When I drive, I read... uhm listen. I like SciFi, Fantasy, some Detective and Espionage novels and Religion. Now and then I will also listen to something else.
Did the early Christians transform their leader from a ‘revolutionary Jewish nationalist’ into a ‘peaceful Spiritual leader with no interest in any earthly matter’ in order to gain converts from the gentile Roman world? Reza Alsan, ex-Evangelical Christian turned moderate American Muslim and religious scholar, thinks so. His argument begins at the crucifixion. Accordingly Jesus was crucified as an insurrectionist, just like the two political bandits who hanged next to him. For Aslan Jesus was a Zealot - though he makes it clear that he was not from the later Jewish Zealot party - his zeal for his people and his political awareness made him a threat to the Roman Government.
Aslan points out very early in the audiobook that every gospel account about Jesus was written after the Jewish revolt against Rome in 66 C.E. Like most scholars of the New Testament today, he claims that the gospels should be read in light of the destruction of the temple in 70 C.E. For Aslan the consequences of the temple’s destruction lead to a very similar outcome in Second Century Judaism and early Christianity. These two movements sought to divorce themselves from the radical messianic nationalism that lead to the war against Rome and the temple’s destruction. Rabbinic Judaism emerged when Jews centred their life on the Torah rather than the temple. Early Christianity divorced itself from the messianic zeal, not only because of being excluded from Judaism, but also because the Romans were now the people from which this movement had to gain converts to grow. Thus Jesus the Zealot had to be made more presentable. Aslan argues basically that he had an image makeover.
In this book Aslan attempts to claim the Jesus of history, the Jesus before Christianity. He tries ‘to reclaim the Political conscious Jewish revolutionary who walked the Galilean country side 2000 years ago, gathering followers as part of his messianic movement with the goal of establishing the kingdom of God, but whose mission failed after he entered Jerusalem, attacked the temple and was captured and crucified.’ His method is to clean the ‘literal and theological’ add-ons of the New Testament up. Starting with the verifiable - Jesus’ crucifixion - he claims to forge a more accurate picture of Jesus, notwithstanding many scholars being sceptic that it cannot be done.
The book is divided into three parts. In Part 1 Aslan presents a summary of Josephus’ History of the Jewish War placing Jesus squarely within the political and social background of his time. He focusses on the various false messiahs, who with their eschatological zeal failed to rise to political power and was suppressed by the Roman Empire. Part 2 focus on what we know about Jesus of Nazareth as a person within history. Aslan begins with the crucifixion as historically verifiable and seems to add Jesus triumphal entry into Jerusalem and some basic claims, like his wonderworking ability and exorcisms to his sketch of Jesus. He also debunks Luke and Matthew’s birth narratives, while describing Jesus as a lowly peasant who spoke out against the great divide between rich and poor in his time. Lastly in Part 3, Aslan debunks Paul and the Pauline branch of Christianity as out of synch with the earliest and truest followers of Jesus of Nazareth, those who accepted James as their leader. He makes the dramatic claim that the Jesus of history died with the martyr Stephen when he called to Jesus as God before his death.
Listening to the audiobook I got the impression that Reza Aslan brought Richard Horsley’s political anti-colonial Jesus with something of Jon Dominic Crossan’s fighter for the poor and oppressed and Burton Mack’s historical consciousness together. He seems to have used Gerd Lüdemann’s argument of great turmoil, diversity and divide within earliest Christianity to construct his picture of the Jerusalem church and the role of James, the brother of Jesus, within the movement.
Here are a few questions that came to my mind while listening to the audiobook: How much would this critical Jesus sketch agree with a similar sketch of Muhammad today? Did I hear a very Lukan construction of Jesus’ agenda? By ignoring the aspect that the gospels as literature, I suspect that he might have projected Jesus’ own agenda ‘the coming of the kingdom of God’ onto John the Baptist. How does he know that the above came from John? If Pontius Pilate was sending almost every Tom, Dick and Harry to the cross, doesn’t it undermine Alsan’s historical reconstruction of a very politically active minded Jesus? Isn’t there too much focus of the discontinuity between various New Testament books, thus ignoring the continuity within those same books?
I think that Aslan’s book describes a type Jesus that could only be constructed listening to the most critical of Jesus scholarship. This allows him to strip Jesus down to the bare minimum. While adding a lot of the insights from New Testament scholarship over the last few years, this enables him to conceive a zealous Jewish and very political Jesus, who seems to me might have a modern-day agenda. His style of writing, often using a word as “ludicrous” or “absurd” when dealing with historical improbabilities within the gospels, feels very confrontational at times. This is the type of language that places you within a group or outside it. Thus using insider and outsider language, Aslan effectively wants the listener to see things his way, if not, well then… you are probably an idiot?
