Aslan begins the book with the tumultuous history of Palestine predating the birth of Christ.  Following the “untimely death of Alexander the Great in 323 BCE, Jerusalem was passed as spoils to the Ptolemaic dynasty and ruled from distant Egypt” (12).  Eventually, the Jews revolted under the leadership of the sons of Mattathias—Judas and Jonathan Maccabaeus—and successfully ousted Hellenic rule in 164 BCE.  After ruling as “priest-kings” for almost a century, the Hasmonean Dynasty came to an end when Hyrcanus and Aristobulus, each fighting for absolute control, reached out to Rome for stability in the region after brief civil unrest (12).  Some within the Israeli government sign a pact with Rome, solidifying their position within the Roman ranks.  One of these Israeli detractors, Herod, befriends Caesar, gaining the trust of the foreign invader.  Aslan uses these events to preface the book’s account of the most influential Zealot, Jesus of Nazareth.

After detailing the rise of the Maccabees and the Hasmonean dynasty, Aslan glides through the occupation of Palestine, stopping with Herod’s bloody rise to power.  As a Jewish convert, beholden to Rome and Hellenic culture, he, now crowned by Caesar as King of the Jews, rebuilds the Temple upon Mount Moriah, the highest point in the land.  Nearing the christening, if you will, of the Temple, “Herod placed a golden eagle—the sign of Roman dominion—over its main portal and forced his handpicked high priest to offer two sacrifices a day on behalf of Caesar Augustus as ‘the Son of God’” (23).  After the death of Herod the Great in 4 BCE, Caesar appoints his three sons, proctors of sorts over the three primary regions of Israel, thus dissolving the unification of the Jews and reinstating this peasant-filled, unattractive desert to full and complete Roman rule.

In the third chapter, “You Know Where I Am From,” Aslan proceeds to list the abundance of factual errors throughout the synoptic Gospels, specifically Matthew and Luke.  He notes the absence of the birthplace of Christ, which may or may not be accurate, on a relevant map during the time of Roman occupation as cause for skepticism (26).  Aslan cites Matthew, Luke, and John as possibly credible references to Bethlehem as the birthplace of Christ; however Jesus being popularly touted as “the Nazarene” is strange (28).  Aslan then sides with the Pharisees writing, “‘Look into it,’ says a Pharisee with the confidence that comes from a lifetime of scrutinizing the scriptures. ‘You will see: the prophet does not come out of Galilee’” (28).

Aslan continues in Chapter Four, properly entitled “The Fourth Philosophy,” speculating the origins and upbringing of Jesus of Nazareth, writing,

“Whatever languages Jesus may have spoken, there is no reason to think he could read or write in any of them, not even Aramaic. Luke’s account of the twelve-year-old Jesus standing in the Temple of Jerusalem debating the finer points of the Hebrew Scriptures with rabbis and scribes…or his narrative of Jesus at the (nonexistent) synagogue in Nazareth reading from the Isaiah scroll to the astonishment of the Pharisees…are both fabulous concoctions of the evangelist’s own devising” (35).

Aslan, however, fails to mention the Jewish leaders’ utter perplexity and astonishment of Jesus’s understanding of the Scriptures since this could posit divine knowledge.  Also, Jesus could have easily been tutored by Zechariah, father of cousin John the Baptist, who worked as a priest in the Temple (Lk. 1).

Aslan repositions himself to give historical context, explaining the fourth philosophy as a hyper-zionist, nationalist movement distinct from the former three philosophies of the Pharisees, Sadducees, and the Essenes (40).  Judas the Galilean, “son of the famed bandit chief Hezekiah, the failed messiah whom Herod had captured and beheaded forty years earlier,” capitalized on the groveling and disdain toward the Roman occupiers, promulgating religious and political independence, thus establishing the order known as zealots (40-41).  After quoting some Apocryphal verses, none of which are recognized by Protestants as divinely inspired, he moves on the bring down the evangelical caricature of Pontius Pilate.

He begins, “The gospels present Pilate as a righteous yet weak-willed man” (47).  He writes of Pilate’s brutal scourge against the Jewish people for merely disagreeing with his commands.  Yet Aslan forgets his initial explanation of the Jewish messiah, or “anointed one” (19).  He writes,

“The messiah was popularly believed to be the descendant of King David, and so his principal task was to rebuild David’s kingdom and reestablish the nation of Israel.  Thus, to call oneself the messiah at the time of the Roman occupation was tantamount to declaring war on Rome” (19).

Aslan continues to list numerous attempts to reclaim the mantle of King of the Jews and Messianic provider and provocateur of the Roman occupiers, all of which ended in eminent death, fizzling out in shame and hopelessness.  Then, in ultimate political provocation and manipulation, the enemies of Christ, who Aslan cites as reputable sources (e.g. Jewish Sanhedrin), shout, “If you release this man, you are not Caesar’s friend.  Everyone who makes himself a king opposes Caesar” (John 19:12).  This prompted Pilate to authorize the crucifixion of Christ on grounds of treason.  Aslan forgets about this key point since it doesn’t fit his narrative.

