Editor’s Note: This article was first published in September of 2013 as “5 Falsehoods in Reza Aslan’s Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth.” It is being reprinted as part of a new weekend series at PJ Lifestyle collecting and organizing the top 50 best lists. Where will this great piece end up on the list? Reader feedback will be factored in when the PJ Lifestyle Top 50 List Collection is completed in a few months… Click here to see the top 25 so far and to advocate for your favorites in the comments.
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.
2. Aslan says that Luke, whom he derides as “Paul’s sycophant” and accuses of “a deliberate, if ahistorical, attempt to elevate his mentor’s status in the founding of the church,” for all that still never referred to Paul as an apostle.
But actually the Acts of the Apostles, which Aslan acknowledges was written by the same author as the Gospel of Luke, refers to “the apostles Barnabas and Paul” (14:14). Aslan claims to have studied the New Testament for over twenty years, but doesn’t seem to know basic facts about what’s in it.
3. Aslan claims that the Council of Nicaea in 325 A.D. was deliberating over whether Jesus was “God incarnate” or “just a man – perfect man, perhaps, but a man nonetheless.”
It looks as if Aslan has been attending the Dan Brown school of oversimplification and distortion about Nicaea. But Brown is a fiction writer, and Aslan is supposed to be a historian.
In fact, the losing party at Nicaea, Arius of Alexandria, didn’t teach anything close to the idea that Jesus was “just a man.” On the contrary, he taught that Jesus as the Son of God was the first creation of God the Father, and that all other created things – the sun, the moon, the stars – were created through the Son. Hardly, in other words, just an ordinary fellow.
4. Aslan also claims that “the gospels are not, nor were they ever meant to be, a historical documentation of Jesus’ life. These are not eyewitness accounts of Jesus’s words and deeds recorded by people who knew him.”
Whether or not the Gospels are historically accurate has been debated for centuries and will be debated until the end of time, but Aslan’s claim that they were not “ever meant to be a historical documentation of Jesus’ life” is false on its face. Luke’s Gospel begins:
Inasmuch as many have undertaken to compile a narrative of the things which have been accomplished among us, just as they were delivered to us by those who from the beginning were eyewitnesses and ministers of the word, it seemed good to me also, having followed all things closely for some time past, to write an orderly account for you, most excellent Theophilus, that you may know the truth concerning the things of which you have been informed. (Luke 1:1-4)
That sounds like a document that wants to be taken precisely as “a historical documentation of Jesus’ life.” So does John’s Gospel when it says, “He who saw it has borne witness — his testimony is true, and he knows that he tells the truth — that you also may believe” (John 19:35). Again, whether these claims are true or not is another question, but the fact that the claims were made at all completely refutes Aslan’s claim.
5. Regarding the resurrection narratives, Aslan asserts flatly that “these stories were not meant to be accounts of historical events.”
Yet John’s Gospel, after relating an exchange between the risen Jesus, the apostle Peter, and the figure known throughout the Gospel as “the disciple whom Jesus loved,” adds:
This is the disciple who is bearing witness to these things, and who has written these things; and we know that his testimony is true. (John 21:24)
Here yet again, this may be a false claim, but clearly it was meant to give readers the impression that one is reading a historical account by an eyewitness; Aslan’s overconfident assertion that the resurrection narratives were “not meant to be accounts of historical events” falters on the most cursory reading of the narratives themselves.
As a scholar of the New Testament, Reza Aslan is either incompetent or dishonest. No sneering recitation of his alleged credentials will save him from that verdict.