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Reza Aslan on Jesus


Do you consider Reza Aslan to be a recognised scholar of early Christianity? Larry Hurtado described the thesis circulating in lay circles, that Jesus was a military revolutionary, as a “zombie” idea (from what I gather, a key conclusion of Aslan’s 2013 book) which had been debunked over and over again by scholarship in the past century.


OK, I need to begin with a very serious disclaimer.   I haven’t read Aslan’s book (Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth) yet.   So what I say will not be based on careful observation of his views or the evidence that he cites to support them.  My comments will not require any of that, as you’ll see.

His publisher sent me a copy gratis, for which I’m very grateful.  He sent it to me before he knew that it was going to be the #1 Bestseller in nonfiction on the New York Times Bestseller list – which it is still this week, I see in this morning’s paper – and when he was interested in drumming up some support for it.  That was well before that crazy and now infamous FOX news interview that helped propel it onto the Bestseller list, but who knows, it may have gotten there anyway.  To my knowledge – someone correct me if I’m wrong! – this is the first time a book on the historical Jesus, or even ancient Christianity, has been #1 on the NYTimes list.  So that’s an amazing milestone.   (There will soon be a competitor, however; in a month Bill O’Reilly – another FOX news connection [go figure] – will have published his book Killing Jesus.  It will be a follow-up to his two previous bestsellers, Killing Kennedy and Killing Lincoln.   A lot more people are interested in Jesus than in JFK or Abe, so I think this book is going to be BIG.  Does O’Reilly actually know anything about historical scholarship on Jesus?  I’ll be completely astounded if he does….)

Anyway, the publisher sent me a gratis copy of Zealot, and I haven’t read it yet.  I mentioned a couple of times in response to queries – I’ve gotten lots of queries about my views of the book – that I wasn’t planning to read it.  That’s because, like most research scholars who spend the vast majority of their waking hours on research scholarship, I simply don’t have the time or inclination to read books written for non-experts, especially when they are written *by* non-experts.   There just aren’t enough hours in the day, even to read the books that I *have* to to read for my own work (right now I’m reading massively on early Christian apocrypha).


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Reza Aslan’s View of Jesus
Conclusions Drawn from My Study of Didymus



  1. Avatar
    toddfrederick  August 25, 2013

    Bart….I have mentioned this here and elsewhere, (having been a church pastor working in the trenches with many good people who definitely are not scholars and who would never want to be scholars) that scholars have one major problem: *most of what they discover in their scholarship never gets to the average person.*

    Very often this is because the books written are huge, expensive, and filled with scholarly citations…and are just very boring.

    You are one of the few who writes what your call “trade books” that are designed for a non-scholarly audience, and I have read many of them and have benefited greatly from what you present, but, even your trade books are often far “over the heads” of the average church person and somewhat difficult for me.

    What I want is for biblical scholars to communicate the kinds of information which you are discovering, but in a style and with terminology suited for an 8th grade+ reader.

    You can include all of your citations and references in the appendix.

    What I find Reza Aslan doing is translating what he has studied from scholars regarding the person of Jesus, the times in which Jesus lived, and Jesus’s mission in terms that a high school graduate will understand (though there are places in his book which are a bit tough for the average person with no knowledge of Jesus or the first century milieu).

    To be more direct, Aslan does not claim to be a scholar !! When I heard him interviewed he indicated that he studied what scholars wrote on this subject and put it into what I would call the style of an “historical novel.”

    With only a few exception he has given a good resume of one particular view of Jesus…Jesus as a human, Jesus as a Jew, and Jesus as a revolutionary against the Romans. He also shows how Jesus’s message was changed and how it was distorted into what we now know as Christianity.

    I think he is saying *exactly what you are saying* but in a way that will capture the attention of the average reader and, hopefully, to the average church person who holds a very distorted view of who Jesus was and what he did.

    Reza is not a scholar but is trying to communicate what scholars need to communicate to the world ofnon-scholars.

    I am not a scholar, but I try to do the same every day, face to face with people I meet, on Facebook and elsewhere.

    Reza Aslan has done a fine job, in my opinion. No book is perfect, and his has flaws to be sure, but he has done a fine job.

    To repeat what you said in your post today, I find his book…”extremely well written, provocative, thoughtful, interesting, and intelligent.” …and I hope that it will get discussion going within the dying and decaying contemporary Christian community.

    I am pleased it’s #1 and I hope people are reading it.

