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Reza Aslan’s View of Jesus

I am saddened and grieved to report that everyone on the blog who has responded to me about yesterday’s pop quiz has gotten one of the questions wrong.  🙂   More on that tomorrow.  (But in the meantime: I’m giving brownie points for anyone who can indicate which question everyone is missing and why they’re getting it wrong!)

But on rather more serious matters: back to Reza Aslan’s book Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth.   Let me state emphatically that I have not yet and am not now writing a review of the book.   I’m not attacking its views or its scholarship, I’m not praising its brilliant insights and clear vision, and I’m not recommending that you read it or, instead, use it as a very handy doorstop.  I HAVEN’T READ IT!   And unlike some people I know (oh so well), I don’t believe in passing judgment on a book I haven’t read.

My first post on the book was in response to a question of whether I consider to Aslan to be a scholar in the field of New Testament or early Christian studies.   In fact, my consideration has almost nothing to do with it.  He is decidedly NOT a scholar in the field.  Some people think that has some relevance to the quality of his book; other people think that it has no relevance to the quality of his book; I haven’t taken a stand on that issue one way or the other.   He’s not a NT/Early Christianity scholar, and he does not and cannot *claim* to be.    But he still may have written an amazing book.  (How many NT scholars have?!?)

As I’ve pointed out, I’ve assigned the book for my class of 24 first year students, one of a number of things they’re reading for the course, but the one book on which they are being asked to write a book review.   A couple of my students have read it already, and they really liked it.  Everyone else that I have heard from – apart from NT scholars, who can be a bit sniffy about these things (books written by outsiders in their own field of expertise) – has said the same thing.  The book apparently reads like a novel (my NT scholar friends would probably insist that it *is* a novel  🙂 ), it is powerfully and compellingly presented, it makes a good case, it is unusually interesting, and it presents a view of Jesus that most people have never thought of before.  More on that in a second.

I did pick it up to read a few pages yesterday, and it looks really interesting so far.  I will have to read it, and will enjoy doing so.  And when I do, I’ll report at some length on my view of it.

For now I want to make a general point that I will amplify later when I have actually read and digested it.   From the various reports I have heard about the book (and, well, from the title) – reports made in reviews of it (my good friend Dale Martin wrote a very nice review in the New York Times), from friends who have read it, from readers of this blog, and so on – the book appears to advance the thesis that Jesus was in favor of a violent overthrow of the Roman oppressors of the Jewish people in Palestine.  It’s not that he was a member of the “zealot party” (which did not appear until later in history), but like other Jewish preachers and activists before him, he very much wanted to drive the Romans out of the promised land.   This is probably what  got Jesus crucified.  But his later followers silenced this aspect of his proclamation, and Christianity became something very different from what Jesus himself preached.

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Why Luke is Thought To Have Written Luke
Reza Aslan on Jesus



  1. gmatthews
    gmatthews  August 27, 2013

    I’m not sure which question everyone is getting wrong (#2?), but I bet that technically #12 is wrong a lot too if you only consider the shortest ENGLISH verse in the NT. Off topic, I’d like to add my own question to your list of questions for the blog. I recently told an evangelical friend that Paul believed Jesus would return in his lifetime, but of course he didn’t believe me. My statement was a generalization of verses like 1 Cor 15:51-52. In any event, I also stated that early xtians must have felt that Jesus would return soon, why else would they limit their numbers by being so against reproduction (marriage/sex). Can you tell us your stance on what Paul’s thoughts were on the timing of the return of Jesus?

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  August 28, 2013

      I think Paul certainly thought Jesus was returning in his own lifetime. He appears to presuppose this in the way he expresses himself in both 1 Thess. 4 and 1 Cor. 15 (when he includes himself among the living at the return).

      • Avatar
        Mhamed Errifi  February 18, 2015

        hello Bart

        you said that Resa is decidedly NOT a scholar in the field. I will accept your judgement because you are an expert in this field but you have said that scholars of islam can be non Muslims , can you mention one ? I am sure you are going to come up with somebody whom our Muslim scholars will dismiss as NOT a scholar in the field just like you did with Resa . I have never heard of real scholar of islam who was arabic ignorant and non Muslim

        • Bart
          Bart  February 18, 2015

          Sure. Bruce Lawrence is one of the best known. On my faculty are Carl Ernst and Julianne Hammer. (I don’t think they’re muslim — but I’ve never asked!) Of course experts in Islam *have* to know Arabic! (Fundamentalist Christians say that I myself cannot be an expert on the New Testament because I am not a Christian!)

