This book has been around for a while and got a lot of attention because the author was a Muslim writing about Jesus. The furor took off when Lauren Green of Fox News hosted Aslan in what has been called the “most embarrassing interview Fox News has ever done” (and that’s saying something). Reza Aslan defended himself citing his four degrees as a scholar of religions having studied Christianity for twenty years.
I didn’t have a lot of interest in reading a book about Jesus then. It seemed ridiculous that the Christian right was so incensed with a religious studies professor writing a book about a subject in his career field. A few years went by and my son suggested that I read this because my view of Jesus the peacemaker was all wrong. He had just finished Aslan’s book.
Zealot is a fascinating read searching for the historical truth of a man called Jesus. It’s an in-depth examination of the political and social times in which he lived. Jesus lived in a time ripe with Messianic hope and the God Jesus knew was bloody. He had a Jewish mission, telling his disciples to avoid gentiles as much as possible. In its time, “Love thy neighbor” was restricted in meaning to include only Jews. The historical Jesus is not the one of the Gospels. He was a zealot but not a member of the Zealot Party which emerges later. And Aslan talks about the Gospels being a theological argument and not a biography of Jesus of Nazareth.
Jesus brings the promise of a new world order challenging Roman authority. Aslan believes he probably gave himself the title, Son of Man. This title tied him to the Book of Daniel and restoration of Israel, but he fell short of calling himself a messiah and its ensuing obvious danger.
The book often discusses Gospel accounts and how they differ from each other, as well as from historical sources. I won’t go through the vast amount of information presented but will say, it makes very interesting reading especially when you start to get a feel for what’s behind the intention of certain parts of the Gospels.
The resurrection is central to Christianity but a difficult topic for a historian to cover. The author admits that something must have happened to push Jesus’s followers to continue the movement. Indeed, the resurrection narrative was part of early Christian teaching predating the virgin birth or passion narratives. Evangelicals wrote those narratives later to flesh out the story.
Jesus as a zealot and crucified Jew left behind a movement headed by his brother James (the Just). James was a follower of the law in Jerusalem. But Aslan makes the case that a crucified Messiah was not possible for the Jews and the new message that emerges under Paul finds ground only with more open-minded Diaspora Jews who are Greek speaking and urban. It’s Paul who triumphs bringing in a Jesus who is the end of the Torah. He takes this message to gentiles and succeeds. It is through Paul that the Jesus of the Gospel becomes the Christ- a divine being, the literal son of God.
The is a well written, easy to read book on a fascinating subject for many of us. It is perfect for the curious and open-minded. It’s one of those books, I’d say will stay with you long after you’ve put it down because of its thought-provoking nature. If you haven’t read it yet, add it to your list!