"The Childe...More restless than the swallow in the skies..." -Lord Byron, Childe Harold's Pilgrimage

Sunday, December 14, 2014

Why Speculate? Because 'Zealot'

Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of NazarethZealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth by Reza Aslan
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Like many of us, my introduction to Reza Aslan's book Zealot came through the hubbub. First with an NPR interview, and later through trending YouTube clips of a Fox News anchor attempting to corner an Islamic man who--yes it's true--wrote this carefully researched book--in part--to discredit the notion of Jesus as God made flesh. As an often cynical agnostic, I watched with a mixture of frustration and amusement. How dare a scholar attempt a historically accurate accounting of Jesus!

Finally, courtesy a Thanksgiving road trip, I made it through Zealot via the unabridged audio production read by the author. This was a highly engaging audio production. Reading the book himself ensures Aslan can pace and accent the text in a manner that underscores his pursuasive agenda. Aslan is able to make his case audibly, like a TED talk, where a for-hire audio book reader might have voiced the text less emphatically.

Aslan builds this entire book around one key point. Jesus was crucified. Rome reserved this form of punishment for convicted revolutionaries. Therefore Jesus should be understood first and foremost as a revolutionary. The balance of the book, with extensive referencing of early historical and scriptural texts, fleshes out this argument. In the process, Aslan follows the well-worn path of scholars who debunk the claim of Christians that the New Testament is itself historically accurate. Hence the controversy.

Yet, having made the case early on that the Gospels cannot serve as historical biography, Aslan repeatedly returns to them for snippits that do appear to strengthen his thesis. So while I appreciated the quality of his writing, especially the organization of the chapters and clarity of his assertions, I am left to take yet another scholar at his word on which parts of the New Testament should be trusted.

I found the final chapters most engrossing, as the author shows how the historical/political Jesus was supplanted by the evangelical deified Jesus. In particular, Aslan paints a picture of incredible tension between the apostles Paul and James, with James receding in prominence as the New Testament is compiled and the center of Christianity shifts to Rome. The relationships of the various apostles are rendered far more acrimonious than anything I encountered in Sunday School while growing up.

Since the broad strokes of Zealot were already familiar to me, I have to assume Aslan is not saying anything especially new. Still, he brings the scholarly argument into focus. I do recommend this book to people wanting to consider the historical Jesus. But you may find, as I did, given the lack of first-hand source material, the historical Jesus seems almost as speculative as the divine one.

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