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    nautis  August 27, 2013

    Just picked up a copy of Aslan’s book on audible.com. Sounds pretty cool.

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    tawfiq  August 28, 2013

    I think Q 12 is a trick question. The earliest manuscripts of the NT are all written in Greek and punctuation was not introduced until around 800 CE.

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    stephena  August 28, 2013

    Dr. Ehrman, I didn’t know this was the book’s thesis. I’ve long heard that this theory was popular in the 1960s (even if, as you said, it’s been kicking around for a long time – for that matter, so has Preterism, a pet theory of MINE!) Not that the “popular in the ’60s” argument damns it – though I know Fundies who say, sneeringly and condescendingly, “That theory is OUTDATED” – but I suspect there are lots of holes in the theory.

    Prime among them, IMO, being that the portrayal of Jesus in the Gospels, even the earliest and non-canonical ones, does NOT portray him in this way (the defense, I suppose, being a massive cover-up when the Canonicals were (re)written to appeal to Romans and Greeks) and the fact that he would not have been long remembered as a pious wonder worker and Prophet of God had he truly been a radical enemy of Rome, because other Jewish revolt-leaders WERE remembered from this era and later, and remembered as enemies.

    Can’t wait for your take on this, once you properly read and digest its premise.

    • Avatar
      Steefen  August 29, 2013

      I suppose, being a massive cover-up when the Canonicals were (re)written to appeal to Romans and Greeks) and the fact that he would not have been long remembered as a pious wonder worker and Prophet of God had he truly been a radical enemy of Rome, because other Jewish revolt-leaders WERE remembered from this era and later, and remembered as enemies.


      1) What would Josephus have allowed to be written about Jesus?

      Josephus was a distributor of history and revolt. Josephus was so much in Rome’s favor, with Rome’s permission, he had three rebels against Rome taken down from crosses, and one survived. He put this in his autobiography for posterity. (Hm, when he was traveling as a salesman of his histories, I’m not sure if his autobiography was yet written–probably not.)

      Paul puts the crucifixion and one surviving in his writings for posterity also.

      1Cor.2[2] For I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ and him crucified.

      Gal.2[20] I have been crucified with Christ; it is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me; and the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.

      Given the similarities I’ve seen between Paul and Josephus, I sometimes think the alias of Paul died in Rome.

      Stephena, you say “when the canonicals were (re)written.” I’m saying anti-Roman content was in some way censored from the time of the last client king appointed by Rome until AD 136. I believe some Jews were asked to leave Rome for demonstrating their displeasure of losing even the appearance of a Jewish kings.

      Jewish Messiah anti-Rome put downs also would include assigning the Star Prophecy to Vespasian.

      Jesus having to answer to Rome by trial is due respect and deference.

      “Thy kingdom come through the Empire of Caesar” would have been an interesting version of Our Lord’s prayer.

      Jesus recognizing Rome for Foreign Direct Investment (FDI) in Palestine, Josephus declaring Vespasian as a Jewish messiah (in the same light as the king who ended Babylonian captivity was a Jewish messiah), and Rome being more respectable over Judea may not have been enough. Even Josephus spoke tearfully to the rebels before the Temple was torn down.

      Stephena, you are almost saying Aslan cannot be right about Jesus being a military zealot because Rome would not allow Jesus to be remembered. However, if the Babylonian Talmud is correct (Jesus was stoned) and even if the Babylonian Talmud is historically incorrect by calling Stephen Jesus (as Jesus is called Balaam and other names) and it was only Stephen who was stoned for being so closely associated with Jesus, then Aslan can still be right because Rome would be satisfied by the attribution of Jesus’s passion at the hands of Rome soldiers and his manner of death, Roman crucifixion, third, no disturbance of the Roman peace by Jesus’ Son of Man movement, and not one Roman soldier killed by Jesus’ followers.

      Even if the rewriting puts the notion of God in a bad light (the Father not preventing Jesus’ suffering–nod to Ehrman on the topic of suffering), I think Rome COULD allow Jesus to live in history as a harmless enemy. Assigning the death of Jesus to Rome by crucifixion and not as reported in the Babylonian Talmud (see the book Jesus in the Talmud by Peter Schafer) Jews by stoning (rightfully so because in Acts of the Apostles, the legacy of Jesus was that miracles were not done in the name of God but by idolatry of Jesus’ name–leading Israel into idolatry) nevertheless speaks well of Rome’s jurisdiction.

  5. Avatar
    toddfrederick  August 28, 2013

    I did not have a chance to take your quiz but did look at the questions quickly and saw some that I thought would have more than one answer. I’ll try it tonight.

