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Final Loose Threads on the Zealot Hypothesis

I think I’ve gone on about Aslan’s Zealot long enough. Maybe more than long enough, many of you may think. My plan is to make this the last post. Let me reiterate that I think it is an exceptionally well-written, engaging book, and we can all be thankful to Aslan for bringing important historical issues about Jesus to the public attention. I may think that he’s wrong about his central thesis, and I may recognize a lot of errors in his book (about history, about the NT, about early Christianity). But I appreciate very much that he has gotten people talking about Jesus from a historical perspective – something that I think is of utmost importance, especially in our American context where Jesus typically is only spoken of by believers who do not appreciate the importance of history for knowing, well, about the past!

In this final post I want to speak about a couple of threads, loose traditions that are sometimes used to argue that Jesus was most likely a zealot, someone who was so zealous for the law, and the land, that he believed that the Romans should be driven out so that Israel could have what was hers as prescribed in the law of Moses. I’ll just deal with both of these traditions briefly, since I don’t want to belabor the point. In my estimation both traditions actually say the *opposite* of what they are said to say by those who support the idea that Jesus was a zealot. The first tradition is that he had a follower called Simon the Zealot, and the second tradition is that his disciples were armed when Jesus was arrested and that they put up a fight for him (what were they doing with swords if they were not in favor of violent opposition to the Roman invaders?). I will argue that the first may be accurate, or not, but in either event it shows that Jesus himself was not a zealot; and that the second is not a historical datum.

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My New Edition of After the New Testament
Jesus’ Crucifixion as King of the Jews



  1. Avatar
    Steefen  January 10, 2014

    Joseph Raymond, author writes: “a large Jewish army allied with the Romans under Antipas had just been defeated by Aretas, king of Nabatea, thus reducing the number of local auxiliary troops available to the Romans in Judea. During this period the Roman emperor Tiberius didn’t even live in Rome thereby weakening his administration of the empire. Further, Tiberius previously executed his long-term and trusted minister (Sejanus) adding to the administrative turmoil in the province as officials loyal to Sejanus were purged. Two legions weren’t in Syria, they were on their way back from Parthia.”

    The biblical Jesus wanted the Son of Man – Kingdom of God. This was his political-military window of opportunity. (You’re right, Jesus wasn’t looking to engage the Romans at their full presence.)

  2. Avatar
    davidkelly  January 14, 2014

    Professor Ehrman,

    If you don’t mind, two quick questions about Aslan’s book before you move on:

    First, a number of times, he uses the phrase “Jewish cult” or “temple cult” in the book. I’ve never heard of Judaism refered to as a cult before, and am wondering where this came from?

    Second, what I found most interesting in the book was how Aslan describes the relationship of Paul with James, Peter and John. It gives one the impression that Christianity ended up being based on the ideas of the wrong person (and a bit of a crazy person at that, by his description of Paul). He also describes their views of what Jesus believed, as being in conflict. Do you feel Aslan is correct in these interpretations? Thank you!

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  January 14, 2014

      “Cult” simply means “religious practices” — so the Jewish cult is simply the religious practices of worship engaged in by Jews.

      The sharp contrast drawn between Paul and Peter/James has been around for a very long time, and is often *over*drawn. Maybe I’ll post on it down the line.

  3. Avatar
    Steefen  January 27, 2014

    At the website of Jewish Review of Books, there is a review of Zealot by Professor Allan Nadler, Professor of Religious Studies and Director of the Jewish Studies Program at Drew University in Madison, New Jersey.

    Prof. Nadler ends his review with this paragraph:

    Finally, is Aslan’s insistence on the essential “Jewishness” of both Jesus and his zealous political program not also a way of suggesting that Judaism and Jesus, no less than Islam and Mohammed, are religions and prophets that share a similarly sordid history of political violence; that the messianic peasant-zealot from Nazareth was a man no more literate and no less violent than the prophet Mohammed?

    With the usual dialogue format I use, his thoughts and my responses appear below in more than one blog response (permission has been granted by Dr. Ehrman. Let us be grateful. As you can tell from Dr. Nadler’s concluding question, we have new critiques and comments.

    Prof. Nadler: The number of viewers of Reza Aslan’s Fox News’ interview had far exceeded the number of Israelites who crossed the Red Sea under Moses.

    Steefen: Professor Nadler should use the scholarly name of the sea: the Reed Sea. It does not serve the needs of raising the standards of religious education to mislead people into even thinking God parted the waters of the Red Sea or the Gulf of Suez.

