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From the internationally bestselling author of No god but God comes a fascinating, provocative, and meticulously researched biography that challenges long-held assumptions about the man we know as Jesus of Nazareth. Two thousand years ago, an itinerant Jewish preacher and miracle worker walked across the Galilee, gathering followers to establish what he called the “Kingdom of God.” The revolutionary movement he launched was so threatening to the established order that he was captured, tortured, and executed as a state criminal. Within decades after his shameful death, his followers would call him God. Sifting through centuries of mythmaking, Reza Aslan sheds new light on one of history’s most influential and enigmatic characters by examining Jesus through the lens of the tumultuous era in which he lived: first-century Palestine, an age awash in apocalyptic fervor. Scores of Jewish prophets, preachers, and would-be messiahs wandered through the Holy Land, bearing messages from God. This was the age of zealotry—a fervent nationalism that made resistance to the Roman occupation a sacred duty incumbent on all Jews. And few figures better exemplified this principle than the charismatic Galilean who defied both the imperial authorities and their allies in the Jewish religious hierarchy. Balancing the Jesus of the Gospels against the historical sources, Aslan describes a man full of conviction and passion, yet rife with contradiction; a man of peace who exhorted his followers to arm themselves with swords; an exorcist and faith healer who urged his disciples to keep his identity a secret; and ultimately the seditious “King of the Jews” whose promise of liberation from Rome went unfulfilled in his brief lifetime. Aslan explores the reasons why the early Christian church preferred to promulgate an image of Jesus as a peaceful spiritual teacher
rather than a politically conscious revolutionary. And he grapples with the riddle of how Jesus understood himself, the mystery that is at the heart of all subsequent claims about his divinity. Zealot yields a fresh perspective on one of the greatest stories ever told even as it affirms the radical and transformative nature of Jesus of Nazareth’s life and mission. The result is a thought-provoking, elegantly written biography with the pulse of a fast-paced novel: a singularly brilliant portrait of a man, a time, and the birth of a religion. Advance praise for Zealot “A bold, powerfully argued revisioning of the most consequential life ever lived.”—Lawrence Wright, Pulitzer Prize–winning author of Going Clear: Scientology, Hollywood, and the Prison of Belief “The story of Jesus of Nazareth is arguably the most influential narrative in human history. Here Reza Aslan writes vividly and insightfully about the life and meaning of the figure who has come to be seen by billions as the Christ of faith. This is a special and revealing work, one that believer and skeptic alike will find surprising, engaging, and original.”—Jon Meacham, Pulitzer Prize–winning author of Thomas Jefferson: The Art of Power “In Zealot, Reza Aslan doesn't just synthesize research and reimagine a lost world, though he does those things very well. He does for religious history what Bertolt Brecht did for playwriting. Aslan rips Jesus out of all the contexts we thought he belonged in and holds him forth as someone entirely new. This is Jesus as a passionate Jew, a violent revolutionary, a fanatical ideologue, an odd and scary and extraordinarily interesting man.”—Judith Shulevitz, author of The Sabbath World
Reading Reza Aslan's short history of Islam, "No God but God," one quickly understood the book's purpose. As a Western educated theologian, Aslan wished to take Islam back to its roots. He sought to compose a portrait of the prophet Mohammed that was enlightened and egalitarian. Likewise, by "contextualizing" early Islam, he sought to redefine certain key terms, as well as crack the veneration of the prophet that has with the centuries has grown akin to worship, ironically making the great idol-shatterer into an idol-in-spirit. Scholars raised many legitimate questions about Aslan's arguments. He gave short shrift to the cultural context of pre-Islamic Arabia. His discussion of the rise of the Shi'a/Sunni rupture read too much like tragic high fiction and not enough like
Machiavellian realpolitik. Yet these criticisms missed the point: Aslan's goals were less historical than theological. As has been true with Christianity since before Martin Luther, a reconsideration of the past can often light a path that takes believers into a brighter future. While such new examination of Mohammed is relatively recent, the "historical Jesus movement" has been on-going for more than 200 years. As such, Aslan's purpose with his newest book, "Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth" is something of a mystery. What exactly does Aslan have to add to the reconstructionist project? The answer seems to be not much. While Aslan's fluid precisely observed prose make for a good read, his book does not seem to add much of anything to an already