I’ve just finished reading the book “Zealot: The Life And Times of Jesus of Nazareth” by Reza Aslan. Its a book that’s attracted a lot of controversy for several reasons. For starters, it seems many are suspicious of the book right off the bat for the simple reason that the author, Reza Aslan, is himself a Muslim. He was an Evangelical Christian in his youth, but his more in depth study for the historical evidence of the claims of the gospels challenged his evangelical faith, causing it to unravel and eventually he converted back to the religion of his forefathers, Islam. When people hear that the author is a Muslim, they often assume bias. But the book isn’t a “Muslim opinion” about Jesus. Actually he challenges several long held Muslim beliefs about Jesus as well. Its a scholarly investigation. Reza is a Professor of Religion, a PhD in fact, with several degrees, including one in the New Testament and is fluent in biblical Greek. He’s certainly qualified to write an investigative account on the topic.
I think this book can be read and enjoyed by Christian and non-Christian alike.I personally found the book to be both fascinating and as good attempt as any to try and separate the Jesus of history from the Jesus of faith, while still respecting the Jesus of faith. Reza’s conclusions are well researched and backed up with 100 pages of reference notes. He freely admits that many scholars will disagree with some of his conclusions, but many also agree. that’s the nature of scholarship into a person that lived thousands of years ago and that only snippets of correlating evidence exists for the details of their life. Making inference of many details necessary.
I found that he did a wonderful job in building a picture of what the social, cultural and political environment of the time and place was like when Jesus of Nazareth walked the earth. An image that is needed to try and understand Jesus’ teaching and actions within their proper context. He uses a variety of source material, from the gospels, Roman records (fortunately the Romans were meticulous record keepers) and various Jewish sources. While I personally found a few of the conclusions that he drew about Jesus to be a bit of a stretch, the over all image painted of Jesus as a truly radical, passionate zealot with a strong distrust of the religious establishment, the wealthy, and unyielding defence of the poor, the infirm and the disadvantaged was clear and compelling. While he didn’t want to delve too much into the claims of Jesus’ miracles, after all that falls more into the realm of faith, he does point out that people at the time clearly believed he could do things like cast out demons and heal the sick. But that wasn’t something unique to Jesus. It was a time and culture steeped in magic and superstition after all, at that time there were many that were walking around first century Palestine as prophets and miracle workers, indeed it was an actual occupation. What may have been somewhat unique to Jesus however was that it appears that he did it for free. Also shocking to the people of the time and radically different than all the other healers, is that he seemed to do it by his own authority. Not by calling on the authority of another…while Reza does go into a fair bit of depth with the crucifixion, something that he believes is very clearly historical (though some of the stories around it, like Jesus’ trial, were fanciful). The crucifixion in of itself tells us a fair bit about Jesus as being a serious trouble maker, although crucifixion was a common form of execution at the time, both by Rome as well as others. The Jews were also known to employ it, as were the Assyrians, Persians etc.. the Romans however reserved it exclusively for those that have committed crimes against the State. For crimes like treason and insurrection etc. They could have cared less about Jesus the preacher, but Jesus was obviously seen as a potential threat to the very stability of Roman rule over the area. The book doesn’t get much into the historicity of the Resurrection as that does fall more into the area of faith, rather than what can be deemed true history. Reza does not believe the Resurrection is historical, but does point out that a “problem” for historians is that the earliest Christians, Jesus’ apostles and disciples, clearly believed it to be true. Many as a matter of fact were imprisoned, tortured and were even executed refusing to to recant their claim that it happened. People dieing for their faith isn’t at all unusual by any means, but having a group of people willing to die for something that they say they personally witnessed happen, is. I don’t want to turn this into too much of a blow by blow account of what Reza concludes about Jesus. But I recommend reading it. I think whether you’re a Christian or not, you’ll really appreciate this book.
For me, one of the most interesting sections of the book, a section that could be turned into a book itself (and I would love to see that), is in dealing with the time in the first few decades after Jesus died, and Christianity was spreading throughout the region. Serious divisions were occurring between how it was being taught by those that actual knew Jesus while he was still alive, headed by Jesus’ brother James, the “Bishop of Bishops” and by multiple historical accounts recognized as the leader of the entire Christian community at that time, based out of Jerusalem. And that led by Paul, who had converted after Jesus had died and had never actually met him, though claimed to have had mystical experiences of the Risen Christ. James obviously vehemently disagreed with much of what Paul was teaching about Jesus and tried to censor him several times. Paul claiming of course not to need James approval for his teaching, going so far in his letters to tell the assemblies he founded to ignore James and the apostles (those that actually knew Jesus in life) and even goes so far as to instruct them to listen to no one but himself. Not even if an angel from Heaven was to appear to them and tell them differently should they listen (Galatians 1:8). Even accusing those in Jerusalem (Jesus’ brother James and the Apostles) of “disguising themselves as apostles of Christ” and acting as servants of Satan (Corinthians 11:13-15). Arrogant and manipulative to say the least.
James along with those in Jerusalem and Paul’s disagreements seem to be many. Paul had an entirely mystical, other worldly view of Christ. The Logos. The term “Jesus Christ” was coined by Paul. James seemed at odds with this. Also Paul promoted the concept of being “saved by faith” while James disagreed and promoted the idea of saved by works. How you LIVED is what mattered more than what you BELIEVED. James himself in fact seemed to be the very embodiment of this ideal. Known as “James the Just” and was by all available historical accounts held in very high esteem by not only the Christians, but the Jews of Jerusalem as well. A tireless champion of the poor, like his brother. The one he called messiah. Indeed James’ execution may have been the spark that caused the Jewish revolt in 70 ce that resulted in the Romans retaliating and leveling Jerusalem and it temple to ashes, slaughtering all inside, Christian and Jew alike. Along with it the remnants of the belief and practice of the original Christians.
What we are left with today is a Christianity heavily influenced by the writings and teachings of Paul. A person that James and the apostles had significant disagreements with. Some early Jewish historians referring to Paul as “the enemy.”
Jesus, who called himself cryptically not the “Son of God” , but repeatedly the “Son of Man.” The champion of the poor, condemner of the rich, enemy of the repressive political establishment, the messiah. Remains a bit of an enigma historically speaking. His followers didn’t just revere him, unlike the other messiahs before him that were ultimately executed, and there were many. His followers went on to still proclaim him messiah after his death. Many went to there own deaths proclaiming him such, and launched what would become in fairly short order, the world’s largest religion.
Zealot. Read it.