Saturday, June 23, 2018
Books

Review: Reza Aslan's 'Zealot' is an unorthodox, fascinating look at Jesus

It is probably fair to say that around the time an overachieving baby supposedly was being born in Bethlehem, the hills were alive with the sound of messiahs.

And if any part of that above paragraph offends your theological sensibilities, you probably don't want to wade into Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth, Reza Aslan's provocative exploration of the short but compelling life of one of the best known, but perhaps least understood religious and political figures in history.

Chances are, had not Aslan agreed to appear on Fox News to discuss Zealot, he might well have still sold a fair number of books. After all, Aslan is an admired and respected scholar and author. But after he was grilled by Fox bobblehead figurine Lauren Green, who questioned Aslan's lack of the stigmata-seal-of-approval for having the gall to be a Muslim writing about Jesus Christ Superstar — well! — Zealot shot to the top of the bestseller lists.

Green asked the wrong question of Aslan. It is not his Muslimness she should have inquired about. But given Aslan's steady disassembling of one Christian cornerstone of the Jesus narrative after another, it's more appropriate to ask the author if he really isn't one of those intellectually troublemaking Jesuits.

To be sure, fundamentalist Christians view the Bible literally. Seas actually parted. The world was created in six days. Jesus walked on water and rose from the dead — messiahs are supposed to be able to do those things, you know.

But Aslan, like many theologians, comes to the New Testament more as a pragmatic thinker. Or put another way, for Aslan and his contemporaries the Bible, and especially the New Testament, was as much the handiwork of the Judean version of Mad Men carefully shaping, rewriting and reimagining not so much their Christ, but their client.

Take the very birth of Jesus. In life and death, he is known as Jesus of Nazareth, a village regarded as — and this is a highly biblical term — a dump. But in order for the prophecies to be realized, the messiah would have to be born in King David's Judea. Ergo, the highly unlikely story of a pregnant Mary traveling to the Judean town of Joseph's birth, Bethlehem, in order to partake in a Roman census. As Aslan notes, the Roman census takers were only interested in counting people for the purposes of taxation based on where they lived, not where they were born. There was no reason for Jesus to be born outside of Nazareth. Nice story, what with all those wise men showing up and angels singing, though.

In the time of Jesus' birth, there was no shortage of men traversing the land claiming to be the messiah. This was not an avocation with very much growth potential, since the Romans often viewed such figures as threats to the existing power structure. Anyone claiming to be the messiah eventually found himself subject to crucifixion. So perhaps it is notable that throughout scripture Jesus himself avoids the title, leaving the assessment to others.

Given the long view of history, we like to think that with the execution of Jesus, the Christian movement was born. And so it was. But Aslan, like other scholars, argues it was never the intention of Jesus to start another faith, but to clean up his own Jewish religion, which had become perhaps the earliest theological version of the One Percenters, controlling the daily lives and pockets of their followers.

Jesus was a threat to the Jewish interests controlling the Temple. And if they fell, Rome risked losing a pliable ally in its governance over this troublesome spit of land.

And it is here that Aslan once again casts doubt, this time on the role of Roman governor Pontius Pilate in deciding Jesus' fate. Scripture details an exchange between the tortured prisoner and Pilate, who agonizes over what to do with Jesus. As Aslan argues, outside the gospels, not a single shred of historical evidence exists that the two men ever spoke.

Indeed, Pilate was such an adept executioner, Rome had to send word to its governor to slow down a bit. Given Pilate's position of power and his loathing of the Jews, it is far more probable he was merely dispatching an illiterate annoyance to his death with little thought.

It would be decades after Jesus' death that he would become first Jesus the Christ, from the Greek word for messiah, then Jesus Christ, thanks largely to the expanding ministry of Paul.

For political junkies, Zealot is a fascinating account of the infighting between Peter and Jesus' brother James, who viewed themselves as devout Jews, to reign in the growing influence of — in their view — Paul's liberal interpretation of Jesus' ecumenical message to the masses. With an estimated 2.1 billion Christians around the world today, it is probably safe to say the self-promoting, prickly Paul was on to something.

Zealot is sure to have its scholarly critics. But Aslan has provided an engrossing look into the life and times of Jesus. Most important, it does what any good, intellectually honest discussion of religion should accomplish by faithfully raising questions. The answers, as with all things spiritual, are still left up to you.

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