Why Is Reza Aslan’s Jesus So Small?

I appreciate Rob Asghar for calling out author Reza Aslan on his book “Zealot” in his commentary on a recent Huffingtonpost article.

I re-posted his article (far down below) and found many of his points about Aslan’s wrongly re-imagined Jesus to be well articulated.

That being said, I too have read one disturbing excerpt from the book and wanted to make a few points of my own about “Zealot.”

For starters, I can never fathom the strange bit of irony about the criticism regarding the timing of the writing of the new testament documents. It seems like Reza wants us to distrust the gospel writers because they wrote about Jesus several decades after Jesus’ death (in some cases, they wrote about Jesus as early as 48 A.D); yet at the same time, Reza want us to believe his version of Jesus life, though Reza is writing about Jesus almost two-hundred decades later. So my question is, why should Reza fault the author of Mark for writing about Jesus around 70 A.D, yet expect us to bare no suspicion about the fact that Reza himself is also writing about Jesus, but he was born in 1972? Reza was certainly NOT an eyewitness to the life of Jesus, yet he (erroneously) decries all the gospel writers for not being eyewitnesses.

And, yet, herein lies some misgivings in Reza’s statements abouthe t eyewitnesses: the author of the book of John states emphatically that he was indeed an eyewitness to the events of Jesus’ life and that he was also one of Jesus’s disciples (John 21:24). Luke claims specifically to have used eyewitness accounts in putting together his account of Christ (Luke 1: 1-4).  But Reza states that no writers of the new testament were eyewitnesses. Again, if we should not trust the authors of Luke, Matthew, Mark, John, because they ‘got to the game late’ so to speak, why should we turn around a trust a man like Reza who got to the game two thousand years after that fact?

Reza cannot have it both ways.

Also, he criticizes the gospels for being composed in the mid-to-late first century. Yet at the same time, he almost beg us to believe the Gnostic gospels as legitimate fodder for Jesus’ life’ (even while he acknowledges that these books were written in the second and third century A.D.)  I am stumped. Why don’t these later dated writings bother Reza the way the earlier writings about Jesus life bothers him?  Why does he expect that what the Romans wrote about in regards to the times which Jesus lived, give us a better picture of Jesus than those who knew him? The Romans did not write first century “biographies” of Jesus – the actual writers of the new testament did.

Indeed, he even discusses the opposing views of Jesus as written in the Gnostic books, but seems to spend little time dissecting the differences between these Gnostic writings (he saves that for the earlier N.T, writings). In short, it almost seems he wants you to doubt the earlier works of Matthew, Mark, Luke, John etc., but accept the latter books of Thomas, Phillip, etc. with relative ease.

There are many other flaws I want to point out, but I don’t want to bog anyone down. Let me just add that I don’t understand why people are confounded by the differences in Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. These are four different points of view of the same story, so they should be different – otherwise, we would have the books Matthew, Matthew, Matthew and Matthew. But why would we want that?  The book of Matthew doesn’t need to be like the book of John because the book of John is already like, well, the book of John.

Now, at one point, Reza writes that Mark does not mention a resurrection appearance.  Problem is, even if a person only considers the shorter reading of Mark to be correct (there is a shorter and longer reading of the book), we find Reza is incorrect about his statement: the angels indeed declare that Jesus has risen!  “Now go and tell his disciples,” the angel says in Mark 16:7, “including Peter that Jesus is going ahead of you to Galilee. You will see him there, just as he told you before he died.”

Reza seems to fault the shorter version of Mark for failing to have Jesus show up on the scene and say, “Hey, guys, it’s me. I was dead and I’ve risen.”  But, that’s like faulting the end of the movie Titanic for not showing the ship hitting the bottom of the ocean after Leonardo DiCaprio drowns. We know from history and from earlier clips in the film that the ship hits the ocean floor. It’s inevitable. We don’t need it repeated visually at the end! Likewise, from the other three gospels in the bible, we know and see that Jesus died, rose again and showed himself to his disciples. Mark does not have to show it again.

