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29 of 32 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A revealing portrait of Jesus rooted in historical fact, 27 Aug. 2013
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This review is from: Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth (Hardcover)
Reza Aslan has performed a public service with this readable review of the life and times of Jesus the Nazarene. As a scholar of religion and a teacher of creative writing, he has managed to hit a high note in a field both swamped with demented polemics from religious cranks and overgrown with pedantic exercises in obfuscation by bookish bores, all of which has fed a forbidding forest of obstacles to writers like Aslan. His new book is about as exciting as a monograph backed by a solid list of academic references can be, and it tells the story with a spin that begs for a Hollywood movie treatment by a team that can do justice to his thoroughly modern vision.

Zealot is the story of a politically engaged Jesus in a world where religion and politics were inextricably entangled. So the tale has a striking resonance in the turmoil currently gripping the Mideast region, and Aslan as a confessed Muslim is coming from the right corner to tell it. The Jewish struggle for freedom from Roman rule two thousand years ago finds a disturbing mirror in the modern Palestinian struggle to break free of Israeli domination, and although the contrast between the two struggles is so great as to make the second seem a wild inversion of the first, the parallel is revealing. Aslan is wise enough to do no more than hint at this side of his story and to focus on the old struggle. He presents the vivid facts surrounding the narrative in order to set in sharp relief the unknown details that have been blurred into mad minefields by endless polemics between various believers. What we see is a profile of Jesus that makes the Christian confabulations surrounding his life look transparent. No reasonable person can fail to see through the threadbare veils of faith to the shadow of the man behind them.

A great merit of the book is its gently ironic distance from the three monotheistic faiths. We see the facts, so far as they have been established by generations of patient scholars, plus an honest assessment of the gaps and the conjectures, all wrapped up in a story that stays lively enough to keep readers going. The ancient clash of Romans and Jews is a drama without equal in Western history, and its uneasy resolution in the Christian tradition is with us still. So Aslan needs skill and courage to stay on top as he surfs the waves of the ongoing controversies. He does so with such aplomb that even simple Christians need not be offended by his portrait.

Any such portrait confronts a historical challenge. A hundred years ago, Albert Schweitzer concluded a magisterial review of all previous lives of Jesus with the dismaying verdict that key facts were lost and all the lives said more about their authors than about their subject. More recent studies, for example on the Dead Sea scrolls and newly discovered gospels, have helped, but they have also raised wider questions. To disclose my own interest, last year I drafted a book on the life of Jesus that I now find largely shared the perspective Aslan adopts in Zealot. I know how hard it is to rise to the challenge posed by Schweitzer and failed to meet it. Aslan does better. His touch is so light as he approaches matters of moment to fundamentalists that he leaves his own opinions out of play, with the pleasing result that the facts, at least so far as we know them, can speak for themselves. Also, his scholarship has been impressive, albeit with gaps that some reviewers have attacked with their own zeal, so readers of Zealot can rest content that the main claims are reasonably solid.

In my opinion, Aslan fails the Schweitzer test on two aspects of the story. First, he drastically undervalues the pacific doctrines of the gospel Jesus, which show that Jesus was influenced by Essene ideas. The love and peace vibe makes Jesus more of a hippy than a zealot, and sets up a resonance between his ideas and Buddhism. Second, Aslan fails to look more closely at the resurrection stories. Odd details in the crucifixion drama suggest that Jesus may have survived the punishment, for a while at least, and perhaps even hoped to do so. Aslan may be forgiven for glossing over the resurrection issue, but losing the love thing behind a call to arms makes for a travesty.

Despite the flaws, Zealot is the best book on Jesus for a long time. Atheists and believers alike will find both cheer and challenges as they come to grips with its drama. All its readers will be better informed in the debates on faith that are likely yet to come. Our global civilization is struggling to integrate the three strands of monotheism in a world where science puts hard bounds on any truth behind their faiths. Zealot helps narrow the scope for believers to make wild assertions about Jesus the Nazarene, and thus helps us all.
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Showing 1-3 of 3 posts in this discussion
Initial post: 28 Dec 2014 14:32:22 GMT
'Aslan as a confessed Muslim'? Run that one past me again? He's Iranian by birth, but where in 'Zealot' does he say that he is now a Muslim?

In reply to an earlier post on 28 Dec 2014 15:50:39 GMT
Andrew Ross says:
In a 2013 interview with WNYC host Brian Lehrer, Aslan said: "I'm definitely a Muslim and Sufism is the tradition within Islam that I most closely adhere to."
(Wikipedia: "Reza Aslan")

In reply to an earlier post on 28 Dec 2014 16:06:24 GMT
Hi Andrew - many thanks for yours. Having read your careful and modest review I should have known that your comment would be well founded! In fact I had just discovered another reference to his acknowledgement of his Muslim faith, but not so closely referenced as yours.
I much appreciated your review - I don't share your reservations about the book but note that you gave it five stars anyway. My position is a little like yours as I'm most of the way through a book on the Bible trying to sort truth (?) from fiction. (You might like to look at some of my reviews, e.g. my review of Ratzinger's book on the Nativity Stories.) Sorry you didn't finish yours - keep your fingers crossed for me!
Thanks again and best regards
Simon
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