I'd read a little bit about Alexandria (mostly in Stacy Schiff's book on Cleopatra), but I never dreamed its history was so intimately connected with such vast stretches of the intellectual, political, and religious history of the ancient world. Pollard and Reid spin a fascinating yarn that unites Alexander the Great, the Septuagint, maps of the world, clocks and odometers, Cleopatra, the steam engine, animatronics, and the brutal killing of Hypatia in a single overarching narrative. And when I mention those items of particular interest (to me), I'm only scratching the surface. A brilliant history with an unusual approach, and (as usual) impeccable narration from Simon Vance.
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.
If you've read Reza Aslan's book on Jesus, or Bill O'Reilly's, and want to see a recognized expert on the historical Jesus at work, check this out. It's not current; comments on the audio make it clear that it was recorded pre-2000; but it's aged well, and to date remains the most comprehensive summary of the subject available on audio.
Bart Ehrman has strong opinions on the subject, and he's not shy about voicing them here. But he returns again and again to the historical evidence and to the methodologies historians have developed for dealing with that evidence. These are the footnotes Aslan left out (and the ones Bill O'Reilly, in his rush to market, never bothered to look up). Ehrman's lectures are solidly grounded and delivered with the enthusiasm of someone who loves what he's doing.
About those strong opinions. Jesus was, says Ehrman, a millennial prophet (that was, in fact, the title of one of his first books on Jesus). Jesus expected God to intervene in history in his own lifetime and bring about the Kingdom, a Kingdom in which Jesus himself expected to play a prominent role. He expected his 12 disciples to play significant but subordinate roles: in Ehrman's view, statements made by Jesus about his disciples judging people from the four corners of the earth are to be taken literally as a description of his agenda. Unfortunately - says Ehrman - Jesus was wrong, and his mission was a failure.
This isn't the Jesus most believers want to hear about, but it's the Jesus who appears from a dispassionate examination of the evidence. It's the Jesus most consistent with the work of John the Baptist who preceded him and the apostle Paul who followed him. It's the Jesus of mainstream New Testament scholarship and has been so for a hundred years.
Traditionalists aren't the only ones whose ox is gored by Ehrman. The Jesus Seminar - a group that argued Jesus was an inoffensive philosopher of the Greek Cynic persuasion - comes in for a strong dose of forensic dissection. John Dominic Crossan's reliance on the gospels of Thomas and Peter is discussed and criticized at length. Scholars who argue for a multilayered "Q" document, earlier layers of which are non-millennial, are resoundingly refuted. Over and over again, Ehrman demonstrates how the view of Jesus as a millennial prophet makes better sense of more evidence than any of the rival views.
Every statement Ehrman makes in this "great course" is backed up by citations of evidence, a clear explanation of pros and cons, and careful reasoning. I'm not sure this is the first place to look if you want an easy introduction to the subject, but if your appetite is already whetted, Ehrman will give you a well researched and coherent vision of Jesus.
(Last time I'll say this, though: Great Courses - please - enough with the canned applause already.)