Whatever Reza Aslan thought he was doing when he sat down to write his book Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth, he certainly understood that the exercise involved dealing with history.

In all but the most sceptical minds, Jesus was an historical figure who lived in the first century in Roman occupied Palestine. Jesus was an intinerant preacher who was reported to have performed miraculous signs and who was executed after his short public ministry. This much is in general agreement.  The writer who moves beyond this bare outline is immediately plunged into the treacherous waters of interpreation and speculation.

The only ancient texts available to the historian for any detail about the life of Jesus are those documents that are included in the Christian New Testament. For Aslan this fact causes a problem. He says in his “Introduction”

the gospels are not, nor were they ever meant to be, a historical documentation of Jesus’s life. These are not eyewitness accounts of Jesus’s words and deeds recorded by people who knew him. They are testimonies of faith composed by communities of faith and written many years after the events they describe. Simply put, the gospels tell us about Jesus the Christ, not Jesus the man. xxxvi

According to Aslan, for the Gospel writers,

Factual accuracy was irrelevant. 154

It is not clear how Aslan knows the mind of the Gospel writers with such clarity; he offers no proof for his claim except to assert categorically that for the Gospel writers

What mattered was Christology, not history. 154

Aslan’s determination to dismiss the canonical gospels as in any way reliable historical documents, except when it serves his purpose, is curious and his evidence for their lack of historical accuracy is thin.

Aslan’s first proof that the Gospels fail the historical accuracy test is

the claim that Jesus was born not in Nazareth but in Bethlehem. (26)

Aslan dismisses Jesus’ Bethlehem birth on the grounds that Jesus is repeatedly referred to in the gospels as a “Nazarean”. Leaving aside the puzzling question of why Aslan accepts this piece of information as historically accurate, it is an odd argument. Jesus was not born in Bethelehem because people called him a “Nazarean.” Is every person who has ever been known as a Canadian,  obviously born in Canada?

Aslan’s other demonstration that the Gospels are not historical is the alleged illiteracy of Jesus. Aslan contends that,

It is estimated that nearly 97 percent of the Jewish peasantry could neither read nor write. 33

Therefore, Jesus must have been illiterate. Aslan does not of course say where this “estimate” comes from. He does not say how the estimater arrived at the figure of “97 percent”, or why Jesus would necessarily be excluded from the imagined 3% of literate “Jewish peasantry”. The important thing for Aslan about the alleged illitarcy of “97 percent of the Jewish peasantry” is that it supports his dismissal of the Gospel accounts as credible historical documents because

Whatever languages Jesus may have spoken, there is no reason to think he could read or write in any of them… 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 (Luke 2:42-52), or his narrative of Jesus at the nonexistent synagogue in Nazareth reading from the Isaiah scroll to the astonishment of the Pharisees (Luke 4:16-22), are both fabulous concoctions of the evangelist’s own devising. Jesus would not have had access to the kind of formal education necessary to make Luke’s account even remotely credible. 33, 34 (emphasis added)

Why Aslan assumes that “formal education” is the only possible vehicle by which anyone has ever learned to read and write defies explanation. But, when it comes to interpretation, Aslan seems to feel no need to explain the rationale that lead to his dubious conclusions.