Book Review – Zealot

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

Random House, 2013
Thanks to Helen for gifting me with her copy of this book!  
Zealot is a book based on the idea that we can best understand Jesus not by looking at what the primary historical documents about him (the Gospels) say, but rather by assuming the Gospels and most all of The Bible to be patently inaccurately – fabricated by well-intentioned or not-so-well-intentioned folks and therefore of practically no historical value.  Aslan is by no means the first historian or author or even theologian to utilize this approach, but he is the latest and, in an age when anything that purports to dismantle Christianity and the Bible gains a fair amount of fame, Aslan has certainly enjoyed a great deal of attention.
He bases his approach to Jesus on an understanding of the historical era in which Jesus lived, and on his rather narrow description of Jewish zealots of the first century – people passionately committed not only to the Word of God but also freedom for Israel (or at least Judah) from Roman control.  Aslan asserts that since there were more than a few people who attempted to rally popular support against Rome in this timeframe, and they were executed for sedition, then this must have been Jesus’ frame of reference as well, in which case Pilate’s execution of him for sedition must have been fully warranted.  Aslan turns Jesus from a religious figure into a political one.  
By rejecting Biblical authority or even helpfulness on Jesus, Aslan must construct his Jesus almost wholecloth, with nothing more than scant historical references to other zealots to guide him in his construction.  Aslan provides some very good references to other figures of the time who considered themselves – or were considered by others – to be the Messiah.  All of these others have been relegated to the ashes of history by everyone but historians.  Their messages and intents failed with their arrests and executions.  
Aslan misses the single biggest issue that separates Jesus – whether as a political or religious figure – from any other person of his day, or indeed any other person in history, and that is the resurrection.  Christianity is centered on the reality that Jesus was killed and buried, but did not stay dead and buried.  Aslan admits that he has no way of  making sense of this allegation, or of the fervent insistence which his followers held to this allegation even when their own lives were at stake.  The single-most important aspect of the life of Jesus of Nazareth is the resurrection, and while Aslan is honest in saying he can’t account for it, he essentially ignores it, politely treating it as an ahistorical matter.  In other words, history is not (or should not be, or cannot be) concerned with the accounts of the resurrection.  To my mind, a refusal to engage with this event historically leads one to suspect that the historical evidence for the event must not match up very well with the author’s preferred beliefs about it.  Aslan describes himself as a former Christian, and perhaps dealing with the resurrection historically would be too contradictory to his position on the subject.
In any event, the book must be read as an interesting exercise in fiction.  Aslan is a good writer, and the book is by and large interesting, mixing creative historical dramatization to bring historic events to life more vividly.  But it must remain fiction, a curious hypothesis that chooses to assert itself by ignoring the oldest historical documents about it’s subject.  This is difficult work at best, and a purely imaginative effort.  While he may capture the spirit of Jesus’ day with accuracy, his attempt to capture Jesus as well must remain firmly fictional.  
My greatest irritation with Aslan’s work is the great arrogance that he presents with.  In Aslan’s world, all of academia is settled and firmly behind his facts (not his facts about Jesus, necessarily, but facts about Biblical interpretation, dating, authorship, etc).  He does not purport to rely on one strain of scholastic tradition and work – he presumes to claim that he represents all of it.  There are no contradictory opinions.  Biblical scholarship is monolithic in its opinions.  
This is not the case by a long shot.  Aslan relies on certain strains of Biblical scholarship, namely those strains that generally reject actual historic tradition and understanding of Scripture and instead reinterpret authorship and dating of authorship to support unrelated presumptions about the material.  It is not true that all Biblical scholars believe that most of the New Testament was written after 100 AD.  The casual and uninformed reader will learn nothing of the rather diverse scholastic opinions and attitudes regarding the Bible.  This is a discredit to the book and the author, who is obviously more concerned with stifling any other possible viewpoint than honestly acknowledging the fact that his assertions are not backed up by Biblical scholarship in the unified manner he often presents.
This is not an academic work, but rather a work of persuasion.  Aslan is a gifted writer and a gifted historian, other than the fact that he refuses to accept that the Bible could possibly be trusted as a historic document.  That is unfortunate, but at least Aslan is very honest about this in his introduction.  The reader must keep this bias firmly in mind as they read the rest of the book.  

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