Zealot: Reza Aslan’s Procrustean Bed
Reza Aslan’s best seller, Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth, is a Procrustean Bed. (You remember the Greek mythological figure who sized people to his bed by either stretching them or lopping off limbs.) He’s willing to do a great deal of editorial and rhetorical violence to the Bible and to Jesus to make things fit. As a devout Muslim, Aslan rejects claims of Jesus’ divinity, but he says that “Jesus the man [‘Jesus of Nazareth’] is every bit as compelling, charismatic, and praiseworthy as Jesus the Christ. He is, in short, someone worth believing in.”
To make his case, Aslan tries to pass himself off as a cutting edge expert in such matters, but he’s a creative writing professor (Indeed!) with a sociology PhD and some undergraduate and master’s work in religious studies—hardly the stuff of exacting biblical scholarship. For his purposes, he enlists theological liberalism to discount and twist biblical Scripture. (Of course, he’s not in the least interested in liberalism’s critical readings of the Koran.) It’s as though Islam embraced the notorious Jesus Seminar while presenting itself as the product of dispassionate, majoritarian scholarship, without a hint of Muslim prejudice. To be sure, Islam has little respect for Christianity, liberal or otherwise, but when the liberals undermine the Christ of the Bible, they have a temporary place at the Muslim apologist’s table. (The enemy of my enemy is my friend, at least for today.) To make it all work, Aslan:
1. Denies the truth of the Bible. Among the “falsehoods” he supposedly discovers are the Roman tax census; the flight to Egypt; the virgin birth; God’s pronouncement at Jesus’ baptism; Jesus’ “upon this rock” declaration to Peter; the nighttime trial before the Sanhedrin; the Resurrection; the stated authorship of most Gospels and Epistles.
2. Imposes foreign meanings on the verses he retains: For instance, he says, implausibly, that the “thieves” on the crosses were really “insurrectionist bandits”; that “Render unto Caesar” means “Give the emperor back his vile money”; that “My kingdom is not of this world” means “My kingdom is not of this present political arrangement, which I will replace through revolution”; that “Son of God” is simply a traditional title for Israel’s kings.
3. Exaggerates the importance of certain personages and passages. He puts the incendiary John the Baptist and Jesus’ blood kin James the Just on the highest pedestals, portraying them as crusading moralists in contrast with the spiritualizing Paul. And not surprisingly, he is more impressed with Jesus’ cleansing the Temple than with His death on the cross.
So why is the Bible, as traditionally understood, so “misleading”? According to Aslan, later writers/editors “transformed Jesus from a fierce Jewish nationalist into a pacifist preacher” and “from a revolutionary zealot to a Romanized demi-god,” so that they could sell Him to Hellenized diaspora Jews and make Him more generally palpable throughout the Empire. Thus, “two thousand years later, the Christ of Paul’s creation has utterly subsumed the Jesus of history.”
In sum, Aslan lets his liberal mentors do the dirty work of chopping Jesus down to size, and he simply clothes their aggression in smooth narrative. He ends up with a Jesus who more nearly resembles his own religious hero, Mohammed, who eschewed divinity and who took up pen and sword to secure political dominion as far as he could. Through his followers, the program of political domination soon reached as far as India to the east and Iberia to the west. It continues today through Boko Haram in Nigeria, the Philippine Moros, and Hezbollah in Lebanon. Aslan’s fellow religionists are stirring the pot in the banlieues of Paris, the Catalonian towns of Tarragona and Sant Boi, and the mosques of Bradford, England. These are your religious, insurrectionist zealots. You’ll find them here, and not in the pages of the Gospels.