Zealot:The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth by Reza Aslan
Sydney: Allen & Unwin, 2013
Reviewed by Bill Cooke
Well, it depends a lot on who wrote it. If it’s another book about Jesus as the founder of Christianity, the paradigm-shifting Incarnation of God who was resurrected after a death endured in the service of us all, then, no, there really isn’t much more that can be said.
That story just doesn’t wash any more. But if the book brings together three decades of Jesus scholarship that has become known as the Third Quest for the Historical Jesus, then new things — important new things — can be said. And this is what Reza Aslan has done with his book Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth.
Even before reading the first word of the book, something interesting has happened. The overwhelming majority of Jesus books have been written by Christian theologians of some stripe or other. This book is different. Aslan was born in Iran to a family of, as he calls them, ‘lukewarm Muslims and exuberant atheists’ (p xviil). Having fled the ayatollahs and now living in America, Aslan converted to high-octane evangelical Christianity as a teenager. But his zeal for Christ withered and died in the bright glare of Jesus scholarship, into which he immersed himself. He has since returned to Islam. But Zealot deserves to be read as a work of scholarship, twenty years of scholarship in this case. The author’s own faith is just part of the back-story. In a way that is remarkable, Aslan, a Muslim, has returned Jesus — Rabbi Yeshua — to his Jewish context that is authentic and real.
The Third Quest for the Historical Jesus provides the backdrop for Aslan’s work. This is the most radical of the three quests. It was the first major drive to understand Jesus that was not dominated by Christian theologians, anxious to keep the core Christian message alive. The Third Quest is the first to ask openly, who actually was Jesus? And to answer this question fully, the Gospels have to be recognized not so much as historical documents but as post-facto theological treatises. The Jesus that emerges from work of this type comes as a surprise to many. Jesus was a Jew, one who had no intention of creating a new religion, let alone a new religion which would be permeated with a deeply-ingrained anti-Semitism.
What Aslan does is put together this new understanding into a coherent whole. He begins by
setting out a picture of Jewish Palestine in the first century of the common era and what that would mean for someone like Jesus. He also clears up a couple of dead-ends some Third Quest scholarship has gone down.
For instance, contrary to the Jesus Seminar, Aslan insists that preaching the imminent End Times was central to Jesus’ message. In a way no other book has done, we get an intensely Jewish take on the time and on the issues Jesus would have been motivated by. Having laid this important foundation, Aslan then goes through the life and death of this awkward Galilean provincial. Then, on the basis of the Jewish world Aslan has immersed the reader in so deeply, the story of how Jesus’ exclusivist, nationalist message was transformed and up-ended within a couple of generations is rolled out. And the deeply foreign nature of what Paul was saying becomes starkly clear.
Predictably, reactions to Zealot have been mixed.
Christianity Today ran a hostile review from a theologian called Craig Evans, who works out of some seminary in Nova Scotia. Evans tried to belittle Aslan’s scholarship, sniffily declaring the Zealot’s core thesis has been discredited and is not taken seriously by scholars. Evans
seems to have missed the Third Quest for the Historical Jesus, which has been underway now for three or more decades, involving mainstream scholars like Geza Vermes and E P Sanders. And of course, the Jesus Seminar.
Aslan’s book is really a summary of all this Third Quest scholarship. What Evans really meant is not that Aslan’s scholarship has been discredited; more that Aslan’s scholarship is discomforting to him. Anticipating that sort of criticism, Aslan has taken care to include several pages of notes and references for each chapter.
More frenetic, though similarly motivated, has been the response from American evangelicals, who have been exercised more by Aslan’s Muslim faith than by what he’s said. The Fox News interview with Aslan returned time and again to Aslan being Muslim. The interviewer was incensed that a Muslim could write about Christianity, suggesting that to do so implied lack of respect. The irony of this line of attack, given that Fox News is forever disrespectfully sneering at liberals, Obama, Democrats and others, was lost on the interviewer.
Much more congenial to Fox News viewers and to evangelicals generally, would be Killing Jesus: A History, by Bill O’Reilly and Martin Dugard. And yes, that is Bill O’Reilly, the American television personality.
O’Reilly’s Jesus is a kick-ass country boy who really dislikes liberals (played here by the Sadducees), intellectuals (Pharisees), and taxes (Romans, aka big government). As one English reviewer called it, this is the Tea Party’s Son of God. The book is testimony to the American Religious Right’s inability to learn lessons from history; in this case that lives of Jesus only really end up reflecting the tastes and opinions of the authors.
Unlike O’Reilly and Dugard, Aslan takes history seriously and has made a genuine attempt to fashion his account in the light of the facts as we have them. So, as with most things, your reaction to Zealot is going to depend on the views about Jesus you come to the book with. If your view of Jesus is orthodox and faith-based, you’d probably be better off with O’ Reilly and Dugard.
But if your view on Jesus can be modified in the light of scholarship, then Aslan’s is the book for you. It helps a great deal that Zealot is very clearly written.