    Prof. Nadler: Among his most glaring overestimations is Aslan’s problematic insistence that the Christian belief that Jesus was both human and divine, is “anathema to five thousand years of Jewish scripture, thought and theology.” The vast chronological amplification aside, Judaism’s doctrine about this matter is not nearly so simple, as Peter Schäfer demonstrated exhaustively in his very important study, The Jewish Jesus…

    Steefen: What vast chronological amplification? http://www.hebcal.com/converter/ gives us a Hebrew year of 5774.

    The Jewish Jesus by Peter Schafer came out in hardcover 2/26/2012 (Kindle version seems to be the same date).
    Zealot came out 7/16/2013. If Zealot’s manuscript deadline was 7/16/2012 maybe he could have read Schafer’s book and incorporated it into his manuscript’s final draft—a hard thing to do if Schafer’s arguments weren’t in the shaping of previous manuscript drafts. The Jewish Gospels: The Story of the Jewish Christ by Daniel Boyarin, copyrighted 2012 but amazon.com is only showing a reprint edition of August 6, 2013–after Zealot came out.

    Prof. Nadler’s claim that Aslan should have read and incorporated these books into his manuscript is invalid.

    By the way, did any of these books win an award or make the cover of a scholarly Journal to catch Aslan’s attention? Was there some fantastic book tour for either Schafer or Boyarin?

  4. Avatar
    Steefen  January 27, 2014

    Prof. Nadler: The book’s Prologue is both titillating and bizarre. Entitled “A Different Sort of Sacrifice” it opens with a breezy depiction of the rites of the Jerusalem Temple, but very quickly descends to its ominously dark denouement: the assassination of the High Priest, Jonathan ben Ananus, on the Day of Atonement, 56 C.E., more than two decades after Jesus’s death.

    Steefen: It’s bizarre for me because the Revolt action is more than 5 years away. It is 20 years after the biblical Jesus crosses over in 36 C.E. Apparently Aslan is setting the tone for a Zealot, but it is not relevant to Jesus. I have given each chapter a letter grade, The section, in my mind, earned a B. I have to finish reading chapter 15 and the epilogue. I am reading the notes section of every chapter. But, so far, I have given an A+ to only two chapters: Chapter 7: The Voice Crying Out in the Wilderness and Chapter Eight: Follow Me.

  5. Avatar
    Steefen  January 27, 2014

    Prof. Nadler: To address the obvious problem that the Jesus depicted in Christian Scriptures is the antithesis of a zealously political, let alone ignorant and illiterate, peasant rebel and bandit, Aslan deploys a rich arsenal of insults to dismiss any New Testament narrative that runs counter to his image of Jesus as a guerilla leader, who gathered and led a “corps” of fellow “bandits” through the back roads of the Galilee on their way to mount a surprise insurrection against Rome and its Priestly lackeys in Jerusalem.

    Steefen: Jesus was asking for trouble with his carefully staged Palm Sunday conspicuous entrance into Jerusalem. The high priest’s Passover garments were held by Rome, distributed by Rome, and returned to Rome for safekeeping. The turning over of the tables was an act against Rome.

    Prof. Nadler: The crucial distinction that Aslan fails to acknowledge is that what clearly sets Jesus so radically apart from all of these figures is his adamant rejection of violence…

    Steefen: LOL. Jesus delivers a parable that ends with: those who did not want me king, bring them and slay them before me. Jesus delivers another parable in which a king’s messenger is killed. The king not only kills the murderers but burns down the hometown of the murders thereby harming innocent women, children, and men.

  6. Avatar
    Steefen  January 27, 2014

    Prof. Nadler: There is not so much as an allusion to be found in Zealot to the fascinating debates between Jesus and the Pharisees about the specifics of Jewish law, such as the permissibility of divorce, the proper observance of the Sabbath, the requirement to wash one’s hands before eating, the dietary laws, and—most fascinating and repercussive of all—the correct understanding of the concept of resurrection, in response to a challenge by the Sadducees who rejected that doctrine tout-court.

    Steefen: Dr. Nadler believes Jesus must have been an educated man. Here he opposes not only Aslan but Bart Ehrman as well. I agree Jesus was an educated man.

    Prof. Nadler: As in his highly selective misuse of the Gospels, Aslan is here distorting the Hebrew Scriptures, conflating different categories of “foreigners,” and erasing the crucial distinction between the righteous ger, or foreigner, and the pernicious idolator, as well as the radically different treatments the Torah commands towards each. He mischievously omits the Torah’s many and insistent prohibitions against “taunting the stranger, for you know the soul of the stranger, having been strangers in the land of Egypt,” and “cheating the foreigner in your gate”, and, most powerfully, the injunction to “love the stranger as yourself.” (See, inter alia, Exodus 22:20 & 23:9, Leviticus 19:34 and Deuteronomy 24:14.)