Aslan concludes Part I of the book with an interesting account of the ultimate annihilation of the Jewish people in 70 CE,

“One by one the rebellious cities gave way to the might of Rome as Titus and Vespasian [Titus’s father, also named Titus] carved a trail of destruction across the Holy Land.  By 68 CE, all of Galilee, as well as Samaria, Idumea, Peraea, and the entire Dead Sea region, save for Masada, were firmly back under Roman control” (61).

As the father and son duo were preparing to rid the earth of the Jewish pestilence, Emperor Nero committed suicide.  The empire dissolved into turmoil and civil war as numerous individuals proclaimed themselves emperor.  Vespasian paused his campaign to claim the throne for himself.  Upon entering Rome, “his supporters had taken control of the city, murdered his rivals, and declared [him] sole emperor” (61).  Now, to save face and reinforce his authoritative rule, the newly crowned Vespasian set out to make an example of the Jewish people.

In 56 CE, the “Sicarii, or ‘Daggermen,’” zealots believing themselves to be the righteous arm of God, exacting vengeance on the heathens and blasphemers, murder Roman sympathizer Jonathan the High Priest on the steps of the Temple (51, 52).  This act of rebellion signals a new era far more violent than the Maccabean revolt.  After ten years, the Zealot Party, formed in 66 CE, headed by peasants and bandits, partner with the Sicarii to ensure a hasty defense of the holy city against Vespasian.  Aslan recounts the destruction of Jerusalem:

“[Titus, under the command of his father] ordered his men to build a stone wall around Jerusalem, trapping everyone inside and cutting off all access to food and water.  He then set up camp on the Mount of Olives, from which he had an unobstructed view of the city’s population as they slowly starved to death…The alleys were filled with the bodies of the dead…The inhabitants of Jerusalem crawled through the sewers searching for food.  People ate cow dung and tufts of dry grass.  They stripped off and chewed the leather from their belts and shoes.  There were scattered reports of Jews who succumbed to eating the dead” (66).

In the late spring of 70 CE, instead of waiting for the Jews to starve to death, he storms Jerusalem, slaughtering men, women, and children.  The Roman soldiers killed every Jew they found without discrimination, including those who pledged allegiance to Caesar.  “They burned everything…The roar of the flames mixed with screams of agony as the Roman swarm…litter[ed] the grounds with corpses, sloshing through streams of blood, literally clambering over dead bodies in pursuit of the rebels” (67).  Trapping the last of the rebels in the Temple, they burned everyone alive and urinated on the ashes (68).  Finally, after three years of besieging the city and waiting for the people of God to surrender, Vespasian had finally conquered, in his eyes, God (67).

Jerusalem was renamed Aelia Capitolina in 135 CE in an attempt to officially erase the very existence of the Jewish people from human history (68).

Reza Aslan

Aslan begins Part II with further “evidence” of the New Testament’s ubiquitous errancy.  Quoting from the Gospel of Luke, he writes,

“’the days will come upon you, when your enemies will set up ramparts around you and surround you and crush you to the ground—you and your children—and they will not leave within you one stone upon another’ (Luke 19:43-44) was put into [Jesus’s] mouth by the evangelists after the fact” (76).

Aslan once again rejects the prophetic utterances of Christ with assumptive “evidence” simply because it doesn’t fit his narrative.  He continues to denote flagrant contradictions within Christ’s teachings (I’m being facetious) such as the brief conflict in the Garden of Gethsemane and his disciples, “‘If you do not have a sword,’ Jesus instructs his disciples immediately after the Passover meal, ‘go and sell your cloak and buy one’” (Lk. 22:36) (78).  Soon thereafter the Temple police and Roman guards approached him and the disciples in the Garden to arrest him.  Aslan, however, omits the following passage:

“And when those were around him saw what would follow, they said, ‘Lord, shall we strike with the sword?’ And one of them struck the servant of the high priest and cut off his right ear. But Jesus said, ‘No more of this!’ And he touched his ear and healed him” (Lk. 22:49-52).

He didn’t, after all, incite violence; rather on the contrary.  Moreover, the Apostle John recounts the same story with greater detail:

“Then Simon Peter, having a sword, drew it and struck the high priest’s servant and cut off his right ear…So Jesus said to Peter, ‘Put your sword into its sheath; shall I not drink the cup that the Father has given me?’” (Jn. 18:10-11).

Later in the same chapter, Jesus tells Pilate,

“‘My kingdom is not of this world. If my kingdom were of this world, my servants would have been fighting, that I might not be delivered over to the Jews.’” (Jn. 18:36).

(Note: It’s strange Jesus says his servants would’ve taken up arms if he were the King of the Jews.  Didn’t Peter just strike the high priest’s servant? Maybe it’s because Peter had denied Christ, thus sacrificing his apostleship.  We can address this another time.)

