The 'zealot' versus the real Jesus Print
Word on Fire
Thursday, Apr. 17, 2014 -- 12:00 AM

When I saw that Reza Aslan’s portrait of Jesus, Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth, had risen to number one on the New York Times bestseller list, I must confess, I was both disappointed and puzzled.

For the reductionistic and debunking approach that Aslan employs has been tried by dozens of commentators for at least the past 300 years, and the debunkers have been themselves debunked over and over again by serious scholars of the historical Jesus.

Aslan’s portrayal of the ‘zealot’

The Jesus that Aslan wants to present is the “zealot,” the Jewish insurrectionist intent upon challenging the Temple establishment in Jerusalem and the Roman military power that dominated Israel.

His principle justification for this reading is that religiously motivated revolutionaries were indeed thick on the ground in the Palestine of Jesus’ time; that Jesus claimed to be ushering in a new Kingdom of God; and that he ended up dying the death typically meted out to rabble-rousers who posed a threat to Roman authority.

Jesus, he argues, fits neatly into the pattern set by Menahem, the heroic defender of Masada, Judas the Galilean, Simon son of Giora, Simon bar Kochba, and other revolutionaries who claimed Messianic identity and were ground under by the Romans.

On this reading, Jesus indeed died on a Roman cross, but he didn’t rise from the dead; instead, his body was probably left on the cross to be devoured by dogs or birds.

Questions about this portrait

Now questions crowd the mind.

• What about Jesus’ stress on non-violence and love of enemies (hardly the stern stuff we would expect from a zealot)? Oh, it was made up by the later Christian community trying to curry favor with Roman society.

• What about Jesus’ explicit claim that his kingdom was “not of this world”? Oh, those were words placed in his mouth by John the Evangelist.

• What about his practically constant reference to prayer, the spiritual life, and trust in divine providence? Oh, that was pious invention.

By now, I trust you see the problem: huge swaths of the Gospel and the early Christian witness have to be cut away to accommodate the portrait Aslan paints.

Everyone remembers Jesus

Aslan’s interpretation cannot account for the fact that no one except specialist historians remembers Judas the Galilean, Menahem, or Simon bar Kochba -- but everyone remembers Jesus of Nazareth.

The clearest indication that someone was not the Messiah of Israel would have been his death at the hands of Israel’s enemies, for the Messiah was supposed to be a liberator and conqueror. This is why those failed revolutionaries were so quickly forgotten.

But Christianity emerged as a Messianic movement. Paul said, over and over again, Iesous Christos, his Greek rendering of Ieshouah Maschiach (Jesus the Messiah). How could he and other early evangelists have declared the Messianic identity of a crucified criminal unless they knew that he had indeed conquered the enemies of Israel? And how could they have come to that conclusion apart from his resurrection from the dead?

Gospels based on historical facts

Jesus reductionists claim that since the earliest Gospel was written 40 years after the time of Jesus, it couldn’t contain more than a smattering of historically reliable material.

But this is so much nonsense. Would we automatically reject as non-historical a book about the Kennedy assassination published in 2003? Wouldn’t we assume that the author had consulted historical records as well as numerous eye-witnesses to the events of November 22, 1963?

Those who knew Jesus, who listened to his words and saw his great deeds, who witnessed his death and resurrection, didn’t disappear en masse in AD 30.

To give just one example: tradition holds that Mark, the first evangelist, was a companion of St. Peter during the great apostle’s sojourn in Rome. Mark’s Gospel was therefore grounded in the reminiscences of someone who knew Jesus intimately and who saw the Lord after his resurrection. There is no reason to doubt that the Gospel of Mark, though it was written 40 years after the time of Jesus, is filled with reliable history.

There are far, far better accounts of the historical Jesus than Aslan’s. I would recommend studies by E.P. Sanders, James Dunn, Richard Bauckham, Ben Witherington III, or N.T. Wright. They show you that the real Jesus remains far more interesting and compelling than the superficial caricature offered by Reza Aslan.

Fr. Robert Barron is the founder of the global ministry, Word on Fire, and is the rector/president of Mundelein Seminary near Chicago. Learn more at