Zealot by Reza Aslan: A Review

There are a lot of narratives around this book.  Reza Aslan says mean things about atheists, Reza Aslan doesn’t have the credentials he says he has, Reza Aslan was mistreated abominably by Fox News, Reza Aslan is Muslim and that taints his ability to see clearly on the history of Jesus.  The thing is, none of these are about the book itself.  So I decided that I would read it.

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There are a couple things you should know about my background here.  I am trained in historical methods, I have read most of the popularly available books about the history of Jesus and the New Testament written in the last decade, and I love the history of religions.  I am also an atheist.  My particular brand of atheism, as Christopher Hitchens would say, is very much a Protestant one, an Episcopal one at that.  There was no sturm und drang and little in the way of imposing dogma in my upbringing, I had possibly the least contentious relationship one can have with their religion while also not believing in it or understanding the point of it.

Unlike some, my particular atheism has no investment in the idea that a Jesus of some sort did or did not exist, and so no suspension of disbelief is necessary for me to accept the premise of the book.  Aslan doesn’t really address the question of Jesus’ existence, partially because it’s not really much of a controversy among historians.  Even if you don’t believe in a historical Jesus, however, it’s possible to read the book as a thought exercise.  Liberal Christians will also be able to reconcile the figure presented with their faith, to some extent.  Fundamentalists and Catholics, however, wouldn’t be able to do so, especially believers in the perpetual virginity of Mary.

The story is basically as follows:

Jesus was a poor man from the tiny town of Nazareth who witnessed his homeland of Galilee impoverished, enslaved, and mistreated by Roman occupiers.  Around the age of 30, he became a disciple of John the Baptist, by far the more famous of the two at the time.  When John the Baptist was executed, Jesus struck out on his own with a message primarily aimed at overthrowing the Temple and the Roman Occupiers — he was attempting to radically reform Judaism and free the state of Israel.  He was killed for sedition against Rome.

He was one of dozens of miracle workers with remarkably similar stories, distinguishable mostly by the fact that, after his execution, his message was carried on by his surviving family and followers, particularly his brother James and, later, Paul. The reason Christianity lasted was because Paul changed it drastically from being a critique of Judaism to being a totally new religion, one that Jesus’ brother James did not approve of.  James was killed, as were his followers with the destruction of Jerusalem, meaning that the head of the church changed from being someone who knew the Nazarene and lived in his culture to being foreigners who’d only heard secondhand tales.  Christianity is Paul’s reimagining of historical Jesus, a sort of fanfiction version — the Fifty Shades of Grey to Jesus’ Twilight.

The book is not really new in terms of the history it offers, but it is the most readable history of first century Jerusalem that I’ve come across.  If you are only mildly interested in the subject or the subject is totally new to you, I cannot emphasize enough how fun it was to read.

Aslan goes to great lengths to reassure readers that the possibility of a divine Jesus still exists within this story, sometimes to the point of annoying this reader, but he also makes a good point about the difference between what modern people accept as history and what ancient people did and the difference between facts and truth.  Since the scientific revolution, facts and truth have become more or less synonymous to many people, but the stories told of Jesus were meant to reveal truth about him rather than be facts.  In the same way that parables are understood to be lessons about the real world, even if they didn’t happen.

Read an excerpt here.