    I do enjoy those times when you break away from your scholarly role and tell us about some of the events happening in your life.

    Just one thought on Zealot: In Aslan’s book, when we first meet Jesus, in the fullness of his mission, is in the prologue to Part II, (many chapters into the book), when he comes into the city of Jerusalem riding on a donkey and then his conflict with the merchants and money changers in the temple during their passover preparations.

    Part I is all background material….but much in it was new to me.

    The impression is left with the reader (me, that is) is that the key event in Jesus’ mission is the last week of his life when he tries to bring the Apocalyptic issue to a climax, expecting God to reclaim the promised land (not the whole earth) from the Romans and re-establish his kingdom in the promised land for the Jews.

    I did not get the impression that Aslan thinks that Jesus and his small group would actually take on the Roman forces themselves militarily, but maybe he thought that the Jews would revolt. Aslan makes a point of such things as, “I have not come to bring but a sword” etc. I don’t know.

    I think I will read it again, (hard copy where I can take margin notes) and I am starting to read Aslan’s “Notes” section now.

    Sorry, I do talk too much, but I am very interested in this and in your thoughts on this book, especially with regard to how you have presented these events in your books.

    Thank you.

  6. Avatar
    timber84  August 28, 2013

    Jesus was never buried but placed in a tomb, so the answer to the question who buried him is nobody.

    Did the disciple Simon the Zealot advocate the overthrow of the Romans. I thought I read somewhere that there is a disagreement over whether he was a zealot or not?

  7. Avatar
    toddfrederick  August 28, 2013

    The test

    1. 27
    2. Koine Greek
    3. End of 1st century CE, beginning of 2nd (If John was 100 or 110)
    4. Matthew Mark Luke John
    5. Gospel of Peter, Gospel of Mary Magdalene, Gospel of Thomas
    6. “Good News”
    7. John the Baptist, Simon of Cyrene
    8. 30/33 CE 4 BCE + (this is debated)
    9. Gospel of Luke, Acts of the Apostles
    10. Matthew-tax collector, Luke-physician
    11. John the Baptist, Jesus, Simon Peter, Apostle Paul
    12. “Jesus Wept.”

    Bonus question:

    # 6…meaning of “Gospel.” commonly thought of as “Good News” from euangelos (sp ????) but probably has a different Greek meaning…I don’t know that meaning…would have to check the Greek.

  8. Avatar
    RonaldTaska  August 28, 2013

    I would have given the same answers as Elisabeth Stout who missed one. Is it the question about who is Jewish? Isn’t there some controversy about whether or not Paul was Jewish because sometimes, as described in “The Mythmaker,” he did not seem to be educated about Jewish customs/laws ?

    In my field of psychiatry, we have some gifted researchers and we also have some people who have a real gift for summarizing stuff in ways that readers can understand it. The two gifts are not usually found in the same person. In the field of Christianity, Spong comes to mind as one who summarizes well. You seem to have both gifts.

    I think your Didymus work is significant if it shows that Codex Vaticanus and Codex Sinaiticus are more likely to be like the original Gospel manuscripts than Codex Alexandrinus. That is significant and useful, but perhaps I misunderstood this outcome.

  9. Avatar
    dfogarty1  August 28, 2013

    I very much look forward to your review of the book. I have read it twice. Spoiler alert: he is very much on line with
    James Tabor’s views on the conflict between Paul and the Jerusalem Apostles and has them in open
    hostility. Paul vs. James and Peter.

    Question: if we combine Q and the the Epistle of James
    together, Do we have a reasonable representation of what Jesus actually stood for?

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  August 28, 2013

      This view about Paul vs. James and Peter was a BIG deal in the 19th century. It was at the heart of the views of F. C. Bauer already in the 1830s, and the “Tuebingen school” he founded. Some views never go away!

      On Q and James: I don’t think the author of James had much knowledge about the historical Jesus.

      • Avatar
        stephena  December 27, 2014

        Wow, just saw this old post and must respond. Your view, Dr. Ehrman, is shared by Luther (though HE had nothing to do with the ‘historical Jesus’ either.) But that’s kind of the point.

        dforgarty1 is right: Q + James = Jesus’ true intentions and not the mystical mumbo-jumbo of John’s Gospel and Paul’s hallucinations about a Pagan dying/rising Jesus saving us by mere belief on his rising.

