Author: Reza Aslan
Rating: 4 stars
There’s something I have to confess. I am a religion junkie.
I used to spend Sunday afternoons as a child watching something called Mysteries of the Bible, a historical survey of Biblical times that went way over my head at the time but still fascinated me. I came fairly close, within a class or two, of minoring in religion in college. That spot was ultimately taken by history, because I was not ready to go so in depth with my studies, but I still love learning about the history and development of religions from all cultures, and read lots of popular religious surveys.
When I heard that Reza Aslan had written a biography of the historical Jesus, I knew I had to read it as soon as possible. Jesus is a figure very close to my heart, even as I no longer hold to most of the tenents of faith I was raised with. I was also skeptical about what Aslan would have to say. The number of “facts” that can be said to be known about the historical Jesus of Nazareth are few, and can be very divisive. But Zealot turned out to be very compelling narrative, very accessible to general readers while backed up with extensive research.
Most of the book has little to do with the historical Jesus in and of himself. Aslan takes what is known about Jewish culture in such a tumultuous and transformtive time, and what is known about men who interacted with and followed Jesus, to construct a template of how the historical Jesus probably acted, who he probably was.
He begins his narrative with the Jewish Revolt of 66 CE and the subsequent destruction of Jerusalem. This, not the birth, ministry, or death of Jesus, turns out to be the central linchpin of the book, as he argues that it is with the destruction of the Temple that the Jesus cult was able to fully break from the Jewish roots of the faith. Christology and the Roman church truly began at this point, but most links to Jesus the man, Jesus the Nazarene, were buried.
He also spends a lot of time talking about figures such as John the Baptist, James the brother of Jesus, Paul, corrupt high priests of the Temple, and Roman officials. There were many ideas I have already been exposed to, but also many things that were new to me, and yet make complete logical sense (for instance–Jesus of Nazareth was probably initially a disciple of John the Baptist. Something that had never even crossed my mind, but struck me as a complete ‘of course!’ moment).
The book is small, barely weighing in at two hundred pages, but there are a ton of notes and further reading at the back for anyone interested in how Aslan came to his conclusions, or looking for greater depth of study. The student part of me would have preferred footnotes and in-text reference, but the structure of the book does make sense. It’s cleaner, makes for faster reading, and I would assume hooks more causal readers who would be turned off my footnotes and tiny text.
In addition to his Ph.D, Aslan also holds an MFA in Fiction, and it shows in the meticulous construction of his prose. Zealot is beautifully written, with vividly drawn descriptions of the Temple, the life of the peasantry, and of a world overflowing with wandering messiahs.
Some, especially conservative Christians and Bible literalists, may find this book controversial. They should not. Having a greater understanding of the historical roots of the world’s largest religion is important to keeping that religion relevant in the modern world. Whether you believe Jesus was divine, a man, or some combination thereof, there is no doubt he was a charismatic and fascinating figure, and Aslan shows how he gained such a hold over the human imagination through the most humble and prosaic of roots.