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Book Review: Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth

Aaron S. Bayley

Although Jesus probably existed, reputable biblical scholars do not in general regard the New Testament (and obviously not the Old Testament) as a reliable record of what actually happened in history.

-biologist and atheist Richard Dawkins in The God Delusion

 To claim that a historical figure who has inspired so much love and devotion over centuries is in fact a mythical copy of many preceding saviours is somewhat of a shock, I know.

-former Anglican priest Tom Harpur, in The Pagan Christ

Nobody knows enough of the early life of Jesus to write a biography of him.

-Robert Keable, in The Great Galilean

There is no denying that Jesus of Nazareth is one of the most popular and celebrated figures in history. We need look no farther than our colonial past to see that Christianity in general, and Jesus in particular, is Western civilization's most relentless and ubiquitous export. Jesus has ascended triumphantly from the pages of the New Testament to become a transcendent icon extending across the globe, from Eastern Europe to the Bible Belt, from Latin America to Philippines and the Far East. Gracing T-shirts and bumper stickers, sitting on dashboards, hanging from crucifixes or picture frames wearing either a crown of thorns or a golden halo, Jesus is omnipresent. As a religious personage, he is unparalleled; as a pop culture artifact, he sits in Bobblehead form on toy shelves across America at the right hand of Mighty Mouse and Huckleberry Hound.

But is Jesus an historical figure, as Richard Dawkins concedes he is, or is he a legend plagiarized from Egyptian mythology, as Christian theologian Tom Harpur contends? And, if Jesus existed, do we know enough about him to develop a credible narrative of his life and times?

In his new book, the provocatively-titled Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth, Reza Aslan attempts to distill the historical Jesus from the famous gospels which tell us about Jesus the Christ, not Jesus the man. Aslan, a religious scholar and Muslim, garnered much media attention after his appearance on Fox News, in which model-turned-correspondent Lauren Green asked Aslan why a Muslim would write a book about the founder of Christianity, went viral. On two separate occasions, Aslan responded to Green's insinuation that he had a sinister Muslim agenda for writing the book by touting his academic credentials as "an expert with a PhD in the history of religion." The so-called controversy surrounding Aslan's book (it shot up to number one on the New York Times Best Seller list after the interview) simply reveals how closely guarded Jesus' legacy is in predominantly Christian America.

Aslan is an excellent storyteller, and the prologue--a fast-paced account of the assassination of the high priest Jonathan in the Temple of Jerusalem that was the catalyst for the war with Rome--is a gripping and dramatic tale. Aslan places his narrative in the context of the Roman occupation of Judea, where the Jews, God's chosen people, are forced to suffer the humiliation of making sacrifices to an imperial pagan power in Rome. The hostility felt towards the Roman Empire by observant Jews sets the table for a long line of false prophets, preachers, and messiahs calling themselves "messengers of God" or "King of the Jews" with the goal of restoring Israel back to the Jews long before Jesus arrived on the scene. When Jesus finally does enter the picture, he is portrayed as an illiterate man who seeks to set up his kingdom on Earth during his own time (the coming of the Kingdom of God is his central message), not in some ambiguous celestial sphere in the future. The contrast between the divine Jesus as presented in the Gospels, one of a celestial being detached from the material world, and Aslan's historical Jesus-as-preacher-revolutionary is a running theme throughout the book; in fact, when Jesus enters the Temple of Jerusalem, kicking over tables and admonishing the money changers, Aslan sees this as the act of a zealot-revolutionary.

The problem with Zealot is that it is hard to buy into Aslan's narrative after he himself concedes that writing Jesus' biography is like "putting together a massive puzzle with only a few pieces in hand." And sure enough, after the enchanting prologue Aslan delves into speculation and spends too much time cherry-picking passages that fit his thesis. Still, Aslan's book is written not for Biblical scholars but for the average reader. Aslan freely admits that the book was written to be a page-turner, complete with cliff-hangers and plot twists.

