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Mistakes about the New Testament in Aslan’s Zealot

In my previous two posts I detailed some of the historical errors in Aslan’s interesting and readable book Zealot. In this post I’ll say some things about mistakes he makes about the New Testament. I’m not sure which kind of mistake is more troubling – the book is dealing both with ancient history and with the accounts of Jesus in the NT, so both history and the Gospels are of central importance. In any event, here is a sampling of the latter.


  • Aslan indicates that Mark is uninterested in both Jesus’ birth and “surprisingly, in Jesus’s resurrection as he writes nothing at all about either event” (p. 29). Of course it is true that Mark begins with Jesus’ adult life and says nothing about his birth. But it’s absolutely wrong to say that he says nothing about the resurrection. Quite the contrary, one need only read Mark 16:1-8 and it becomes clear that Mark both knows about the resurrection and considers it to be of utmost importance. In the narrative, Jesus is dead and buried. On the third day the women go to the tomb. Jesus’ body is not there. A young man at the tomb informs them, explicitly, that Jesus has been raised and that they are to tell the disciples that Jesus will meet them in Galilee. There is no ambiguity here: for Mark’s Gospel, Jesus has been raised and the women have been told about it. What Mark lacks is not a resurrection but an account of Jesus appearing to anyone after the resurrection That’s a very different thing altogether! (That Mark is fundamentally committed to showing his readers that Jesus’ life ended in a resurrection is shown, as well, throughout the Gospel, in the three passion predictions of Mark 8:31; 9:31; 10:33-34; in each case Jesus tells his disciples that he will be killed and raised from the dead. He indicates the same thing in 9:9. And so on. To say that Mark doesn’t say anything about the resurrection is not only wrong, it is flatly to misread (or not to read) Mark.


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Aslan Zealot: A Deeper Evaluation of the Thesis Itself
More Historical Mistakes in Aslan’s Zealot



  1. Avatar
    remliw  December 19, 2013

    I do not consider myself I biblical scholar, but even I know not to conflate information and theology from one gospel with another gospel.

  2. Avatar
    Sinfjotli  December 19, 2013

    You’ve stated before that you think this book is still “a great read”, but I’m curious, in what way, exactly? Judging by your excerpts of his book, Aslan seems to be skilled in creating vivid imagery and perhaps even in storytelling in general. But since it seems as though there is virtually no credible scholarship to be found, in what way might one approach this book in order to extract even the merest positive? Because in my opinion, beautifully embellished storytelling might be entertaining, but if it’s done under a false pretense, it still constitutes a literary crime. Either he really didn’t do the necessary research, or he has some ulterior motive for peddling a book of egregious errors as historical truth.

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  December 20, 2013

      I mean that it is very well written, engaging, and interesting. (That doesn’t make it right, of course, but it’s still a great read.)

      • Avatar
        ntuser  December 21, 2013

        The Da Vinci Code was a great read also, but only pretended to be factual. I think this is different.

      • Avatar
        nichael  December 21, 2013

        Just like, for example, “Da Vinci Code”.

        Like many readers, I was outraged throughout the book. But, truth be told, I couldn’t stop reading.

        • Avatar
          nichael  December 21, 2013

          Or to pick another personal favorite which scores very high on the misinformation-plus-enjoyment scale:

          As a word of advice, no matter how much you may have enjoyed the movie, *never* ask a knowledgeable Mozart scholar what s/he thinks of the “Amadeus”.

    • Shanewag1
      Shanewag1  September 26, 2014

      Are you a Volsung Saga fan?

  3. Avatar
    Adam0685  December 19, 2013

    Whoa…these are significant mistakes, and I’d be very embarrassed if I made those mistakes. His credibility regarding the NT goes down the drain in my eyes.

