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“Zombie Claims” and Jesus the “Zealot”

August 15, 2013

One of the things variously amusing and annoying is the re-appearance of ideas and claims in my own area of expertise as if something new, something suppressed (e.g., by us scholars supposedly) and reeeeally racy and sensationally important but that are in fact simply re-hashings (or re-packagings) of previous claims that were quite adequately and convincingly discredited years (or even decades) ago.  I call these “zombie claims”:  No matter how often you kill ‘em off with the facts, they come back again, typically after sufficient years have passed that the news media will have forgotten the previous appearance(s) (and the memory of today’s news media is impressively short).

Indeed, in today’s world of internet and e-communication, such zombie claims get a new life rather quickly, and get buzzed around the world almost overnight.  The latest zombie claim to come to my attention (at least in my field) is pushed in Zealot:  The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth, by Reza Aslan.

Aslan (a PhD in Sociology of Religion, and with his own marketing firm, and with a university connection in creative writing, but no training or demonstrated expertise in ancient Judaism, early Christianity, Roman history, or any of the subjects relevant to the book in question) pushes in sensationalist prose the supposedly shocking idea that Jesus was actually a political revolutionary who advocated an armed struggle against Roman occupation of his homeland.  Apparently, since a recent Fox TV News interview, sales of the book have gone through the roof (and with that Aslan has got at least one of his main objectives, perhaps his principal one, there being no such thing as bad publicity when you want to market books, movies, etc.).

I’m not going to review the book.  There are already a number of reviews out there to consult available on the internet (although I couldn’t find a single one by a scholar with established expertise in the topic of the book).  My points here are these:  (1) For anyone who knows the literature in the field, there isn’t anything really new or shocking about the book; and (2) Aslan’s zombie claim has been put to death in appropriate scholarly fashion several times already (i.e., in evidence and method shown to be fatally flawed).

Let’s track backward chronologically through some of the various prior appearances of this particular zombie.  We can start with Jesus and the Zealots:  A Study of the Political Factor in Primitive Christianity, by S.G. F. Brandon (Manchester University Press, 1967).  Brandon was a respected scholar and presented what is still probably the best scholarly attempt to proffer the idea that Jesus was (or aspired to be) a political revolutionary.

A few years earlier, there was the more “popular” oriented book by Joel Carmichael, The Death of Jesus (1963), which even made it into a Penguin edition (1966) and was translated into German (1965) and French (1964).

A few decades earlier, we have the works by Robert Eisler, e.g., The Messiah Jesus and John the Baptist (New York:  Dial Press, 1931).

But the “granddaddy”-predecessor of them all, perhaps, was the 18th century figure, Hermann Samuel Reimarus, whose manuscript on Jesus as failed revolutionary lay unpublished for a number of years until Lessing discovered it.  English translations of a couple of Reimarus’ works = Reimarus:  Fragments, ed. C. H. Talbert, trans. R. S. Fraser (Fortress Press, 1970); and The Goal of Jesus and his Disciples, trans. with introduction by G. W. Buchannan (Brill, 1970).

As I said, in each successive presentation, this idea has been engaged patiently by scholars and shown to be variously selective in the data (it’s called nowadays “cherry-picking” what fits your pet theory and discarding the other bits with slashing claims that they’ve been added nefariously), and inconsistent (or incoherent) in method.  The result in each case is that the idea was dust-binned as a failure, and scholarship gets on with trying out and critically testing ideas and evidence.  And the general public goes on to other fads and fashions.

But, wait for it, like a zombie, this sort of claim rears up again, typically presented by somebody lacking in the scholarly expertise required to test the claim adequately, but full of enthusiasm (and prospects for the income and visibility that the claim will bring).  As I say, for those of us familiar with the history of matters, it’s a bit tiresome.

As an example of a critical refutation of this particular zombie claim, see Martin Hengel, Was Jesus a Revolutionist? (Fortress Press, 1971).  As a summary, there are the “six theses” that Hengel published separately: (1) Any theory of Jesus as revolutionist is based on a highly selective use of the sources; (2) There was a Jewish revolutionary movement in Jesus’ time; (3) There are some similarities between Jesus’ position and that of these revolutionaries but also major points of difference; (4) The fundamental differences between Jesus and these revolutionaries were more numerous and major; (5) The evidence suggest that Jesus was hated by these revolutionaries as much as by the Jerusalem authorities; (6) Both “right-wing” and “left-wing” extremes in the ancient Jewish setting likely viewed Jesus’ teaching and actions as provocative.

So, before people get too lathered up about Aslan’s book, let’s all just take a breath.  It isn’t new in its thesis.  That thesis has been tried out a number of times previously, and it’s been judged in each case fatally flawed.  The current controversy will sell Aslan’s book, and perhaps even generate a program (likely on Discovery Channel), and will certainly prompt lots of comment in news media, cocktail parties, and in other social settings of “the chattering classes,” largely because most won’t realize that they’re being sold a “zombie claim” (an unacknowedged re-tread).  But those acquainted with the field know that “we’ve been there and done that” and it’s not worth the lather.