In Craig A. Evans' reasonably objective review of Aslan's book for, he contends that the book reads more like a novel than a work of historical analysis (it does), and that Aslan's theory is outdated (true) and has been discredited (untrue). What is most outrageous is that Evans claims Aslan's book contains a number of "implausibilities" and takes "breathtaking leaps in logic," the irony of which needs no explanation.

Some of the more intriguing parts of the book include Aslan's assertion that the image of Jesus as a peacemaker is a fabrication, and that statements such as "turn the other cheek" and "love your neighbours" were purged of their Jewish context and transformed into abstract ethical principles by authorities of the early Christian church; that there is no evidence of Herod's massacre of sons born in Bethlehem; that Jesus' trial before Pilate was a fabrication, and that fear of Roman reprisal inspired the Gospel writers to exonerate Pilate of any wrongdoing; that the passion narrative was created for liturgical purposes; and that Jesus' brother, James the Just, and Peter Simon were ideologically opposed to Saul of Tarsus, who would later become Paul, the single most important figure of modern Christianity.

As Aslan states, there are only two hard historical facts about Jesus of Nazareth upon which we know for certain: "the first is that Jesus was a Jew who led a popular Jewish movement in Palestine at the beginning of the first century C.E.; the second is that Rome crucified him for doing so." But there are other aspects of the Bible that are almost certainly true: that the Gospel writers had already decided that Jesus was the Christ and constructed a theological argument about his nature and purpose; that Luke's Gospel features verses to compensate for the fact that Jesus did not fulfill any of the expected  requirements of the messiah prophesied in the Old Testament; and that virtually every word written in the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John was written by people who did not know Jesus when he was alive. By the fourth century, Christianity had been transformed from a Jewish movement based upon Hebrew doctrine with sects and schisms into an institutionalized imperial religion of Rome influenced by Hellenic doctrine. Acceptance of Jesus' divinity, virgin birth, miracles, and resurrection forms the main chasm between the historian and the worshipper; the rationalist and the believer; the freethinker and the faithful.

Whether Zealot brings any new revelations about Jesus to the tabernacle, what it definitely is not is an attack on Christianity. In fact, Aslan goes out of his way to paint Jesus as a noble man of flesh and blood and to avoid commenting on some of the more controversial aspects surrounding Jesus. On the subject of the virgin birth, Aslan only goes as far as suggesting it may be an invention of convenience. [In fact, the Bible mistranslates Isaiah's Hebrew for young woman (almah) into the Greek for virgin (parthenos)]. On the resurrection, Aslan cops out by saying its examination is beyond the scope of his book.

In the end, Aslan accomplishes what he sets out to do: distinguish Jesus of Nazareth from the Christology and iconography of modern-day Catholicism. Yet as a man of faith, perhaps he treads too lightly and respectfully in areas where others, such as the late Christopher Hitchens and Richard Dawkins, delighted in commentary bordering on blasphemy. Aslan calls Dawkins a "baffoon" and a "zealot" who "[embarrasses] himself every day" (presumably for Dawkin's recent ill-advised Tweets about Islam). But Aslan comes across as a wannabe celebrity yearning to be accepted by both his academic peers and the Hollywood elite. Whereas Tom Harpur has been criticized for sloppy scholarship for his reliance on two questionable sources (Gerald Massey and Alvin Boyd Kuhn) in his book The Pagan Christ, Aslan piggybacks too heavily on his sources to present information that isn't really all that new. Aslan has often stated that how one understands religion is a product of where they live. For Catholics living in suburbia, Jesus is a "blonde-haired, blue-eyed peacenik who turns the other cheek." For Catholics living in the hills of Guatemala, Jesus is a warrior who takes up arms against oppression. Ironically, Aslan is guilty of the very thing that he observes in others: seeing the Jesus that he wants to see.

Perhaps Robert Keable, then, said it best when he said that nobody knows enough about Jesus' life to write his biography. For all its flaws, Zealot's greatest contribution is that it starts a conversation about Jesus' life on Earth, and why his life took on an entirely new meaning after death.


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