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More Historical Mistakes in Aslan’s Zealot

In this post I would like to continue with some of the historical mistakes in Aslan’s Zealot. When reading these, do bear in mind that I also had positive things to say about the book.

As in the previous post, I would like this one to focus on historical errors, or historical claims that have no basis in either our ancient sources or modern scholarship. I will not be discussing, in this post, the mistakes Aslan has made about the New Testament. That will be my next post.


  • Aslan wants to argue that John the Baptist may have been an Essene ( I think there’s no way that’s true, but the idea has been floated ever since the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls; still, John’s baptism for remission of sins is completely different from what was going on among the Essenes, who believed in lengthy periods of ritual purification, not a one-time baptism in view of “repentance.” But thinking he was an Essene is not a flat-out mistake; it’s just a historical hypothesis. The mistake is this:). In doing so Aslan argues that this view might be supported by the fact that “John is presented as going off into the Judean wilderness at a young age” (p. 84). That’s not true. I might have reserved this comment for my next post on errors related to the NT, except there is another source for John the Baptist – Josephus (Antiquities, 18, 5, 2). Neither source says a word about John’s age when he went to the wilderness (and neither connects him in any way with the Essenes – but that’s not a pure mistake on Aslan’s part).
  • Aslan – in order to heighten the horrific relations between Pilate, governor of Judea, and his Jewish subjects – claims that “in his ten years as governor of Jerusalem, he had sent thousands upon thousands to the cross with a simple scratch of his reed pen on a slip of papyrus” (p. 148). Aslan is making this up. Our sources for Pilate are: (a) the New Testament Gospels; (b) Josephus; (c) Philo of Alexandria (a prominent Jewish philosopher of the first century); (d) an inscription bearing Pilate’s name, discovered in Caesarea in 1961; (e ) several coins minted during his rule. In NONE of these sources is there any reference at all to Pilate crucifiying “thousands and thousands” of Jews. In all these sources, there is reference only to three crucifixions, Jesus and the two crucified with him. We have no idea how many Pilate condemned to crucifixion.

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Mistakes about the New Testament in Aslan’s Zealot
Aslan’s Zealot: Historical Mistakes



  1. Avatar
    hwl  December 18, 2013

    I think the issue isn’t whether someone (an academic or layperson) has the right or authority to write a book outside his area of expertise, touted as a serious historical study. Rather it is whether the book has been passed to experts for proof-reading and checks. When you wrote your textbook on the bible, you sent the manuscript to OT experts because you recognise you are not a specialist in the OT, and you wanted to be sure you haven’t made howlers an OT expert would easily pick up. Presence of many factual mistakes are unacceptable in academic work of any field. Aslan didn’t send his manuscript to the appropriate experts in his university for checking. I think this invalidate his claim that his book is a serious scholarly work.

  2. gmatthews
    gmatthews  December 18, 2013

    Brilliant. I haven’t read the book and don’t plan to (I’ve got enough reading backlog to last me 2 years easily), but it is really amazing that he’s made some of these mistakes. A few of the points I can see where he would include them (as O’Reilly’s ghost did in “his” book) just to appeal to a broad readership, but the last point you made about apparently not knowing about the belief in the divinity of Christ is appalling.

    Can’t wait to see tomorrow’s post.

  3. Avatar
    magmack  December 18, 2013

    I am impressed by your findings, but I hope you’ll be able to say a bit more about why these errors matter–other than to point out that Mr. Aslan is not a scholar of early Christianity. Thanks.

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  December 18, 2013

      The main point is that if he is not an expert, why should you want to trust his expert opinion?

    • Avatar
      Adam0685  December 19, 2013

      In my opinion, many errors of this type lowers somebody’s credibility.

  4. Avatar
    drdavid600  December 18, 2013

    My understanding is that Tacitus wrote that a large number of Christians were caught up in Nero’s persecution, not just a symbolic few. If so, it’s reasonable to think Peter and Paul died then, though undocumented. Aslan is at fault for not specifying where he’s being speculative, but it’s plausible even so.

    How the church must have been affected between Nero and the Jewish revolt. There may have been more impetus to start writing things down than those, but surely those two trauma were part of it, even if that’s speculative. Speculation of how the church responded to a couple of horrific facts, in the absence of any sources that describe that, isn’t the same as making up a story out of nothing. I agree that one should be explicit that this is extrapolation, not fact, however.

    I wish NT scholars would do the same when they give dates for the gospels or other writings. Such dates don’t come from manuscripts that date from the first century. They are extrapolations from what facts there are. Lots of people aren’t clear on this, even though you scholars are.

  5. Avatar
    dfogarty1  December 18, 2013

    Dr. Ehrman. Big fan as you might know. I did enjoy the book zealot. I was also aware of some of the errors he made based on some of your prior work. Particularly the notion that forgery in antiquity was an acceptable thing.

