Muslim scholar pens biography of Jesus the Jew

BY ROBERT A. COHN, Editor-in-Chief Emeritus

Can a secularized Muslim scholar present a fact-based biography of Jesus of Nazareth, which would present no major theological problems for Jews? The answer is a resounding yes as evidenced by “Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth,” by Reza Aslan.

The book was popularized and elevated to best-seller status by an abysmal interview with the author on Fox News, whose supposed religion expert Lauren Green inanely asked Aslan about why he, as a Muslim, was doing research and writing a book on Christ’s origins. Green appeared to ignore both Aslan’s impeccable academic credentials and the relevance of Jesus Christ to Islam. 

Aslan, by the way, is a graduate of Santa Clara University, Harvard University and the University of California at Santa Barbara, and earned a master’s degree in fine arts at the University of Iowa. He currently is an associate professor of creative writing at the University of California at Riverside, where he also on the faculty of its Department of Religious Studies.

Clearly, Aslan’s book is a work of first-rate scholarship and makes it absolutely clear that Jesus grew up in the deeply divided Jewish community of First Century Judea. From Jesus’ childhood through his brief ministry of the last three years of his life, Judea was split into deeply divided factions, all of which are discussed in detail by Aslan.


He builds a strong case for his assertion that Jesus, commonly known for his loving approach to adversaries, was associated with the Zealots, one of several groups of philosophic influence at the time. They favored a violent overthrow of the reigning Roman authority.

The origins of this group resulted from a split with the other movements. Aslan notes that after the death of King Herod the Great, Judas the Galilean joined forces with “a mysterious Pharisee named Zaddok to launch a totally new independent movement that (the Jewish historian) Josephus terms the ‘Fourth Philosophy,’ so as to differentiate it from the other three ‘philosophies’ (at the time): the Pharisees, the Sadducees and the Essenes.”

What set the members of the Fourth Philosophy apart from the rest was their unshakeable commitment to freeing Israel from foreign rule and their fervent insistence, even unto death, that they would serve no lord save the One God. The “zeal” by which this commitment was practiced lent itself to the naming of the Zealots (not to be confused with the Zealot Party that sprang up after the Jewish Revolt some six decades later).

“During Jesus’ lifetime,” said Aslan, “zealotry did not signify a firm sectarian designation of a political party. It was an idea, an aspiration, a model of piety inextricably linked to the widespread sense of apocalyptic expectation that had seized the Jews in the wake of the occupation. . . The Kingdom of God was at hand. Everyone was talking about it. But God’s reign could only be ushered in by those with the zeal to fight for it.”

Aslan describes the early Zealot extremist Judas the Galilean, who actually organized bands of guerrilla force to launch attacks throughout the Galilee, “plundering the homes of the wealthy and powerful, setting villages ablaze, and meting out the justice of God upon the Jewish aristocracy and those who continued to pledge their loyalty to Rome.”

The Zealots were especially incensed when the Roman authorities called for a census of Judea, which they regarded as an “affirmation of the slavery of the Jews….It was an admission that the Jews were not the chosen tribe of God but the personal property of the emperor,” Aslan writes.

Aslan is not the first scholar of the New Testament to speculate that Jesus was a Zealot. In his 1965 book, “The Passover Plot,” Hugh J. Schonfield made the case that Jesus could have regarded himself as a “Warrior Messiah” similar to the “Muscular Christ” concept of some present-day Evangelical Christians. Schonfield speculates that whether or not Jesus considered himself a “card-carrying” formal member of the Zealot philosophy, he was at least significantly influenced by its beliefs and values.

One of the “proof-texts” that Aslan offers to bolster his case that Jesus was not totally opposed to the use of force is the instruction he gives his disciples immediately after the Passover meal, called the Last Supper. Anticipating, correctly, that he was about to be arrested by a large contingent of heavily armed Roman guards and Temple police, Jesus told his disciples, “If you do not have a sword, go sell your cloak and buy one.” “Master,” the disciples respond, “here are two swords.” “It is enough,” Jesus says. (Luke 22:36-38).

To bolster his case that the Roman authorities feared that Jesus, described in the New Testament as a direct descendant of King David, might seek to restore a Davidic monarchy to displace Rome, Jesus is found guilty of sedition against Rome and sent to Golgotha (Calvary) to be executed by crucifixion. Above his head the Romans affixed a plaque, or titulus, detailing the crime for which he is being crucified. Jesus’s titulus reads (in Hebrew, Greek and Latin): Jesus of Nazareth: King of the Jews. His crime: striving for kingly rule, sedition.

Thus, Aslan concludes, “Jesus of Nazareth is executed for daring to claim the mantle of king and messiah, an assertion which the Romans, especially under the cruel governance of the Procurator Pontius Pilate could not tolerate.”

Later in the information-packed book, Aslan asserts that the reported resurrection of Jesus “is not a historical event,” but a concept that came from Paul, whom some regard as the true founder of Christianity. If Jesus indeed dies on the cross it would destroy the entire notion of his Messiahship or status as the son of God. “If Christ has not been risen, then our preaching is empty and your faith is in vain,” wrote Paul in 1 Corinthians 15:17.

Whether one accepts the major premise of Aslan’s book or not, it is clear that he has written a serious and well-researched book that succeeds in its attempt to tell the story of Jesus the Man as opposed to Christ the Messiah and the Divine.