Nonetheless, in the longer ending of Mark, there is absolutely an on-scene appearance of the resurrected Jesus (Mark 16:9-20) . So, in fact, Mark is not missing a physical resurrection appearance at all, and only the shorter version of Mark does not read exactly the same as Matthew, Luke and John. That’s because it does not need to!

Again, dear friends, why should Mark be similar to Luke, Matthew or John? No book you ever read will read the same in every chapter. New chapters provide fresh information. Each of the four gospels tends to flush out a particular detail that another gospel might lack. But that’s the beauty of having different points of view of the same story. They complete each other – they don’t contradict or nullify each other. Indeed, if all the gospels read the same way, they would smack of blatant plagarism.

Besides, it is not as it the book of Luke states that Jesus is the Christ while the books of Matthew, Mark and John do not. It is not as if Mark claims Jesus rose from the dead and Matthew, Luke and John deny it. No, these are not the types of differences the gospels hold (but they do hold minor, non-salvation-issue differences).

Finally, Reza stated it’s a miracle we ever heard of a man named Jesus of Nazareth!  Not at all. When you’re Jesus, and there are about 5,ooo ancient Greek manuscripts (some full, some partial) about your life and ministry floating, and over 24,ooo ancient manuscripts in total (some full, some partial) in other languages including Greek about your teachings, your disciples and your life, well, you’re going to out last all the other would-be Messiah’s and the world will (and does)indeed  know your name!

“Blessed are the peacemakers….” — Matthew 5:9



In his new book, Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus Christ, Reza Aslan reasons eloquently that the true Jesus of history must have been a militant revolutionary — more Che Guevera than Jesus Christ, more Muslim Brotherhood than hippy brotherhood, more Malcolm X than MLK. He also argues that this Jesus is worthier of admiration and emulation than the classic image of an apolitical, inclusive and embracing healer.

Aslan says he has long been obsessed with Jesus. So have I. We share other parallels, beyond our initials and our chosen profession of writing. We both hail from the same part of the world (and we even may have lived in pre-revolution Tehran at the same moment). We have backgrounds that span Islam, evangelical Christianity and interfaith dialogue. And we both have sought to make sense, in our speaking and writing, of how the so-called “clash of civilizations” came about.

I suspect that, in the post 9/11 environment, both Aslan and I have nuanced and adapted our views, chameleon-like, to gain attention and affection — sometimes from Muslims, sometimes from evangelicals and sometimes from liberals and secular humanists. (Aslan admits in his author’s note that finding Jesus as a teenager gave him an acceptance as a foreigner to America that he never felt before; I felt similarly during my own fifteen years in evangelicalism.)

Aslan is a remarkable writer and speaker. I only wish I had his talent. He also has done an admirable job in the past of showing how the Islam of his and my forefathers is not a hopelessly violent animal and how it has inspired hundreds of millions of souls to grow in humility, charity and decency.

Yet his book on Jesus carries numerous problems.

1. His nationalistic Jesus is a xenophobe. Aslan asserts that Jesus’ call to love one’s enemies and turn the other cheek “must be read as being directed exclusively at his fellow Jews…. The commands have nothing to do with how to treat foreigners and outsiders, especially those savage ‘plunderers of the world’ who occupied God’s land…”

Yet when Jesus instructs his listeners to go two miles when pressed to go one (Matthew 5:41), even a children’s sermon effectively makes clear that this was specifically Jesus’ demand that they dutifully obey the occupying Roman soldiers who dragged civilians into their service.

This would be the attitude of an anti-Roman revolutionary? (Yes, Aslan will probably call this verse’s authenticity into question — but the historical consensus of Christians and skeptics alike is that this verse is a part of the golden thread that runs through Jesus’ true teachings.)