    Steefen: I agree!

    Prof. Nadler: What will prove most shocking, at least to those with some very basic Jewish education, are Aslan’s many distorted, or plainly ignorant, portrayals of both the Jews and their religion in Jesus’s day. Aside from his apparent unfamiliarity with the critically important recent works of Schäfer and Boyarin, Aslan seems oblivious of more than a century of scholarship on the exceedingly complex theological relationship between the earliest disciples of Jesus and the early rabbis. The foundational work of R. Travers Herford in Christianity in Talmud and Midrash (1903) and, three-quarters of a century later, Alan Segal’s Two Powers in Heaven: Early Rabbinic Reports about Christianity and Gnosticism (1977) are just two of the hundreds of vitally important books missing from his bibliography.

    Steefen: I’ve read Jesus in the Talmud by Schafer. (I gave it 3 out of 5 stars.) I have not yet read Christianity in Talmud and Midrash (1903). I have not read Two Powers in Heaven: Early Rabbinic Reports about Christianity and Gnosticism (1977).

    Prof. Nadler: That Aslan has not read Schäfer is made most painfully clear in his pat dismissal of the Roman historian Celsus’s report of having overheard a Jew declare that Jesus’s real father was not the Jew, Joseph, but rather a Roman centurion named Panthera. Aslan says that this is too scurrilous to be taken seriously. While it would be unfair to expect him to be familiar with the common Yiddish designation of Jesus as Yoshke-Pandre (Yeshua, son of Panthera), one might expect him to have read the fascinating chapter devoted to this very familiar and well-attested theme in rabbinic sources, in Schäfer’s Jesus in the Talmud.

    Steefen: Your claim that Aslan should have read the book is invalid as explained above. Second, please explain how a Roman paternity and Roman citizenship while one is Jewish through a Jewish mother.

  7. Avatar
    Steefen  January 27, 2014

    Prof. Nadler: to his truly shocking assertion that rabbinic sources attest to Judaism’s practice of crucifixion.

    Steefen: I’m not shocked. See http://clas-pages.uncc.edu/james-tabor/archaeology-and-the-dead-sea-scrolls/josephus-references-to-crucifixion/

    Prof. Nadler: On the other hand, Aslan weirdly accepts at face value, and even embellishes, the dramatic accounts in the Gospels of Jesus’s entry into Jerusalem allegedly just before the Passover, as the Jewish crowds wave palm branches and chant hosannas. But were he familiar with the basic rituals of the Sukkot festival, Aslan might somewhere have acknowledged the skepticism expressed by many scholars about the Gospels’ contrived timing of this dramatic event to coincide with Passover.

    Steefen: Please explain.

  8. Avatar
    Steefen  January 27, 2014

    Prof. Nadler: Finally, there is Aslan’s description of the fate of the Jews and Judaism in the wake of the destruction of the Temple. In his account, all of the Jews were exiled from Judea, and not so much of a trace of Judaism was allowed to survive in the Holy Land after 70 C.E.. Astonishingly enough, Aslan says not a word about the tremendously important armistice arranged between the pacifistic party of Jewish moderates led by Yochanan ben Zakai, or of the academy he established at Yavneh (Jabne, or Jamnia) some forty miles northwest of Jerusalem, and which flourished for more than a half-century, breathing new life and vitality into rabbinic Judaism in the immediate aftermath of the destruction of Jerusalem. And none is less convenient than the fact that a significant, and ultimately dominant, faction of Jews of first-century Palestine, far from being nationalist zealots, were pacifists whose accord with Vespasian gave birth to the religion we today recognize as Judaism.

    Steefen: “Pacifists whose accord with Vespasian..”

    WHOAAA, WAIT A SECOND: Paid Pacifists who were of one accord with Vespasian. WE KNOW VESPASIAN GAVE YOHANAN JAVNEH and we know Vespasian gave Josephus land in the same area. WHY? Both Yohanan and Josephus called Vespasian king, messiah, and emperor. We know Josephus helped Vespasian and Titus defeat the Jewish revolt. To what extent Yohanan helped the Romans is TBD–but, Vespasian asked him (why play dead to escape Jerusalem,) why didn’t you come to me sooner?

