For one of my summer classes, I was required to read Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth by Reza Aslan. Initially, I was quite excited to read it, because it provides a historical look into the time when Jesus was alive. As a Christian, I do not know much about that time. So, because of my lack of understanding of that history, I devoured the book.
Until my brother researched the author, and stopped me dead in my tracks.
Reza Aslan does not have a theology degree, nor a history degree. In fact, he has a PhD in sociology, and is a professor of creative writing at Santa Barbara College. Aslan was born in Iran to a Muslim family, and is currently still a Muslim. However, as stated in the ‘Author’s Note’, he converted to Christianity in his teens. He calls his conversion to Christianity ‘a conversion of emotion’, but when he converted back to Islam, that was ‘a conversion of intellect’. Aslan has one other book, Not god but God: The Origins, Evolution, and Future of Islam. After hearing all of that, I become quite hesitant to read the book.
Because of the Jewish and Roman tensions at the time, messiah was understood as someone who was an anointed descendent from David (p.19). This is often coupled with zealot: “strict adherence to the Torah and the Law, a refusal to serve any foreign master-to serve any human master at all- and an uncompromising devotion to the sovereignty of God” (p. 40). Aslan’s thesis for this book is painting Jesus in this role –zealous messiah– based on the historical evidence, and understanding who he was as a physical man in the Jewish and Roman time.
Aslan makes quite a lot of bold statements, many of which strip Jesus of his unearthliness. He claims, that because there is no historical record of Joseph, it is very possible Jesus was simply born out of wedlock (p. 36-37). Also, because Nazareth was such a poor, small village, it was completely impossible for Jesus to have an education. According to Aslan, this makes the conversations young Jesus had with the Pharisees completely improbable (p. 35).
He goes even further to claim:
- Jesus was arrested and crucified for destroying the business of the Temple and for being a zealot (p. 79)
- John the Baptist was Jesus’ leader who came from a group of Jews who lived in the wilderness and who used a water ritual (akin to baptism) for initiation (p. 84)
- Jesus’ miracles and exorcisms weren’t unusual for the time; many people practiced magic and exorcisms (p. 108) Aslan even writes, “In other words, a representative of God-such as Moses, Elijah, or Elisha-performs miracles, whereas a “false prophet”- such as Pharaoh’s wise men or the priests of Baal-performs magic” (p.108).
- There is little to no historical evidence supporting the Passover tradition in Mark that has the Roman governor releasing one prisoner (p. 149)
- There is no evidence to support the idea that Pilate and Jesus would have had a conversation while Jesus was on trial (p. 152)
- Based on Biblical evidence, Paul’s ‘dramatic’ conversion never happened and was created by Luke for effect (p. 184)
- Paul directly contradicts Jesus, and believes the Jesus Paul describes is different from the one who lived (p. 187-190)
- James and Paul did not get along, or agree, and even goes so far as to say that James thought Paul was wrong, and vice versa (p. 191)
Because Aslan is looking at Jesus through a Muslim lens, I am very hesitant to accept any of his opinions. Also, though he claims to have done two decades worth of research, there are no footnotes anywhere in the book to direct me to a source. There is a bibliography section in the book, but there is no indication of which source is used in which chapter, or for which claim. Biblical verses are textually cited, and a very brief essay, but that’s it. Aslan also relies in a source, known as the Q material, which is specifically focused on Matthew and Luke. However, at the end of the book, Aslan confesses this material is ‘after all, a hypothetical text’ (p. 214).
Now. Because I have no understanding of Biblical history, I appreciate this book for opening my eyes to what the people back then had to experience, and lived through. However, I’m taking the religious claims with a grain of salt. If Aslan is a Muslim, then this book makes sense in the way the Christian faith is badly represented. (Please understand, that is not meant to be prejudiced against another religion. I am simply making a point that it is difficult to write a book about one religion when the writer views that faith through another.)
One final thing: I enjoy this book in the same sense that I enjoy The da Vince Code by Dan Brown. I love his books, especially the way an idea can be presented in such a logical way that one can’t help but believe it. Brown’s books have made me contemplate my faith, and what I believe. Zealot has done the same thing, and for that I am thankful. I think it’s very important for people, especially religious people, to have their beliefs and ideas questioned. I think, when being challenged, we are forced to uncover exactly what we believe, and that’s a good thing.
As a Christian, I believe my God and my Jesus can hold up to any scrutiny. Besides, we are all just little minds trying to understand the grandeur of God. I recommend this book to anyone -Christian or otherwise- who wants to think and be challenged. I pray that God works through this book, causing hearts to question, and ultimately find Him.
‘”But what about you?” he asked. “Who do you say I am?” Peter answered, “God’s Messiah”‘. (Luke 9:20)
I agree, Peter. Jesus is God’s Messiah, with a capital ‘M’. He’s bigger than any historical sources or tales. He simply is, and was, more than a man. He was-is- God’s son, the risen Xristos.
Ciao for now,