The value of Aslan’s book lies within bringing a vast array of research - though be it in my opinion a bit biased - together, thus producing yet another “mostly” American portrait of Jesus. The portrait is valid and for most of the part Aslan seems to stand on sturdy ground. Yet he reduces Jesus to very little and seems to fill it in with those aspects that might fit the founder of Islam. The book is written in short chapters bringing over time and again the point that Jesus was a Roman insurrectionist who was crucified by the Roman authorities. At some point it felt like a mantra. Yet Alsan has placed a book on the table that has popularised minimalistic critical New Testament scholarship, making it accessible to John and Jane Dow.
Reza Aslan narrated the audiobook himself. I couldn’t help to think of the fervour of Shane Clayborne while listening to Aslan. He read with zeal. It comes across that this Jesus that he has constructed is really the Jesus he believes in and defines his understanding of how to follow him.
This is one of those books that you might need to take note of. It could shape popular opinion about who Jesus is or was for some time to come. Listen to it with a critical ear.
Make no mistake: We're all mammals here.
After seeing the way he handled Fox News ignorance, I was looking forward to reading Aslan's book. I can't say that I was disappointed, but I can't say that I was overly impressed, either. People who have never been exposed to literary/historical biblical criticism, or those who have never looked into the historical Jesus really would benefit from reading Zealot. But for those who are part of mainline churches, there's not too much here that's completely new.
I suppose what underwhelmed me was the author's seeming lack of realization that there are millions of Christians who are continually confronted with the tension between (as he differentiates them) Jesus the Christ and Jesus the Zealot. It is this very tension that causes our faith to grow and thrive, and the doubt it creates forces us to be tolerant of other viewpoints.
As all authors do - even in scholarly works - Aslan manipulates words, research, and data to prove his point. One point in the book stands out, and that is his treatment of the baptism of Jesus. He very cogently examines how this event in the life of Jesus is dealt with in each of the four gospels, moving from an explicit reference to John being the baptizer to no direct connection at all between Jesus' baptism and John. I found it very thoughtful and meaningful until Dr Aslan suddenly referred to Christianity's "frantic" attempt to disassociate John from the baptism of Jesus. Does he not realize that this is nothing new to mainline Christians, that we don't see anything "frantic" about this phenomenon, and that we are well aware of the greater popularity of John and the possibility that Jesus started out as his disciple?
In closing, there's nothing about this work that I find incorrect. After all, Dr Aslan is a greater scholar than I'll ever be. But I would just advise the reader that even excellent scholars can choose subjective words to manipulate the reader's (or listener's) opinions.
Laypersons reading this book would do well to discuss it with their pastor. In so doing, may would discover that much of what the author talks about has already been incorporated into the thinking of their denomination (especially if it's the UCC, ELCA, PCUSA, UMC, ECUSA, ABC etc).
"... there are times when silence is a poem." - John Fowles, the Magus ^(;,;)^
Let me just throw in here now that Fox skeptics need not worry, while this book was written by a Muslim, it wasn't written by that d@mn lion from Narnia.
The book's good points: compelling, well-written, and challenged a lot of well traveled myth-making by Christianity, Islam, etc., about the life and acts of Jesus of Nazareth. The bad points: there wasn't much NEW history here. The book was written to challenge, but not support. It isn't as much a biography of Jesus as a history of early Christianity, an examination of Jerusalem around the time of Jesus, a longish academic piece on Jewish Zealotry, and a examination of some of the other major players that might have reflected (James) or tilted (Paul) our view of who Jesus was. This isn't groundbreaking history about Jesus, and a rehash of ideas of other Early Christian historians that have been kicked around for the last 50 years.
The challenge a historian faces with writing a biography of Jesus is there are only a couple real facts you can hang your reputation on: Jesus lived. Jesus died on a cross. The rest is hearsay, myth, reflections, faith, hope and stories. All you have left to do, as a historian, is: examine the space around the hole. Look at the times, the place. Use templates of similar men to approximate what Jesus was like. Examine other figures who have more of a historical footprint (Paul, Peter, Pilate, etc), and then enter triumphantly into FOX News and overthrow the tables of the producers and drive out the lamb-like anchors. Fox New prefect Rogerios Aīlātos now washes his hands of Aslan of Tehran (and now California).
The author himself narrates the book, and his performance makes more apparent his reckless interpretations of "facts" and wild conclusions. Not at all a scholarly work. He comes across as a cheeky, sarcastic adolescent. I could not listen any more after listening to two hours, and am returning the book. Perhaps it is more palatable in print, which might account for its place among current best sellers.
