BOOK: People argue about whether Jesus of Nazareth was the son of God, but no one seriously disputes that a man named Jesus of Nazareth existed and was crucified by Romans.
What was he like? Was he the good shepherd of the New Testament who preached love and forgiveness? Or was he also one of the self-styled messiahs who appeared in that part of the world, preaching liberation from Rome?
Reza Aslan has written Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth (Random House, 2013), a persuasive portrait of Jesus as an itinerant preacher, similar to many others at the time who claimed to be a messiah or king of the Jews. A poor shepherd named Athronges, for example, crowned himself king of the Jews and was cut down, along with his followers, by Roman soldiers in the same year most scholars think Jesus was born.
Aslan has not uncovered any new facts about the historical Jesus. He recounts the tantalizing reference made by the first-century Jewish historian Flavius Josephus in Antiquities of the Jews to the death by stoning of "James, the brother of Jesus, the one they call messiah." Other historians, including Tacitus and Pliny the Younger, mention Jesus of Nazareth, but they reveal little about him beyond his arrest and crucifixion. But the story that Aslan tells adds depth and context to the Jesus of the Gospels, bringing his human qualities to the fore.
WHY READ? Many have tried to write a biography of the historical Jesus, but they have been limited by the lack of hard evidence. Aslan gets around this obstacle by examining well-known facts about life in the Middle East during the Roman Empire's rule, which hint at how the man named Jesus might have lived. Combining such conjectures with the few scraps of historical fact and details about Jesus included in the Gospels, Aslan, an associate professor of creative writing and faculty member in the department of religion at the University of California at Riverside, weaves a gripping tale that recasts Jesus as one of the "false messiahs" who, by their popularity and their preaching, threatened their Roman overseers.
All this verges on historical fiction at times. The account of Jesus driving the moneychangers from the Temple in Jerusalem, for example — an act that identified him to the Romans as a troublemaker — includes obviously imagined details, such as a crowd of people scrambling to safety, a stampede of frightened animals, and Roman guards rushing in to arrest those responsible for the disturbance. It's a suggestion of what might have happened rather than a presentation of known facts, but it makes for an exciting passage — one of many in this compelling narrative.
MAKE IT: Aslan's depiction of a more aggressive and politically active Jesus bears little resemblance to the Good Shepherd of the Gospels, so perhaps a discussion of Zealot should be accompanied by a comforting slice of shepherd's pie. This classic dish, which crowns a mixture of cooked onions, carrots and meat with a layer of creamy mashed potatoes, is a triumph of savory simplicity.
ACCOMPANIMENTS: Since shepherd's pie is an Irish dish, a hearty stout such as Guinness seems like an obvious accompaniment, although a dark porter would work well too. The meaty flavor also pairs well with hearty red wine, such as cabernet sauvignon or zinfandel.
Read & Feed is a monthly column in Taste that matches popular book club selections with food to serve at meetings. If you have suggestions or would like to share what your book club is cooking up, send an email to [email protected] Put BOOK FOOD in the subject line.