Thursday, May 7, 2015

‘Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth’ (Book Review)

The amount of scholarly research on Jesus Christ is mindboggling. So I can easily appreciate an author’s efforts to synthesize a lot of information into something suitable for mass consumption. In other words, an easy read. And who better to write such a book than Reza Aslan, a Professor of Creative Writing at the University of California, Riverside with degrees in Religion? Aslan knows how to weave layers of complexity together yet never lose track of his aim to tell an engaging (if rather irreverent) story, as No god but God: The Origins, Evolution, and Future of Islam, his work on Muhammad and Islam, attests. His latest book, Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth (Random House, 2013), continues in the same vein, reimagining the one Christians call “Lord” as not merely as illiterate peasant and spiritual teacher, but as a political revolutionary.

Now a number of authors have sought to associate the “historical Jesus” with the Pharisees; others with the Essenes. So it’s really no surprise that someone is now suggesting the Zealots. After all, as Aslan spends much of his book pointing out, many messianic claimants of the 1st century were calling for a violent overthrow of the oppressive Roman government and the punishment of crucifixion was greatly associated with the crime of sedition. With these two key arguments, along with some supporting evidence from the Gospels, it probably wouldn’t be too difficult to convince a reader that Jesus of Nazareth, filled with zeal for God like the ancient Israelite leaders, founded a movement that sought to wipe the Promised Land clean of a pagan foreign power with the same fervor that he wiped clean God’s Temple of the moneychangers. It makes for an interesting and plausible story. However, there is far more that Aslan is leaving out of his neat little narrative.

While the story told in Zealot is built on ancient histories, biblical passages, and modern scholarship, readers may notice that Aslan engages in some blatant proof-texting in order to make his point. He accepts what he wants to accept at face value, and dismisses or outright ignores anything that might suggest a contrary view. The Gospels are accurate and trustworthy only when it suits him. That is, we can believe in a whip-wielding messiah and his sword-wielding disciples because that is consistent with zealotry, but not in a message of turning the other cheek or preaching to all nations.

Aslan’s not any kinder when it comes to modern scholars. Much of what he says is commonly accepted as the “mainstream view” of the life of Christ. Yet Aslan often gives a sense of finality to his claims that scholars as a rule try to avoid, and opposing views, when he cares to mention them, are not always thoroughly cited. For example, John Dominic Crossan’s Jesus: A Revolutionary Biography is enlisted as an ally when Aslan wants to argue against the commonly-held eschatological view of the “Kingdom of God.” However, when discussing the purpose of John’s baptism, Crossan’s reasons – given in the exact same book - for questioning the reliability of Josephus, the Jewish historian who defected to the Romans, are never mentioned. It seems that Aslan is willfully misleading his readers, working overtime to create the impression that his views make up the consensus and face very little opposition.

Now I don’t want to discourage you from taking a look at the book. While I would caution against putting too much stock in Aslan’s claims, I think that reading Zealot does have its value. Aslan brings 1st century Judea with all its political and religious conflicts to life, summarizing hundreds of years of scholarly research and archeological discoveries in a few hundred pages. For a Christian, this can help clarify the Gospels’ context. While many people might intend to read up on these subjects, too often scholarly books and articles, like those listed in Aslan’s bibliography, can appear rather intimidating or just too time consuming at first glance. Something more readable like Zealot could make a good starting point for learning more about the “historical Jesus” and the time period in which he lived.