same frequency of factual mistakes, would you pass them?

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  December 15, 2013

      I would make them rewrite the paper. This level of mistake is too much for an academic essay, let alone a book.

      • Avatar
        judaswasjames  December 19, 2013

        Pretty ironic from someone who says Jesus is the sacrifice in Gospel of Judas and that Jesus the Apocalyptic Prophet is coming to establish his kingdom “on earth”. These are not small mistakes.

        • Bart Ehrman
          Bart Ehrman  December 20, 2013

          I would agree they are not small mistakes. But I’d go a step farther and say they are not mistakes at all. 🙂

          • Avatar
            judaswasjames  December 20, 2013


            Let’s investigate. Shall we?

            I can dispense with the latter in one stroke: John 18:36.

            As for the first: Judas dreams he is stoned to death in Gospel of Judas. And not just by ANYONE. They are his FELLOW DISCIPLES stoning him. Hegesippus and Clement record that fellow Christians attacked and ultimately killed James the Just in 62 CE, with Clement recording that they were led by ‘Saul’ (he did this twice), and we all know who that was. The one “replacing” Judas at 36:1 in gJudas so that “the Twelve may again come to completion with their God” is not specified. He is not Matthias. He could not be identified, as his and his successors’ authority was under attack by the Paulines at the time and they had the power of political authorities behind them. He is James, the one who is to “rule” — 46:23 — (other period sources have James ruling from his “THRONE”, and gThomas has “for whom heaven and earth were created” — even Jesus never enjoyed such exaltation!). He was stoned to death by fellow disciples, and the acknowledged leader of the Jerusalem Assembly even by church sources of the period. Paul even defers to him (Acts 15:19! MMT, Council command for the scattered Gentiles! They were PAUL’S! –supposedly).

            Anyone who knows anything about Mysticism (which is modern ‘Gnosticism’) knows the most central feature is self-sacrifice. I have been a practicing Mystic all my life, since you were at Moody, even. I was in Norfolk in 1973, in a Christian evangelical church, and woke up one day before 6 am “morning watch” in my “brothers house” and realized that “morning watch” wasn’t pray-reading the Bible, like we all were told, but Meditation — the method of mental self-elimination (taught by Jesus in Matt. 26:40-41 and a dozen other places). It was divine intervention, because I don’t know how else it could have occurred to me with 24/7 immersion in born-again biblical fantasy. When Jesus tells ‘Judas’ that he is to “sacrifice the man that bears me” he is not speaking of HIMSELF. This is the gospel OF JUDAS. ‘Judas’ is the Good News, NOT Jesus!!! All other references to Judas are POSITIVE (Just like the “foot-washing” in John 13 until you get to mistranslated Psalm 41:9/13:18). DeConick is wrong about the bad Judas. He doesn’t “ascend” because he is REPLACED internally by Jesus. The “handing over” is a sop to the canon at the end, too well-know to leave out at the time gJudas was written. ‘Judas’ is the stand-in for James (who is told in “James” just before in Codex Tchacos that he “will cease to be James when he becomes “the One who Is”). HE is the sacrifice, not the un-named ‘Jesus’ you scholars all assume here. You don’t know Mysticism! This is what I’m trying to tell you. When did you ever study Eastern Mysticism at Moody? Wheaton? Princeton? This is crucial!

            The one I like best is Nag Hammadi, First Apoc. James, 32:10, for “James” 19:2-5 In Tchacos: “YOU have stirred up great anger and wrath against YOURSELF” missed in Tchacos as “HE has stirred”– now read what comes right after the climax “sacrifice” passage in gJudas: “Your HORN has been RAISED. Your WRATH has been kindled [against YOURSELF]. Your star has ASCENDED [DeConick]. Your heart has become strong.”~! ‘Judas’ is the successor!!! Both Apocs. of James have ‘the kiss’ go from James to Jesus, as a POSITIVE transfer of spiritual authority. It is INVERTED in the Pauline canonicals. Eisenman is the expert on theme inversion by gospel authors. He makes it his livelihood (“The NT Code”). Paul HATED James. He is the Spouter of Lying at Qumran, and James the R.T. who was hounded to Qumran by him (that *is* in Acts). You should know this. Acts is a rewrite of history specifically to hide the falling out. (Read Richard Pervo’s “The Mystery of Acts” for a real eye opener on Acts, if not Eisenman.) It doesn’t even tally with Paul, Luke’s best buddy.