2. Aslan says the Jesus movement was preparing for violent revolution:
“The designation of the Twelve is, if not a call to war, an admission of its inevitability, which is why Jesus expressly warned them of what was to come: “If anyone wishes to follow me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me.”

Given how Jesus seemed to disappoint his own followers with a lack of an explicit program to overturn Roman rule, and given how the Romans then killed Jesus, one would anticipate his fellow zealots they would have risen up in a vicious motion to avenge his martyrdom. They didn’t.

Undeterred, Aslan imagines that, over the next two or three decades, they reinvented his teaching from nationalism to something peaceful and inclusive that would make the Romans accept them.

To accept his case you would have to maintain that the core character of Jesus was almost completely rewritten in about 20 years (the dates of the earliest apostles letters), leaving virtually no trace remnant, and no faction of the followers of the “original” teaching of Jesus. Further, when the revolt against Rome did occur in AD 66, there is no sign that any faction of the church joined in. Actually the only tradition we have is that they did the opposite and headed for the hills and fled Jerusalem before the siege of the city started.

3. Aslan’s rendition of Jesus is much like a traditional view of the prophet Muhammad, and his rendition of the prophet Muhammad is more like a traditional view of Jesus. He has portrayed Jesus as a well-meaning but bumbling rebel who was killed before he could even get started. And in previous works he has portrayed the prophet Muhammad as an effective rebel commander, and simultaneously a model of compassion, forgiveness and inclusiveness that exceeds Jesus of Nazareth.

So when he writes that, “My hope with this book is to spread the good news of the Jesus of history with the same fervor that I once applied to spreading the story of the Christ,” he comes across as either opportunistic or confused. At bare minimum, the Muslims who have flocked to buy his works over the years must now be confused (especially since he casually admits that his “real Jesus” is not the Jesus depicted in the Quran).

4. Errors and overstatements abound. “I am predisposed to like Reza Aslan’s latest book,” wrote Larry Behrendt, a Jewish writer and student of the historical Jesus. Yet, he admitted, “Frankly, it’s exhausting to read a book like Zealot, and constantly have to pause in mid-thought to ask if Aslan is giving me the straight dope.” Expect more such critiques, as the initial euphoria dies down.

5. No one is objective. Everyone creates his god or goddess in his or her image. It says a great deal that Aslan thinks it’s better that Jesus was a failed minor bandit rather than the prissy, peaceful type that others think of. Tellingly, Aslan suggests in many past writings that modern Muslim zealots’ violence must be understood as an understandable response to the humiliation of occupation by foreign empires. Has he fashioned Jesus in their image?

Everyone, even the detached academic, creates their religious leaders in their own image. One catalog of the various strains of “historical Jesus” scholarship shows the various dominant images within the historical Jesus scholarship quest. (Note that “nationalist revolutionary” is not a well-represented image.)

Aslan is advocating an approach that will not serve the part of the world that he and I call homeland. The Islamic world desperately needs brave, Gandhi-esque figures and a restrained and compassionate MLK-like approach — which, in other words, means a Christ-like approach. Aslan instead seeks to sanctify a brawling holy-warrior style.

If there is a Jesus worth following, it is the one who showed us with passion and conviction and urgency that every soul and every situation, no matter how hopeless, can be redeemed.

Even if such a Jesus turned out to be only mythical, it would be worthier of following than Aslan’s so-called historical one. (As Emerson said, “Fiction reveals truth that reality obscures.” If Aslan himself did not believe this, he would not have told others that his true goal is to be a novelist.)

Jesus was either that rare person who embodied how the cosmos’ highest values stand our earthly values on their head — or he was nothing worth writing home about. If Jesus is worth a damn, then he is the person who broke bread with castaways, who forgave those who didn’t deserve forgiveness, who loved those who didn’t love him.

That would be good news. Aslan’s book is not good news, it is not good, and in the end it does not even appear to be news.


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