In the next chapter, “The Voice Crying Out in the Wilderness,” Aslan describes the early ventures of John the Baptist.  He theorizes John may have once been an Essene, an “ablutionary sect” in Qumran, close to the area where John preached, proselytized, and baptized (83).  The group lived in communes, practiced celibacy and purification rituals, dedicating themselves to the study of Scripture (84).  After this intriguing inquiry into the early life of John the Baptist, Aslan continues to speculate Christ’s inferiority and subjugation to John’s teachings, inferring that Jesus may have been in fact one of his disciples.  But this is baseless.  Aslan writes, “To John, Jesus is merely another supplicant, another son of Abraham who journeys to the Jordan to be initiated into the renewed tribe of Israel” (87).  Aslan opines that the writers of the synoptic Gospels “invent” John the Baptist’s prescience and divine awareness of Christ (87-88).  He concludes the chapter with the most baseless claim yet,

“The gospels make it clear that rather than returning to Galilee after his baptism, he went ‘out into the wilderness’ of Judea; that is, Jesus went directly into the place whence John had just emerged.  And he stayed in the wilderness for a while, not to be ‘tempted by Satan,’ as the evangelists imagine it, but to learn and to commune with his followers” (89).

In Chapter Eight, Aslan describes the Galileans and their yokel culture.  According to Josephus, “the term ‘Galilean’ had become synonymous with ‘rebel’…’always resistant to hostile invasion’” (91).  They were easily distinguishable for their “rustic accent” and backwoods logic, so to speak (91).  Aslan writes, “The urban elite in Judea referred to the Galileans derisively as ‘the people of the land,’ a term meant to convey their dependence on subsistence farming” (91).  This is why the Apostle John writes, “Others said, ‘This is the Christ.’  But some said, ‘Is the Christ to come from Galilee?’” (7:41).  And again, “‘Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” (Jn. 1:46).

After providing pertinent historical context, Aslan oscillates from the quaint upbringing of Jesus to the zealotry of the bandits and rebels, writing, “Like his zealous predecessors, Jesus was less concerned with the pagan empire than he was with the Jewish imposter occupying God’s Temple” (99).  The protagonist/antagonist roles are symbiotic and interwoven within the person of Christ.  Aslan then segues into Chapter Nine, describing the authenticity, or lack thereof, of Jesus’s miracles.

“If I am not doing the works of my Father, then do not believe; but if I do them, even though you do not believe me, believe the works, that you may know and understand that the Father is in me and I am in the Father” (Jn. 10:38-39; [ref. Mk. 16:20; Jn. 14:11; Heb. 2:4]).

During first century Palestine, magicians, enchanters, and fortune-tellers plagued the land with their divinations and “charlatanry” (107).  Jesus, however, according to Aslan, was a contrarian magician: his dispensations were free of charge.  After Aslan flippantly dismisses Gospel accounts, noting their obvious embellishments, he extends an olive branch,

“Well into the second and third centuries, the Jewish intellectuals and pagan philosophers who wrote treatises denouncing Christianity took Jesus’s status as a exorcist and miracle worker for granted.  They may have denounced Jesus as nothing more than a traveling magician, but they did not doubt his magical abilities” (105).

He continues to peruse through Old Testament laws, commanding the expulsion of witches, sorcerers, “‘or one who casts spells, or who consults spirits, one who is a wizard or necromancer’ (Deut. 18:10-11)” (107).  He then notes the hypocrisy of God who “regularly has his servants engage in magical acts in order to prove his might” (108).  Early church fathers, however, had quick retorts to detractors postulating parallels between Christ and greedy diviners, “‘But though they saw such works, they asserted it was a magical art…For they dared to call [Jesus] a magician, and a deceiver of the people’” (108).  Another early church father and apologist, Irenaeus argued

“it was precisely the lack of such magical devices that distinguished Jesus’s miraculous actions from those of the common magician…[performing] ‘without any power of incantations, without the juice of herbs and of grasses, without any anxious watching of sacrifices, of libations, or of seasons’” (108).

Furthermore, Aslan makes an interesting point, “[W]hen Jesus stood before the Roman and Jewish authorities to answer the charges against him, he was accused of many misdeeds…but being a magician was not one of them” (110).  He concludes the chapter with Christ’s contrarian attitude, denouncing the self-righteous deeds and utter hypocrisy of the priesthood by healing those with infirmities, claiming they shall receive first the Kingdom of Heaven.

Aslan begins the tenth chapter, “May Your Kingdom Come,” recounting the obscurity of Christ’s vision of “the kingdom,” writing, “Yet the kingdom of God in Jesus’s teachings is not a celestial [one] existing on a cosmic plane” (117).  He continues denoting the unreliability of the Apostle John’s account of Jesus’s trial and interrogation before Pontius Pilate.  Quoting from John 18:36, he writes, “‘My kingdom in not of this world’…The phrase ouk estin ek tou kosmou is perhaps better translated as ‘not part of this order/system [of government]’” (117).  Therefore, according to Aslan, Christ’s reign is strictly earthly.  The translation in Strong’s Concordance, however, is strangely different.  For example, John 18:36 translates basileia houtos kosmos and repeats further along as basileia enteuthen enteuthenBasileia is defined as the ability to rule, reign, or preside over a kingdom.  Houtos means “this” or “these.”  And kosmos can mean “constitution, order, government” or “the universe.”  Those are vastly different.  Furthermore, enteuthen enteuthen can translate “is not of this world,” as it is often interpreted, “is of another realm,” or “is not on this world.”  And since everyone in the world uses “cosmos,” the English transliteration of kosmos, to infer “the universe” and everything in it, it is sufficient to surmise this as the correct interpretation.  So it is entirely plausible for the text to read “My royalty/kingdom/reign is not of/on/in this universe…My royalty/kingdom/reign is of/in another realm.”  Also, Aslan fails to notice Jesus’s logical deduction, which rebuts the accusations made again him, “If my kingdom were of this world, my servants would have been fighting, that I might not be delivered over to the Jews.”  Therefore, the fact that Jesus inserts this phrase acts as a defense, thus affirming the counter-context to Aslan’s initial translation.