In the introduction the author points out how the New Testament was never intended to be a historical book and should not be interpreted as a historical book, and then proceeds to interpret the New Testament as a historical book for the rest of the novel. Of course, if the author did not do this, there wouldn't have been much to say other than provide a sense of the culture at the time Jesus lived. I initially thought the book might be worthwhile since it seemed to provide some historical context to the New Testament, however, given the author's propensity for pure speculation about Jesus, I now question the authenticity of the historic background provided in the novel, and wonder how much of that is also speculation. In addition, the author never seemed to question the accuracy of Josephus' writings, even though Josephus' history often times is at odds with archeological findings. Whenever there seemed to be a discrepancy between Josephus and another source, the author always sided with Josephus. Although many references are provided for the novel, the author's interpretation of the references and tendency toward conjecture lead to the low rating of this book. If this is what passes for biblical scholarship, I feel sorry for the field.
I'm an avid reader of many genres and issues. Audiobooks sometimes bring books into 3D , and when that happens its brilliant!
I have been reading historical Jesus books for many years, as an Australia pastor to encourage informed exploration of both Jesus and the gospels.
I must say that I enjoyed much of the content of this book, and Reza's vivid description of Jewish & Roman politics in the 1st century CE. He offers a very interesting reading of Jesus which clearly separates a an understanding of Jesus in his matrix with the Christ of faith ( blamed largely on Paul). Perhaps this is because his own faith story - becoming Christian and then returning to Islam??
However, there are a number of excellent of theologians who need to be read alongside "Zealot" e.g. John Dominic Crossan & Tom Wright to look at the impact and theology of Paul in the emerging Christian movement.
Reza argues ( and reads) persuasively and interestingly, but in the end I had a whole lot of questions about his purpose in constructing this interpretation.
I gave it three stars overall because of these hesitations. It would be a good discussion book though.
This is a case where I simply disagree with the research of the author, Reza Aslan. Reza used the reason, "Scholars disagree" many times as a basis for discrediting the Bible. Furthermore, Reza quoted Josephus to contradict a portion of the scriptures, where I thought the Josephus writing actually confirmed the killing of John the Baptist during 28 to 30 CE. I tried to approach this book with an open mind, and provide the author a chance to make his case for Jesus basically being a worthy zealot, but not the son of God. Time and time again, Reza would select Gospel scripture, and simply discredit it for the reason, "Scholars disagree...", and insinuate that about 50% of the Gospels is purely mythical. For those who choose to doubt the Gospels, this would be a great read.
In my humble opinion, the book was not well researched. It appeared to me that the author had an agenda of discrediting the Gospels, and used this book as a forum to do so. Reza's favorite reason for disagreeing with the New Testament is "Scholars disagree." I could also add, that many scholars over the last 2,000 years do indeed agree. I will concede that much of the Bible is based on faith, and the Bible makes that clear.
Reza's performance was okay.
The character that I would cut from Zealot would be the author. The book is a worthy subject. Jesus was indeed a zealot, and many other things as well.
If you are looking for a book to discredit Christianity, this could be for you. I would encourage readers to research this subject further in other sources.
Despite the misguided scorn heaped upon this book by the obtuse pundits of FOX News, I found this to be a remarkably well-researched, highly readable, and non-biased attempt to explore the scant historical evidence which exists about the man, Jesus, within the historical and political context in which he lived. FOX makes a bumbling attempt to cast doubt upon the validity of the book because the author, Aslan, happens to be Muslim. Aslan is first and foremost a scholar with a Phd. and three other degrees pertaining to world religions. (And these degrees are not from Billie Bob's Christian University.) He has been studying for two decades the history of the man called Jesus as well as the period in which he lived AND the personal and political struggles which very early on formed the Christian church. Don't listen to anyone's opinion who has not actually read this book cover to cover. It is even-handed as well as provocative. Aslan uncovers a man who, whether you happen to be Christian or not, was a remarkable champion of the poor and dispossessed of his era. I read it twice, back to back.
The book is not told for a wide audience. Other scholars of religion might find it interesting.
Even though Aslan tells us there really is limited proof for the jesus of the bible. For the entire book he continued to quote the bible and started to analyze the Bible and it wasn't remotely interesting. He also said he was going to give alternative views on the subject but never did.
He makes interesting points about the historic jesus and the time which he lived. But he never referenced anything directly other than the bible. He constant tells us the bible isn't factual over and over . He never adds anything else. The book should have been shorter.
He paints a picture on the specific time that Jesus lived and all the other messiahs that came before him.
It's a complete waste of time. Not thought-provoking at all.
For anyone and everyone like me who simply could not reconcile the Old Testament God with New Testament Jesus. Reza Aslan walks the reader step by step through the transformation of Historical Jesus to Jesus Christ. Many thanks to Mr. Aslan for authentic, historic truth.