            Gospel of the Hebrews has the BREAD go to James, not Judas. If you read my book on this, I show a dozen characters covering James in the Gospels/Acts corpus. How much does it take to show you this??? The whole Bible is Mysticism (covered over in the Pauline NT). You just missed it — coming from the orthodox upbringing that you still can’t get out of your eye.

            –Robert Wahler

          • Avatar
            judaswasjames  December 20, 2013

            I should clarify: at 36:1, *Jesus* is the one replacing Judas, who is really James. The dynamic is a common mystic theme, “Die to Live” is even the name of a book by my Master, Maharaj Charan Singh. “Woe to the man who delivers [‘paradidomai’ is ‘to deliver’, not ‘to betray’] me” is this dynamic in the Synoptics. It is the same as “sacrifice the man” (woe to the successor, who is replaced) and “you will cease to be James” in the Nag Hammadi text. It is also the sense of the Jacob and Esau reference in Psalm 41:9/John 13:18 with “my own kinsman” — not a “friend” as a betrayer, but a brother as successor, who “greatly supplants” (DRB trans.) Jesus, not “lifts his heel against me” which is a Hebrew idiom. John knew this and it suited his purpose to hide James in plain sight behind fictional ‘Judas’. I’m far from the only one who thinks Judas is fictional. Hyam Maccoby, Bishop Spong, and Eisenman among others. I like that company!

  5. Avatar
    RecoveringCalvinist  December 14, 2013

    Aslan made an interesting point towards the end of the book that Paul’s gentile church was at odds with the Jerusalem church and that the Pauline view was triumphant, in part, due to the Jerusalem church being wiped out during the Roman conquest of 70CE. Is there evidence for this and didn’t the view of keeping Jewish observance of the Law live on in early Christian communities found in Armenia, Irag, Egypt, etc.?

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  December 15, 2013

      Yes, he’s playing off views around scholarship since the 1830’s, usually associated with the Tuebingen School, started by F. C. Baur. But I doubt he knows that. It’s usually seen as far too simplistic for how things actually happened on the ground. and yes, there were Jewish-Christians for centuries.

      • Avatar
        hwl  December 15, 2013

        But Michael Goulder revived the Tubingen thesis, e.g. in “Paul and the Competing Mission in Corinth (1998)”?

      • gmatthews
        gmatthews  December 16, 2013

        As much as I detest Simcha Jacobovici these days I did enjoy one of his Naked Archaeologist episodes on the “missing” Jewish-Christian church post circa 400 (just guessing on the date). Seems like Robert Eisenman was one of the experts finagled into lending authenticity. I guess he’s burned all of whatever bridges he might have had with academia because I haven’t seen any new episodes in quite some time…

  6. Avatar
    TomTerrific  December 14, 2013

    “I think that at the end of the day this view is far *too* simple and can be advanced only by neglecting most of the evidence;”

    You may have tipped your hand, Dr. E.

  7. Avatar
    donmax  December 15, 2013

    I guess it must be because of the Christmas season, but I seem to be getting more than the usual trickle of questions and comments about Aslan’s book, and mine, too. Here’s a good example of the back and forth from yesterday’s Q & A session. Hope it’s in keeping with the topic at hand.

    Question: I just finished Zealot. Is it in the same vein [as yours]? I’m holding off on my comments on Zealot till after I interview the author.

    Response: Well, that depends. What *vein* do you think Aslan’s book was written in….?

    Answer to the Response: The vein that Christianity was a giant misunderstanding and a result of manipulation. I did read some of the reviews [of your book ] on Amazon. Some loved it others called it a an attack on the NT. Since you’re the author, maybe you can tell me. I may even buy the book.

    Fair enough. Part of the problem is I haven’t read Aslan’s book. Don’t even know when I’ll have the time. What I don’t like about it is the title. Jesus was surely NOT a Zealot, although he did associate with zealot-like Galileans. One of his own brothers was called Jude the Zealot (of course, this was only noted many decades after-the-fact), and others among his disciples went armed. They may even have used their weapons on occasion.