Aslan closes the chapter with the most honest and perhaps best question thus far: What is the kingdom of God? And has it already arrived?  After all, John the Baptist, Jesus’s “master,” preached of the coming kingdom.  Aslan concludes, “[Jesus] was, in effect, the Kingdom of God personified” (126).

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In Chapter Eleven, Aslan neatly transitions toward the person of Jesus Christ.  He opens with the utter failure of Jesus’s attempt to physically overthrow the Roman occupiers and self-righteous serpents desecrating the Temple (127).  He then peruses through the miracles of Christ to boldly claim, “Over and over again Jesus rebuffs, avoids, eludes, and sometimes downright rejects the title of messiah bestowed upon him by others” (132).  On the contrary, Christ instructs his disciples to not tell others he is the Christ, thus implying his Christ-ship, if you will.  For example, the Apostle Matthew writes,

“Now when Jesus came into the district of Caesarea Philippi, he asked his disciples, ‘Who do people say that the Son of Man is?’ And they said, ‘Some say John the Baptist, others say Elijah, and others Jeremiah or one of the prophets.’ He said to them, ‘But who do you say that I am?’ Simon Peter replied, ‘You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.’ And Jesus answered him, ‘Blessed are you, Simon Bar-Jonah! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father who is in heaven’…Then he strictly charged the disciples to tell no one that he was the Christ” (16:13-17, 20).

And when talking with the Samaritan woman at the well, “The woman said to him, ‘I know that Messiah is coming (he who is called Christ). When he comes, he will tell us all things.’ Jesus said to her, ‘I who speak to you am he’” (Jn. 4:25-26).  He continues with his overly simplistic logic, denying the prophetic connotations of Jesus’s ministry,

“The problem for the early church is that Jesus did not fit any of the messianic paradigms offered in the Hebrew Bible, nor did he fulfill a single requirement expected of the messiah” (135).

It seems Aslan’s self-acclaimed profundity of the Scriptures is as facile as his ability to conceive the spirituality of Christ.  Furthermore, he inaptly—yet commendably—attempts to invalidate the authenticity of Jesus’s prediction of his coming, “Jesus spoke about the end of days, but it did not come to pass, not even after the Romans destroyed Jerusalem and defiled God’s Temple,” ignoring many a Protestant’s eschatological persuasion of partial preterism, for example (135).

After excoriating Christ’s ineptitude and perceived spiritual and political impotence, Aslan continues to exegete the proclamations of the lay preacher.  He—properly, I must say—acknowledges Jesus’s self-identification with the more messianic “Son of Man” than the old and insipid “son of God” (136).  After alluding to the prophecies of Daniel and Christ’s exemplification and epitomization of the Son of Man, he emphasizes the untenable influence of extra-canonical sources.

“Both 4 Ezra and the Similitudes of Enoch were written near the end of the first century CE, after the destruction of Jerusalem and long after Jesus’s death.  No doubt these two apocryphal texts influences the early Christians, who may have latched on to the more spiritual, preexistent son of man ideal described in them to reinterpret Jesus’s missions and identity and help explain why he failed to accomplish any of his messianic functions one earth” (140).

Chapter Twelve encapsulates, for the most part, Aslan’s vitriolic redundancy.  Telling the story of Jesus’s trial before Pontius Pilate, he concludes the narrative with, “The scene is absolutely nonsensical” (149).  (Because unbelief equates validity, or invalidity in this case…?)  After restating old, banal declarations of disillusionment, he raises an interesting case—the Mishnah.  Aslan writes,

“The trial before the Sanhedrin violates nearly every requirement laid down by Jewish law for a legal proceeding…[They are] not permitted to meet at night.  It is not permitted to meet during Passover.  It is not permitted to meet on the eve of the Sabbath.  It is certainly not permitted to meet so casually in the courtyard…of the high priest…And it must begin with a detailed list of why the accused is innocent before any witnesses are allowed to come forth.  The argument that the trial rules laid down by the rabbis in the Mishnah in the Mishnah did not apply in the thirties, when Jesus was tried, falls flat when one remembers that the gospels  were also not written in the thirties.  The social, religious, and political context for the narrative of Jesus’s trial before the Sanhedrin was post-70 CE rabbinic Judaism: the era of the Mishnah” (157).

The argument is compelling, but it also “falls flat” when juxtaposed to non-speculative (not Aslan’s forte) history.  Aslan forgets the Mishnah is not an inscription of new laws but rather a compilation of existing laws for the express purpose of preserving traditional/historical Hebraic adjudication.  Furthermore, if the Sanhedrin were to illegally prosecute an innocent man, why should they follow the law?