    However, some of your criticisms are rather picky. I think any author who brings the historicity of Jesus to the publics attention ought to be applauded. Aslan clearly take some liberties but those liberties do not, in my view, rise to the level of deception.

    Take his treatment of Pilot. Sure he take some liberties here. But I think it was Josephus who said that pilot was removed from office because of his persistent cruelty. I am ready to be wrong about that. But I don’t think I am.

    The point is, some of the criticisms you level make me wary of discussing the historical Jesus with my friends. By that I mean, I am not a New Testament scholar. However, I consider myself and autodidact. And I read much of your work. Your criticisms make me feel like I am unqualified even to have a conversation on the topic. With all due respect.

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  December 18, 2013

      I don’t think you need to be wary of discussing Jesus with your friends! Of course we all make mistakes. The problem is writing a book, trying to sway public opininion on a topic, but not being an expert in the field.

      • Aleph82
        Aleph82  December 19, 2013

        This post was definitely humbling – a lot of these claims are outright fabrications, and I have to admit that I would have missed most of them. And I work for a bank’s fraud department! (not that it has anything to do with historical criticism, but i still took it personally).

        Question: Are there any valuable contributions to your field made by non-experts that you can think of?

  6. Avatar
    Todd  December 18, 2013

    It is my understanding that less than twenty percent of those invited to the Council of Nicea actually attended. Do we know how many were invited?

  7. Avatar
    willow  December 18, 2013

    Referring to the crucifixion, there were not thousands? Not even dozens? Only the three that we can be certain of, under Pilate? Well that was indeed a rather enlightening read! Tough; but, enlightening! Being reminded of how little I know or fully understand is never easy, but always welcomed! It’s time now for me to go back and re-read history minus a preconceived notion or two.

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  December 18, 2013

      I’m not saying there were only three. I’m saying that a historian cannot say that there were “thousands and thousands” unless there is evidence.

      • Avatar
        willow  December 19, 2013

        My apologies, Bart. I wasn’t clear. What I meant was that on the day of Jesus’ crucifixion we have evidence (NT) of only 3, not the dozens that I suggested in a previous post on another subject. I forget which.

  8. Avatar
    toejam  December 18, 2013

    Thank you for deflating my confidence in Aslan. I knew there was some colouring going on, but this is quite brutal. The question now becomes how *deliberate* is all this colouring? It’s one thing to paint a picture of a face with exaggerated colours and shapes in order to give one a greater *sense* of the person, but it’s another to misrepresent them altogether.

  9. Avatar
    dennis  December 18, 2013

    Time to bring back the Imprimatur ( bishop’s permission to have the writing circulated ) ? Hey , take it easy ! I was joking !

  10. Avatar
    fultonmn  December 18, 2013

    Some of the details he supllies are remeniscent of those in Killing Jesus. I supposed it’s always been hard not to fill in material when the sources’ narratives are rather bare.

  11. Avatar
    alexius105  December 18, 2013

    Great analysis so far. Thnx!

  12. Avatar
    fishician  December 18, 2013

    It is disappointing that many who claim to be writing factual accounts of Jesus (Aslan and Bill O’Reilly as examples) cannot resist throwing in tradition, opinion and pure speculation when it supports their ideas. It’s OK to cite tradition and offer opinion but only when you make it clear that’s what it is. But then the Gospel writers were also pretty loose with their “facts” in their eagerness to prove their points! And I have often heard the argument “Why would someone die for something they know to be untrue?” which sidesteps the issue that we don’t know if or why the disciples died. Only the death of James is recorded in the NT and even then it doesn’t say why he was killed. John the Baptist was supposedly killed by Herod – but it had nothing to do with his Messianic message, for example. Funny how tradition becomes fact when it suits one’s purposes, but is refuted as unreliable when it opposes what one believes.

  13. Avatar
    tnees  December 18, 2013

    Thanks for the correctives to Aslan’s “Zealot.” Will you also rebut O’Reilly’s “Killing Jesus?”

  14. Avatar
    glucab86  December 19, 2013

    I would like a post or a comment by you on this. What is your position on this highly debated topic? 1,2 or 3? or 4? 😀


    Thanks for your hard work with the blog!

  15. Avatar
    Sinfjotli  December 19, 2013

    I’ve enjoyed this brutal evisceration of Aslan’s pop-culture hack show. Unfortunately, I fear your voice will be drowned out by the sensationalism-loving masses eager for the next edgy take. I was somewhat leery of your initial criticisms of his credentials, taking them almost as intellectual snobbery, but clearly it was a methodical prelude for your just case for why his book cannot possibly be taken seriously, at least inasmuch as scholarly endeavors are concerned.

  16. cheito
    cheito  December 20, 2013

    Thank you DR Ehrman. Excellent points!

