Second Opinion Review – Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth by Reza Aslan

Rameau recommended this book to me – thanks a lot! – and her concise but great review can be found here. As I happened to have a bit different opinion than her I decided to write and publish my own musings.

Synopsis (from Goodreads): 

Two thousand years ago, an itinerant Jewish preacher and miracle worker walked across the Galilee, gathering followers to establish what he called the “Kingdom of God.” The revolutionary movement he launched was so threatening to the established order that he was captured, tortured, and executed as a state criminal.

Within decades after his shameful death, his followers would call him God.

Sifting through centuries of mythmaking, Reza Aslan sheds new light on one of history’s most influential and enigmatic characters by examining Jesus through the lens of the tumultuous era in which he lived: first-century Palestine, an age awash in apocalyptic fervor. Scores of Jewish prophets, preachers, and would-be messiahs wandered through the Holy Land, bearing messages from God. This was the age of zealotry—a fervent nationalism that made resistance to the Roman occupation a sacred duty incumbent on all Jews. And few figures better exemplified this principle than the charismatic Galilean who defied both the imperial authorities and their allies in the Jewish religious hierarchy.

Balancing the Jesus of the Gospels against the historical sources, Aslan describes a man full of conviction and passion, yet rife with contradiction; a man of peace who exhorted his followers to arm themselves with swords; an exorcist and faith healer who urged his disciples to keep his identity a secret; and ultimately the seditious “King of the Jews” whose promise of liberation from Rome went unfulfilled in his brief lifetime. Aslan explores the reasons why the early Christian church preferred to promulgate an image of Jesus as a peaceful spiritual teacher rather than a politically conscious revolutionary. And he grapples with the riddle of how Jesus understood himself, the mystery that is at the heart of all subsequent claims about his divinity.

My impressions:

I grant it: the author mentioned in the introduction that the book contained only his very personal and obviously skewed vision of Jesus of Nazareth, based on some flimsy historical evidence and a series of informed guesses, nothing more. Fine. However, during the narrative which was, by the way, executed extremely well for a non-fiction read, I found many passages proving Mr. Aslan seemed to be so enamoured with his own vision of the founder of Christianity  that he practically started to believe in every word he’d written – never a good sign for a scholar of any subject.

My main problem with the book was that  the author was so hell-bent on differentiating between a construct he called ‘historical Jesus’ and another construct he called ‘Jesus Christ’ that I felt he was preaching his own version of the Gospels. I happen to disagree with such a premise. Overall he took for granted that these two constructs couldn’t have anything, literally anything in common. Here is how the method worked in practice: the author focused on one aspect of Jesus’ life, found all of the Gospel passages that emphasized that aspect and declared them historically reliable;  then he casually characterized the rest of the Gospels as the non-historical musings of the evangelists and their communities, added much, much later. My only question is: how did he know? How could he be sure what was added later and what was not? How can you judge particular fragments of such old texts – I mean using what criteria exactly – wihtout having an access to original versions which simply don’t exist? The only true and honest answer is: nobody can do it – that’s why your intelligent guesses or your personal beliefs cannot and shouldn’t be presented as the holly truth or, alternatively, the only right version of events.

My other issue with Aslan’s analysis arises from his tendency to take issues of great controversy and present them in a very casual way as something cut-and-dried just because he personally agrees with them. Since there are no citations until the very end – it is not a scientific or historical paper of any kind after all – readers are left taking his word for claims and methods which many scholars would dispute. In terms of facts, time and again Aslan makes assertions that range from the problematic to the likely and perhaps deliberately incorrect. Once again: I understand it is his very private and skewed version of events, his favourite theory, but when you happen to support such a controversial minority theory it is always good to present your arguments and also those more popular theories you disagree with. 

Take for example Aslan’s unsupported claim that the author of Luke’s Gospel was like the author of Mark and Matthew “…a Greek-speaking Diaspora Jew.” This view runs contrary to the vast majority of scholars, who see Luke as a Gentile, writing for Gentiles, drawing on only limited original Jewish sources. Of course Aslan has every right to side with the minority scholarly view here, but he should make that plain to his reader rather than simply asserting his opinion as fact. Another claim from this book that the Nicene Creed was “…merely codifying a creed that was already a majority opinion…of the entire Christian community” made me bewildered to the extreme because, once again, it is in stark contrast with the opinion of the majority of historians. Of course the author never mentions why he thinks what he thinks and he omits the fact that others think something entirely different about that topic.

Finally Aslan assumes that St Peter was indeed the first Christian bishop of Rome whereas there is no substantial proof he ever visited that city. EVER. I know it is a strong tradition, especially among the Catholics –  Peter is said to have founded the church in Rome with Paul, serving as its bishop; he authored two epistles, and then met martyrdom, crucified head downward at his own request – he felt he was unworthy to die like his Master and Lord, Jesus. However the traditional Catholic interpretation that his role was analogous to that of later Popes is questioned or rejected by many historians and by other Christian denominations as it is based on a very flimsy piece of evidence: the only biblical reference to Peter being there comes from the First Letter of Peter where the author states that he is…in “Babylon”(1 Peter 5:13). First Christians considered it to be a coded reference to Rome. However, Babylon at that time was an important fortress city in Egypt, just north of today’s Cairo, and this fact, combined with the “greetings from Marc” (1 Peter 5:13) who is regarded as founder of the Church of Alexandria (Egypt) make some scholars place the First Peter epistle as written in Egypt. I feel somebody caring about the true version of events  would have mentioned that much.

Final verdict:

I enjoyed reading Zealot , I really did. The book had a forceful, fluid and elegant writing style and I truly understand why it’s easy to get swept away in the force of Aslan’s arguments. However, there are too many serious flaws and some surprising factual mistakes  which prevented me from agreeing with the author of this book or even considering him a serious scholar. I don’t regret reading it and I am sure it is a great position to be discussed but nothing to base your historical knowledge or beliefs on.

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6 Responses to Second Opinion Review – Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth by Reza Aslan

  1. blodeuedd says:

    Reading abut jesus? Bleh. No thanks. I did see an interesting documentary though about Eden and what might have been

  2. heidenkind says:

    Didn’t the Eastern half of the church break entirely with Rome over the Nicene Creed? Seems like a strange claim to make.

    • I would call this book “la belle infidèle” (Anne Mather, IOU ;P) – it reads so well you hardly notices it’s full of half-truths or even serious mistakes. The author should think about writing fiction where anything goes, like alternate history fantasy AND such.

  3. rameau says:

    I read this as the author wrote it; selectively. I only picked on things I liked and ignored the rest and I’m not obsessed enough to research the book for those factual errors. Glad you liked it though 😉

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