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Aslan begins Part III with the story of the first Christian martyr, Stephen.  He correctly notes the story is pivotal in the spread of the Gospel.  After presuming Stephen’s defense before the Jewish Sanhedrin as Luke’s fantastical concoction, he writes,

“Stephen looks up to the heavens and sees ‘the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God’ (Acts 7:56)…But whereas Jesus in the Synoptics is directly quoting Psalm 110…Stephen’s speech…consciously replaces the phrase ‘the right hand of Power’ with ‘the right hand of God’” (168).

Quoting Thomas Aquinas, Aslan explains the noteworthy implications of this statement, “…to sit on the right hand of the Father is nothing else than to share in the glory of the Godhead…[Jesus] sits at the right hand of the Father, because He has the same nature as the Father’” (169).  After caricaturing Christ as a “Romanized demigod,” Aslan ends his prologue into Part III by impetuously inferring the writers of the Gospels were disassociated, Hellenized Gentiles without any understanding of Judaic/Hebraic Scripture and mores (171).

In Chapter Thirteen, Aslan tackles the resurrection dilemma of the Gospel.  Questioning the authenticity and validity of the Apostle Paul’s exhortative preachments, Aslan references 1 Corinthians 15:38, which reads,

“For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve. Then he appeared to more than five hundred brothers at one time, most of whom are still alive, though some have fallen asleep. Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles. Last of all, as to one untimely born, he appeared also to me.”

The added emphasis is imperative for delineating not only Paul’s but Jesus’s ambiguous testimony:

“Then he said to them, ‘These are my words that I spoke to you while I was still with you, that everything written about me in the Law of Moses and the Prophets and the Psalms must be fulfilled.’ Then he opened their minds to understand the Scriptures, and said to them, ‘Thus it is written, that the Christ should suffer and on the third day rise from the dead’” (Lk. 24:44-46).

But what is this Scripture?

Dr. William Lane Craig, in response to a listener, suggests the following as possible prophecies: Hosea 6:2: “After two days he will revive us; on the third day he will raise us up, that we may live before him”; Psalm 16:10: “For you will not abandon my soul to Sheol, or let your holy one see corruption”; and Jesus’s own recitation of the story of Jonah: “For just as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of the great fish, so will the Son of Man be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth” (Matt. 12:40).  However, Dr. Craig provides caveats, noting context as a possible disqualifier for these particular texts.  Nevertheless, there are others more promising.

For instance, Jesus, while on the cross, quotes the psalmist (Ps. 22:1-2, 6-11, 14-19, 26-31), praying,

“My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?  Why are you so far from saving me, from the words of my groaning?  O my God, I cry by day, but you do not answer, and by night, but I find no rest.  But I am a worm and not a man, scorned by mankind and despised by the people.  All who see me mock me; they make mouths at me; they wag their heads; He trusts in the Lord; let him deliver him; let him rescue him, for he delights in him!  Yet you are he who took me from the womb; you made me trust you at my mother’s breasts.  On you was I cast from my birth, and from my mother’s womb you have been my God.  Be not far from me, for trouble is near, and there is none to help.  I am poured out like water, and all my bones are out of joint; my heart is like wax; it is melted within my breast; my strength is dried up like a potsherd, and my tongue sticks to my jaws;     you lay me in the dust of death.  For dogs encompass me; a company of evildoers encircles me; they have pierced my hands and feet—I can count all my bones—they stare and gloat over me; they divide my garments among them, and for my clothing they cast lots.  But you, O Lord, do not be far off! O you my help, come quickly to my aid! Deliver my soul from the sword, my precious life from the power of the dog! The afflicted shall eat and be satisfied; those who seek him shall praise the LordMay your hearts live forever!  All the ends of the earth shall remember and turn to the Lordand all the families of the nations shall worship before you.  For kingship belongs to the Lordand he rules over the nations.  All the prosperous of the earth eat and worship; before him shall bow all who go down to the dust, even the one who could not keep himself alive.  Posterity shall serve him; it shall be told of the Lord to the coming generation; they shall come and proclaim his righteousness to a people yet unborn, that he has done it.

There are others such as Isaiah 53 and Zechariah 12:10 which denote a familiarity to the crucifixion of Christ; however, one mustn’t neglect Christ’s own predictions.  On multiple accounts Jesus foretold of his death and resurrection (Matt. 12:40, 26:61; Mk. 8:31, 9:31, 10:34, Jn. 2:19).  Understandably, Aslan brushes aside these attestations to Christ’s divinity as it doesn’t pertain to his narrative.

Aslan opens Chapter Fourteen with his imaginative figment of Pauline theology.  Assuming (once again) Luke the physician/historian/Gospel-writer concocted Paul’s “dramatic conversion on the road to Damascus…[as] a bit of propagandistic legend,” he continues to negate the plausibility and authenticity of Paul’s apostleship writing,

“In recounting the story of how the remaining eleven apostles replaced Judas Iscariot with Matthias after Jesus’s death, Luke notes that the new recruit needed to be someone who ‘accompanied [the disciples] all the time that the Lord Jesus went in and out among us, starting with John’s baptism, right up to the day [Jesus] was taken from us’ (Acts 1:21)” (185).

