I posted my review of No god but God a few days ago because I feel it’s important to contextualize my discussion of Zealot. No god by God seems to be fairly unanimously considered awesome, with many reviewers saying that they use it as a reference. In fact, I read it after John Green said in a video that it was his recommended primer on Islam.
Yet I found many instances where Aslan was fudging. Either he slipped some piece of information in casually that really needed a more detailed treatment, or he’d use linguistic tricks to shift perception. I don’t want to repeat my whole review (you can go read it for yourself), but my point is that many of the complaints I’ve seen of Zealot are not at all unique to that book.
The Infamous Interview
A few months ago, Aslan did an interview with Lauren Green on Fox News. The interview is awful. Not to be too “Leftist,” but it pretty much encapsulates every complaint made of Fox News. It’s almost so extreme as to be a thing of beauty. Really, watch it, if you haven’t already:
Green’s awkwardness is very distracting, but a little fact checking reveals that Aslan doesn’t come out of this interview so well either.
As Matthew J. Franck points out, Aslan misrepresented his qualifications:
Aslan does have four degrees, as Joe Carter has noted: a 1995 B.A. in religion from Santa Clara University, where he was Phi Beta Kappa and wrote his senior thesis on “The Messianic Secret in the Gospel of Mark”; a 1999 Master of Theological Studies from Harvard; a 2002 Master of Fine Arts in Fiction from the University of Iowa; and a 2009 Ph.D. in sociology from the University of California, Santa Barbara.
None of these degrees is in history, so Aslan’s repeated claims that he has “a Ph.D. in the history of religions” and that he is “a historian” are false. Nor is “professor of religions” what he does “for a living.”
More importantly, Larry Hurtado points out that Aslan is 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.
Green’s question of his qualifications to write this book was absolutely warranted, she just focused on a completely trivial and irrelevant reason. (Not that, of course, Aslan wouldn’t have the right to write this book or even be taken seriously, but the fact that he misrepresented his qualifications to lend himself additional authority is very concerning.)
This issue is in the book, as well. Within just a couple pages, we get:
…two decades of rigorous academic research into the origins of Christianity… (p. xix-xx)
…two decades of scholarly research into the New Testament and early Christian history… (p. xx)
And then Aslan’s Acknowledgements page begins:
This book is the result of two decades of research into the New Testament and the origins of the Christian movement…
Pro tip: If your Acknowledgements begin by mentioning all of your own hard work, you’re doing it wrong.
I can’t remember ever seeing a purportedly scholarly book dwelling so much on all of the author’s hard work in putting together the research. It’s a distraction, completely irrelevant to the quality of the research, so why even mention it?
As an amateur Bible-enthusiast, I don’t have a lot of tools at my disposal to distinguish between good sources and bad sources. This kind of pontificating on one’s qualifications is a huge red flag.
Aslan is a fantastic writer. His use of language is extremely effective and he can, as they say, bring his subjects “to life.”
But his writing ability isn’t necessarily a good thing for his readers. As I pointed out in my review of No god but God, he uses subtle linguistic tricks to predispose his readers for/against certain ideas, and he does it so well that I find myself needing to read his books on constant high alert – reading slowly and making sure to note every single word.
While I lack the expertise to judge most of Aslan’s assertions, my suspicions were raised early on when he states that “crucifixion was a punishment that Rome reserved almost exclusively for the crime of sedition” (p.xxviii). Given that a large part of his argument rests on this fact, I felt that it warrants far more than just a throw-away line. And, as it turns out, the use was not nearly so clear-cut.
I found the construction of Aslan’s notes to be worrisome. Facts are stated outright throughout the book, often without attribution. The notes, rather than being proper end notes, just summarize the research Aslan did for each chapter, provide a little more discussion, and recommend further reading. That is not enough. I need to fact check his statements, and the format of the book does not, in most cases, facilitate that.
Even in cases where he uses a contemporary document to bolster his claims, he frequently fails to name the document (which might be Google-able). Instead, the notes simply refer me to journal articles hidden behind paywalls – something that most of his audience will obviously not have access to.
I was also concerned by how easily he shifts back and forth between dismissing the gospel accounts and reading into them to find a nuance that supports his claims, or using them to feed the biographical narrative. Often, there is no attempt to explain why some passages are apparently reliable and others aren’t. Even when there is an attempt at an explanation, it’s only say that obviously the gospel authors changed that bit because they were writing from a post-destruction vantage – circular reasoning at its finest.
But, like I said, I really do lack the expertise to give the content of the book any kind of real rebuttal. Instead, here are some reviews that I think make compelling counter-arguments and, at the very least, offer up food for thought:
- Anthony LeDonne has list of complaints on The Jesus Blog.
- Craig Evans has a list of issues in the book up at Near Emmaus.
- Larry Behrendt did a guest post about the book on The Jesus Blog.
- Dale Martin has a review in the New York Times.
- Greg Carey has a review up on Huffington Post.
Overall, it’s a fun read and I found the depictions of first century Palestine very informative. But without the pre-existing bank of knowledge to sort the wheat from the chaff, I’m very hesitant to absorb any of the information Aslan presents.