        James, to me, FAR BETTER reflects the teachings of Jesus than Paul’s mystical view of a Christ-figure. James is frankly 100x more likely to have known Jesus personally and to have actually been the person attributed to the text than certainly the Gospels, the Pastorals, “Hebrews” or Revelation. It is the most Jewish and most like Wisdom Literature in the NT, except of course when Jesus himself is speaking.

        James speaks of obedience and the necessity of Good Works and of Righteousness as an ACT, not something one “acquires” or is “imputed” to us, speaking of these things just as Jesus did. These themes are utterly absent in the “Romans” version of Paul. It’s why Luther rejected it, because Jesus’ teachings were actually portrayed here.

        • Bart
          Bart  December 28, 2014

          The book of James was almost certainly not written by Jesus’ brother (as I show in my book Forgery and Counterforgery); and the problem is that we otherwise don’t really have any access to what he said or thought.

          • Avatar
            stephena  December 28, 2014

            You must be fun in class, Dr. Ehrman! Cite your proof, not your books, please. 😉

            I just thumbed through the book and you (p.33) lump James in with 1 Peter (which is CLEARLY a forgery in Peter’s name) which I find careless. Peter most assuredly did not write the first or the second letter, in which he legitimizes Pauline doctrines, since Paul himself says they were enemies. James also opposes Paul’s antinomianism, and speaks in a very Jewish manner, as would a Jew, not a Greek. This wasn’t written for Greeks, but for Jews, and (again) his teachings are Jesus’ teachings, almost as if he remained in Jerusalem heading a church built on Jesus’ doctrines, rather than out in the Roman world. Now who did that? James.

            I find the early Church Fathers to be not a great source here, but you rely on them, and I suppose there’s traditional reasons for doing so, but their (and Luther’s) disparagement comes from doctrinal blinders, IMO, not from such an analysis I gave above, which proves James’ “Jewishness” contra Paul.

          • Bart
            Bart  December 29, 2014

            Sorry — I’m not citing my book as *proof*. I’m simply saying that if you want to see the evidence — which is too lengthy to cite on the blog — my book is where you will find it.

            I absolutely do *not* “lump” James with 1 and 2 Peter. Each of these books needs to be considered on its own merits to decide whether or not it is a forgery. The case for James is not related to the case for 1 and 2 Peter. Maybe I will post on James down the line, to lay out the evidence.

  10. Avatar
    dewdds  August 28, 2013

    Taking a shot at your mystery, stumper quiz Q. The shortest verse in NT? Assuming you meant in the original Greek, that would be Luke 20:30 (“and the second”), which is 12 letters total in the Greek.

    Related to the Jesus as zealot hypothesis, I do have one question. Doesn’t the crucifixion itself point to Jesus as guilty of sedition v. Rome?

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  August 28, 2013

      I think the crucifixion does show that he was executed on grounds of sedition. But that’s not the same thing as saying that he actually advocated sedition. I have a different view of why they killed him for that which I think is more plausible — but that will have to wait for a fuller post.

  11. Avatar
    James Dowden  August 28, 2013

    Saddened and grieved, my toe! 🙂 Roll on tomorrow…

  12. Brad Billips
    Brad Billips  August 28, 2013

    For the members, Larry Hurtado has a blog in which he posts frequently. It is excellent and very scholarly. Going back to his previous post is always great when you have the time. His tone is like Dr. Ehrman’s. He doesn’t have time for lay-people’s theories.

  13. Avatar
    Pat Ferguson  August 28, 2013

    I suspect everyone missed #5: “Name three Gospels from outside the New Testament”? My answer was Gospel of Thomas and Gospel of Jude, but I couldn’t name a third non=NT Gospel offhand.

    If I correctly guessed which question was missed by your responders, might I please receive “attaboys” instead of brownie points?

  14. Avatar
    RecoveringCalvinist  August 28, 2013

    For the brownie points. The verse found in John 11:35, “Jesus wept”, contains 16 Greek letters. A shorter verse which can be found in the original Greek (not English) language is Luke 20:30, “and the second,” which in Greek has only 12 letters (καὶ ὁ δεύτερος)
    I hardly knew this off the top of my head but rummaged around the internet. The website was “thegoodbookblog.com” and the poster was Ken Berding: http://thegoodbookblog.com/2012/oct/30/the-shortest-verse-in-the-new-testament.
    That’s my theory and I’m sticking to it!