Aslan proceeds, dismissing Paul as failing to meet the criteria, even though it is entirely within the realm of possibility he could have in fact witnessed most, if not all, of these instances since he is indeed of age.  He continues, denoting the self-ascribed apostle’s narcissistic acclamations, writing, “[H]e insists he is far superior to all the other apostles” (185).  Aslan then quotes Paul’s own conceited and overtly contradictory (I’m being facetious) ploy to equate himself with the Twelve,

“But whatever anyone else dares to boast of—I am speaking as a fool—I also dare to boast of that. Are they Hebrews? So am I. Are they Israelites? So am I. Are they offspring of Abraham? So am I. Are they servants of Christ? I am a better one—I am talking like a madman—with far greater labors, far more imprisonments, with countless beatings, and often near death” (2 Cor. 11:21-23).

However, he cleverly omits the culminating confession, “If I must boast, I will boast of the things that show my weakness. The God and Father of the Lord Jesus, he who is blessed forever, knows that I am not lying” (2 Cor. 11:30).  Moreover, Paul criticizes “super-apostles” in earlier verses, noting their incompetency and avarice, admonishing the strength of Christ in times of utter weakness (2 Cor. 11:5, 12:11).  But Aslan’s erroneous visceral instincts delude him once more when he posits, “[Paul] thinks he is the first apostle” (186).  This is laughable, as Paul’s hubris is, admittedly, constantly humbled by the grace of Christ.

Additionally, Paul continually refers to the apostleship of his fellow brethren (Rom. 16:7; 1 Cor. 4:9, 9:5; 15:7; Gal. 1:17, 19), continually conjuring up past sins, not to reopen wounds but to ensure the removal of sin and the presence of justification and ongoing process of sanctification.  For example, Paul writes, “Last of all, as to one untimely born, he appeared also to me. For I am the least of the apostles, unworthy to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the church of God” (1 Cor. 15:8-9).  After perusing through passages, distorting the context of Paul’s self-deprecating anti-egoism, Aslan writes,

“Actually, Paul sometimes directly contradicts Jesus.  Compare what Paul writes in his epistle to the Romans—‘everyone who calls upon the name of the Lord will be saved’ (Romans 10:13)—to what Jesus says in the gospel of Matthew: ‘Not everyone who says to me ‘Lord Lord’ shall enter the kingdom of heaven’ (Matthew 7:21)” (187).

Aslan mistakenly associates words with actions and actions with salvation, whereas the presence of faith alone—trusting in the saving work of Christ—ensures the impartation of the Holy Spirit, which indiscriminately reaffirms Paul’s laying on of the hands of Gentiles and Jews alike all throughout Acts.

Challenging the commonality of the apostles, Aslan writes, “Only after three years…did he deign to visit the men and women in Jerusalem who had actually known the man Paul professed as Lord (Galatians 1:12)” (188).  The visitation, however, is the act of mutual subjugation to the lordship of Christ and his Gospel, asking for his fellow apostles’ confirmation and, quite possibly, formal ordination into the body of believers.

Aslan moves to juxtapose the divinity and historicity of the synoptic accounts of Christ with Paul’s heretical doctrine.  “Most tellingly, unlike the gospel writers (save for John, of course), Paul does not call Jesus the Christ (Yesus ho Xristos), as though Christ were his title” (189).  He then posits Paul’s Romanization/Hellenization of Christ, comparing this newly devised title with Caesar Augustus.  Aslan asserts this divine cognomen is absent from the corpus of New Testament literature.  But it isn’t.  Jesus Christ and/or Christ Jesus are used inseparably numerous times (Matt. 1:1, 18; Mk. 1:1; Jn. 1:17, 17:3, Js. 1:1, 2:1; 1 Pet. 1:1, 2, 3, 7, 13, 2:5, 3:21, 4:1; 2 Pet. 1:1, 8, 11, 14, 16, 20; 1 Jn. 1:3, 2:1, 3:23, 4:2, 5:6, 20; 2 Jn. 1:3, 7; Jude 1:1, 4, 17, 21, 25; Rev. 1:1, 2, 5).

After convoluting the deity/personhood of Christ, calling Jesus a created being and God’s “physical progeny,” Aslan reasserts his belief that Peter, specifically, condemns the work of Paul due to irreconcilable differences (189).  However, he forgets Peter’s commendation and endorsement of Paul’s epistles, even extolling them as “other Scriptures” (2 Pet. 3:15-16).  Furthermore, Aslan echoes his previous sentiments (or lack thereof) of the discordant relationship among the original Twelve and Paul, insinuating Paul’s renunciation of anti-circumcision/pro-grace theology at the behest of the mighty triumvirate, Peter, James, and John, writing,

“After the embarrassing spectacle at the Temple, in which he was forced to renounce everything he had been preaching for two decades, Paul wanted to get as far as he could from Jerusalem and the ever-tightening noose of control placed around his neck by James and the apostles” (195).