rich vein of scholarship. For example, one expects that few readers will be surprised that Jesus of Nazareth was born a Jew, lived as a Jew, and died as a Jew in a deeply Jewish context. Perhaps some will be unaware of the extent of Roman brutality, the meaning of messianism in Jesus's milieu, and/or the degree to which Paul of Tarsus constructed out of Jesus a character that neither he nor his Apostles would have recognized. Such readers will no doubt find this book interesting. Aslan likewise does a good job painting the factionalized ferment that was Roman Judea and discussing - albeit a bit too deterministically -- how it gave rise to the Jesus movement. That said, lots of authors have produced work at least as strong as Aslan's and in many cases with more nuance and better scholarship. Aslan does a do good job brushing away the layered stories that smother the life of the historical Jesus. Some Christians will surely find this troubling. Contrary to a newly popularized and often repeated claims, the historical Jesus status of a carpenter did not mark him as "middle class" (a designation that didn't exist in that period). Quite the contrary, carpenter represents a poor translation of tekton, a term which meant builder or day laborer and was applied by Romans to the great mass of illiterate Israelite peasants. Likewise, one can safely assume that the historical Jesus was either wholly or nearly illiterate. Christians will almost certainly share the early Christians trouble with Jesus relationship as a disciple to John the Baptist, a topic to which Aslan gives considerable attention. Again, born a poor Jew, Jesus died a poor Jew, at the hands of a Roman governor with so much Jewish blood on his hand the whole Jordan River could not have washed those stained hands clean. My issue with Aslan's analysis arises from his tendency to take issues of great controversy and present them as settled. Since he eschews citations, readers will be left taking his word for claims and methods which many scholars would dispute. In terms of facts, time and again Aslan makes assertions that range from the problematic to the likely incorrect. Take for example his unsupported claim that the author of Luke's Gospel was like the author of Mark and Matthew
"...a Greek speaking Diaspora Jew." This view runs contrary to the vast majority of scholars, who see Luke as a Gentile, writing for Gentiles, drawing on only limited original Jewish sources. Of course Aslan has every right to side with the minority scholarly view here, but he should make that plain to his reader rather than simply asserting his opinion as fact. The same can be said of Aslan's belief in a late dating for Mark's Gospel. Again, that puts him within the range of scholarly opinion, but on an issue where people make strong arguments on both sides. With regards to Mark, Aslan is in the majority when he argues that it was written for a Roman gentile audience. Still, he not only fails to recognize the very existence of differing views, but also misses the most interesting thing about Mark's Gospel - that while written by a Jew for gentiles, the gospel's theology represents a deeply Jewish Christian text and that it advocates an Adoptionist world view (that Jesus was not born divine, but adopted later by God), an idea that was declared heretical at Nicaea. I was likewise uncomfortable with Aslan's tendency to pick and choose passages from the various Gospels to construct his Jesus. As the excellent scholar Bart Ehrman cleverly pointed out, many tend to read the Christian Scripture as if there was a Gospel of "MarkMatthewLukeJohn." This is plainly not the case. Each Gospel exists as a literary whole and each offers Jesus in a different light. In Mark, he is a rabble rousing insurgent who suffers terribly. In John, a divinity with only the barest grasp on the world (which explains why the former was a popular text among Jesus Jewish followers and the latter among Gnostics). The Jesus who in death yelled "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?" (Mark and Matthew) isn't the same Jesus as the one who says, "Father, into your hands I commit my spirit (Luke) or the one who calmly reports "it is done" (John) before bowing his head to death. Aslan asserts a common consistent narrative where none can be found. One must also wonder at Aslan's narrative about the spread of Christianity through the Roman Empire, a subject about which scholarly controversy abounds. One thing is certain, his claim that the Nicene Creed was "...merely codifying a creed that was already a majority opinion...of the entire Christian community" will send more than a few heads spinning. In the end, Aslan's "Zealot" offers an interesting account. He constructs a highly readable narrative about how the "zeal" of First Century Judea gave rise to Jesus and his movement. Many will praise Aslan for the ease with which he presents that material. I only wish he had been more trusting of his readers' ability to digest questions with no ready answers instead of time and again coming down on the side of simplicity and clear answers.
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