Much was made over Reza Aslan’s Fox News interview. Even before the interview I was intrigued by Aslan’s latest book Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth. I read Aslan’s other book No God But God, a history and explanation of Islam. I found his work interesting and easy to follow, and I have a habit of reading familiar authors. Then I watched the ridiculous Fox interview on YouTube, which merely propelled my interest forward and ordered the book for my birthday.
Religious studies professor, Dale Martin, in The New York Times was dismissive of Zealot. Aslan took a pasting in The Nation. Right wing blogs and their packs of commentators are nothing short of disgraceful bogs of hate-filled ignorance written by those who hate Islam and never set eyes on the book’s dust jacket. (Full dislosure; I’ve included Pamela Geller’s blog as an example, but there’s lots of others. The comments that follow are particularly tasty.)
Aslan’s thesis is that Jesus was a historical figure, a poor illiterate peasant from Nazareth that challenged the Jewish and Roman social order through his teachings. He was arrested for disrupting the lucrative trade in the Temple, and was crucified for sedition against Roman law. Aslan also asserts it was Jesus’ intent to bring about God’s kingdom on earth through violent resistance not only to the Roman Empire but to the Temple priesthood that seemed to prey on the the Jews of Palestine.
There isn’t much historical evidence to support or refute much of what Aslan suggests. Instead, Aslan tries to create a meaningful context for understanding the the historical world and historical Palestine Jesus lived in. By removing him from the gospels, written by admirers with important agendas decades after his death, Aslan tries to draw some logical conclusions about Jesus based on what is known about the place, culture and time.
Aslan suggests Jesus likely was not born in Bethlehem, that Herod’s massacre of infant sons, is apocryphal. Described in Matthew’s gospel, it is simply too horrendous not to be mentioned elsewhere. Rather, he suggests Jesus was born in Nazareth, in the rough and tumble region around the Sea of Galilee. According to Aslan, he was extremely poor, the area having little employment for carpenters. Jesus was almost certainly illiterate. Aslan describes a region that was in demographic ferment, with many people seeking their living in the cities: Jerusalem, Sepphorus, and Tiberias. Agrarian poverty spawned a host of rebellious leaders and that Jesus was simply one of many. Aslan describes the important role of the priesthood, and focal point of the Temple in Jerusalem, as well as it’s economic support to the priestly caste and in the collection of Roman taxes. It is his contention the disruption of the money changers, freeing sacrificial animals and disrupting the sacrifices in the Temple led to Jesus’ arrest and ultimately crucifixion for sedition.
Further, he’s illustrated the development of early Christianity from its roots as a branch of the what he terms “the Jewish cult” and its early leadership under Jesus’ poor, illiterate brother James in Jerusalem. From there he traces evangelical advocacy through the Hellenistic writers of the gospels, to the splintering of Christianity by Paul of Tarsus between those who viewed Christ as man, and Christ as living god on earth. The book ends in the 4th century C.E. with the Council of Nicaea deciding in favor of the Pauline interpretation.
One criticism of the book that is perfectly valid is Aslan’s use of the gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, as well as the Q gospel in his work. Aslan is quite critical of these writers, coming as they did decades after Jesus’ death, representing a Hellenistic rather than Jewish perspective, and providing a megaphone for nascent Christianity. Yet the book is filled with quotes from them to support many of the points he makes. This is, at the very least, difficult to understand.
Does it work? Well, it did for me. But, I am not a biblical scholar, a religions scholar, nor do I have a dog in this fight. Aslan produced a very accessible, very well-written narrative that makes logical sense. Further, Aslan, no fool, anticipated at least some blowback and discusses his sources in his lengthy notes at the end of the narrative. He acknowledges in advance there will be those scholars that agree with him and those who will not. There are critics, such as Martin, that suggest Aslan has not constructed anything new, has built on the works of others, and have cherry-picked the facts he’s used to support his conclusion. I am not in a position to confirm or deny this. However, I will say Zealot is highly readable, and easily understandable to a mass audience interested in a glimpse inside the historical factors that may have shaped Jesus’ mission and execution by Rome.
To those that question Aslan’s motives in writing the book, my first suggestion is to read it. At 215 pages of text it is not long, and the words are not that big. It is amazing that so many, including apparently Fox interviewer Lauren Green, have been so critical of Aslan and his book, without apparently knowing what’s inside of it. Aslan does not disparage Jesus, the resurrection or Christianity. Rather he tries to separate the historical Jesus from the Christ, the religious figure. I am mortified that any thinking American would question his motives for writing it. If anything it’s encouraged me to learn more, maybe even read the gospels.
But, to the point, it is outrageous there are those who question the right of a Muslim to write a book about Jesus. Of the top ten selling books on Islam on Amazon, nearly all of them are written by writers with Western names. Lots of Espositos, Armstrongs and Hazeltons. If nobody is questioning a Westerner’s credentials to write about Islam, why the firestorm over Aslan’s. Oh, and lest I forget one of my favorites, weighing in at number 22 What Every American Needs to Know About The Qu’ran: A History of Islam and the United States by William Federer. Federer is writes about the importance of Christian faith in American history and has written this nasty tome, yet nobody has castigated him for his bias or for disparaging another religion. But he has been a guest on several Fox programs. I guess I missed those videos.
To wrap up-it’s worth a read. I give it four stars out of five.