Books | Zealot by Reza Aslan


In the introduction to Zealot, Reza Aslan makes the entirely valid point that scholars in search of the ‘historical Jesus’ often end up seeing what they want, projecting their own prejudices onto the (historically) sketchy figure whose life has had more impact on the rest of history than any other human who has ever lived. The task, which is the one he sets for himself, is compared to completing a ‘massive jigsaw puzzle with only a few of the pieces in hand’. Trying to imagine the whole picture requires not only diligent research and a willingness to admit that you might well be wrong, but also a step of – ironically – faith.

Aslan’s attempt to focus purely on the historical Jesus – as opposed to Jesus the Christ – is a brave and perhaps necessary undertaking. That Aslan is a Muslim matters not a jot of course (you will be glad to know that this will not be a review of Fox News – if you don’t know what I’m talking about, click here). It is, of course, easy for liberal and educated readers to dismiss  Lauren Green’s question as crass, stupid and irrelevant; in the context of the interview, with its barely-concealed anti-Islamic subtext, of course it is. But the book does begin with an Author’s Note, a kind of disclaimer giving Aslan’s personal story: having fled the Iranian revolution with his family, he was converted to Christianity at a summer camp aged fifteen and after a few years of zealous faith promptly lost it again when he began studying religion at university level. He has since rediscovered the faith of his forefathers. Religious belief is, ultimately, not something that can be neutralised.

Therefore while I would not for one second question the professional diligence or sincerity of Aslan’s academic research, it must be noted that Zealot is a personal as well as a scholarly tome. To pretend otherwise is almost as stupid as wondering why a scholar of religion might want to write a book about Jesus. As Aslan notes, writing a book about Jesus of Nazareth is not like writing a biography of Napoleon Bonaparte. The author is referring here to the relative availability of reliable sources, but the statement is also true of Jesus’ status, messianic or otherwise.

Zealot review
by Reza Aslan

The book opens immediately, as Aslan promises it will, by plunging the reader into first century Palestine. Many passages, including the long prologue concerning the sights and sounds and smells of the temple at the heart of the ‘Jewish cult’ (a phrase Aslan uses far more often than Judaism) are written in second person present tense. There is a novelistic immediacy to the narrative. When a more academic voice kicks in, it is never dry or scholastic; despite being at pains to stress the immense research undertaken in support of this project – two decades, and half the book devoted to endnotes – Aslan’s prose zips along throughout.

Once we have been thoroughly immersed in the world that Jesus would have known, Aslan sets out his stall. The writer wants to rely on historical evidence rather than the narrative, and, in his view, fanciful accounts of Jesus’ life given in the gospels. But in doing so he also establishes the warm, open-minded tone that prevails throughout; far from being any kind of attack on orthodox Christian belief, Aslan’s book is simply a study of the same material from another angle. In many ways, this is The Gospel According to Reza Aslan. Where he differs from Mark, Matthew, Luke and John (the order in which they were written, rather than arranged) is in his post-Enlightenment insistence on facts. As he reminds us over and over, the writers of the gospel texts (and they weren’t all written by the men for whom they are named) privileged truth over fact. What was important in the ancient world was conveying the message, not necessarily the precise sequence of exact events.

So far, so even handed. But what is truly astonishing about Aslan’s book – especially given that he is a professional scholar with four degrees – is the extent to which the Jesus who emerges in the book is not only a fully-rounded historical figure (despite that the author himself begins by admitting the dearth of verifiable evidence for very much at all) but one whom modern day Christians could recognise and accept. Despite all Aslan’s careful arguments, sensible suggestions and myth-debunking, at the end Jesus is clearly left standing as a man – yes – but also as the enigmatic ‘Son of Man’, a man who could have been God. Every time Aslan calls the gospels’ credibility into question – for example, the story of a twelve-year-old Jesus debating the scriptures in the synagogue – it is precisely the exceptionality of the contested events that made them worth recording.

Some matters, as Aslan freely admits, lie outside the scope of history. He is not here to argue with, for example, the virgin birth or any of Jesus’ reported miracles. These are matters of faith. You believe them or you don’t. But even here, it is striking how many times the historical facts actually support the Christian doctrines, rather than debunking them. The most important miracle of all, the event by which the faith either lives or dies – the resurrection – is particularly interesting. Almost all scholars agree, we learn, that Jesus of Nazareth was crucified. Aslan argues, based on the method of execution – common at the time for insurrectionists – that his punishment was for sedition. But he goes on to reveal that Golgotha, the ‘place of the skulls’ where Jesus died, was called such because it was littered with the bones of his fellow martyrs for a Jewish nationalist cause, other claimants to the title of ‘messiah’ (a word Jesus himself, we are reminded, was exceedingly careful not to use) and all manner of other lestai, or bandits. What is remarkable is that despite his entire argument being based on the idea that Jesus was just another bandit, at least as far as the Romans were concerned, Aslan does not dispute that Jesus – ‘an illiterate peasant’ and ‘day labourer’ from Galilee, an impoverished rural backwater three days travel from Jerusalem – was afforded the burial of a rich man, in a proper tomb. Whether or not the stone was indeed rolled away to reveal the glory of God, time and again we are presented with evidence that questions the literal veracity of the gospel. And over and over, the subtext seems to be that whatever you choose to believe about this man, he was certainly exceptional.

