Review of Reza Aslan's "Zealot"

tags: Christianity, Jesus

Jim Cullen, a Book Review editor at HNN, chairs the History Department at the Fieldston School in New York. He is the author of Sensing the Past: Hollywood Stars and Historical Visions and the forthcoming A Brief History of the Modern Media. He blogs at American History Now.

Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth
by Reza Aslan
Random House, 2013

I'm one of those people who was prompted to read this book after I saw, live, the author's interview on FOX News where his interlocutor insinuated that Aslan, as a Muslim, had ulterior motives in writing about Christianity other than that of a historian. (The anti-intellectual subtext was as strong as the implied invitation to religious bigotry). The exchange, which went viral, launched Zealot onto the New York Times bestseller list, something unlikely to have happened without out it, notwithstanding Aslan's previous well regarded book on Islam, No God but God. So it is that FOX demonstrates its perverse market power.

In terms of the book's argument, Zealot rests on a syllogism that goes something like this:

  1. Jesus of Nazareth was born into a time and place of extraordinary political instability stemming from the seething religious and social tensions in Jewish Palestine.
  2. After the death of Jesus, these tensions, which had periodically erupted into insurrection under Roman rule, finally provoked an overwhelming military response in 70 CE that discredited militant Judaism in the eyes of followers and outsiders alike.
  3. Jesus therefore had to be sanded down for mass consumption, his sharp political edges softened as part of a larger process of transforming him from a Jewish messiah to a universal savior.

As Aslan acknowledges, calling Jesus a Zealot (capital Z) is anachronistic, a little like titling a biography of Abigail Adams Feminist. The Zealots as a discrete political faction only arose after the death of Jesus, and while there were people with that designation in his lifetime (lower-case z), he was not commonly associated with them. Aslan, however, feels that there's enough evidence of militancy in the gospels to suggest his affinity for them.

Perhaps the most concise statement of Aslan's argument comes when he reinterprets Jesus's famous injunction in the Gospel of Matthew to "render unto Caesar what is Caesar's," which is generally regarded as a statement of accommodation to secular rule while keeping one's eye focused on the spiritual realm. Instead, Azlan's preferred translation -- "Give back to Caesar the property that belongs to Caesar, and give back to God the property that belongs to God" -- is actually a demand that the Romans return to the kingdom of Israel to the Jews. For Aslan, the "milquetoast" misreading of scripture "perfectly accommodates the perception of Jesus as a detached, celestial spirit wholly unconcerned with material matters, a curious assertion about a man who not only lived in one of the most politically charged periods in Israel's history, but who claimed to be the promised messiah sent to liberate the Jews from Roman occupation."

Aslan believes the detachment of Jesus from his immediate political context was greatly facilitated by the apostle Paul, who, despite never knowing Jesus personally, managed to wrest control of the movement away from those (notably Jesus's brother, James) who did, and who tried to keep the Judaic dimension of his life central. It was Paul who made Jesus of Nazareth Jesus Christ, Hellenizing him for a broader (and often more educated) audience. Aslan, however, clearly prefers Jesus the man, who he concludes is "every bit as compelling, charismatic and praiseworthy as Jesus the Christ. He is, in short, someone worth believing in."

This of course is not a new argument. (In an American context, I call this the Woody Guthrie school of Christianity -- Jesus as proto-communist.) But every bit as compelling? For a secular imagination, maybe. As Aslan recognizes, the miracles of Jesus are things that must be accommodated historically not because they're factual, but because they were so widely believed -- and so widely believed so early -- that they must be taken into account. For some, a Jesus stripped of spiritual dimensions may be sufficient. I don't really know how to explain to such a person why it isn't for believers in the resurrection except perhaps to suggest that such an argument would be like telling a gay person that sexual feelings are acceptable as long as you don't regard them as important.

But if Aslan isn't going to change many minds, he does provide a wealth of information in a surprisingly compact volume. The writing is limpid and is marked by a complex narrative structure (at one point I got confused about why he was telling us so much about what happened in Israel and Judah after Christ's death, but it does comport with his larger argument). His doctorate is in the sociology of religions, and he teaches creative writing at the University of California at Riverside, facts which suggest he's more of a popularizer than biblical scholar. Still, the book's utility is likely to be greater than its limits. Bless him for his labors.

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