There is a lot of interest in Reza Aslan’s newest book, Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth. I have posted comments concerning this book earlier (here, here, and here), but now I have read it for myself and perhaps can offer a simple review.
The premise of this excellent book is that despite all the religious followers around the world, we really don’t know much about the man known as Jesus. Aslan attempts to combine what little we do know about the historical Jesus with the stories developed in the Bible; however, the stories are not uncritically accepted as gospel, but rather are measured and analyzed against the accepted knowledge of the culture and society around the area centered on Jerusalem at the start of the Common Era.
If you like history, this book is fascinating. But if you think that it is a book written by a Moslem to destroy your religion (Christianity) you are mistaken and might be surprised at how much you can learn by reading Aslan’s book and still maintain your chosen faith.
Aslan does not question or deny the life of Jesus as expressed in the Gospels, but he does offer a great deal of historical information that might alter the accepted interpretation of the life of Jesus as represented in the Bible. Simple things: crucifixion was the widespread method used by the Roman to punish crimes, especially crimes against the state; traveling magician were common in the area and known to amaze the crowds with illusions not unlike those ascribed to Jesus; Jesus was only one of a long line of messiahs and since the idea of a messiah coming to free the Jews from the tyranny of Roman rule was by definition sedition, they all met similar fates; Jesus had brothers (which sort of makes the whole Virgin Mary thing moot); as a messiah, Jesus failed to deliver the Jews, just like all the other messiahs that came before him; the early church was headed by James, brother of Jesus; Paul attempted to form the church the way he wanted it, ignoring the original concept of freeing the Jews, but was initially corrected by the central church in Jerusalem; etc.
What develops after the ministry of Jesus is a church that moves away from the original promise to the Jews, effectively ignores James and his efforts to complete his brother’s mission, and slowly evolves into a non-Jewish religion to further persecute the Jews and to further glorify the Roman overlords. Christianity became the church of Rome and had little to identify it with the teachings of Jesus. It was a select group of influential Romans who codified the early teachings of Christianity, most obviously by selecting the religious writings that reflected their ideas and policies for inclusion in the early Bible. One fact emphasizes this: the New Testament is written in Greek rather than Aramaic, the language of Jesus and his followers.
Aslan points out how many of the stories in the gospels are literary or political rather than historical. His argument for the gradual migration of the Christian church to be a political tool of the Romans is quite compelling. But for the most part, Aslan allows for doubt and never really rejects the more religious aspects of the church. He does, however, provide many interesting alternative conclusions pertaining to the life of Jesus. He doesn’t try to insert doubt into the stories of the Christ or the Son of God or any of the accepted teachings of the church, but he does provide historical considerations that are much simpler to understand, answers that do not require a belief in a supernatural being to be responsible for and to control all of existence.
But to be clear: at no time does Reza Aslan suggest that Christian Faith should be questioned. His book is not about faith but rather about history. To be sure, if a good story can gather in the faithful, then a good story is to be allowed; but it doesn’t have to be a true story with historical validity.
One thing that Aslan leaves out of his book, understandably beyond the context of a history of the life of Jesus, emphasizes to me the massive fiction that the church represents: the pictures of Jesus with flowing blond hair, a trim beard, and looking like he stepped right out of a commercial for Swedish tourism. I suspect underneath all of Aslan’s analysis is the unspoken question: if mortal men made up key elements of the story and altered the narrative to meet their political ideologies, are we wrong to question the whole story?