If there was any book better designed to initiate vapid controversy than Zealot by Reza Aslan, I would greatly like to see it. The title – sure to boil the blood of any Christian unfamiliar with the wider connotations of the word Zealot, is only driven home by the less than subtle placement of a passage from the Gospel of Matthew on page four – “Do not think that I have come to bring peace on earth. I have not come to bring peace, but the sword” (Matthew 1-:34). And of course, to cap it all off, the author is a Muslim. This was the pretence of one of the most awkward and ridiculous interviews I have ever witnessed. An interview without which many would never have even heard of Zealot or Reza Aslan. But I have been an Aslan fan ever since reading No God but God. And anyone who does make it past the rather ridiculous facade of Zealot will find a book that is clearly written in the same measured tone. It isn’t a hit piece. It is a continuation of much the same ideas that can be found in Aslan’s previous work – that historical analysis and facts (as best they are) can and should be used in theological contexts.
“This book is an attempt to reclaim, as much as possible, the Jesus of history, the Jesus before Christianity: the politically conscious Jewish revolutionary…”
Zealot is marketed as a biography. However, it is like no biography I have ever read. Granted, we must give Aslan some wiggle room due to the nature of his subject; an ancient figure, largely ignored and unknown during his time, and who has been mythologised for close to two thousand years. There are no primary sources of his life, or even his existence (one of the few historians to reference Jesus only mentions him as a clarifying appendage when marking the death of James). Echoing his father’s style, Jesus wasn’t helpful enough to write anything down or otherwise leave anything behind. Aslan, therefore, is forced to source his information mainly from the Christian and Hebrew scriptures. This has many drawbacks – some aspects of Jesus’s life are skipped over entirely in the scriptures – or found in some sources and not others, none of the authors knew Jesus personally (they were the scribes in a decades long game of Chinese Whispers) and they have agendas that need to be questioned, and the narratives often contradict each other or independent facts. As a result Aslan has to spend considerable space qualifying almost everything. What follows is a story of Jesus’s life with considerable gaps, is often non-linear, and serves more to educate the reader about the inconsistencies of the source material than the life of Jesus of Nazareth (or Aslan’s particular reading of his life at least). I really wonder why Aslan chose to write in this format rather than directly taking on our sanitised conceptions of Jesus and the Scriptures – he obviously has all the research to do exactly that.
“Indeed, the Jesus that emerges from this historical exercise – a zealous revolutionary swept up, as all Jews of the era were, in the religious and political turmoil of first-century Palestine – bears little resemblance to the image of the gentle shepherd cultivated by the early Christian community.”
Aslan’s reluctance to tell a narrative story of Jesus’s life, as well as his emphasis on source and perception inconsistencies show through in the notes that I took while reading. Rather than getting a fuller picture of the life of Jesus (I was hoping to glean something more than the tired tales I had absorbed in the years of indoctrination at Sunday school), my notes are dominated with other details from Jesus’s world – e.g. crucifixion was a punishment reserved for sedition, and there is a seemingly endless list of preachers and revolutionaries who also proclaimed themselves “King of the Jews” (or were proclaimed that by others – the Life of Brian is looking increasingly prescient). Insightful yes, but not what I bought the book for. Not what it is sold as. What little I did pick up about Jesus from Aslan was less objective fact, and more theorising. And there are some inconsistencies in this theorising.
“If we expose the claims of the gospels to the heat of historical analysis, we can purge the scriptures of their literary and theological flourishes and forge a far more accurate picture of the jesus of history.”
One of the main thrusts of Aslan’s portrayal of Jesus is as an illiterate peasant. But at the same time, Aslan ascribes to him incredibly nuanced motivations and deeds, often based on what would have at the time been a fantastical knowledge of scripture, history, and the sentiment of the people. Aslan’s wonderful theory about Jesus choosing ‘Son of Man’ as his non de guerre is a brilliant example of this inconsistency. Either Jesus chose this title because he knew of it’s complicated connection with David and the power of God (and wanted to use it for propaganda purposes), or he was a simple, illiterate, uneducated peasant. Aslan can’t have it both ways. But Jesus is not the only one whom Aslan grants outlandish prescience. Much of Aslan’s commentary comes from comparing sources written at different times, for different audiences, and under different circumstances. But more than just analysing texts through this prism, Aslan grants the authors the kind of propaganda skills and audience awareness that would shame even modern advertising agencies (Mark hasn’t just doctored the story, he has done so with clear knowledge of what his cosmopolitan audience already knows and will accept – let alone what modern audiences will accept). Even more, Aslan has the unfortunate habit of simultaneously using and abusing sources, as and when the need arises (he notably dismisses Celsus on one occasion because he is being “clearly Polemical”, while accepting his input on others). Sure, these are the only sources he can use, but there has to be a better method than poisoning and drinking from the same well.
“During Jesus’s lifetime, zealotry did not signify a firm sectarian designation or political party. It was an idea, an aspiration, a model of piety inextricably linked to the widespread sense of apocalyptic expectation that had seized the Jews in the wake of the Roman occupation.”
To paraphrase Aslan, who is in turn paraphrasing Rudolf Bultmann, Aslan’s Jesus is a reflection of Aslan himself. He is the Jesus that Aslan wanted to find; a mortal man and a complete contradiction. Aslan has not succeeded in his quest to illuminate the life of Jesus. He hasn’t given us an objective account of the life of Jesus, merely another interpretation. Where he has succeeded, however, is in inserting a fair amount of context into the life of Jesus. His portrait of the workings of the Temple of Jerusalem, and the intrigue in and around Jerusalem itself, are peerless. His highlighting of the succession of "messiahs" that preceded and followed Jesus of Nazareth, the myriad of nationalist rebellions that took place and the reprisals that followed, and the general milieu of Biblical Palestine are important additions to the popular debate over Jesus and Christianity. And this is where the saving grace of this book lies. It is a book intended for popular consumption. Yes, many of the ideas found in the book are not new, and some of the theorising is questionable. But the historicity of the modern conception of Jesus of Nazareth is something that desperately needs to be challenged, as does the inerrancy of the Christian scriptures. This book is incredibly readable and it’s description of Biblical palestine and Jesus’s context brilliant. Let’s hope that this, along with it’s high profile, is enough to reignite the debate.