(If you’re seriously interested in Jewish revolutionary movements in Jesus’ time, the “daddy” study remains Martin Hengel, The Zealots:  Investigations into the Jewish Freedom Movement in the Period from Herod I until 70 A.D. (T&T Clark, 1989; latest German edition, Die Zeloten, Mohr-Siebeck, 2011; original edition, 1961).

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19 Comments
  1. Has Aslan mixed up Jesus of Nazareth with Jesus Barabbas (Matthew 27:11 , NRSV)?

    Barabbas was an insurrectionist, a ‘bandit’ , according to the Gospel of John.

    He was let go by Pilate, who knew better than to crucify people when their death was likely to stir trouble among the populace.

    Jesus was a lot safer to crucify, so could hardly have been a revolutionary Zealot, whose death would have been politically dangerous, as Barabbas’s death would have been.

    • No. Aslan has simply written his own musings and selective readings of NT references to Jesus of Nazareth. But it’s nothing new or shocking, as I indicated in my posting. And it’s all been shown fallacious decades ago.

  2. The point is that Jesus sells. It really doesn’t matter what you say. If it is packaged in a titillating enough way, people buy and buzz is made. I would be the first in line for an interview with Fox because absurdity sells. They ratchet up controversy and if I want to sell books I go there.

    The zombie assertion is always fascinating. Zombification was (and in some places still is) a West African vou-dou social practice of punishment. The purpose was to set perps in a class of outsiders that were in a sense “untouchable.” In some cases they became a slave labor force as we see happen in the original film zombie film White Zombie. This is well documented in anthropological studies.

    I know of no evidence that this was a practice, or if they had the chemical formula, in the 1st century near-east. Maybe I’m just unaware of something.

    • Andrew: YOu seriously misunderstand what I said/meant about “Zombie claims”: I’m not referring to any idea of zombies in lst century Palestine! I’m characterizing claims that appear, get refuted, and then some years later re-appear as if new. “Zombie” is my metaphor for this sort of thing. Claims that get properly killed off but re-appear.

  3. Mr. Aslan should read your superb blog post at http://larryhurtado.wordpress.com/2012/04/06/why-was-jesus-crucified/

    That makes it clear that the last thing anybody at the time thought Jesus was was a ‘revolutionary zealot’.

  4. I think the reason why the idea that Jesus was a revolutionary zealot is readily accepted by a public who do not know the scholarship on the matter is that in the popular imagination such an idea fits nicely with Jesus having been crucified by the Romans.

    The fallacious logic runs 1) The Romans crucified revolutionary zealots. 2) The Romans crucified Jesus 3) Jesus was a revolutionary zealot.

    I leave it as an exercise to the reader to spot the fallacy in that syllogism.

    • Yes, Steven, but you probably give too much credit to the public! I rather doubt that logic has anything to do with it. The news media pick up such ideas because they think they’ll surprise, offend, titillate, and so sell (the same motives of many of those who push the ideas). The public reads the stuff for the same reasons.

  5. Ken Berry permalink

    Aslan has claimed “fluency in Biblical Greek,” and his UCSB doctoral advisor said Aslan “mastered New Testament Greek” as part of his MTS degree at Harvard Divinity School. I found it interesting that his bibliography for Zealot lists The Analytic Greek New Testament instead of the Nestle-Aland Novum Testamentum Graece (27 or 28th edition), and the long outdated Thayer’s Greek-English Lexicon rather than the scholarly standard BDAG. And of his several professors mentioned in the acknowledgements, none have their primary expertise in New Testament or early Christianity. The closest would be Harvard professor Jon Levenson, primarily a Hebrew Bible scholar, but with significant work on the relationship of Judaism and Christianity. I don’t doubt that Aslan has invested much time in the study of Jesus over the years, and Muslims certainly have the right to write about Jesus, but …

  6. John Moles permalink

    Was Jesus a revolutionary?

    No – and yes.

    No, in the sense that armed revolution is rejected.

    Yes, in the sense that Christianity ‘turns the world upside down’. (Note especially the paradoxical punning on ‘anastatoo’ and ‘anastasis’ in Acts.) This ‘turning upside down’ is eschatological – but also ‘now’. ‘He has dragged dynasts down from their thrones’. Curtains – eschatologically but also proleptically now – for Roman emperors and all other earthly rulers.

    ‘Are you king of the Jews?’ is a good question, to which the answer is ‘no – but also yes’. No wonder that Jesus sidesteps it.

    It trivialises the stakes to assert, simpliciter, ‘Jesus was not a revolutionary’. And pagans, actually, understood this – better, perhaps, than some contemporary New Testament scholars.

  7. Craig Downey permalink

    Glad to see a qualified scholar weighing in! Le Donne of the “Journal for the Study of the Historical Jesus” has also reviewed the book over at: http://historicaljesusresearch.blogspot.com/2013/07/a-usually-happy-fellow-reviews-aslans.html. He points to some of the most recent research on crucifixion and honor shame in the first century. One wonders if his coined term “Jesus consumers” will catch on?

