Feature

Book of the week: Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth by Reza Aslan

Reza Aslan's “tough-minded” book “does full justice” to Jesus’ radical tendencies.

(Random House, $27)

Lauren Green completely missed the story, said Lizzie Crocker in TheDailyBeast.com. When the Fox News correspondent recently interviewed author and religious scholar Reza Aslan on air, she couldn’t move beyond her apparent surprise that a Muslim had chosen to write a book about Jesus. The cringe-worthy exchange soon went viral online, helping secure Aslan’s book a high perch on best-seller lists and “leaving the rest of us to ask the questions [Green] ignored.” Because a reader doesn’t have to be an Islamophobe to question some of the claims made by the author of 2005’s No god but God. In Aslan’s account, Jesus was not born in Bethlehem, he committed himself at about age 30 to overthrowing Roman rule over Judea, and he died on a cross for the seditious act of violently attacking the money changers who worked inside Jerusalem’s temple.

Aslan’s interpretation is rooted in fact, at least, said Adam Kirsch in TabletMag.com. “There are, of course, some serious problems facing anyone who wants to write about the historical Jesus,” as no known contemporaneous accounts of his life exist. But Aslan has drawn from “a well-established body of scholarship” about the place and time Jesus lived in to paint a “vivid, accessible portrait” of Jesus as a radical Jewish nationalist—one of many who emerged among a population chafing at Roman occupation. “Perhaps the most fascinating part of Zealot, then, is the analysis of how Jesus was tamed by his own followers, and why,” said Lesley Hazleton in the San Francisco Chronicle. Aslan dramatizes the crucial role St. Paul played in transforming the Jesus movement into a faith safe for Roman consumption and in casting Jesus as a messenger of peace. But evidence of Jesus’ radical tendencies still exists, and Aslan’s “tough-minded” account “does full justice” to that Jesus.

But the author can be overly dogmatic about his own views, said The Economist. He presumes, for instance, that Jesus’ significance cannot be measured absent the gathering of biographical fact. His facts, of course, run almost counter to those of the traditional Christian account, and “neither narrative—the familiar one or his alternative—can be established as incontrovertible.” But as much as Aslan’s “blithe certainty” grates, his greater offense in Zealot is that the book “refuses to even acknowledge the possibility of prophecy,” meaning the ability of an individual to discern truths that transcend historical context. No serious religious historian should ever reject that possibility out of hand.

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