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Reza Aslan’s story is a compelling one. In the 70s he moved to the United States from Iran and converted to Evangelical Christianity at the age of 15, an experience he describes as very honest and real, though thoroughly American. Aslan wanted to be a part of something bigger than himself. He found God and America. However, as he researched the history of Jesus during college, his faith began to wane. At the encouragement of Jesuit priests at his school, he explored the faith of his forefathers—Islam—and eventually converted. This story resonates with many people in the United States today, and may be one reason why his recent book, “Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth” is so popular among such a wide audience.
Released in July, “Zealot” attempts to dig past centuries of theology and religion to get to the historical life of Jesus of Nazareth, the man who is the focal point of the Christian faith. Because of Aslan’s previous books, which address Muslim and Middle East issues, as well as the scholarly nature of his work, the general Christian audience probably wouldn’t have cared about his book, if they even heard about it. However, that all changed after a fateful interview on Fox News. The interview went viral widely due to the incompetence of the interviewer, skyrocketed the book into notoriety and landed it on top of several best-selling lists.
Many book reviews on “Zealot” have come out, some better than others. But too many of those reviews were written without reading the book. The kneejerk reaction to a Muslim writing a book about Jesus is a reflex that many people unfortunately share, both ignoring Jesus’ prominent place in Islam and dismissing the possibility of a Muslim scholar writing an honest book on a historical subject. However, as I near the end of the book, I have some thoughts to share.
First, Aslan is qualified to write the book, so long as it is taken for what it is: a popular synthesis of the research undertaken by numerous other experts. Aslan holds a bachelor’s degree in religious studies and a master of theology from Harvard Divinity School, and much of his doctoral work focused on religion and religious history. And quite frankly, even if he didn’t have religion degrees from quality schools, people without comparable qualifications have written excellent books on Christianity and its principle subject.
Currently an Associate Professor of Creative Writing at the University of California Riverside, Aslan is a vivid writer who crafts scenes and adds flesh to the historical realities of the time that are exquisite. Many Americans have never conceptualized the realities of living as a conquered people in their own land, but that was Jesus’ experience. Aslan paints this picture well and succeeds in making a potentially boring subject, such as history, engaging.
Now, about the book itself…
To anyone who has spent time studying the various “quests” for the historical Jesus, this book doesn’t offer much new information. As a theology student, most of what Aslan is saying I’ve heard before. He draws from a deep well of scholarly tradition when he crafts this argument about who Jesus is. This is probably why a large portion of the scholarly community let out a collective “meh” when the book was released. Many were already entrenched in their respective sides of the issue. While there are scholars on both sides of the argument, the one thing Aslan’s argument isn’t new.
Aslan’s basic thesis is that the most important things about Jesus’ life can be deciphered from his death. Jesus, he claims, was killed for the crime of sedition—an aspiration to overthrow the state—against Roman Empire. The Romans, Aslan argues, would not have crucified Jesus if he were the gentle, meek figure that is discussed in churches and popular culture today. Instead, Aslan casts Jesus as one in a long line of Jewish revolutionaries with messianic hopes, hopes that had nothing to do with going to heaven or salvation from sin and everything to do with throwing the Romans out of their land and putting Israel’s God in charge by any means necessary. He challenges the notion that Jesus was an apolitical figure, detached from the realities of the world around him. To Aslan, the very fact that he entertained messianic aspirations meant that Jesus—and others—saw himself as the one who will organize the Jews and initiate the kingdom of God in their midst. Aslan argues these points vigorously and quite well. It is up to the reader to make his or her own decision about Jesus of Nazareth after reading this book because Aslan’s is crystal clear.
I had some problems with the book. First, I didn’t like how Aslan utilized Josephus as a primary source. Josephus was a first-century Jewish historian, and one of the earliest people to make a non-biblical reference to Jesus’ crucifixion. While Josephus can be useful in some areas, most scholars are wary to place too much weight on his writings as a valid source by itself. To someone who doesn’t know, they might leave Aslan’s work thinking that Josephus was a top-notch historian totally free from bias. I do think that Aslan knows that and is simply using Josephus to move the narrative along, but the average reader probably won’t pick that up.
Aslan’s book might have been helped by a clear distinction between his own thoughts and those of others. The back of the book does include extensive endnotes, so it isn’t as if he isn’t citing his sources, but the point at which his own claims end and those of other scholars begin often remains vague.
But my major critique of the book is this: the book actually is about Christianity. Aslan has said in numerous interviews that the book isn’t an attack on the faith. From listening to his interviews and his personal story, I don’t believe that he holds malice toward Christianity. However, it doesn’t take him long to call particular aspects of Jesus’ life that are detailed in the Gospels into question. Granted, any foray into discussing the historical Jesus will ultimately lead to asking those very questions. Jesus preached, he was a healer and exorcist, and he died via crucifixion. That is what most scholars, liberal or conservative would agree on; however, that doesn’t make for a very compelling book. But including discussions about Jesus’ view of himself or the virgin birth are certainly provocative enough to hold readers’ attention, particular to a popular crowd that usually isn’t privy to these conversations.
The book is separated into three parts. The first third of the book sets the stage for the tumultuous time into which Jesus was born. The second deals with Jesus and offers suggestions as to how he came to be a person that Rome and the priestly Jews would want to eliminate. It’s toward the end of the second part and going into the third when the book begins to discuss what happens after Jesus died. And if Aslan’s opinion about Jesus’ identity weren’t apparent up to the point, it is blatantly obvious once you reach this point. To him, a review of historical evidence demonstrates that the “Christ of Faith” is the result of the historical Jesus of Nazareth being stripped of everything that made him both revolutionary and Jewish. Instead of promoting the ideals of an illiterate, uneducated peasant revolutionary, Hellenized Christian Jews (such as Paul) detached Jesus from earthy concerns and transformed him into a spirit with universal significance. I think it’s misleading to say that “Zealot” is not about Christianity when over a third of the book is given to the author’s take on the historical events that birthed the religion.
With that said, I think there are many gems in this book, and those gems outweigh any problems. Whether you think Jesus was God or just another Jewish rabble-rouser, you’ll learn something from Aslan’s work. If anything, “Zealot” is a great way to introduce the conversation surrounding the historical Jesus to a new generation of readers, thinkers, and believers. The success of this book proves that Jesus is still a very important figure in our public consciousness. If the historical Jesus is a concept that is new to you, or if you’re looking for a readable entrée to the discussion, give the book a try. It’s a good place to start.