  4. Avatar
    Anthony Nuccio  December 19, 2013

    I really, really like your discussions about mistakes from other authors. I read Zealot a few weeks ago and found it to be extremely entertaining. However, I did notice some of the flaws that you have pointed out, especially the flaws with Aslan’s exegesis of the New Testament. I think it’s very valuable to break books like these down in order to show the variety of “scholarship” that one writes a book with. I do wonder how most laypeople reacted to the book, if they have read all of it. We all know how Fox News reacted to it and other conservative voices, but it’s nice getting to see an academic perspective on his book.

    Also, I did catch a small typo in this sentence: “Aslan also claims that Luke two was a Greek-speaking Jew.””

    Sorry for pointing it out, but it bugged my grammar nerd to the core.


  5. Avatar
    Sblake1  December 19, 2013

    Thank you for all of this. I found your insights very helpful. Some of these I had actually noticed myself, but not all. I found the last chapter to be really strange and was wondering if you might comment on Aslan’s presentation of James and his relationship to Paul.

  6. Avatar
    judaswasjames  December 19, 2013


    Why do you appear on History Channel Specials like last night’s “The Bible” with people like Aslan who you know to not be “expert”?

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  December 20, 2013

      When you interview for these things, they don’t tell you whom else they will be interviewing…. But even so, I have no problem showing up with him. He *has* written the only #1 bestselling book on Jesus after all!

      • Avatar
        judaswasjames  December 28, 2013


        I just watched the you tube “The James Brother of Jesus” Discovery Channel special on the James Ossuary. I love the way they edited Robert Eisenman to show him weighing in, but omitting his first-day statement that it is a fraud due to the reference to the “brother of Jesus”. He says James was better known in his time than Jesus, so the reference to brother (only one other “brother” on an ossuary example, for ‘Simon’) would have been unlikely as an identifier. He made his comment the same day as the announcement.

        That said, the scientific analysis seemed pretty solid as authentic. There was a script expert who said it was a late forgery on the second half, however, and one guy said patina can be faked. I go with Eisenman, because I trust his scholarship, but I can see how some may disagree. He did tell me of his discomfort with appearing on some of these shows, with conclusions not in line with his own — like this one!

        • Bart Ehrman
          Bart Ehrman  December 29, 2013

          Yes, it’s always the problem with these things. And after a three-hour interview they usually pick the 10 second clip where you say something really stupid…

  7. gmatthews
    gmatthews  December 20, 2013

    Well, I’m of the opinion that when taken on the whole these and the other mistakes you mentioned in previous posts add up to a whole lot of DO NOT READ! A mistake here or there is one thing, but taken on the whole, if you can find this many mistakes that should really make anyone question the validity of anything he has to say. That said, I’m sure you’ll get a few people asking what the big deal is and who will think you’re nitpicking.

  8. Avatar
    nichael  December 20, 2013

    Furthermore concerning “[…]if there is one thing about which all four gospels agree […it is that Jesus] trekked down to Judea to be baptized by John”:

    (Setting aside the issue of *why* Jesus might have “trekked down to Judea”) is this not also incorrect in that all four Gospels don’t even agree that it was John himself who actually baptized Jesus? E.g in Luke’s version of the story John was already in prison by the time Jesus was baptized (Lk 3:20-21).

    (Possibly changed by Luke to add weight to his view that the Law ended with John?)

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  December 20, 2013

      The connection of Jesus and John is established in Luke, although you’re right that Luke avoids saying explicitly that John baptized him. An even bigger split is found in the fourth Gospel.

  9. TracyCramer
    TracyCramer  December 20, 2013

    Dear Bart,
    You wrote that you don’t typically read popular treatments of Christianity in Antiquity, so got me to wondering why you chose to write about Aslan’s book. Is it because you wanted to say something in general about non-specialists writing outside their area of expertise, or it is because of this book in particular? The thought occurred to me when I noticed how many reviews it has gotten. That’s huge! “Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth by Reza Aslan (Jul 16, 2013) (2,488 reviews)”.