    My book is shorter, simpler, more visual, with emphasis on bible quotations as they relate to biblical and non-biblical history. Since Jesus cannot be fully understood apart from what came *before* his earthly arrival and what happened *after* he died, I begin with the OT and end with the NT. I do not believe Christianity was either “a giant misunderstanding” or “a result of manipulation.” It evolved and changed over extended periods of time in a great many ways and in different places throughout the ancient world, even up to more modern times. Above all, JESUS WAS A JEW, through and through! He was also a product of his time and place in history, which included much in the way of social and political unrest. That meant he was not a fan of the Roman Occupation or any other foreigners with anti-Jewish tendencies. (In that respect, I would probably agree with Aslan, but only marginally, with certain caveats and reservations.)

    How he came to be deified and changed to fit the expectations of other men and cultures is what I try to demonstrate, simply and clearly, without labeling him a full-blown Zealot, which is overly one-dimensional in its implications.

    I myself am NOT a “fundamentalist,” a word synonymous with IGNORANCE. I do not *attack* the NT, merely explain things about it, things most people aren’t aware of. In fact, I quote bible verses rather extensively from start to finish.

    As far as the research goes, James Tabor’s summation says it best. “[The book] touches on just about everything that has been explored by historical Jesus researchers over the past 100 years.” All I would add is: Jesus The Jew No One Knows separates fact from fantasy and was NOT written for scholars. If you’re a typical fundamentalist, you may not like some of my conclusions, any more than Professor Aslan’s, but if you have an open mind and want to learn, you’ll discover some things about the 1st century Nazarene named Joshua who was taken out of Judaism and made the centerpiece of Christianity.

    Thanks for your interest in my book.

  8. Aleph82
    Aleph82  December 15, 2013

    Let’s hope no one at Random House is a member of this blog. I can see the back of the 2nd edition now:

    “It tells a compelling story, historically rooted, in an elegant and readable fashion. And for that it is an admirable accomplishment.” – (BART EHRMAN)

  9. cheito
    cheito  December 15, 2013

    DR Ehrman:

    In your opinion who was responsible for Jesus’ death?

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  December 15, 2013

      Depends what you mean. The Romans under Pilate killed him, and Pilate, in my opinion, was teh one who found him guilty of a capital offense. But I think the Jewish leadership in Jerusalem probably alerted him to the problem.

      • cheito
        cheito  December 15, 2013

        DR Ehrman:

        Thank you for replying. The answer to the question of who killed jesus depends on what historical sources you accept as historically accurate. I accept the gospel of John. I know you don’t. According to the gospel of John Pilate didn’t believe jesus was guilty of any crime. It was certain religious Jews who opposed Jesus and wanted him dead because He declared Himself to be the son of God.

        John 19:4-Pilate came out again and said to them, “Behold, I am bringing Him out to you so that you may know that I find no guilt in Him.” 5-Jesus then came out, wearing the crown of thorns and the purple robe. Pilate said to them, “Behold, the Man!” 6-So when THE CHIEF PRIESTS and THE OFFICERS saw Him, they cried out saying, “Crucify, crucify!” Pilate said to them, “Take Him yourselves and crucify Him, for I find no guilt in Him.” 7-The Jews answered him, “We have a law, and by that law He ought to die because He made Himself out to be the Son of God.”


        John18:35-Pilate answered, “I am not a Jew, am I? Your own nation and the chief priests delivered You to me; what have You done?”


        John 19:11-Jesus answered, “You would have no authority over Me, unless it had been given you from above; for this reason he who delivered Me to you has the greater sin.”

        • Bart Ehrman
          Bart Ehrman  December 18, 2013

          Yes, in my view John is clearly in the trajectory that exonerates Pilate precisely to inculcate “the Jews,” during a period of rising anti-Jewish sentiment.

          • cheito
            cheito  December 18, 2013

            DR Ehrman:

            Paul the Apostle Of Christ agrees that it was Jesus own countrymen who killed Him. The truth is the Truth!