Alluding to Luke’s mythologization of Paul’s conversion, Aslan writes, “Paul himself never recounts the story of being blinded by the sight of Jesus” (184).  However, after supposedly renouncing his Gentile-welcoming Gospel, Paul does just that—shares his testimony in the Temple (Acts 22).  Nevertheless, he concludes the chapter, noting the obvious discrepancy among the apostles, citing irreparable differences.

probably_valentin_de_boulogne_-_saint_paul_writing_his_epistles_-_google_art_project

In his closing chapter, Aslan revisits the hierarchy of the early church and the schism between the triumvirate (i.e. James, Peter, and John) and Paul, the heretic. Challenging the notion of Peter as the bedrock of the church (Matt. 16:18), Aslan presents a compelling argument for the headship of the Jerusalem Assembly (and even the Diaspora) as James, the brother of Jesus.  He writes,

“In his Lives of Illustrious Men, Saint Jerome (c. 347–420 C.E.), who translated the Bible into Latin (the Vulgate), writes that after Jesus ascended into heaven, James was ‘immediately appointed Bishop of Jerusalem by the apostles'” (200).

Various other historians allude to James the Just, as he was called, as a righteousness man, flawless, and holy.  Hegesippus, Josephus, Clement of Rome, Clement of Alexandria, Origen, and Eusebius of Caesarea extol James the Just and his good works in Jerusalem.  Josephus, relaying tradition, writes,

“‘[T]hese things [the Jewish Revolt and the destruction of Jerusalem] happened to the Jews in recquital for James the Just, who was a brother of Jesus, known as Christ, for though he was the most Righteous of men, the Jews put him to death'” (201).

James was executed in 62 CE by the command of Ananas the High Priest.  Aslan writes,

“When Festus [the governor/procurator of Palestine] died suddenly and without an immediate successor, Jerusalem descended into chaos.  Recognizing the urgency of the situation, the emperor Nero hurriedly dispatched…Albinus, to restore order in the city….The delay gave the newly appointed high priest, a rash and irascible young man Ananus, the time and opportunity to try to fill the vacuum of power in Jerusalem himself” (198).

This Ananus, son of the affluent former high priest, whose name is also Ananus—his son-in-law, Joseph Caiaphus, also former high priest, oversaw the prosecution and crucifixion of Christ—”instigated the shameless effort to strip the lower priests of their tithes, their sole source of income” (199).  The avaricious high priest fell under the scrutiny of James the Just, a poor apostle and preacher who lived the life of a simple Nazirite.

Aslan shifts gears to challenge the aforementioned heretic and agitator, Paul.  He writes, “Whereas Paul dismissed the Law of Moses as a ‘ministry of death, chiseled in letters on a stone tablet’ (2 Corinthians 3:7), James celebrates it as the ‘law of liberty'” (206).  And again, “Paul writes in his letter to the Romans that ‘a man is justified by faith apart from works of the law’ (Romans 3:28).  James calls this the opinion of a ‘senseless person,’ countering that ‘faith apart from works [of the law] is dead’ (James 2:26)” (206).  This has the source of much debate.  However, it is quite possible this “law of liberty” is simply a “new commandment” (Jn. 13:34; 1 Jn. 2:7, 8; 2 Jn. 1:5).  And lastly, faith without works, or fruits (Matt. 7:20; Gal. 5:22-23; Js. 3:17), is indicative of an unsaved soul.  In other words, it isn’t the contingency for justification/salvation but the guide for how to recognize one filled with the Spirit of Christ (Rom. 8).

Aslan proceeds to quote from noncanonized text to confirm his anti-Pauline premonitions and sentiments, writing,

“The Recognitions contains an incredible story about a violent altercation that Jams the brother of Jesus has with someone simple called ‘the enemy.’  In the text, James and the enemy are engaged in a shouting match inside the Temple when, all of a sudden, the enemy attacks James in a fit of rage and throws him down the Temple stairs.  James is badly hurt by the fall but his supporters quickly come to his rescue and carry him to safety.  Remarkably, the enemy who attacked James is later identified as none other than Saul of Tarsus (Recognitions 1:70-71)” (210).

Now, it is important to note Saul, prior to his conversion, persecuted the church of God (1 Cor. 15:9; Gal. 1:13).  It his highly possible, if this story is even remotely true, that this is an account of Saul’s barrage of attacks.  Instead, Aslan suspects Luke’s accounts of Paul, formerly Saul, as erroneous.

In his epilogue, Aslan recounts the disastrous Pauline doctrine wrested from James and the Judeo-Christian assembly in Jerusalem and the Diaspora.  Written by Romanized bishops, the Nicene Creed, which proclaims the divinity of Jesus of Nazareth, is, according to Aslan, a far cry from the truth.  And later, in Hippo Regius, found in modern-day Algeria, church fathers gathered to compile the New Testament, which include fourteen of Paul’s epistles to the Gentiles.  He writes, “Two thousand years later, the Christ of Paul’s creation has utterly subsumed the Jesus of history…That is a shame” (215-216).  Though, according to Aslan, the original Jesus fought for political revolution and a nationalist agenda against the foreign occupiers, “Jesus the man…is worth believing in” (216).

***

A Brief Reflection of Zealot

To counter some of the inaccuracies purported by Aslan as newly discovered evidence against the traditionally-held historicity of Christ, Dr. William Lane Craig, in response to Aslan’s op-ed article for The Washington PostFive myths about Jesus,” which briefly outlines the main points of contention found in Zealot, proceeds to debunk each myth as listed: 1) Jesus was born in Bethlehem, 2) Jesus was an only child, 3) Jesus had 12 disciples, 4) Jesus had a trial before Pontius Pilate, and 5) Jesus was buried in a tomb.