    That’s my opinion…(I’m into the chapter dealing with James)

    Thanks for hearing me out on this.

    • Avatar
      toddfrederick  August 26, 2013

      Bart…this is an addition to what I wrote previously.

      I finished Zealot today…or I thought I did.

      Aslan presents his basic narrative in three parts including prologues and epilogues, tracing the Jesus event from the early Temple period to the establishment of Christianity as a state religion.

      I thought I was finished but took a look at the following section titled “Notes.”

      The Notes is a huge section that contains all of the sources he used to write the narrative, but, in the notes section it is broken down chapter by chapter in which he lists not only his sources but writes a commentary on the issues he is considering in each chapter. I have not counted the pages since it is an ebook, but it seems to be nearly as long as the narrative itself. So, it seems, I am only half way through the book since I want to read his Notes.

      There is considerable information in this Notes section that is very interesting and informative, in my opinion.

      Not only is Reza Aslan criticized for being a Muslim writing about Jesus but that he is not a qualified scholar and has no business writing such a book. The Notes section indicates to me that he is very careful in his study of the information he used to write his narrative, the way it was edited, those who he worked with on the manuscript and … what I read in Zealot seems very close to what you have said in many of your trade books but in a form that reads more like a novel. The Notes section more academic.

      I like this book and hope it will be useful to average church persons. I am also pleased that you intend to read it and to use it in one of your classes for student reviews. I would be very interested in your opinion after you have time to read it.

      Again I am pleased that your textbook on the whole Bible will be release mid September and hopefully your book on “When Did Jesus Become God” is still on schedule for the Spring.

      Thank you.

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  August 26, 2013

      Yes, I’m looking forward to reading the book!

  2. Avatar
    Wilusa  August 26, 2013

    Believe it or not, I hadn’t heard of this “bestseller” till I read about it here! I have no intention of reading the book, but I did just read the editorial reviews at Amazon.com. So…what Aslan is saying, basically, is that Jesus was a “violent revolutionary”? I am curious as to how he manages to deny the evidence that he was an apocalypticist, who expected God to provide the revolution.

    I tend to think of “nationalism” per se as a modern phenomenon. To think that until recently, most people wanted to live as their ancestors had lived for centuries, secure in their homes and traditional religions – but didn’t care much about national borders, or the ethnicity/religion of “rulers” they never saw. Am I right in thinking that was the world-view of most “common people” – but the ancient Israelites were different? That more of them *were* agitated about a “nation,” possibly because they believed (perhaps wrongly) that David and Solomon had been mighty kings?

  3. Avatar
    EricBrown  August 26, 2013

    How does Alsan use a word processor with those huge lion paws?

  4. Avatar
    jhague  August 26, 2013

    I’m about half way through the book, and I find it to be very well written and interesting to read. Reza Aslan does point out verses that obviously were added by the gospel writers. But he also seems to assume that other verses are historical and he uses those verses to make his point regarding Jesus being a politically conscious revolutionary man of the first century. I look forward to your comments on the book.

  5. Avatar
    Steefen  August 26, 2013

    Please discuss how Jesus was not a military revolutionary when we have 1) Luke 19:27: “But those enemies of mine who did not want me to be king over them–bring them here and kill them in front of me.'”

    I cannot help but conclude, for the time being, that Jesus, the first Son of Man king in Jerusalem killed some people just as he killed the fig tree. I do not know how well his diplomacy with the Romans would have been. The best he could have done there would have been to align himself with King Monobaz and Queen Helena of Adiabene who had ties with Rome’s rival, the Parthian Empire.

    Second, I understand there is Palm Sunday connection to Maccabees. Palm branches had been used for military leadership.

    So, I definitely look forward to tomorrow’s blog entry.

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  August 26, 2013

      When are the enemies slain? Before or after he comes in his kingdom?

      • Avatar
        Steefen  August 27, 2013

        I made the correction below immediately after posting the original which I couldn’t edit. Anyway, the parable that contains Luke 19:27 is very telling about Jesus whether or not it is before or after he comes into his kingdom. The theocracy of a Son of Man kingdom should be questioned on the topic of enforcement and transition to power (the cleaning house that the turning of the tables was only the tip of the iceberg). In the Hebrew Bible, priests are killed. In the movie King David, starring Richard Gere, the killing of the priests are dramatized. Would Jesus have had a choice in killing his political enemies or not?