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  December 20, 2013

      Yes, I’m doing this simply because it was a #1 NYTimes bestseller, and people have asked me about it.

  10. Avatar
    Wilusa  December 20, 2013

    I agree with you completely!

  11. Avatar
    Jim  December 20, 2013

    Yes, but did you at least like the front cover of the book? 🙂

  12. Avatar
    Wilusa  December 20, 2013

    About these books (Aslan’s and O’Reilly’s) that deal with Jesus’s motivations… I’m not willing to read them, but I gather Aslan casts Jesus as an anti-Roman would-be revolutionary (I’m not sure *why* Aslan has him opposing the Romans), and O’Reilly’s big issue is taxes.

    Assuming there really was significant anti-Roman feeling in Palestine at that time, whether or not it motivated Jesus, what do you think was the principal cause?

    *Was* it, really, taxes – perceived as onerous only because people were being taxed by *both* the Romans and the Temple priests (the two groups more or less in cahoots), and they’d been taught from childhood that the *Temple* taxes couldn’t possibly be questioned?

    Or was it an early form of *nationalism*, rooted in the belief that they’d had truly *great* kings (David and Solomon), and it was shameful that they were now ruled by a foreign power? (When David and Solomon may really have been little more than glorified tribal chiefs?)

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  December 22, 2013

      I think most conquered people don’t much like it, and the Jews in Palestine were no exception. And they had the additional grief that hte land had allegedly been promised to them by God himself, and now someone else was controlling it.

  13. Robertus
    Robertus  December 20, 2013

    “Actually, there is every good reason for thinking that Mark could not have been a Jew. He misunderstands Jewish rituals of cleansing and purity, and assigns to “all Jews” a view of hand washing attested only among Pharisees (7:3), a mistake that is virtually inexplicable of Mark himself were raised in the Jewish tradition.”

    I doubt Mark was speaking here of the entire Jewish people. More likely he intended ‘all Judeans’ since he is describing here a dispute Jesus had with some scribes who came from Jerusalem (Mk 7,1). It’s still an exaggeration on his part, but I think such derogatory exaggerations are very common in ancient texts (and on cable news and in tabloids today). I think it is generally assumed that Galilean and diaspora Jews by and large were not as strict in some of these matters as (some) Judean scribes and Pharisees.

  14. Avatar
    dennis  December 21, 2013

    What I find most appalling about this whole episode is not that a supposedly ” non fiction ” best seller would be riddled with enough gross error to totally destroy the author’s credibility ( though that was shocking enough – you did a truly magnificent job here Bart ) , but rather the glowing reviews that this travesty gathered and the continued respect shown to the ” work ” and its author . Did anyone , ANYONE AT ALL , contact you or any other legitimate New Testament scholar to get a reading as to just how solid this was prior to commenting on it ?

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  December 22, 2013

      I don’t know if he vetted the book by scholars in the field or not. Certainly not me!

      • Avatar
        dennis  January 3, 2014

        Bart , perhaps I didn’t make myself clear ; I wasn’t asking whether or not Aslan vetted the book ( almost certainly he did not ) but whether any lay reviewer or commentator asked your opinion or ( to your knowledge ) the opinion of any scholar as to whether the book was solid prior to writing a review of a strongly promoted book in a very specialized field . It is the apparent indifference to factual accuracy on the part of the lay press that I find most bothersome .

        • Bart Ehrman
          Bart Ehrman  January 4, 2014

          Ah! Now I understand what you mean. I don’t know — no one contacted me in any event.

  15. Avatar
    willow  December 21, 2013

    “Aslan indicates that Mark is uninterested in both Jesus’ birth and “surprisingly, in Jesus’s resurrection as he writes nothing at all about either event”

    The Book of Mark seems such a forgotten gospel in many of the churches I have attended. When it came to the birth, death and resurrection of Jesus, the focus/teaching was on either the written accounts of Mathew or of John. Little was ever said or thoroughly taught about the Book of Mark, comparatively speaking. Perhaps Aslan is as guilty as I of skimming through what the writer of Mark had to say simply because the churches themselves attribute little importance to the book.

