By Reza Aslan (Random House, 2013)
Reza Aslan’s Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth has stirred up plenty of controversy. Some critics fault Aslan for offering an unoriginal and one-sided view of Jesus’ life. Others, most infamously Fox News, claim his religious background disqualifies him from writing about Jesus.
Aslan attempts to dispel these controversies in the book’s opening and closing pages. He opens the book describing how learning about Jesus as a teenager prompted him to study Christianity even though he is—gasp!—a secular Muslim. He closes with an informative notes section detailing his research and pointing readers to scholars offering different interpretations of Jesus’ life.
Zealot focuses on what history can tell us about Jesus the man. One by one, iconic scenes from the gospels are cast in a new light. There was no trip to Bethlehem for the census, because Roman censuses counted people where they lived. Roman and Jewish records do not mention Herod’s slaughter of the innocents. Nazareth was too small to sustain a full-time skilled work force; “day laborer” better describes how Jesus made a living than “carpenter.” Nazareth also lacked a synagogue, likely meaning that Jesus was illiterate.
Considering Jesus as only a man, Aslan argues that Jesus’ teachings about the kingdom of God were a political call to end the temple aristocracy and put Jews in charge of their own religious and political lives. The proof, Aslan claims, is Jesus’ crucifixion, a punishment reserved for political crimes.
Christians, who believe Jesus is both fully human and fully divine, may disagree with Aslan’s interpretation, but they should not overlook his book. He concludes by arguing that “Jesus the man is every bit as compelling, charismatic, and praiseworthy as Jesus the Christ.” Zealot brings that man vividly to life.
This article appeared in the February 2014 issue of U.S. Catholic (Vol. 79, No. 2, page 51).