There’s a new book out causing quite a stir in the Christian community – Reza Aslan’s Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth. I haven’t read it, but from what I’ve gathered listening to interviews (the book has gotten lots of media attention) it covers pretty familiar stuff if you follow biblical scholarship or textual criticism at all (which is not that many people, hence the media stir).
The main argument of the book is to redefine Jesus not as God or someone who thought he was God, but as (one of several) apocalyptic Jews. That is, Jesus was an influential Jewish teacher who taught that the Kingdom of God was coming within his lifetime (aka the apocalypse) and was executed by the Romans for sedition. Later followers of Jesus then created the mythology that became our modern understanding of Christianity.
Again, I want to emphasize that none of this is really new – the idea of Jesus as an apocalyptic preacher has been discussed and debated among mainline scholars for many decades. See contemporary works by Bart Ehrman, E.P. Sanders, John Meier, Paula Fredriksen, or Dale Allison if you are interested in learning more.
Since I haven’t read the book, I can’t comment on its arguments directly, but what I can comment on is the smear campaign by a small group of conservative Christians to discredit Aslan’s credibility as a scholar. The most sickening part of this is that the reasons they are giving focus on Aslan’s identification as a Muslim – as in, because he’s a Muslim, he can’t be trusted to write responsibly about Jesus. The effort to discredit seems to have come from this Fox News blog by John Dickerson. Members of the smear campaign have completely commandeered the Amazon review section of Zealot – giving the book 1-star reviews and posting such insightful comments as:
The author of this fiction is a confirmed Muslim and not an Historian and is clearly presenting biased opinions. This author clearly has an agenda to present. An agenda that if changed to an analysis of Mohammad would earn a Fatwa.
If you go to the review page, it’s quite sad. The 1-star reviews are almost exclusively by people who obviously haven’t read the book, and many are just copying and pasting pieces of Dickerson’s Fox News blog. The highly rated reviews are also often by Christians, but more reasonable ones who attest to the books merit as a work of history and make a point to say that it did not damage their faith and in fact helped them better understand Jesus and the times he lived in.
The problems with the smear campaign are pretty obvious. First of all, Aslan is rather well qualified to write about the historical Jesus (though he’s not as seasoned as either Ehrman or Borg). He earned a masters of theology from Harvard Divinity School and a doctorate in the sociology of religions from UC – Santa Barbara. He’s also written several popular books about the history of religion. Second of all, ideas should be judged on merit alone, not on the religious persuasions of their author. Saying Aslan can’t be trusted to write about Christianity because he’s Muslim is like saying an American who studies Middle Eastern history shouldn’t be allowed to write a book about the Middle East. Is a Jewish scholar allowed to write about Jesus? Or an agnostic? Or a catholic (if you happen to be protestant)? Should we only read books that already agree with our points of view? If Aslan’s scholarship is sloppy, that should be easy enough to point out with a few clear examples. But instead of doing that, this group of Christians has stormed Amazon before even reading the book, and begun spouting off that he’s a “devout Muslim” and his book is full of lies. Finally, Aslan, from what I can tell via interviews and debates like this, is a rather liberal practitioner of Islam, in that he seems to suggest the different views (Islam, Christianity, etc) are just unique ways of getting to the same thing – the same water from different wells that is. He’s far from a fundamentalist (which I think they are using “devout” as a euphemism for) and doesn’t seem at all interested in converting anyone to his particular beliefs.
I have not been a major fan of Aslan’s writings or the views he’s expressed in public forums or debates – and we couldn’t have more different views of the divine – but he needs to be defended. The only thing to judge is the idea, not the person. A faith that can be destroyed by reading different perspectives is not a faith worth having, and trying to dissuade people from information by misinformation is ignoble at best.
So if you want to write a review about Zealot, by all means, do so – but please consider reading it first.