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5 Falsehoods in Reza Aslan’s Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth

The Iran apologist and creative writing professor lies about more than his credentials.

by
Robert Spencer

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September 2, 2013 - 7:33 am
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Reza Aslan’s notorious interview with Lauren Green on Fox News has made him the toast of the liberal media, and his book Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth a massive bestseller. There’s just one problem: the book is lousy. It’s full of all of the empty portent of a bad B-movie screenplay (think Ben Hur as directed by Ed Wood), decades-old (and often discredited) scholarship breathlessly presented as brand-new discovery, and outright falsehoods foisted onto the unsuspecting reader, as Aslan manipulates facts to usher the reader to his predetermined conclusion.

Aslan arrogantly waved his credentials in Green’s face, and the media has eagerly taken up this particular cudgel for him: how dare Green question the prodigious scholar, the multi-degreed eminence, the dispassionate Muslim teller of truths about Christianity that are unpalatable to the racist, bigoted, Bible-thumping Islamophobes on Fox?

Matthew J. Franck, writing in First Things, noted that Aslan actually lied about his credentials to Green: he told her, “I am an expert with a Ph.D. in the history of religions. … I am a professor of religions, including the New Testament–that’s what I do for a living, actually. … To be clear, I want to emphasize one more time, I am a historian, I am a Ph.D. in the history of religions.” But he is not actually a Ph.D. in the “history of religions” at all; in reality, his Ph.D. is in sociology, and his dissertation was not on the New Testament at all, but on “Global Jihadism: a transnational social movement.”

Less often noted, however, is an even greater problem with Aslan’s obsessive citing of his credentials: degrees, particularly in this era of the politically correct stranglehold on academia, are no guarantee of knowledge, wisdom, or truth. Even if everything he had said to Green about his degrees had been true, it would confer on his book no presumption of accuracy or truth. There are plenty of fools with degrees, and plenty of geniuses without them. Aslan, from the looks of Zealot, is among the former – or at least he is hoping that his readers are. Here are five of this master scholar’s most egregious false statements:

1. Aslan refers numerous times throughout his book to Jesus living in “first-century Palestine.”

He has defended this usage in interviews by claiming that that was the Roman name for the area during Jesus’ time. But in fact, Jesus lived not in first-century Palestine, but in first-century Judea, a place that no one called “Palestine.” The Romans renamed it “Palestine” after emptying the area of Jews after the Bar Kokhba Revolt in 135 A.D. Aslan’s usage is an anachronism, and given his venomous opposition to the state of Israel, perhaps a politically motivated one at that.

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Top Rated Comments   
Nicely done.

(Though I think you went easy on him)

I am a historian - not a sociologist, anthropologist, or journalist pretending to be one - so guys like Aslan really piss me off. The comment on Palestine alone should have destroyed his career - but it wont.

That's the thing: while it is tempting to attribute Aslan's conclusions to his Muslim faith, the fact remains that these arguments are also popular with the atheist crowd as well. (Why do you think the video is so popular?) Most academic programs, including history, treat religion as a complete fabrication, one whose sole purpose is to herd the masses. It is an influence of Karl Marx, one so strong that the history field is dominated by the studies of race, class, and gender. (Ask any historian: without focusing upon the 'holy trinity,' you cannot expect to find work.)

The concept of faith as a pillar of life - a positive one, at that - is completely alien to those who have none. When you are on the outside looking in, it can get pretty hard to understand just what it is you are looking at.
47 weeks ago
47 weeks ago Link To Comment
I've been yelled at for pointing out that Aslan's own faith might have just a teensy bit to do with his interpretation of Christ as just a man which isn't strange at all from a Muslim viewpoint. Of course, liberals get really upset with me when I point that out because they'd like nothing better than to think that his principled, unbiased scholarship somehow uncovered previously unknown truths that the rest of the world somehow missed for all these years ... but it's really just that his own faith colored the issue.

And that's fine. It's his belief, and I won't argue with it. However, it's dishonest to try to claim that his unbiased academic credentials and research led him to it rather than his own religious beliefs.

The Fox reporter was right to call him on that. She just didn't carry her line of inquiry far enough, IMO.
47 weeks ago
47 weeks ago Link To Comment
This is only what one must expect from a “Muslim scholar” – on this subject or any other. A citation from Serge Trifkovic’s excellent “The Sword of the Prophet” illustrates this perfectly:

--- An example of the Muslim attitude to interfaith dialogue was provided by the 1980 conference of the Society for the Study of Theology in Oxford. The delegates were told that one Abdus-Samad Sharafuddin of King Abdul-Aziz University in Jeddah, while unable to attend in person, requested the organizers to distribute his paper, titled “About The Myth of God Incarnate: An Impartial Survey of Its Main Topics.” The author explained that his work was of monumental importance, as “it shatters age-long darkness like a bolt from the blue; like a rational, God-sent lightning it strikes the London horizon to explode an age-long blunder in Christian thought.”

Sharafuddin started his study by declaring that the Christian worship of Jesus as Lord is an act of open idolatry. He concluded it by explaining that the true understanding of Jesus is given in the Koranic verse: “The Messiah, Son of Mary, was nothing but a messenger. Messengers have passed away before him.” The concept of the Trinity was “refuted” with another Juranic quote! ---

Given “scholarship” like that, the only appropriate reaction is a contemptuous dismissal.
47 weeks ago
47 weeks ago Link To Comment
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All Comments   (37)
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Here is a 1-star review by another author pointing more errors: http://www.amazon.com/review/R2MKBBTDQRU1F0/ref=cm_cr_pr_perm
47 weeks ago
47 weeks ago Link To Comment
Sounds like some C-student freshman's report on Christianity to me...