  15. Avatar
    EricBrown  August 28, 2013

    For the brownie points:

    Could the thing everyone is getting wrong be in listing the Apostle Paul (where you could have written “Paul of Tarsus”) as a Jew, in that unlike Jesus, who never stopped practicing Judaism, and unlike Peter, who insisted on the continuing adherance of Chrisitians to the Law, Paul, once he was “The Apostle” became a non-Judiaism-practicing Christian and advocate of same (and hence should not be included among the “Jews”)?

  16. Avatar
    JamesFouassier  August 28, 2013

    I think it must be the shortest chapter question. That’s the one I got wrong !

  17. Avatar
    Kempster  August 28, 2013

    I’m guessing people are missing “Who buried Jesus?” The synoptics say Joseph of Arimethea, and John adds Nicodemus as a helper. But Acts 13 says it was the people of Jerusalem and their rulers.

  18. Avatar
    laz  August 28, 2013

    With all this talk think I better go out and get the book…..

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    RonaldTaska  August 28, 2013

    This weekend I read “Godless” by Dan Barker. He does a good job of debunking the Biblical God, but some of his philosophical arguments debunking deism and theism are hard to follow and not as convincing. You write much more clearly than he does. His sixteenth chapter about the Resurrection reminds me of your upcoming book entitled “How Jesus Became God.” In this chapter, Barker summarizes that legends often become more elaborate with time. He then contends that the Gospel accounts, likewise, became more elaborate with time. For example, Mark describes one man being at the empty tomb, Matthew describes one angel being there, Luke two men, and John two angels and the Gospel of Peter describes a giant Jesus and a giant walking, talking cross. Barker concludes that this progression of embellishment in the Gospels as time passes supports the idea that much in the Gospels is legendary. I would like to see more evidence for this theory than what Barker provides. Do you agree that there is progressively more elaboration in the Gospels with each successive Gospel and that this progression supports the theory that much in the Gospels is legendary? Thanks.
    Buy the way, I ordered “Zealot” two days before your blog about it Your class looks quite interesting and I would like to know how it progresses..

  20. Avatar
    dougckatyBE  August 31, 2013

    I’m currently reading Aslan’s “Zealot”. I found chapters 13 and 14 (‘If Christ Has Not Been Risen’ and ‘Am I Not an Apostle’) especially helpful in understanding the relationship between Paul and the James / Jerusalem ‘Christians’, and between the Acts accounts of that relationship and Pauls own record in his (true) letters. I’ll be very interested in hearing your assessment, Dr. Ehrman, of Aslan’s description of that relationship. I saw the earlier reference to Tabor’s viewpoint, and I intend to do some follow up there. I also have a faded paperback copy of A. Powell Davies’ The First Christian: A Study of St. Paul and Christian Origins” which I also hope to re-read. (It also contains a chapter on “Pagan Redeemers”, of which more below).
    However, I’m finding myself saying more often these days, “What does Dr. Ehrman say about that?” e.g. – I just found your “Did Jesus Exist” very helpful in keeping me from spending a lot of time going in the “Pagan Christ” direction.
    Related to that topic, does anyone have any kind of reading on Dr. Craig Lyons (Ms.D., D.D., M.Div)? He has generated a very wordy series of websites on that topic, and I’ve tried hard to follow them, but images of Dr. John Nash (A Beautiful Mind) in the throes of paranoid schizophrenia, clipping magazine articles and advertisements, keep coming to mind. (Sorry, Dr. Lyons, if you’re listening). I got somewhat the same impression in reading Dr. Alvin Boyd Kuhn’s “Shadow of the Third Century: A Revaluation of Christianity” , and his later “Rebirth of Christianity”, which are included as sources in Dr. Lyons’ reference material. I’d also appreciate some assessment of Kuhn’s contributions.
    I’m enjoying being a new subscriber to this site. It may be obvious that I’m new to this method of interchange, so if I’m committing some sort of faux pas by covering too many topics, mentioning somebody else’s website, or posting on the wrong thread, please forgive me.

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  September 1, 2013

      I haven’t read most of these authors — but isn’t Kuhn the one cited by all the mythicists to argue that Jesus never existed?

      We are nothing if not forgiving on this blog….

      • Avatar
        dougckatyBE  September 2, 2013

        I had not previously researched Kuhn, but only came across references to his books in Harpur’s book and Lyon’s website. I see that a little over 3000 hits come up on an Ask search for “Alvin Boyd Kuhn, so I guess there’s a lot of material (or book advertisements) related to him out there. I was a little surprised that you didn’t include him or reference him in your “Did Jesus Exist”, ‘though perhaps I missed it.

        • Bart Ehrman
          Bart Ehrman  September 2, 2013

          I just didn’t think he was significant enough, given all the developments since his time.

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