    • Avatar
      willow  December 21, 2013

      Add to that – the church and church writers. We have absolute mountains of Christian writings inspired by such as the book of John, but what of similar kind do we have when it comes to Mark? Mole hills, in comparison, I venture to say. If the church and church writers (not all of them scholars) show far less interest in Mark than say John, Luke or Mathew, why would a Muslim writing Jesus/Christianity concern himself with a book that receives far less attention?

  16. Avatar
    Rosekeister  December 21, 2013

    I’ve enjoyed your review of Reza Aslan’s book but it just popped into my head that the real problem is that he presents himself as an expert. I went back to the Fox interview to doublecheck and he presents himself as “a scholar of religion with four degrees including one in the New Testament and fluency in Biblical Greek who has been studying the origins of Christianity for two decades…I am an expert with a PhD in the history of religions.” Yet at least some of the mistakes you are pointing out are elementary mistakes. Do you think “Zealot” was never meant to be serious scholarship? I’ve seen it argued that Aslan knew exactly what he was doing and the reception he would get from Fox news which boosted his sales tremendously. Aslan promotes himself as an expert with all the qualifications that make a person an expert. I think you have mentioned that actually he is a creative writing teacher. Is he misrepresenting his qualifications? I see he has been publishing religious books since 2008. Is this a case of someone who does not write for peer-reviews publications and so his ideas do not go through the process of a rigorous review by experts?

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  December 22, 2013

      No, the book was not meant to be advancing serious scholarship, though I think it was meant to be *based* on serious scholarship. Every author, of course, wants big time media coverage, whether FOX or whatever! But you’re right, he has never, to my knowledge, ever published anything in a peer-reviewed venue in the field that htis book covers.

  17. Avatar
    Wilusa  December 21, 2013

    Another thought – apologies if I seem to be beating a dead horse!

    You’ve said the only actual historical record we have of crucifixions during Pilate’s governorship is of Jesus and the two men crucified with him. So we don’t know, for example, how many people were crucified in Jerusalem in a typical year. Whatever may have been a typical figure for the Empire as a whole, Jerusalem could have been atypical.

    And I got to thinking of something I read about the film “Ben Hur.” Obviously, the film versions were based on a novel. The makers of the Charlton Heston film started out to do some research: what was Jerusalem’s chariot-racing venue really like? They discovered there were different types of stadiums throughout the Empire – and no historical evidence that Jerusalem had one at all! It might have; but it’s quite possible that it didn’t.

    Which brings me to “beating that dead horse”: the empty tomb story. When we really know so little about how Jerusalem compared with other cities in the Empire, how can you be sure crucified victims’ remains were dealt with the same way there as elsewhere? Of course, burial in a supporter’s family tomb couldn’t have been “typical,” anywhere; but I don’t see how it can be *ruled out*, in special circumstances.

    I understand your reasoning, in suggesting why Jesus’s followers might have invented the story. But it does go back very far, to Mark. I think the only earlier writer was Paul – and we surely don’t have everything Paul ever wrote (nor can we know what he *said*). I, at least, can better understand people’s believing the “resurrection” story if the “mysteriously vanished body” had been a part of it from the start. Of course, *our* immediate reaction to hearing that a body had “vanished” would be, “Someone moved it!” (And that’s what I think happened.) But Jesus’s few, fanatical early followers might have reacted very differently.

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  December 22, 2013

      I guess I would argue that if you want to make the case that things were different in Jerusalem than we know they were elsewhere, you would bear the burden of proof for that, especially since what little we do know does in fact appear to show that things (as far as the Romans went) were not really all that different.

