I'm not a believer, but I remain interested in and sympathetic toward Christianity. John Dickson's thoughtful analysis - a "biography from a believer," to use a phrase associated with another recent biography of Jesus - didn't change my mind about theological matters. But he does write gently and persuasively on the subject and is obviously well-versed in current research on the history of first-century Palestine. If someone WERE able to change my mind, it would be someone like him.
This is, in short, an excellent review of the historical Jesus from a frankly Christian perspective. Committed Christians who have been wary of stepping into these waters should give the book a try: they will come away with a stronger sense of the historical and theological underpinnings of their faith. Those who are outside the fold, like me, should give the book a listen as well, if only to see that it's possible to have a calm and reasoned discussion of the issues.
I was partly interested because Simon Vance is the narrator, and he always does a superb job with this kind of book. His voice is clear, steady, well-paced, and consistently interesting.
Reza Aslan has tackled a big project in this book: not just a biography of Jesus, but also a recreation of life in first-century Palestine, combining anecdotal evidence from the New Testament and other writings with the latest evidence from archaeological and sociological investigations. For the most part he succeeds brilliantly. It's one of the most vivid books on this subject I've read in nearly 40 years of study.
I might not feel so positively toward it if his take on Jesus was too far removed from my own. But it isn't. Aslan leans toward the Bart Ehrmann school of thought rather than the NT Wright or Jesus Seminar approach. His Jesus is an apocalyptic prophet who goes to Jerusalem with every expectation that God will intervene in history in a spectacular and visible way; but the Kingdom of God that he's spent a couple of years preaching and predicting (and possibly much of his life preparing for) fails to materialize.
This is not to say his take on Jesus is one of complete skepticism. More rationalist / humanist readers may be surprised at the weight he gives to the miracles of Jesus. Here he seems to most closely reflect the views of John P Meier, who points out that the standard historical criteria for New Testament research - the criteria of multiple sources, dissimilarity, and the like - when applied to the question of Jesus' miracles, lead to the conclusion that he was, in fact, a "doer of mighty deeds" - or at least that the people who knew him, friends and enemies alike, never questioned that he was a healer, exorcist, and wonder-worker.
The same is true of Aslan's discussion of the resurrection. There are no eyewitness accounts and no physical or archaeological evidence for the resurrection, and so it can't be evaluated by historical methods; but it's clear that "something happened." Of all the people who proclaimed themselves Messiah during this period - and Aslan gives a great deal of attention to the other messianic figures - Jesus is the only one whose followers remained devoted to him, who continued to proclaim his messiahship (and later his divinity) long after the crucifixion.
Aslan describes three types of messiahs that appear in Jewish literature leading up the the time of Jesus. The most obvious one is the kingly messiah, the descendant of David who would restore the twelve tribes of Israel; but there were also messiahs-as-liberators like Moses, and messiahs-as-prophets like Elijah. He evaluates the evidence for and against and suggests that, even though he was reluctant to proclaim it openly, Jesus thought of himself as the kingly Messiah. His choice of twelve disciples to "rule the twelve tribes of Israel" is only one piece of evidence to that end. There is also his many references to himself as "the Son of Man," which Aslan connects to the kingly figure depicted in the book of Daniel.
Aslan also gives remarkably full coverage of the early church, up to the time of the writing of the Gospels. Peter is here, as is James, the brother of Jesus, and Paul: and in the controversy that plagued the relationship of James and Paul, it probably comes as no surprise that Aslan believes James was closer to what Jesus actually proclaimed. One of the big problems of the early church, as Aslan describes it, is explaining how, if Jesus was crucified, he could have been the kingly Messiah he thought of himself as being. Aslan's conclusion, like that of many mainstream scholars, is that the disciples resolved the problem by redefining the Messiah as a suffering servant who would one day return in glory to judge the living and the dead. It can be defended with reference to different parts of scripture, but it doesn't reflect any concept of the Messiah that preceded the crucifixion of Jesus.
Aslan narrates the book himself. I'm not a great fan of self-narrated audio books, and there are times when I think he emphasizes the wrong word in his own sentence; but he is an enthusiastic reader who carries the narrative momentum forward with clarity.
I recommend the book highly. I've already listened to it twice (the second time, granted, at double-speed for the sake of review), and I plan to listen to it many timesa in the future.
This is a fascinating, historical re-imaging of the Borgias. HOWEVER, it is not a book that you can listen to while doing something else. Because the author takes the time to fill in the background situation, you learn as much about the history of the Italian city-states as about the Borgias. This is very useful, because it puts the Borgias into the culture of the time, in order to understand both the charges against the Borgias and the brutal culture of the times, but also reasons that the charges were exaggerated beyond recognition. While some would find the background details interesting, I could understand frustration with those who just wanted to get to the main subject. It is also one of those books that might be easier read than listened to.
However, if you are a real history buff, and have the patience to listen with care, this is one of the finest histories of the politics of the Italian Renaissance I have come across. It has taken me a little longer than usual to finish, but I have never been bored and have enjoyed every minute.