Seriously, did he do any research? Besides Wikipedia, I mean.
He had better do much better scholarship if he ever goes to the schools I went to. He'll only convince the foolish and willing with this silly nonsense.
Χριστός ανέστη εκ νεκρών, θανάτω θάνατον πατήσας, και τοις εν τοις μνήμασι, ζωὴν χαρισάμενος!
47 weeks ago
47 weeks ago Link To Comment
Judging by the comments, some people were really 'offended' as though the topic really matters - what, somebody said something with which you don't agree and you feel moved to write a long screed, illustrated with soppy pictures like a primary reader, in PJ Media? Funny, I saw the interview, thought my thoughts and got on with my life.
47 weeks ago
47 weeks ago Link To Comment
The topic really matters because of the constant distortion and denigration of the most important person in the history of the human race.
It is not about someone saying something you disagree with, it is about lying.
47 weeks ago
47 weeks ago Link To Comment
Same arguments different decade. There is nothing new under the sun.
47 weeks ago
47 weeks ago Link To Comment
VDH. Great column. However, the term "Palestine" for this area of the world predates Herodotus. The etymology of the word is complicated and open to more than one interpretation (http://cojs.org/cojswiki/When_Palestine_Meant_Israel,_David_Jacobson,_BAR_27:03,_May/Jun_2001.).
47 weeks ago
47 weeks ago Link To Comment
Palestine used to be the land of the Philistines, a race that presumably came from Greece and were sea-faring. They also gave most of the world their alphabets. The ancient Palestinians had no relation to the Arab Palestinians of today. He is just trying to ignore that Judea was what the land was called in the First Century.
47 weeks ago
47 weeks ago Link To Comment
VDH didn't write this column. Robert Spencer did.
47 weeks ago
47 weeks ago Link To Comment
After more than 30 years of atheism, Anne Rice decided to research the historicity of Jesus for herself. This is what she found:

“What gradually came clear to me was that many of the skeptical arguments—arguments that insisted most of the Gospels were suspect, for instance, or written too late to be eyewitness accounts—lacked coherence. They were not elegant. Arguments about Jesus himself were full of conjecture. Some books were no more than assumptions piled on assumptions…. Conclusions were reached on the basis of little or no data at all…. The whole case for the nondivine Jesus who stumbled into Jerusalem and somehow got crucified…that whole picture which had floated around the liberal circles I frequented as an atheist for thirty years—that case was not made. Not only was it not made, I discovered in this field some of the worst and most biased scholarship I’d ever read.”

Why is Jesus so controversial? The reason Reza's book made headlines had nothing to do with Reza himself - and everything to do with the popularity of a homeless and penniless man who lived 2000 years ago and, ironically, if Reza is correct - should never have been influential in the first place.

http://goo.gl/U8SK0
47 weeks ago
47 weeks ago Link To Comment
How dare this guy question the bible!!!

Any book written by men and compiled by a government committee has got to be the truth. Doesn't it?

If you have not done so, I highly recommend reading two books by Jon Dominic Crossan.
1. The Birth of Christianity
2. Who Killed Jesus?

This former priest is widely considered the world's foremost authority on the historical Jesus.

Also answer me this. Why would Jesus spend nearly three years training 12 hand picked disciples only to turn everything over to Paul not long after his passing?
47 weeks ago
47 weeks ago Link To Comment
Why not actually counter the writer's arguments instead of going off on a tangent? I don't think the Christian bible is at all accurate, but if one is going to attack it, shouldn't he use factual arguments?
47 weeks ago
47 weeks ago Link To Comment
"As a scholar of the New Testament, Reza Aslan is either incompetent or dishonest. "

I assert he's both.
47 weeks ago
47 weeks ago Link To Comment
Unfortunately, all of the YouTube stuff is entitled things like "worst Fox interview ever". (Says something about YouTube posters.) I put a couple of pointers to this page in the comments.
47 weeks ago
47 weeks ago Link To Comment
Why do we keep saying things like,"falsehoods"and "distortions","errors"and"untruths"?They're lies,G*ddammit!Quit pussyfooting around!
47 weeks ago
47 weeks ago Link To Comment
Good article, Mr. Spencer, and thanks for not getting caught up in side-issues. When a person claims to be a historian, getting the fundamentals wrong is a good tell.

For those interested in the historical claims of the New Testament I recommend listening to some of the podcasts at Issues Etc:
The interviews with Dr. Andrew Steinmann of Concordia University, Chicago, an authority on the historical nature of the Scriptures - http://issuesetc.org/guest/andrew-steinmann/
The interviews with Dr. John Warwick Montgomery, another historical expert http://issuesetc.org/guest/john-warwick-montgomery/
and The "Historical Reliability of the Gospels" with Mark Pierson of Concordia Theological Seminary http://www.issuesetc.org/podcast/261062909H1S2.mp3


Also Dr Steinmann's book "From Abraham to Paul: A Biblical Chronology" (http://www.cph.org/p-18805-from-abraham-to-paul-a-biblical-chronology.aspx)
47 weeks ago
47 weeks ago Link To Comment
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