First and foremost, concerning the birth of Christ and the validity of Luke’s account of Quirinius’s census, Aslan, in the article, writes, “The early Christians needed a creative solution to get Jesus’s parents to Bethlehem so He could be born in the same city as David.”  He continues to validate this hypothesis by insisting numerous scholars agree with him (because ambiguous numbers equate truth?) and Jesus’s adult identity revolved around Nazareth—despite innumerable public figures identifying with their current nationality or social status rather than their hometown.  Refuting this outlandish claim, Dr. Craig turns to precedence and invaluable connections in Luke’s travels with the Apostle Paul in Acts.  He continues,

“This author was in a position to do exactly what he said he did in the prologue to Luke’s Gospel.  Namely, he spoke with those who were eyewitnesses to the events of the life of Jesus.  And it’s not at all impossible that Luke may have in fact interviewed Mary, Jesus’s mother, about the events relating to his birth.”

Aslan’s second point of contention is the Catholic doctrine of Christ’s lone birth—meaning he was an only child.  However, the Bible (e.g. Matt. 13:55-56 and Mark 6:3) notes the siblings of Christ.  Thus Aslan’s criticism of the Catholic tradition actually affirms the Bible’s credibility, rendering only the tradition moot and not the faith.

The third isn’t even worth mentioning (Lk. 10:1-24).

For the fourth myth, Aslan writes of Pilate’s brutal scourge against the Jewish people for merely disagreeing with his commands.  Yet Aslan forgets his initial explanation of the Jewish messiah, or “anointed one” (19).  He writes,

“The messiah was popularly believed to be the descendant of King David, and so his principal task was to rebuild David’s kingdom and reestablish the nation of Israel.  Thus, to call oneself the messiah at the time of the Roman occupation was tantamount to declaring war on Rome” (19).

Aslan continues to list numerous attempts to reclaim the mantle of King of the Jews and Messianic provider and provocateur of the Roman occupiers, all of which ended in eminent death, fizzling out in shame and hopelessness.  Then, in ultimate political provocation and manipulation, the enemies of Christ, who Aslan cites as reputable sources (e.g. Jewish Sanhedrin), shout, “If you release this man, you are not Caesar’s friend.  Everyone who makes himself a king opposes Caesar” (John 19:12).  This prompted Pilate to authorize the crucifixion of Christ on grounds of treason.  Aslan forgets about this key point since it doesn’t fit his narrative.

The last and final myth argues Jesus wasn’t buried in a tomb.  Initially, Aslan incorporates this into his myths/legends of Christ but eventually concedes, “It is possible that…Jesus was brought down from the cross and placed in an extravagant rock-hewn tomb fit for the wealthiest men in Judea.”  This, then, isn’t a myth; it’s an improbability.  Furthermore, despite its purported improbability, Dr. Craig states,

“It would be a source of real embarrassment to the early church to have the disciples all hiding in cowardice from the Jewish authorities while Jesus is given a proper and honorable burial by a member of the Jewish Sanhedrin, the very court that condemned Jesus to death.”

In other words, the brutal honesty of the Gospels as well as other independent accounts (e.g. Josephus, Tacitus) attest to the authenticity of the strange yet very real burial of the “zealot.”  Additionally, the Apostle John writes, “After these things Joseph of Arimathea, who was a disciple of Jesus, but secretly for fear of the Jews, asked Pilate that he might take away the body of Jesus, and Pilate gave him permission” (John 19:38).  This is purely conjecture, but it is entirely possible Joseph of Arimathea bribed Pilate to release the body of Jesus.  I understand this is speculation, but so is Aslan’s entire argument against the historicity of Christ.

On a separate note, Aslan’s credentials don’t really bother me since one can write accurately of another field of study without special scholarship in that particular discipline.  The author, however, has attacked the credibility of his opponents during debates, reinforcing his expertise over the interest and scholarly research of another academic.  For example, in a debate with philosopher, neuroscientist, and skeptic Sam Harris, Aslan remarks,

“[T]here’s a reason why I don’t write books about neuroscience because I don’t have an expertise in neuroscience.  I write books about what’s going on in the Muslim world because I have an expertise in what’s going on in the Muslim world.  I actually travel through the Muslim world.  I study the Muslim world.  I understand the conversations that are taking place.  And…so…I feel like, in a sense, I’m in a better position to sort of make judgments about what sort of socio- or religious or political developments are taking place within this people.”

Though the obscurity of his credentials remain speculative, we can conclude he probably does understand the causes of Middle Eastern conflicts.  His repeated self-affirmation and self-validation, however, is a little pretentious and immature.

Overall, I found the book very interesting.  Though I do not agree with much of the tone reflected in this biased work, I must confess he has done his homework and then some.  Nevertheless, taking on the well-founded historicity of the most controversial figure to ever walk the face of the earth is a feat in and of itself.  Therefore, I commend Aslan for his attempt to redefine Christianity and retell the story of grace.  But like those before him, he fell short.

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