Sunday, August 11, 2013

Reza Aslan's "Zealot": Poor

I am usually glad to see a book about Jesus in the news. Even if the book is controversial or erroneous, it still might lead the curious to read more, and better, books about the life of Christ; and in time, they might even have an encounter with the real thing. All to the good.

So I don't have any problem in principle with the attention being paid to Reza Aslan's Zealot. I am a little puzzled, though, why this undistinguished book should be the next big thing. The author is a professor of creative writing, and not a known authority about the subject he deals with. His overall thesis is a nothing-new retread of S. G. F. Brandon's Jesus and the Zealots (1967), long since dismissed by specialists in the field.

The author also, it must be said, has not really done his homework. Anyone is free to frame a revisionist theory about anything, but to be convincing, the historical data must be clear and accurate. But Aslan often gets the facts wrong.

It would be tedious to go through and enumerate such misstatements in Zealot. There are a lot. However, I will give a couple of examples that might easily be missed by lay readers, but which stand out like a sore thumb to specialists. The first example has to do with the Temple tax. Introducing his account of the story of the cleansing of the Temple (Mark 11:15-19 and parallels), he says:
The money changers play a vital role in the Temple. For a fee, they will exchange your foul foreign coins for the Hebrew shekel, the only currency permitted by the Temple authorities. The money changers will also collect the half-shekel Temple tax that all adult males must pay to preserve the pomp and spectacle of all you see around you: the mountains of burning incense and the ceaseless sacrifices, the wine libations and the first-fruits offering, the Levite choir belting out psalms of praise and the accompanying orchestra thrumming lyres and banging cymbals. Someone must pay for these necessities. Someone must bear the cost of the burnt offerings that so please the Lord.
The tone of contempt is obvious. Reza Aslan does not have a high opinion of Jewish worship. However, what I want to point out here is that his sneer about "foul foreign coins" and the "Hebrew shekel" is mistaken. The Jewish authorities were not allowed to issue "Hebrew" coinage in the era of the Roman occupation of the time of Christ; there was no such thing as a "Hebrew shekel." In fact, the approved currency for paying the Temple dues was the Tyrian tetradrachma -- itself a "foul foreign coin" bearing the image of the god Melqart. The Tyrian coin had a higher silver content than equivalent coins from other mints.

This might not seem to be a major mistake, but anyone who is at all familiar with the political scene in first-century Judaea would know about the privileged position within Judaism of the Tyrian coinage. That Reza Aslan does not is simply a small token of his overall ignorance of the period.

My second example is drawn from the area of literature. In the course of discussing the writings that came from Hellenistic Judaism, Aslan says:
Unlike their brethren in the Holy Land, Diaspora Jews spoke Greek, not Aramaic: Greek was the language of their thought processes, the language of their worship. They experienced the scriptures not in the original Hebrew but in a Greek translation (the Septuagint), which offered new and originative [sic] ways of expressing their faith, allowing them to more easily harmonize traditional biblical cosmology with Greek philosophy. Consider the Jewish scriptures that came out of the Diaspora. Books such as The Wisdom of Solomon, which anthropomorphizes Wisdom as a woman to be sought above all else, and Jesus Son of Sirach (commonly referred to as The Book of Ecclesiasticus) read more like Greek philosophical tracts than like Semitic scriptures.
It is uncontroversially true that Hellenistic Judaism was influenced by Greek thought, and that in some instances this led to "new ways of expressing their faith." However, the two examples given are misconceived. The Wisdom of Solomon is indeed influenced by Platonism and Stoicism, but the image of "Wisdom as a woman to be sought above all else" comes straight from the Hebrew Bible, particularly from the Book of Proverbs (ch. 8), not from any Greek tradition.

The example of Jesus son of Sirach (or Ben Sira) is an even worse example. It was not written in the Diaspora, but in the Holy Land, in Hebrew (the Hebrew text is still preserved in part), and only translated a generation later by the author's grandson into Greek. It most emphatically does not read like a Greek philosophical tract. I suspect that Aslan has not even opened either one of these books, and that his information comes from secondary sources which he has misunderstood.

Clearly someone who is capable of making such elementary errors about the basic facts is not to be trusted as an authority on ancient religions. By all means, read about Jesus. Start with the Gospels. But Zealot can be crossed off your list as a reliable source of information.

BIBLIOGRAPHY: Reza Aslan, Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth (Random House, 2013). For reliable background on the period, the lay reader might enjoy F. F. Bruce's New Testament History. Those who want to read an objective, non-religious book about the historical Jesus could start with E. P. Sanders' The Historical Figure of Jesus. I also recommend Raymond Brown, Questions and Answers on the Bible.


Thierry Bingen said...

I appreciate your adopting the dismissive tone of the object of your critique to enhance your remarks; however, by doing such, you expose yourself to the same type of criticism. You dismiss the qualifications of Reza Aslan not for what he is but for what he does; I know of many a scholar who have had to accept positions for the sole sake of paying the rent. Before teaching creative writing, Aslan got a a Master of Theological Studies degree from the Harvard Divinity School, which does not mean that his theories about Jesus are correct but that he is indeed qualified to utter them.
Thanks for the E.P. Sanders reference (available on Kindle).

Rebecca said...

An M.T.S. from Harvard Divinity School is a significant achievement, but it does not necessarily mean that Aslan is a qualified scholar of New Testament. To receive an M.T.S., one needs to take two years of courses. No masters thesis is required. I don't know what courses Aslan took when he was at HDS, and how many of them were in New Testament and related fields (for example, in second Temple Judaism). Someone who received his Ph.D. in New Testament from HDS or elsewhere would be qualified, by definition, to research, write, and teach about the New Testament in an academic setting. Aslan's Ph.D. degree is in sociology of religion, and it did not cover the New Testament.