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To Read or Not to Read “Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth”

October 26, 2013

Wow! Talk about a book with a lot of hoopla surrounding it! (Maybe most of that is past, our “news cycle” turning over as fast as it does.  But the book is getting lots of readers, whatever the reason!)

Jesus calls Levi. From book: The Life of Jesus...

Jesus calls Levi. From book: The Life of Jesus of Nazareth. Eighty Pictures. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The more sensational aspects of the hoopla are, unfortunately, mostly aside from the actual content of the book, its impact and such.  In a nutshell, from what I’ve seen, it has centered around Aslan’s credentials and motivations for writing the book.  Oh… also that he is a Muslim, though apparently of the very progressive sort, and perhaps a deeper student of Islam than he is of Christianity and Christian origins… I can’t tell from this “distance”.  He has written a best-selling and much-translated book on Islam.

Still, besides academic study on Christianity, he was a devoted Evangelical Christian for a number of years in his youth.  So he does have “inside” perspective.  (As a former Evangelical myself, I can tell that his absorption of traditional Christianity’s generally pacifist view of Jesus, seeing him as politically uninvolved, probably motivates him to present an alternate picture, one which is actually inspiring to him.)  As to Muslim roots, he says, in the Author’s Note, that he was born into a Muslim family, “… a motley family of lukewarm Muslims and exuberant atheists…” (p. xviii).

As to credentials, I guess the fuss has mainly been over whether or not he has properly represented them, at least in one controversial interview.  His academic studies are broad and include Christian theology (MA from Harvard) as well as religion and sociology (earned PhD).  Either biblical or specifically New Testament scholarship is a highly specialized and technical field, so anyone even vaguely familiar with it knows that Aslan, having done and doing what he does as a professor that is clearly not in that field, is not a true New Testament scholar.  But that in itself does not disqualify him from credibility when he writes about “the life and times” of Jesus.  On the question of whether he has presented responsible and credible historical work in this book my qualified answer is “Yes”.

I’m going to be deliberately brief and seriously incomplete on what all the book covers… quite a lot! It ranges from details of Jesus’ life to the milieu of Jewish apocalyptic fervor and seething rebellion leading to and through the great war with Rome in 66-70 CE, to Alsan’s view of the transition from Jesus’ teachings into a very different Pauline Christianity!  I suppose the “thesis” can be boiled down to a couple sentences or so, and I will give a couple excerpts that may be representative of Aslan’s major point (or “thesis”).  In being brief, I want to emphasize that there is a lot to be learned from the book which is important toward gaining a better understanding of Jesus, the Gospels and the formation of Christianity in its earliest stages in the first century.

In an ideal world, one could wish that the book-reading public would also take the time to read “Jesus books” that are more careful with conclusions that should be labeled as opinions or speculations. Such books should be peppered with “We can’t know” (more than Aslan’s is), and would be by experts that professionally specialize in this area of history, particularly the field of New Testament scholarship.  But such books (and there are plenty!) are seldom particularly readable for a broad audience.  And since we often do “judge a book by its cover”, or author, we tend to read mainly  those we sense will reinforce our existing beliefs.   

So take this review as a recommendation to read the book, for sure!  Its sales have demonstrated it is “striking a chord”, as I’ve implied, beyond that prompted by the media hoopla and some stir within academia — I think mainly in “biblical scholarship” though perhaps more broadly.  For one thing, this is a fascinating, readable book on topics that can easily bog the typical “lay” reader down.  The issues involved are complex and controversial on many levels, largely because there is so much to piece together from relatively little information.  And what information we have, specifically on the earthly Jesus, is almost all in the form of stories (a core narrative laid out first, apparently, by Mark in the Gospel ascribed to him, followed by variations in the other Gospels).  

Though many Christians don’t see it this way, I think it’s abundantly clear that these stories are a complicated mix of actual memory/traditions drawing an historical “frame” for the big picture, and extensive details created to paint out the rest of the picture in somewhat differing ways in each Gospel, reflecting differing situations and somewhat differing theologies as well.  This is the operating understanding of Aslan in Zealot as well, as I read between the lines…. I don’t recall him stating this directly.  He does discuss many specifics of the Jesus story, sometimes explaining why he does or does not accept them as actual events.  His view is that key elements of the story, such as Jesus’ place and circumstances of birth, were not thought to be historical even by their authors although they tend to carry that implication to modern readers.  Naturally, this approach will make his entire book suspicious to most traditional Christians.

In a moment, I will wrap together Aslan’s thesis (best I can find it represented briefly in his own words) with part of his conclusion, which I find quite interesting.  But on the way, let me mention that I judge the educational value of the book as high.  Not only does it draw the reader along (other reviewers concurring with my sense), but it includes a key drawing of the Temple area, a map of Palestine, and a couple helpful timelines for those who are reading carefully and care to remember key characters and dates.  The major stylistic and scholarly drawback I noted, as mentioned by others, besides his tendency to overstate or be unrealistically “certain” at times, is how the endnotes are done.  While I prefer notations be true “footnotes” (at the foot of the page), endnotes are fine.  However, in this book, there are no numbers in the text alerting you to further explanation or documentation.  There are many pages of such notes, but only arranged by chapter, so that connecting to any specific point in the text is very tough.  Still, the notes are well worth reading, as they present further interesting details, and often do document his sources.

Finally, as to the core thesis of Zealot: Near the end of the chapter, “Who Do You Say I Am?”, Aslan has discussed the way Jesus’ followers, after the disastrous, religion-altering war with Rome, had to envision the Kingdom of God as entirely not of this world, their earthly-messiah hopes having been dashed:

But Jesus’s kingdom–the Kingdom of God–was very much of this world.  And while the idea of a poor Galilean peasant claiming kingship for himself may seem laughable, it is no more absurd than the kingly ambitions of Jesus’s fellow messiahs Judas the Galilean, Menahem, Simon son of Giora, Simon son of Kochba, and the rest.  Like them, Jesus’s royal claims were based not on his power or wealth.  Like them, Jesus had no great army with which to overturn the kingdoms of men, no fleet to sweep the Roman seas.  The sole weapon he had with which to build the Kingdom of God was the one used by all the messiahs who came before or after him, the same weapon used by the bandits who eventually push the Roman empire out of the city of God: zeal.   

…Armed with zeal as his weapon, he will [upon entering Jerusalem] directly challenge the Temple authorities and their Roman overseers over who truly rules this holy land….(p. 144)  

In what may be a surprising revelation of at least part of the reason for Aslan’s continuing strong interest in Jesus, and perhaps the main motivation for writing the book, in his conclusion he states what could be echoed by many liberal or progressive Christians:

Two thousand years later, the Christ of Paul’s creation has utterly subsumed the Jesus of history.  The memory of the revolutionary zealot who walked across Galilee gathering an army of disciples with the goal of establishing the Kingdom of God on earth, the magnetic preacher who defied the authority of the Temple priesthood in Jerusalem, the radical Jewish nationalist who challenged the Roman occupation and lost, has been almost completely lost to history. That is a shame.  Because the one thing any comprehensive study of the historical Jesus should hopefully reveal is that Jesus of Nazareth–Jesus the man–is every bit as compelling, charismatic, and praiseworthy as Jesus the Christ.  He is, in short, someone worth believing in. (p. 216)

Have you read the book? What were some of your reactions, if so? 

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