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Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth
Here is a very positive review of the popular book by Reza Aslan, a real 'page-turner' for this kind of book.
By Greg Cusack
I have read quite a lot of books written by Scripture scholars attempting to "unpack" both the First and Second Testaments (a more respectful way of saying "Old" and "New" Testaments), and this ranks as one of the very best.
1) It is very approachable. Mr. Aslan may be a scholar -- and he is a very good one! -- but he is also a novelist at heart. In the first part of his book he takes information from many disparate sources and introduces us to the reality of what life was like in Palestine in the decades before and after Jesus' birth. It was as close to a "page-turner" as I can imagine any book of this nature could possibly be.
2) It is respectful to all of the religious traditions involved. The tone throughout is inquisitive but never dismissive, even when the author suspects -- and gives reasons for his suspicion -- that material was likely fabricated after the events themselves.
3) It seems easily in accord with much of recent scriptural scholarship in which trained professionals -- from diverse or no faiths -- have brought their respective linguistic, textual and historical skills to bear. Much has been done in recent years to "peel away" the non-historical layers which have, over the centuries, come to accrue to the person we think of as Jesus. Mr. Aslan is not interested in debunking or criticizing various doctrines; rather, he is intent upon separating "doctrines" from "likely historical facts."
4) It is not surprising, therefore, that the Jesus he uncovers -- and salutes -- is quite human, very Jewish (he is a "zealous person" -- i.e., zealous for the law -- hence the title "Zealot"), and very "now" focused. I have no quarrel with any of this; in fact I praise him for making the discoveries of recent scholarship so very readable and accessible to regular persons.
5) In short, his Jesus is NOT a divine being, co-equivalent to the deity, nor did Jesus see himself this way. He was NOT out to establish a "new church" (an idea anathema to a good Jew); rather, like the prophets of his people of old, he wished to purify the teachings and practices of his people of the human accretions which the centuries since the return from exile in Babylon built up.
6) He makes clear how what we understand as "Christianity" today would have turned out very differently had Jerusalem not been destroyed in 70 AD (for this was when Jesus' brother James, and several of the other remaining apostles, were killed. As all of them had remained Jewish -- even while preaching the good news about Jesus' teaching -- their teaching represented something of a counter-weight to the teachings of Paul. With their voices silenced, though, and with the substance of the Jesus-followers now shifting to the Gentile world outside Palestine, it was the interpretations of Paul (also given eloquent expression in the Gospel of John) that quickly came to form the understanding of who Jesus was and what Christianity was all about.
7) It is interesting what he affirms about the life of Jesus, too. For example, he does not question that Jesus was a healer and miracle-worker. He gives his arguments for why this is in the text. He also -- although he acknowledges that the event itself is "outside historical examination" -- affirms that there has to be something to the reported resurrection of Jesus as the evidence is clear that this was one of the earliest beliefs about him among his followers. Exactly what this event was, or of its meaning, he is silent (which is, certainly, his privilege).
8) Reservations? Only two general comments, neither in the of the kind that should defer an interested person from reading this excellent book.
a) The first is that, not unlike any of us who suspect we have found THE central thread to explaining the mystery of something, he takes from his studies those quotations from Jesus (and others) which support his central thesis (which is that Jesus was another in a long line of miracle-worker/healers who announced that the time had come to overthrow Roman rule, and also break the power of the cooperating Jewish priesthood. While Jesus' message was more profound than most, he ended up suffering an identical fate. The cross, Mr. Aslan notes, was reserved for those whom Rome felt were engaged in treasonous or seditious activity against their state. This was definitely Jesus' message, Mr. Aslan argues throughout. Accordingly, he does not spend any time citing the many other teachings of Jesus which had to do with how we should treat each other or, if you will, those teachings which are about how we all need to "repent and reform" our lives in order to grow up and become the kind of humans the Holy One intended us to be. Thus, the possibility that Jesus might have been something other than, or more than, "just a zealot" is not really considered.
b) Mr. Aslan repeatedly says that Jesus and his apostles were illiterate and uneducated. While I suspect that is true of his followers, such a statement does not explain Jesus' rather thorough knowledge of Jewish scriptures, including the Wisdom and Prophetic books. Yes, it was an oral society and, yes, we know that in pre-literate societies people were able to memorize staggeringly vast amounts of oral tradition. But I do not think that alone explains Jesus' knowledge. Mr. Aslan points out that his village of Nazareth was but a short distance from the more significant Greco-Roman settlement of Sepphoris, which sported temples, elegant streets, and theatre. As a woodworker-craftsperson, Jesus would likely have done some work there as a young man (remember, we know nothing of his life before his emergence in his late 20s, the lovely but mythical tales of Matthew and Luke's infancy narratives notwithstanding). With his obvious intelligence, it is quite possible that Jesus found a person (or a group) with which he came to associate in his free time, perhaps picking up the ability to read texts for himself.
c) Mr. Aslan also correctly states that Jesus clearly saw his mission as "only" to the Jewish people -- as Paul would later cite, there was an old saying that "Salvation comes from the Jews." However, even though he cites the incident where a Phoenician-Syrian woman successfully challenges Jesus to broaden his horizon, Mr. Aslan shows no interest in the possible -- and, I think, likely -- evolution of Jesus' own conception of his mission. In the parable of the Good Samaritan, for instance, which Mr. Aslan does cite, Jesus was not just portraying the priesthood in an unfavorable light when he had a priest and a Levite bypass the wounded stranger on the highway. Rather, his use of the despised Samaritan as a hero-figure would have been shocking to his audience; he intended it to mean: broaden your understanding of "neighbor" from just members of your own tribe to include those unknown to you but who are nonetheless "neighbor" to you.
These are relatively minor caveats, though, and I think people who remain curious about uncovering more truth about this remarkable person Jesus will find the book a great read, highly informative, and nicely provocative.
Greg Cusack retired from a lifetime of public service in Iowa in 2004, and moved to Portland with his wife Karen in 2013. He has been a college teacher of American history, both a city councilman and a state legislator, executive director of the National Catholic Rural Life Conference, and Benefits Administrator for the Iowa Public Employees Retirement System.
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