  18. Avatar
    AndrewBrown  December 21, 2013

    They aren’t unimportant errors at all. They show how sloppy Aslan is in his research. Conflating what one gospel writer says with another to make a point is what televangelists do, not scholars.

  19. Avatar
    dbowers  October 5, 2014

    I don’t believe I saw an answer to the question of whether or not there was a true rift between James, the brother of Jesus, and the apostle Paul. The final chapters (14 & 15) in Aslan’s book paint quite an interesting controversy in regards to Paul’s legitimacy as an apostle and the disdain that James had for him. Any truth here? * My question here is in reference to a December 19 post from sblake1.

    • Bart
      Bart  October 5, 2014

      I think the evidence can be over read (it’s a very, very old argument). My view is that there was a difference of opinion on such matters as whether followers of Jesus had to be circumcised and whether Gentile Christians could have meals with Jewish Christians.

  20. Avatar
    EBHinNC  December 30, 2014

    A very late theory about Aslan’s “Zealot” — prompted by your observation that “Aslan indicates that Luke’s birth narrative is meant to show that Jesus as ‘the eternal logos from whom creation sprang…you will find swaddled in a filthy manger in Bethlehem…’ (P. 33)…. Aslan here has simply conflated the two Gospels …. That is not heartening if one wants to take his skills as a biblical exegete seriously.”

    I recently read Allan Nadler’s review in “Jewish Review of Books,” which contrasts Aslan’s and scholars’ descriptions of first century Judaism and which can’t suppress a suspicion as to whether Aslan has an agenda “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….?”

    After reading Nadler and your comment, I wonder whether Aslan may be concerned in “Zealot” not so much with comparisons with Islam, as with the homogenizing theology he learned during his years as an Evangelical (possibly fundamentalist). Perhaps that is the long gestation period he referred to on Fox — perhaps he did not delve into current mainline scholarship, but set out to answer the docetist teaching of his youth.

    • Bart
      Bart  December 31, 2014

      Yes, I think some evangelical theological hold-overs did influence his thinking (what he took to be self-evident in fact was rooted in what he was once taught to believe, not on what hte Bible actually says)

      • Avatar
        EBHinNC  January 1, 2015

        Thank you for stating so succinctly what my meanderings were suggesting! If true, this would help relieve my dismay upon reading “Zealot” – I feared I would have to let go either my view of Jesus as a nonviolent and compassionate figure or my respect for Aslan and my reliance upon the appealing view of Islam in “No God But God.”

        I know this is speculative (though one could argue that he effectively tells us this directly in the Author’s Note & passim, e.g. as he writes, “the Jewish peasant and revolutionary…became so much more real to me than the detached, unearthly being I had been introduced to in church” p. xix) – but it would help me understand how he could have written such a book and still be reliable in “No God But God,” as reviewers like John Esposito and “The American Muslim” suggested at its publication. Cognitive dissonance!! Thank you so much for the detailed analysis in Bart’s Blog!!! It is a huge help.

        (Especially incomprehensible was his skipping over “love the alien as yourself” in Leviticus 19 and explaining instead that “love your neighbor” there in Lev.19:18 applied only to fellow Jews — that non-Jews were to be driven from the land – “…[T]he God who repeatedly commands the wholesale slaughter of every foreign man, woman, and child who occupies the land of the Jews, the ‘blood-spattered God’ of Abraham, and Moses, and Jacob, and Joshua (Isaiah 63:3), the God who ‘shatters the heads of his enemies’ … – that is the *only* God that Jesus knew and the *sole* God he worshiped.” (pp.121-122) — Jesus would not have heard the whole of chapter 19? or the story of Jonah, or Ruth, etc, etc? Had Aslan not actually read the Hebrew Bible? If his early learning included uniformly negative supersessionist teachings, maybe that is where this view came from as well. If so, I wish he had pushed back against that, too!)

        Thank you so much again for all your work, and for all the dimensions of good this blog does!!!

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