        I Samuel 22: 16-19
        16 And the king said , Thou shalt surely die , Ahimelech, thou, and all thy father’s house. 17 And the king said unto the footmen that stood about him, Turn , and slay the priests of the LORD; because their hand also is with David, and because they knew when he fled , and did not shew it to me. But the servants of the king would not put forth their hand to fall upon the priests of the LORD. 18 And the king said to Doeg, Turn thou, and fall upon the priests. And Doeg the Edomite turned , and he fell upon the priests, and slew on that day fourscore and five persons that did wear a linen ephod. 19 And Nob, the city of the priests, smote he with the edge of the sword, both men and women, children and sucklings , and oxen, and asses, and sheep, with the edge of the sword.

        Jesus could not have gotten through a successful Palm Sunday week or the Jewish Revolt without blood on his hands.

  6. Avatar
    Steefen  August 26, 2013

    Correction: I cannot help but conclude, for the time being, that Jesus, the first Son of Man king in Jerusalem WOULD HAVE killed some people just as he killed the fig tree.

  7. Avatar
    SJB  August 26, 2013

    Prof Ehrman

    As someone who was very much influenced by Elaine Pagels’ book “The Gnostic Gospels”, I am fascinated to find out that she has changed some of her views. This is of course one of the strengths of scholarship (and science) that thinkers are willing to reconsider their views. (And of c ourse one of the weaknessess of religion is that so many believers are unwilling to ever reconsider their views.) Is there anywhere I can go to find out what Prof Pagels current views are?


  8. Avatar
    David Chumney  August 26, 2013

    Here are a few comments from Anthony Le Donne’s “The Jesus Blog” (link below):

    A more considered line of questioning comes from Stephen Prothero. Prothero writes on Facebook:

    I think the “credentials” issue here is a legitimate one. Part of it turns on the term “historian of religions,” which IS used (as Aslan uses it) as a generic term for “comparative religions.” But then there is also the issue of what makes one an expert in New Testament/Christian origins. This is a highly specialized field, and entry into it is usually conferred by a PhD in it. I have a PhD in Religious Studies. I would never claim it authorizes me to write as an expert on the New Testament or early Christianity. Then again, Aslan did study the New Testament as an undergraduate and as a master’s student at Harvard, where he learned New Testament Greek.

    In answer to this (more legitimate) line of questioning, this quote from his dissertation supervisor, Mark Juergensmeyer, is interesting:

    Since i was Reza’s thesis adviser at the Univ of California-Santa Barbara, I can testify that he is a religious studies scholar. (I am a sociologist of religion with a position in sociology and an affiliation with religious studies). Though Reza’s PhD is in sociology most of his graduate course work at UCSB was in the history of religion in the dept of religious studies. Though none of his 4 degrees are in history as such, he is a “historian of religion” in the way that that term is used at the Univ of Chicago to cover the field of comparative religion; and his theology degree at Harvard covered Bible and Church history, and required him to master New Testament Greek. So in short, he is who he says he is.

    What Prothero says about his expertise in NT Studies still stands. I have now read the book and I can say (without question) that Zealot is not written by an author conversant with the field of NT studies or Second Temple Judaism more generally. More on this point in the coming days.


    I’ve read the book. It’s not bad, but nothing new except his emphasis on the political dimension of Jesus’ public activity.

    Wasn’t Crossan’s big book on Jesus–The Historical Jesus: The Life of a Mediterranean Jewish Peasant–get to #1 on the New York Times non-fiction bestseller list?

  9. Avatar
    Steefen  August 27, 2013

    The theocracy of a Son of Man kingdom should be questioned on the topic of transition to power (cleaning house).

    Luke 19:27: “But those enemies of mine who did not want me to be king over them–bring them here and kill them in front of me.’”

    Speaking outside of the parable that ends Luke 19: 27, in Matthew Chapter 23, .Jesus pronounces his “J’accuse” against his enemies and the enemies of the Son of Man movement which was to usher in a Jewish kingdom of righteousness. More than three times (using the *Hellenistic* term “hypocrite”) he says: “Woe to you scribes, Pharisees, and hypocrites.”

    He ends his “you’re going to pay by woe” with verse 36: “…all these things *will come* upon this generation.” One of “your woes” probably would be: “bring them here and kill them in front of me. When people got in the way of the Exodus, they also were killed. The Son of Man’s promised kingdom was as important as the Promised Land. In fact, the kingdom ensures the proper administration of the land.

