ZEALOT by Reza Aslan

Reza Aslan’s book Zealot was already selling very well before he went on Fox News and went talking head to talking head with their “religion correspondent” who clearly hadn’t read the book, and had one question that she repeated with only minor iterations for about ten minutes: who gave you, a Muslim, the authority to write a book on Jesus?

Aslan’s responses to her singular question all hit their mark: he’s a scholar with multiple degrees, one needn’t be a practicing anything to write about anything else (e.g., men write about women, and Christians write about everyone else), he’s always been interested in the politics of the time, and more.

I finally got around to reading the book on my own. Aslan is currently a professor of writing, and the book is a well constructed page turner, with end notes for each chapter. He makes the less scholarly but more readable choice of not numbering his notes, but rather bunching them up at the end. The book is divided into three parts. The first is about Jesus as one of many claimants to the messiah mantle. The second is how that would have been treasonous in and of itself:

If one knew nothing else about Jesus of Nazareth save that he was crucified by Rome, one would know practically all that was needed to uncover who he was, what he was, and why he ended up nailed to a cross. His offense, in the eyes of Rome, is self-evident. It was etched upon a plaque and placed above his head for all to see: Jesus of Nazareth: King of the Jews. His crime was daring to assume kingly ambitions. (155-156)

These first two sections are the strongest, though Aslan is perhaps too ready to discard Jesus’ potential teachings of peace. After reading many reviews by many authors, there is a consensus among Biblical scholars that in the third section, Aslan oversimplified the post-crucifixion landscape into a polarized duality of Paul’s evolving religion vs. James and the Jews. While it makes for an alluring narrative, most scholars agree that it was far more complicated than that.

This book is an accessible, enjoyable foray into Biblical history. It excels when it shows, in accumulating layers, what parts of the stories we know so well are more or less likely to be true, and why. For example, the sign over his head, when I questioned myself why I believed it to be a joke and not a serious allegation of the authorities, it was due to, please forgive me, that movie they showed every year at Easter time in the 70’s when I was growing up. For any faults this book might have, what it does best is shine a light on my beliefs making me question many of the things I’d taken to be true. It’s a good starting point if you want to know more, but shouldn’t be taken, pardon the pun, as gospel.

Comments are closed.