    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

    Ralph Ellis in his book King Jesus: From Egypt (Kam) to Camelot (Chapter 10: Saul-Josephus and Modern Judaism) says: 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.

    So, Vespasian gives Josephus and Rabbi Johanan land on the plains outside of Jerusalem. The former has the Testimonium Flavianum (once thought to be a later insert) but the latter also defends an important part of the Gospel story.

  9. Avatar
    Steefen  January 29, 2014

    Prof. Ehrman,

    I found this in the LA Time Review of Zealot. Is this correct?

    “Aslan had an epiphany, however, when presented with a basic fact of biblical scholarship: When Jesus called himself the Messiah, he had a specific Jewish idea in mind. In Jewish thought, he could never be a divine being.”

    Christians made Jesus divine but Jesus did not believe he could be divine?

    • Avatar
      Steefen  January 29, 2014

      Maybe this is partly what it means when people say Jesus was Romanized because Julius Caesar and Augustus Caesar were divii (divine). Also, Pharaohs, say 18th dynasty, were divine.

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  January 30, 2014

      Well, the messiah *could* be divine. But he wasn’t for Jesus. I deal with this at length in my new book, where I argue that Christians came to think of Jesus as divine, although he did not see himself that way at ALL.

      • Avatar
        Steefen  January 30, 2014

        Jesus dies.
        The Catholics say he went to visit the souls in Hell or something–I went to Catholic schools from 7th to 12th grade. I don’t quite remember.

        2nd draft:
        Jesus dies.
        He ascends to Heaven where God transfigures him into the Son of Man.
        Jesus comes out of his tomb on Easter Sunday as Son of Man to rule the Kingdom of God.

        For Jesus to go from Healer-Teacher to a Son of Man, king of the Kingdom of God, with the Easter story, Jesus would have to be divine.

        Dr. Ehrman, the Son of Man at the right hand of the Power HAS TO BE DIVINE.

        Dr. Ehrman, you say the messiah could be divine, but he wasn’t for Jesus. Even without Jesus being transformed into the Son of Man between crucifixion and resurrection, if the messiah was the Son of Man sitting at the right hand of the power, how could he not be divine? Do you really explain in your book that Jesus did not see the Son of Man as divine given his proximity to the throne?

        • Bart Ehrman
          Bart Ehrman  January 30, 2014

          Most people didn’t think the Messiah was the Son of Man seated next to God on a throne.

          • Avatar
            Steefen  January 31, 2014

            “Jesus standing before Caiaphas quotes not only Daniel 7:13 but also Psalms 110:1 (The Lord says to my lord, ‘Sit at my right hand until I make your enemies your footstool’). The integration of Daniel 7:13 and Psalms 110:1 according to T.F. Glasson (an author published by a university press–Cambridge University Press) is Jesus making a natural connection. Glasson notes that in Daniel, the coming of the Son of Man with the clouds of heaven symbolizes the establishment of the Kingdom of God on earth. Once Jesus is exalted to the right hand of God, the kingdom he preached will emerge as the new community of saints. The reference to the Psalms demonstrates Jesus’s personal exaltation [to divinity] while the reference to Daniel indicates the inauguration of the kingdom on earth–an event that must begin with his death and resurrection.

            Glasson believes that this is the moment when the two titles Messiah and Son of Man come together for Jesus.

            (See page 256 of Aslan notes to Zealot’s Chapter 11.)

            Dr. Ehrman, you must agree that while “most people didn’t think the Messiah was the Son of Man seated next to God on a throne,” Jesus reinterpreted the messianic title.

            Yes, Dr. Ehrman: Jesus and Stephen the Martyr were killed for this reinterpretation but we cannot have Jesus’ Son of Man movement divorced from the concept of Jesus, the Messiah, the Christ, our Savior.

            So: I’d like to advance the discussion to this fork: either Jesus becomes divine at the right hand of God or Jesus is a human saint in heaven with his moment at the right hand of God.

            (Given how large God can be, there can be many at the right hand of God.)

  10. Avatar
    Steefen  January 29, 2014

    Dr. Ehrman,

    “At UC Riverside, where Aslan teaches creative writing, his work was seen as weighty enough that the religious studies department has considered inviting him to become part of their faculty.”

    Would your university do something like this? If a creative writing professor wrote Zealot, would it be good enough for him to teach one course in religious studies?

  11. Avatar
    Steefen  January 29, 2014

    Ohh-ho! Stephen Prothero goes beyond Professor Nadler in the Washington Post review of Zealot. See the last three paragraphs of his review.


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