    Woe: bring them here and kill them in front of me. Should we wonder why the Temple Establishment tore their garments in woe when the Son of Man is mentioned? Some of them knew Jesus was putting them between a rock (Son of Man’s kingdom) and a hard place (Rome’s kingdom). They knew they chose Rome over the Son of Man. Jesus delivered a just and deserving prophecy within the context of the Hebrew Scriptures and Writings that not only contained Son of Man prophecies but the Star Prophecy as well.

  10. gmatthews
    gmatthews  October 1, 2014

    Prof. Ehrman, I thought you might be interested in Reza Aslan’s recent interview on CNN. I don’t agree with his scholarship, but damned if he isn’t the most entertaining interviewee on major news channels. If you thought the Fox interview was good you should see this one on CNN. He rips their two babe-in-the-woods hosts up one side and back down the other on their views on Islam before finally calling their statements flat out stupid. http://www.cnn.com/video/data/2.0/video/bestoftv/2014/09/30/cnn-tonight-reza-aslan-bill-maher.cnn.html

  11. Avatar
    gbsinkers  November 24, 2017

    Not sure if you see these comments on older posts, but as I am reading from the beginning of the blog I just read this one today. You may find it interesting that Aslan’s book is what led me to you. I was wintering in Florida and looking for something to read, having finished all the books I took with me and his book showed up in my library e-reader. As a Christian at that time I thought it might be worth reading but was unprepared for the doubts it cast on my faith. I decided that as soon as I got back and had the whole library available to me I would look for other sources. Thanks to your trade books I found 7 of your books, books by Crossan, Schweitzer, Darrel Bock, and Dale Allison. I purchased used books through Amazon from Gregory Riley, Barrie Wilson, James Tabor, Mark Noll, and Karen Armstrong. I found your books the easiest to consume and with the least bias. I watched many of your YouTube debates, found your web page and your blog, etc. I read Aslan’s book in February 2015 and the majority of the others from March to May of that year. I couldn’t believe that I had been a Christian for 35 years and never knew of this faith shaking information. When I started the quest for more info I expected to find that Aslan was a quack with an agenda and, while he certainly isn’t a scholar, he lit the fuse that led to me you and other scholars. It took a year of pain before I could bring myself to read more. I picked up some more of your books at the library and re-read them and as I struggled with my faith I picked up books from Hitchens and Harris to see what the atheists were saying. They all seemed t have HUGE agendas so I didn’t pursue that line anymore. I bought your course on the New Testament from The Great Courses and kept investigating. I kept all this to myself but finally told my wife who also was a strong Christian. Didn’t go well. I told my men’s small group and eventually dropped out of it. What you and others showed me were things I always stumbled over in reading the bible so it was great to finally understand it better but the loss of my Christian faith was still difficult. I was acquainted with the president of a local seminary so I asked to meet with him to talk about all I had learned and since the majority of the information came from your media I mentioned your name. The first thing he did was attack you. He told me you had a difficult relationship with your father and so you were rebelling against your father’s faith. When people start by trying to discredit someone rather than presenting hard evidence it speaks volumes. The conversation was a waste of time. So anyway, I’ve had too many spiritual experiences to be an atheist and after reading Karen Armstrong’s “A History of God” I’m somewhat content to believe that there is something more “out there” but that all of man’s attempts to codify it into religion have failed miserably (IMHO). So, thank you for writing your trade books, doing the Great Courses, the debates, and this blog. I wonder if there are others who found you through Aslan’s bestseller?

    • Bart
      Bart  November 26, 2017

      Interesting question! His views are very different from mine!

  12. Avatar
    KNeal64  April 13, 2020

    Sorry if this has been answered elsewhere but is it your position that Jesus being an apocalyptic prophet excludes him also being a political revolutionary? After all, historical examples of political rebels (for obvious reasons) using figurative language and front organizations and activities as a cover for revolutionary or subversive political activity. Just a few that come to mind would be the Taiping Rebellion, gymnastic clubs in German states in the 1840s, Salons in nineteenth century France. I guess my question regards literature on this subject. Have people written about the possibility that the apocalyptic preaching of Jesus was just the public face of a revolutionary political movement?

    • Bart
      Bart  April 13, 2020

      I’d say not at all. There were certainly apocalypticists who were political revolutionaries. And so one needs to examine the evidence to see if Jesus was likely one of them or not.

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