Monday, October 28, 2013


Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth
© 2013 Raza Aslan
337 pages

Reza Aslan’s Zealot searches for the historical Jesus and finds him as a religious revolutionary, one who anticipated the imminent demise of the Roman Empire. No gentle Jesus meek and mild, nor Buddha-like figure whose notion of the kingdom of God was a metaphor for enlightened living, Jesus was a man of his times – a working-class carpenter who saw no distinction between the oppressive Romans and the corrupt class of priests in the legalistic Temple who were their lackeys. Preaching about the end of days in an province of the region frequently wracked by would-be messiahs inciting rebellion, Jesus of Nazareth was promptly executed in the style reserved for ‘bandits’,  crucified publicly as an example  of what happened to those who defied Rome.  The city of Jerusalem, and the Temple, joined him in destruction decades later, in a war in which the Christians took no part, seeing in the Romans’ rage evidence that the End had finally begun – and shortly thereafter,  the Gospels were written, and increasingly in such a way as to hide Jesus’ original message. But the historical facts that can be beaten out of the gospel accounts, writes Aslan, and they reveal him to be a passionate foe of the then-status quo, and one taken seriously as a secular, not a spiritual, threat. Aslan doesn't delve into what role if any the historical Jesus was to play in the end of things, but his aggressive forecasting certainly brought his own: in an state in which casting the Emperor's horoscope was treason, predicting his imminent fall was sure to make Rome irritated. What sets Aslan's account part from many other works is its style; though versed in theology and textual criticism (Aslan was a Muslim convert to Christianity,  and reverted while becoming a biblical scholar), this is no academic work. Aslan writes like a novelist, in which Jesus and his disciples are the reader's intimates and the events of their lives are happening now, in the present tense. I suspect this is why it's so popular, for Aslan is less a lecturer and more a storyteller.

Aslan's conclusion is similar to Bart Ehrman's, who in Jesus: Apocalyptic Prophet of the New Millennium concluded that Jesus was one of many powerfully charismatic Jewish teachers forecasting the end of the world tomorrow, though in Aslan's view he was seen as a threat to personally ignite the power keg that was first-century Judea. Zealot is worth reading if for no other reason than to appreciate how much anxious energy rippled through the world of the gospels. No static background for nice stories about good Samaritans and healing the lame: first-century Jerusalem was a literal battleground -- between warring sects, the sects and the authorities, and between the authorities.  On the whole, it's quite riveting. but I'm uncertain about the scholarship. I'm sympathetic to his view because I've read one similar to it, but one better established (again, Ehrman), but the book is dotted with odd translations and sweeping statements like "the gospels were never meant to accurately portray Jesus' life'.   To be sure, the Gospels are loaded with shall we say, extra-historical content, but that doesn't mean they're the equivalent of stories about George Washington cutting down cherry trees.  The novel-like aspects of the book fascinated me, but were also bothersome upon retrospect; I suppose I'm a bit of a snob in that I think serious, academic work has to be just a little bit staid.

Ultimately,  Aslan's claims are noteworthy, but ought to be considered carefully.

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