I borrowed this from a co-worker almost two years ago, and it took me three attempts to get through it. I think that is less a product of this book’s merit, and a more a result of the reading interests I’ve had since it was placed in my hands. I always had something else that interested me, so this kept moving further and further down my list.
Zealot is, I think, pretty clearly the most controversial book I’ve read for CBR. Shortly after publication, I remember Aslan making the rounds of the talk show circuit, and being all but assaulted by FOX News for daring to write a biography of Jesus while being a Muslim. What do Muslims know about the Christ, after all? It was a fairly insufferable interview, and I remember thinking he handled himself well. I’ve seen him many times over the last few years responding to Islamophobic counterfactuals, and have found him both erudite and well-reasoned. I found this book to be a prime example of this.
Having read the book, I can understand why he was met with such hostility, however. Nevermind that he is attempting to decipher the historicity of the Messiah and Son of God for the world’s largest religion, but Aslan also attempts to upend some of the core principles of Christian theology. Namely, that Jesus was a man of peace who desired to spread the Coming to the four corners of the earth. It is Aslan’s contention that Jesus was a revolutionary who was very much a product of his time. Jesus was a Jew, and saw himself as the Jewish Messiah. His goal was to assert God’s kingdom on earth, destroy the corrupt and greedy Jewish temple, and expel the Romans from the Holy Land. He didn’t wish to convert the world to his teachings, he was specifically addressing God’s chosen: the Jews.
“These twelve Jesus sent out with the following instructions: ‘Do not go among the Gentiles or enter any town of the Samaritans. Go rather to the lost sheep of Israel.‘” (Matthew 10:5-6)
What’s remarkable about Jesus is that even after his death, his followers continued to spread his word. For it wasn’t uncommon for there to be a self-proclaimed Messiah in first century Palestine. Nor was it rare for a self-proclaimed Messiah to be executed. What Jesus declared of himself was treasonous, and Rome was not exactly lenient towards insurrection.
The parts of the book that call into question the general mythology about the teaching of Jesus have certainly drawn the most attention, but they are less interesting to me. The Bible, especially the New Testament, is akin to a Rorschach test: the reader makes of it what they will, and the interpretation often says more about the reader than it does the book, itself. That Reza Aslan can find ample passages to back up his claims isn’t surprising, convincing though he may be. Where this book really captivates, for me, is when he is contextualizing his argument with an historical framework.
The title of the book stems from the Jewish political movement of the mid-first century that sought (and briefly attained) the expulsion of Rome from the Judaea Province during the First Jewish-Roman War. This conflict explains why the cult of Jesus shifted it’s focus away from being an internal movement of Judaism towards an ever-outward looking burgeoning religious movement; exemplified by the depiction of Pontius Pilate as a benevolent and regretful vehicle for Jewish vengeance against Jesus rather than the historically accurate governor prone to unmitigated brutality and suppression. The people who wrote the early books of the New Testament sought to distance themselves from the Jewish uprising against Rome by showing that the followers of Jesus weren’t a threat to the Empire; that it was the Jews who were to blame for the death of their leader, not the Romans who crucified him.
This book closes by describing how much of the New Testament was compiled of the writings of Paul, who had never actually known Jesus in life, and not only showed no interest in Jesus, the man, but stood in opposition to the direct successor of Jesus (his brother James) and direct followers (such as the apostle Peter). Paul claimed a direct link to Jesus, the God, whereas James represented a continuation of the teachings of Jesus, the man. James (and the Apostles) saw their movement as internal to Judaism, whereas Paul (a Roman citizen from Greece) wanted to spread the Message throughout the known world. After the fall of Jerusalem following the First Jewish-Roman War, James and the other leaders of the early Christian church were expelled or martyred, and Paul’s influence on the nascent religion grew. So the Jesus we know, the Jesus of Christianity, the Jesus of the last 1900 years of theological belief, has diverged widely from the Jesus who lived 2000 years ago.
I’m no expert on the subject, I’m not even a Christian, but Reza Aslan makes a compelling argument, and he does a superb job differentiating between various and conflicting accounts from within the Bible. I’d be interested to read an equally well-researched counter-argument from a Christian scholar.