In 2013, Reza Aslan was at the center of controversy and popular media attention with the release of his book, Zealot: the Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth. What really put Aslan in the public eye…while greatly boosting his book sales..was an over the top hostile interview by FOX TV’s Lauren Green. Critics had a field day writing with the thinly veiled condescension of his lack of scholarly credentials, lack of awareness of most recent scholarship, and the validity of his conclusions. At the end of the day, Zealot did not really deserve the criticism or the controversy. It is a good book, extremely (and entertainingly) well written, and with source validation. (Aslan does his notes as essays at the back of the book..)It does not break new ground in the search for the historic Jesus nor are its conclusions particularly radical. It was written not for the academy but for the general book buying public.
Raised as a Muslim with a brief experience as a “Born again Christian,” Aslan felt drawn in to his own search for the historical Jesus. (A search I might add that seems less important as time goes by except as curiosity..) After a vibrant and detailed description of first century Palestine, especially Jerusalem and the Galilee, perhaps the best part of the book, Aslan then describes the world of First Century Judaism in which Jesus’ life and ministry will be lived. For anyone who has ever made their way through the intricately detailed descriptions of the Temple and its practises in Leviticus and Numbers, Aslan brings it into life with all its sounds and smells earthiness and wonder. That alone makes the book worthwhile.
After examining his evidence, Aslan concludes that Jesus was a charismatic working class Jewish activist (with skills in healing arts, magic and exorcism) but mainly a firebrand who was dedicated to ending the shared hegemony of the Roman empire and their ethno-religious elite Jewish collaborators. (Aslan draws heavily from John Meier's A Marginal Jew..) Jesus’ understanding of his own Messianic role remain somewhat uncertain.
He then has the task of trying to determine how this one particular zealot managed to break beyond his own timeline and inspire the creation of a global religion. And here Aslan must explore the difference, and the gap between, Jesus of Nazareth and Jesus the Christ of the Church. And for all his clarity of the compromised nature of much of scripture, he nevertheless draws much of his information from them. He ultimately finds the church with two realities, one still connected to the Jewish community ethnically and religiously, led by Jesus’ brother James, and the other the global universal missionary religion primarily founded by Paul of Tarsus. And this is the version that will ultimately win out.
In the end, where does this leave us? For Christian social activists, if Aslan’s portrait of Jesus is right, we should spend some time in reflecting on what it means about our commitment to pacifism and non-violent social change. If the “real” Jesus was open to change by any means necessary, what does that mean for us? To the extent that Aslan brings the historic context of Jesus vividly alive, it’s a call to having an equally detailed understanding of our own context into which we bring our reality of Jesus. it It’s worth spending some time on these questions, even if the truth is that more important than the historic Jesus is the Christ of the Church as he has come to be understood, and known, over all these years.
It is the Jesus of Gandhi and King and the Trocmes and Dorothy Day that will be definitive for the new radical emerging communities dedicated to Christianity, not as a belief system but as a way of life that demands mutual accountability, discipline and love. A new kind of zealot, if you
will, informed by the Jesus of history but sustained by the Risen Christ and the Holy Spirit.
Reza Aslan’s is a good read and worth your time, if only for the graphic experience of Jesus ‘ context.
As one final note, Reza Aslan is one of the advisors and producers for the apocalyptic HBO speculative drama the Leftovers…a show that takes loss and mystery and faith seriously. One more reason to watch….