Reza Aslan’s newest book, Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth was already on its way to best-seller status, even before he got the biggest boost an author can hope for: controversy. A particularly idiotic Fox News interview went viral, and the narrative, for some, became ‘some Moslem dude wrote a book about Jesus.’ In fact, Aslan is a fine popular historian. He writes well, and he’s an adept synthesizer of the main threads of contemporary Bible scholarship. And he’s an honest scholar, citing in his end notes those experts in the field who disagree with him, as well as those who agree. I don’t think he’s a particularly controversial figure in the world of Bible scholarship; more like he’s an especially eloquent participant in that scholarly conversation.
Not that I’d know. I’m not a Bible scholar, not at all. I’m at best a layman who enjoys reading books of popular scholarship in this field. I read Aslan’s previous book, No God But God, on Islam, and enjoyed it a great deal. I’m a big Bart Ehrman/Karen Armstrong/Raymond Brown kind of guy; in fact, I would strongly recommend that anyone reading Aslan’s book first consult Father Brown’s outstanding An Introduction to the New Testament. Read that first, then by all means tackle Aslan.
Aslan’s main argument–and his book is very much an argument, more than it’s a biography–is that Jesus of Nazareth was primarily a political figure, a zealous Jewish messianic and apocalyptic preacher. The idea that Jesus was the Son of God, or that that we was the pre-existent Logos of John, or that he was the literal Incarnation of God, all those mainstream Christian beliefs, were ex post facto inventions by Hellenist Jewish converts, starting with Stephen and Paul. Jesus preached revolution, a revolution against the status quo, which meant revolution against the Roman occupation, and against the Jewish priestly caste that grew wealthy through collaboration with Roman authority. For that crime, for the crime of preaching what Romans would have seen as sedition, he was crucified. As Aslan puts it:
In the end, there are only two hard historical facts about Jesus of Nazareth upon which we can confidently rely: the first is that Jesus was a Jew who led a popular Jewish movement in Palestine at the beginning of the first century C.E. and the second is that that Rome crucified him for doing so. . . . These two facts can help paint a picture of Jesus of Nazareth that may be more historically accurate than the one painted by the Gospels. Indeed, the Jesus that emerges from that historical exercise–a zealous revolutionary caught up, as all Jews of the era were, in the religious and political turmoil of first-century Palestine–bears little resemblance to the gentle shepherd cultivated by the early Christian community.
Aslan then goes on at great length to immerse us in that world, the violent, dangerous, deadly world of first-century Palestine. That’s Aslan at his best, the vivid descriptor of cycles of murder and repression and enslavement that engulfed Galilee and Judea. And in that world, Jesus was not unique. Aslan tells us of many others like him, violent revolutionaries, miracle workers and magic-wielding con men, messianic pretenders by the dozen. I found myself fascinated by those descriptions. I loved reading about Nazareth, the small, completely insignificant Galilean town where Jesus grew up. If Jesus was, in fact, a tekton, a woodworker or builder, then he would have belonged to a caste just barely above that of subsistence farmer. The Romans used ‘tekton‘ as slang for an illiterate peasant. But Sapphoris, the closest big city to Nazareth, had been destroyed by the Romans, and given to Herod Antipas, who rebuilt it. Jesus and his father and brothers could have found employment there. And Sapphoris was a Jewish city, albeit a Greek-speaking one. It’s possible Jesus may have learned some rudimentary Greek there, in addition to his Aramaic, the language of the poor. It could have even have been a place where, mingling with other Jewish laborers, he might have, for example, heard of John the Baptist.
When describing the world of ancient Palestine, the violence, the politics, the religious fervor, the Temple rituals and their meaning, the Jewish priestly caste, and the on-going, ever-present conflicts with the Roman occupying forces, and finally the tragic destruction of Jerusalem in 70 CE, Aslan is at his best. But Aslan isn’t just interested in depicting an historical past. He also makes arguments about it, arguments with which, as a Christian, I, at times, take issue.
