Publisher: Random House
Publication date: 7/16/2013
Discovering Christ at an evangelical camp at 15, Reza Aslan fully accepted his faith and shared the gospel with others. The acclaimed No god but God author writes that his family fled revolutionary Iran for the United States and resentment of the ayatollahs had erased Islam from their lives. Yet a closer reading of the Bible uncovered so many contradictions and errors that Aslan could not reconcile the text with his new beliefs. Angrily turning against his faith, he would later embrace the study of the history of religions “not as an unquestioning believer, but as an inquisitive scholar.”
In his remarkable new book Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth, Aslan writes about the Jesus of history with the same fervor he first summoned to evangelize the Christ.
“Ironically, the more I learned about the life of the historical Jesus, the turbulent world in which he lived and the brutality of the Roman occupation that he defied, the more I was drawn to him. Indeed, the Jewish peasant and revolutionary who challenged the rule of the most powerful empire the world had ever known and lost became so much more real to me than the detached, unearthly being I had been introduced to in church.”
Aslan writes about the two historical facts we have of the Nazarean (spelling departs from the more common Nazarene): (1) Jesus was the revolutionary leader of a Jewish movement in Palestine at the beginning of the first century and (2) Rome crucified Jesus for his role in the uprisings.
Consistent with most scholars that Jesus was born in 4 B.C.E., Aslan gleans most of his bio from the gospels of Mark, Matthew and Luke, the earliest and most reliable sources about the life and ministry of the Nazarean.
An extant history of the era in which Jesus of Nazareth lived is possible, thanks to the Romans. Aslan cites the Jewish historian Josephus, who wrote in Antiquities about Palestine in chaos and the death of James, brother of “Jesus, the one they call messiah.” Second century Roman historians Tacitus and Pliny the Younger wrote about the movement but only mention Jesus’ arrest and execution.
As fascinating as it is edifying, the book places Jesus, a tekton or woodworker from the remote village of Nazareth, squarely within the social, religious and political turmoil of first century Palestine. According to Aslan, the zealous revolutionary who emerges from the history in no way resembles the early Christian community’s ideal of a man of unconditional peace.
Aslan asks, “Why would the gospel writers go to such lengths to temper the revolutionary nature of Jesus’ message and movement?” The dilemma came from embellishing on the divinity of Jesus the Christ for nascent Christians in the Greek and Roman world after the destruction of Jerusalem.
Championed by brother James and the original followers, the message and movement were eventually ignored over the version of events proselytized by the educated, Greek-speaking witness Paul. Aslan points out Paul neither walked, talked nor lived with Jesus of Nazareth.
Numerous messiahs preaching throughout Jesus’ Galilee inspired gangs of peasant bandits or lestai to oust the Romans from the Holy Land. Known for a strict adherence to the Torah and the Law, these Zealots fiercely claimed to be annointed and armed with God’s retribution.
What else would have led Jesus and his disciples on a triumphant procession into Jerusalem to assault the Temple and overturn the tables of the money changers? According to Aslan, there’s no escaping the fact that his actions were zealous.
Jesus’ zealotry is recognized and tested by the Temple priests who plot to implicate him with the question, “Is it lawful to pay the tribute to Caesar or not?” Aslan argues that Jesus’ answer was uncompromising, defiant and clear: “Give back to Caesar what is Caesar’s. And give back to God the land seized by Rome.”
Zealot by Reza Aslan is a highly worthwhile read and absorbing biography revealing a Jesus of Nazareth as “compelling, charismatic and praiseworthy as Jesus the Christ.”
Category: Nonfiction, Biography