  17. Avatar
    stephena  December 21, 2013

    Interesting take-down of the errors in his book. I was well aware of the forgery issue because of your book “Forgery” which deals extensively with the myth that people LOVED to have their name used by others in the ancient world.

    Despite his use of tradition and fabrication (similar to O’Reilly’s fictional “gospel”) isn’t it reasonable to assume – so long as one notes that one IS assuming – that since Pilate did indeed have a bloody and tumultuous reign as Procurator, that this included the Roman practice of crucifixion? In Luke (13:1) for instance, it references “Galileans whose blood Pilate had mingled with their sacrifices. While not mentioning crucifixion, why assume it was never or rarely used, even in this instance? Isn’t that an assumption, too? (Maybe it’s a reasonable assumption it wasn’t. I don’t know.)

    And in Josephus’ “Life” (76) he speaks of seeing “many captives crucified.” Isn’t this evidence that it was used frequently in that time?

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  December 22, 2013

      I’m not saying that Pilate never crucified anyone. I’m saying that if we want to claim that it was “thousands and thousands,” or that along with Jesus that day there were “hundreds” we need *evidence*. Otherwise it’s not history but fantasy.

  18. Avatar
    Steefen  December 21, 2013

    Aslan moves into your territory when he says we need to look at the importance of John the Baptist as we go from one of the earlier gospels to one of the later gospels–as we go from Mark to John.

    John the Baptist spends time in the wilderness.
    Jesus goes into the wilderness.
    John the Baptist preaches Repent for the Kingdom of God is at hand.
    Jesus preaches the Kingdom of God.

    Jesus was under the tutelage of John the Baptist.

    The Gospel of John is less reliable historically than earlier gospels about how Jesus’ message developed.

    The Gospel of John gets John the Baptist’s place of execution wrong, Aslan writes.

    Aslan has historical mistakes. The gospels themselves have historical mistakes.

    • Avatar
      judaswasjames  December 24, 2013


      I personally think Jesus is a fictional composite of John and James. Hegesippus has two famous quotes of James in the mouth of Jesus: “Father forgive them” and “You will see the Son of man in power and on clouds of heaven”. And look at the similar birth and death narratives of John and Jesus. ‘Judas’ is a stand-in to hide James as successor. ‘Stephen’ in Acts 7 hides his death event at the hands of Paul as ‘Saul’ (62 CE). Eisenman shows that and also Acts 1 ‘Judas’, ‘Matthias’, and “Joseph Barsabbas JUSTus” as James ‘the Just’. I show James’ coming as Master as ‘Judas’ in the ‘Betrayal’ fiction. judaswasjames.com

      • Avatar
        Steefen  December 27, 2013

        Hegesippus is how many decades from the biblical Jesus?

        “However, please bear in mind that multiple appelations are not uncommon in the New Testament, with Judas Iscariot, for instance, having four other names: Labbaius, Thaddaeus, Didymus, and Thomas.” (King Jesus by Ralph Ellis, Chapter X: Saul-Josephus and Modern Judaism, “Capture and Surrender” section, ps 241-242)

        Judas Iscariot, Labbaius, Thaddaeus, Didymus, Thomas, and now James?

    • Avatar
      judaswasjames  December 28, 2013

      Eisenman goes into the desert Rechabite connections with Qumran. John is subsumed into the persona of Jesus, as Jesus is into James, and also John into James. The gospels are a real soup of invention.

  19. Avatar
    sleonard  December 27, 2013

    “Aslan goes on to claim that the disciples of Jesus all were martyred for believing in the resurrection.”

    On this point Matthew Ferguson has an excellent post surveying the historical evidence for how the apostles died on his blog:

  20. Avatar
    Steefen  December 28, 2013

    Bart Ehrman:
    In NONE of these sources is there any reference at all to Pilate crucifiying “thousands and thousands” of Jews. In all these sources, there is reference only to three crucifixions, Jesus and the two crucified with him. We have no idea how many Pilate condemned to crucifixion.

    Then why is Golgatha thus named? Can you really counter the implication that hundreds if not one to two thousand people were crucified at Golgatha during the tenure of Pilate or from 30 to 72 C.E. (when the first gospels start to take written shape)?

    Dr. Ehrman, I believe you’ve seen Golgatha/Calvary in your travels. How many crucifixions could have been conducted there at one time? Like the land of Vlad the Impaler, could more than three “hangings” have been conducted there? Given the square feet, approximately how many people could have been crucified there at one time?

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  December 29, 2013

      I suppose if you have 10 skulls sticking out it could be the place of the skull. Or maybe the mound *looked* like a skull. (One of the traditional sites for the crucifixion is thought to be the place for just that reason; we don’t know, of course, where it happened.) (And just because many thousands of people *could* be crucified in my neighborhood in Durham NC doesn’t mean that they have been!)

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