    Thanks,
    -Craig

  8. M Gould permalink

    I found a review by Craig A Evans which made a similar point about this being a previously promoted theory and mentioning Brandon in particular, and pointing out some of the apparent errors:

    http://nearemmaus.com/2013/08/07/review-of-reza-aslans-zealot-guest-post-by-craig-a-evans/

    Evans takes issue with Aslan’s assertion that Jesus was illiterate i.e. could neither read nor write. There seems to be some academic contention on that point, which the book apparently ignores. Evans has written himself on the topic of the literacy of Jesus, concluding that it is more probable than not that he was literate in a “functional sense”, as opposed to a “professional or scribal sense”:

    http://www.craigaevans.com/evans.pdf

    Just wondered if you had any thoughts on the particular issue of literacy (or is the issue perhaps simply a matter of speculation and/or unimportant?). As a lay person I just find it difficult to believe that the Jesus of the Gospels who was forever debating others with such phrases as “Have you not read…?” could have been illiterate.

    • This is a current issue. Recent publications include these:
      –Paul Foster, “Educating Jesus: The Search for a Plausible Context,” Journal for the Study of the Historical Jesus 4, no. 1 (2006): 7-33 (by my colleague here)
      — Chris Keith, The Pericope Adulterae, the Gospel of John, and the Literacy of Jesus, NT Tools, Studies & Documents, no. 38 (Leiden: Brill, 2009). (by one of our former PhD students)
      –Craig A. Evans, “Jewish Scriipture and the Literacy of Jesus,” in From Biblical Criticism to Biblical Faith, ed. Craig A. Evans and W. H. Brackney (Macon, GA: Mercer University press, 2007), 41-54.
      —-Chris Keith, Jesus’ Literacy: Scribal Culture and the Teacher From Galilee, LNTS, no. 413 (London: T&T Clark, 2012). (a further contribution from Keith) (the latest, to my knowledge, on the issue, but still contested)
      The key issues are these: How do you take the references in the Gospels, such as the “Have you not read” saying(s) ascribed to Jesus? Are they authentic? If so, do/need they imply that Jesus read texts (or might they reflect a deep familiarity with the contents of texts that was acquired, e.g., by hearing them read regularly, e.g., in synagogue)? And what can we say/know about the extent of reading-literacy in lst century Jewish Galilee? (Reading literacy is distinguishable and more readily found than writing literacy.) From the reviews, it appears that Aslan has a rather dubious (even comic-book level) sense of the kind of place Nazareth was and from things Galilean more broadly (this simply because he’s not really a scholar in the subject on which he write, a rather stupid move). Latest archaeological work suggests that, inter alia, there were at least some stone houses, which = socio-economic levels among some there well above subsistence level.

      • M Gould permalink

        Professor Hurtado,

        Thank you. I have read the papers by Paul Foster and Craig A Evans and also material by Ben Witherington and Maurice Casey, all arguing in favour of Jesus being literate and their arguments seem quite convincing to me. I haven’t had chance yet to read Chris Keith’s work though in one or two brief pieces on the web he seems fairly dismissive about the possibility of Jesus having had the opportunity to acquire literacy.I hope to read his work in future.
        Just on the Aslan book, one reviewer did refer to the author’s imagining of Jesus standing by The Sea of Galilee with its “salt air” as one of the book’s more minor errors.

    • Hi M. Gould,

      In the Evans article he mentions that critics cite the parallel Mk. 6 passage (to Lk. 4 where it said that Jesus read in the synagogue) that no “reading” is mentioned. It is surely implied for if Jesus was teaching, he would have chosen his own text. The practice was to read a passage and then teach about it. The critics, in my mind, have the burden of proof to show that someone else read what Jesus was teaching about. Just because someone scoffs confidently doesn’t give more credence to their position.

  9. Sounds a bit like ‘Talpiot tombs’ redux, aka ‘Rehash for Cash’ where a film maker takes a 1997 BBC doc. on the 1980 Jerusalem tomb, rename it The Jesus Family Tomb as if it was the first doc on the tomb and now sell it to the media in 2007. Fortunately, the academic establishment spoke up loud and clear and both the film and the book failed miserably at the box office and in the book stores.

  10. Professor Hurtado, I am glad you weighed in on this. As an amateur interested in the subject, I find the media portrayal superficial at best. These books and “documentaries” breathlessly promise new insight, but more often than not, they usually only reveal things that have been know for hundreds of years.

    -Jim Devitt

    • I think some of the new ‘biblical archaeology’ whereby how many times one appears on the screen, is important, may have invented this ‘art form’ which goes by various names as archaeo-porn, archaeology for losers, press conference archaeology etc. Unfortunately, there appears to be a relationship between how many times one appears in this ‘art form’ and funding in some circles.

  11. Reblogged this on Zwinglius Redivivus and commented:
    Brilliant stuff from Larry.

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