I’ll grant that Palestine was a brutal place, in a violent time in history. I’ll grant that Palestine was full of messianic pretenders, and popular revolutionary uprisings were rampant, and that Jesus of Nazareth needs to be seen in that context. I’ll happily grant the unreliability of the Gospels as historical sources. But look at the long paragraph cited above. It may be true that “the Jesus that emerges from that historical exercise–a zealous revolutionary caught up . . . in the religious and political turmoil of first-century Palestine–bears little resemblance to the gentle shepherd cultivated by the early Christian community.” But by saying that, Aslan downplays this central fact: there did exist a gentle early Christian community.
Aslan does admit that Jesus of Nazareth, while he may have resembled other messianic figures of his time and place, is different from the others in this crucial regard–Jesus’ movement survived. And it survived for a reason that Aslan admits he finds perplexing–Jesus’ followers claimed that he was resurrected from the dead.
Now if Christ be preached that he rose from the dead, how say some among you that there is no resurrection of the dead? But if there be no resurrection of the dead, then is Christ not risen. And if Christ be not risen, then is our preaching vain, and your faith is also vain. 1 Corinthians 15: 12-14.
Christianity exists because of Jesus’ resurrection, witnessed first by two women at the tomb, then by various disciples, then by gatherings of hundreds of followers. Our faith, as Christians, depends on it. More to the point, though, historically, this one movement succeeded where so many others failed, because of it.
As an historian, Aslan doesn’t deny the resurrection–he says it’s a matter of faith, outside the historian’s purview. Fair enough. But he deals even-handedly and well with the historical fact of the resurrection–that is to say, with the historical fact that resurrection was claimed to have happened, and that those who made that claim preached it and were believed. And he points out something that may otherwise have escaped our attention–that resurrection really was something new and different; a notion that would not have fit well into the world-views of Jews or Romans.
My biases are, I think, obvious to anyone who knows me. I am a believing, practicing Mormon, and as such, a believing, practicing Christian. And I’m a former college professor, and a historian of sorts, though my discipline is Theatre History. My reaction to Zealot is that I found it very interesting, enjoyed it, disagreed with parts of it, and did not in any sense find it challenging to my own faith. My good friend James Goldberg knows way more about this stuff than I do, and had a similar (though far more eloquent) reaction.
I believe that the answer to any intellectual dilemma challenging to faith is never to read less–it’s always to read more. By all means, read Zealot. While you’re at it, read James Goldberg’s The Five Books of Jesus. Read Father Brown. Read Jesus the Christ. Oh, and may I recommend to you four other books, short ones, but really good, probably not written by the people they’re named after but pretty darn authoritative nonetheless: Matthew, Mark, Luke and John.
The message of Jesus of Nazareth did, quite likely, have a political component. I don’t think, as Aslan does, for example, that the parable of the Good Samaritan had entirely a political message and impact, but I’ll certainly grant that it had some political resonance in its day. But I believe that Jesus’ message also spoke to the deepest spiritual longings of a people buffeted by politics. And it’s that spiritual message that continues to resonate today.
I love and revere my Savior. I’m also fascinated by the history of Jesus of Nazareth. The two perspectives are not incompatible. I learned a lot from reading Zealot. Enjoyed the book very much, even when disagreeing with its conclusions. (I believe, for example, that the disagreement between Paul and his followers and James and Peter and the Jerusalem Church, was far more collegial than Aslan portrays it). I don’t regard its conclusions as definitive, though, and think of it as contributing to an on-going conversation, not as any kind of final word.
Meanwhile, if you’re a Christian and want to read something challenging, then go ahead. Read. By all means, absolutely read. Anything, anywhere: read. Also pray. Then read and pray some more. And while you’re at it, maybe find someone struggling, the least of His brothers, and ask if you can serve. We Christians really can do both–read anything, but don’t ever, ever, in any sense ever neglect the poor.