Zealot by Reza Aslan

Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth Cover

This book generated a buzz after a Fox News interview in which the author, a Muslim, was challenged for writing a book about Jesus.

It is a readable narrative and a compelling picture of Roman-ruled Palestine.  The author draws clear lines of distinction between the illiterate peasant revolutionary, Jesus of Nazareth, on one hand, and the cosmic Christ, largely invented by the Apostle Paul and developed by the Christian Church, on the other.  This sort of project has been pursued many times before. I have to admit that I like the peculiar image of Jesus imagined by Aslan: a peasant revolutionary, zealous for the warrior God of Israel, pursuing the overthrow of the brutal occupation by Rome of Jews and their temple religion in Jerusalem.  Where did this illiterate Jesus of Nazareth get the charisma to pursue such a life?

Reza aslan 2013.jpg

Reza Aslan

Earnestly and “zealously” Aslan paints his historical portrait of Jesus and his world.  He makes a lot of Jesus’ “zeal”. In this he groups Jesus with a certain class of Jewish freedom fighters, focused with intensity on the law of Moses and dedicated to overthrowing the foreign occupiers of Jerusalem and Judea.

In the years following Jesus’ life the church spiritualized the “gospel” of zeal, reimagining the occupied territory  not as Palestine but as the human heart. The occupier was no longer Rome but “sin, death and the devil” (to borrow a phrase from the Reformers), the inhuman and foreign occupiers of human souls

I’m not a biblical scholar but I have read a few specialist criticisms of this book. See for example Yale professor Dale Martin’s review in the New York Times.

Aslan is not a biblical scholar either, as the experts point out. But he is enthusiastic in his imaginative historical reconstruction of Jesus’ life and times. His angle and emphasis on Jesus as a militant zealot was entertaining to me.

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Nevertheless, one must say that Aslan somehow landed hard in the dusty old ditch of historical criticism. From down there the “facts” of Jesus life are pieced together from the few original sources and set up to shame the centuries of church practitioners and interpreters of a living tradition.

In other words the book assumes a pure and original source. This is a fundamental bias of history. (History is one of the two fundamentalisms of our age; the other is science. History and science are sure they will find the source, the incontrovertible fact. But the earth with all its graced and glorious creatures consistently elude the final discoveries of historians and scientists–not that they should ever stop searching).

To his credit, Aslan points out that our kind of historical writing would have been incomprehensible to ancient writers. They told accounts of events laced with myth and tradition and hope for their own interests. The bias of this book runs against the evolution of thought and of interpretation–not to mention the evolution of art, politics, revolutions of other ages, etc., etc. proponents of which have taken up the figure of Jesus as it has evolved into the image of Christ–in favor of a narrow and tendentious historical reconstruction of a moment in time.

This is like assuming that only the acorn is real and true. The oak tree in all its stages of life is a corruption of the pure and perfect seed. Jesus–if indeed he was the seed–was a product of his lineage and of his culture. Aslan knows this part well. But then Jesus and his life is taken up by others. His living gospel of the kingdom of God had a certain urgency and meaning in his own day.  The same message was filled with new meaning by later generations and cultures. Both Jesus and the words about Jesus were shaped by spirits and forces that still blow this way and that way through our lives.

Every moment of history has opened from another. Every figure of history is the product of those who have gone before him or her; every culture is built upon others and crumbles into others. There is no origin unless one calls that origin God. As hard as scientists and historians search to find the answer, the bedrock, the beginning, they fail. The Book of Genesis and the Gospel of John still just sing to us about that search which human beings cannot resist: in the beginning was the word and the spirit.

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