            1 Thessalonians 2:14-For you, brethren, became imitators of the churches of God in Christ Jesus that are in Judea, for you also endured the same sufferings at the hands of your own countrymen, even as they did from the Jews, 15-who both killed the Lord Jesus and the prophets, and drove us out. They are not pleasing to God, but hostile to all men, 16-hindering us from speaking to the Gentiles so that they may be saved;

            This doesn’t mean that all the Jews were culpable of His death only those Jews who did the deed… Just as all Germans are not responsible fro what Hitler and His Nazi party did to the Jews during world war II.

          • Avatar
            judaswasjames  December 19, 2013


            Paul was not “an Apostle” except in his own sorry mind, and he was renowned for telling lies, not “the truth”…

  10. Avatar
    Steefen  December 18, 2013

    Dr. Bart Ehrman:
    The most certain historical datum about Jesus is he was crucified under Pontius Pilate for calling himself the King of the Jews.

    Steefen, essayist and playwright, currently working on the second edition of The Greatest Bible Study in Historical Accuracy:

    I’m not certain that Jesus was crucified under Pontius Pilate. You say that in Did Jesus Exist. I haven’t finished reading that book. Let’s say, I’m on page 100. Maybe it comes after that?

    Dr. Ehrman, why do you say this?

    Do we have the cross carbon dated?
    Does Roman history specifically say this?
    Does Roman history say a miracle worker on the level of Apollonius went too far?
    If the Gospels contained the aqueduct event under Pontius Pilate’s reign, we would have a two-way connection between Jesus and Pilate. Things as big as the acqueduct protest against Pilate and the Samaritan protest against Pilate are needed for me to place the historical Jesus with Pilate as opposed to historical fiction. I can write a gospel piece inserting Jesus into a given decade or inserting Pilate into the biography of a composite character.

    I need Pilate to NOT wash his hands of the crucifixion. That statement in the gospel indicates to me that the gospel writer was alerting those with ears, let him hear that the historical Pilate did not crucify Jesus. We have Menahem in historical accounts, but Jesus’ Palm Sunday event and his turning over of tables does not make history.


    With the acqueduct event, the Roman soldiers under Pilate were going to kill more than 10 people.
    With the Samaritan protest, the Roman soldiers under Pilate killed more than 1 person.
    John the Baptist is killed, one person is killed and that makes history. Jesus is supposedly more wonderous than John the Baptist but while Herod Antipas(?) loses his position, Pilate doesn’t lose his position for crucifying one of the most famous healers during his reign–IF the wonderous healer and the rebel, zealot, bandit is the same person and not some composite character invented by gospel writers.

    The Bavli says Jesus was stoned to death. Josephus says the most important crucifixion of three men happened during the Jewish Revolt. The most important survival of crucifixion happened because he got Titus to let him, Joseph, not Latinized to Josephus, take the body of the crucified as Joseph in the Bible took the body of the crucified.

    If Pilate was very sincere about washing his hands, he would not have subordinates carry out the crucifixion anyway.

    I rest and look forward to what has persuaded you or direction to what has persuaded you.

    • Avatar
      Steefen  December 19, 2013

      Okay, I’m on page 110 of Did Jesus Exist.

      Last night after work, I went to Barnes & Noble to read a little bit. In Craig Evans’ “Fabricating Jesus,” the aqueduct event is tied to Pontius Pilate taking money from the Temple. This is Jesus’ Father’s House of Prayer. Jesus is concerned about the widow’s mite but not money removed by Rome? None of the 12 or the 70/72 mention this either. What isn’t said…speaks volumes.

      • Avatar
        Steefen  December 21, 2013

        Craig A. Evans blames the money from the Temple not just on Pontius Pilate but also on Caiaphas. It is possible that some money from God’s offerings could go to public welfare. So much money of church funds do benefit the congregations.

  11. Avatar
    AndrewBrown  December 21, 2013

    Aslan begins by saying, “The itinerant preacher wandering from village to village clamoring about the end of the world, a band of ragged followers trailing behind, was a common a sight in Jesus’s time—so common, in fact, that it had become a kind of caricature among the Roman elite.”

    But then he details how the Romans were so threatened by apocalyptic messiah-prophets that they swiftly had them executed as soon as they caught them.

    Both of these things cannot be true, but Aslan proceeds as if there isn’t any contradiction that needs further explanation.

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