The biggest flaw in Aslan’s thesis is a trap he sets for himself. He wants to argue with pretty much everything that is written in the gospels. In order to do so, he not only makes frequent references to what we know as the Old Testament – the Torah and the Prophets – but also to the gospels themselves. His study of the historical Jesus is, ironically, primarily based on the texts we have that record his teachings and biography; the most prominent of these happen to be evangelistic, canonized religious texts. Arguing that Jesus was a provocative insurrectionist, Aslan recounts what we know as Palm Sunday. Arguing that Jesus’ frequent referencing of the Kingdom of Heaven was meant for the here-and-now rather than any kind of hereafter, Aslan quotes ‘Give unto Caesar’. While the book is rammed full of thought-provoking re-readings of scripture, Zealot does not achieve its own stated mission of rescuing the Jesus of history from the Jesus of faith. It is merely an interpretation.

Aslan frequently decries the gospel writers for their reliance on storytelling rather than historicity, but narrative is his own chosen method of address. This, more than anything else – quite apart from the arguments – is what makes Zealot a good book. Aslan cannot resist a slick turn of phrase, even if it undermines his argument. After supposedly exposing the ‘myth’ of Jesus’ baptism and associated prophecies, the author finishes the chapter with two lines that could have come out of the gospels themselves. ‘Jesus would baptise with the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit and fire.’ Is this – was this – the historical Jesus?

Where Zealot is strongest is in painting a picture of the world in which Jesus lived. Customs, everyday life, the ‘rustic’ Galilean accent. He places Jesus of Nazareth in a context of subsistence farming, of apocalyptic prophets, of strange rituals, of itinerant miracle workers, and of crippling poverty. Jesus’ turning over of the money lenders’ tables in the temple, the day after his triumphant entry into Jerusalem, is built into a central plank of Aslan’s argument. This is a Jesus who appeals to left-wingers. Later, outlining a schism in the early church between Paul and Jesus’ own brother James, Aslan takes a clear side, emphasising the anti-poverty activism of the kinsman of the Nazarene.

The Kingdom of God, as outlined by Jesus, in Aslan’s view is one that ‘required not just an internal transformation toward justice and righteousness, but a complete reversal of the present political, religious and economic system.’ It is a revolutionary message. I understand the writer’s frustration; there may be a case that historically, Jesus’ message for this world has been underplayed at the expense of his more nebulous musings about the hereafter. The emphasis on heaven over earth, what Aslan calls the ‘celestial’ Jesus, is what led to Marx’s dismissal of the faith as an ‘opiate of the masses’. But given the material in front of him – Aslan quotes from the gospels on virtually every page – the conclusions he draws are staggeringly one-dimensional. The writer readily admits that scholarly accounts of Jesus often end up like mirrors; we all invent the Jesus we want to see. One assumes that Aslan’s observation is one that will see him subsequently seek to avoid such a fate, but time and again Aslan takes the (historical) evidence and creates with it the Jesus he has decided upon.

I would venture that he had the title in mind before he wrote a word. Aslan is bent on creating a zealot. For a historian who admits he is working from scraps, sentences like ‘Israel is all that mattered to Jesus’ are pure conjecture. Of course, Aslan dutifully lines up his evidence to support this bold assertion, and of course, as a Jew ‘first and finally’, Jesus of Nazareth must be understood in a Jewish context. That much is obvious. Often what Aslan says is common sense. But he always pushes his thesis too far. If Israel is really all that mattered to Jesus, how is it conceivable two thousand years on that his worldwide following numbers in the billions, almost a third of humanity? ‘The Kingdom of God that Jesus predicted never arrived,’ says Aslan, in another preposterously bold claim predicated on his own personal definition of such a Kingdom that flies in the face of both what his subject actually said and any sense whatsoever of spirituality. It leads one only to conclude that if your definition of the Kingdom of God is limited to a first century Jewish nationalist liberation struggle against the might of the Roman empire, one is bound to be disappointed.

Jesus as ‘God incarnate’ argues Aslan earnestly, ‘is anathema to five thousand years of Jewish scripture, thought and theology.’ I always thought that was kind of the point. Jesus is the point where Judaism and Christianity diverge. The former looked for a different kind of messiah, the latter was born out of this revolutionary’s heralding of a new age, in which Jews and Gentiles had equal access to the Living God. I don’t repeat these doctrines to patronise the reader, merely to express my surprise that Aslan – the scholar – goes to such lengths to consider the idea of Jesus as the Jewish messiah (based on complex Jewish theology), only to dismiss its Christian equivalent – especially the Christ portrayed by Paul – almost out of hand.

Aslan is particularly good at emphasising the disjunct between Paul’s Christ and the Jesus of the gospels. There is a difference between the doctrinal approach of the Pauline epistles and the simple wisdom of the words attributed to Jesus in the gospels. Like he does throughout the book – between fact and truth, earth and heaven, history and faith – Aslan sets up a dichotomy between Paul’s theological Jesus and the hero of the poor portrayed by Jesus’ own brother, James the Just. ‘One cannot truly be a follower of Jesus if one does not actively favour the poor,’ wrote James. Whatever your own religious or political persuasions, it is an appealing vision, and one that has excited progressive Christians everywhere, particularly in the United States where the faith has long been brought into disrepute by elements of the Religious Right.

Never mind Fox News. Zealot is a brave and necessary book. It is an intelligent and sensitive treatment of a controversial subject. And whether you are Jew or Gentile, Christian or Muslim, atheist or a.n.other, approached with an open mind – and, if you believe in one, spirit – this book will make you think; it might well make you question your beliefs. Aslan’s contention that ‘the Christ of Paul’s creation has utterly subsumed the Jesus of history’ is not quite true, but ultimately this writer – lest we forget, a Muslim – may well have prompted a welcome change of emphasis in the Christian church. ‘Jesus the man,’ he claims in conclusion, ‘is every bit as compelling, charismatic and praiseworthy as Jesus the Christ. He is, in that, someone worth believing in.’