Resa Aslan’s new book, Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth is, at times, a page-turner. This should not come as a surprise given the fact that Mr. Alsan holds an MFA from the famed Iowa Writers’ Workshop at the University of Iowa. This book is presented in relatively short chapters, each chapter tackling a small part of the large story of Jesus.
Notice how I did not use Jesus Christ a moment ago. The term “the Christ” was appended to Jesus’s posthumously, and was not, according to Mr. Aslan, a title that would have been used while he lived. This, then, is a key component to Mr. Aslan’s book. In the very beginning he specifcally sets aside the idea of Jesus as the Christ, telling us that he will instead chose to focus on Jesus, the man from Nazareth. In doing so, he prepares the reader for the way divinity is stripped away from the titular character.
The book begins with an exploration of the social, economic, and political situation of Jerusalem and the surrounding cities and villages. This work is deftly done and gives the reader a wider context to the times and places Jesus lived and worked. It’s the pre-work required to prepare the reader, allowing Mr. Aslan to then dig into the great “what-ifs” of Jesus’s days and nights.
For that is really all there is when it comes to the historical record. A large basket of “what-ifs”. The earliest written records of Jesus’s life are housed in the Gospel of Mark, which scholars date approximately sixty years after the death of Jesus. All that can really be said historically about Jesus is that he was born, and that he died. There are no other contermpary historical records off which to base a biography. Therefore, this biography must be assembled in the context of the social, economical, and political enivornments.
In using these as a basis, Mr. Aslan then begins to pick apart what would have been most likely in the case of Jesus. He calls into question the Nativity narratives, using conflicting text in the Gospels themselves to ultimately dismiss these narratives as fiction at best, and, at its most cynical, as a means of retroactively establishing the divinity of Jesus as God. When Jesus is supposedly found instructing scholars as to the scriptures at age twelve, Mr. Aslan points out that Jesus, being from what was then the backwater village of Nazareth, was likely just another illiterate son of a day laborer. He uses scholarly estimates of literacy rates to back up these claims, with the natural conclusion being that an illiterate day laborer would not have been able to lecture scholars as to the scriptures. But if that is not enough evidence, he goes on to point out that there was no synagogue in Nazareth, so this scene could never possibly have taken place.
There are other instances of these, and there are comparison to the multitude of other Jews who, at the time, claimed to be the messiah. The list of names is long enough that they can be hard to keep track of as they pop up throughout the book, and their fates were as gruesome, if not moreso, than the crucifixion of Jesus.
But before we dismiss this book out of hand as the work of a fiction writer, we must also understand that Mr. Aslan holds several degrees in theological studies. He’s not coming at this as if it’s the story of Santa Claus. And while the book clocks in at 336 pages, the actual biography is merely 216 pages, with the balance being lengthy notes on sources, presented in their own chapter-like format.
Reza Aslan takes all of the “magic” out of the character of Jesus in his attempt to distill Jesus down to a mere man, but does not refute that any of the “magic” happened. When faced with a miracle from the story of Jesus, he simply ignores it, be it loaves and fishes, walking on water, or the resurrection. He offers reasons why the resurrection may not have happened the way the Gospels claim, yet was does not say that it did not happen. In fact, he offers that fact that there were multiple witnesses to Jesus after his supposed death, and that they died for their belief, sometimes under torturous situations, as the potential proof that the resurrection DID happen.
In the end, each reader must take what they want to from the book. The book was a #1 New York Times bestseller. I’d wager a third of those reader were Christians and believers reading it for no other reason than to prepare a rebuttal, while another third were atheists and non-believers looking for additional ways to say “See? I told he was a myth!”.
My own thoughts on the book as that it is an interesting perspective, not to be taken as fact, but not to be dismissed out of hand. I think it very likely, as Mr. Aslan suggests, that Pontius Pilate, a notably cruel ruler who would send soldiers in the streets to kill protesting Jews, could have cared less about who Jesus said he was and signed his death warrent without a single word, rather than trying desperately to find a way to let Jesus live and, when failure was inevitable, washed his hands of the affair. However, I think that one of the precepts of any religion is faith in a power higher than our own. And in that faith, would it not be possible for a twelve year old illiterate boy named Jesus to have scriptural debates because he is imbued with the Holy Spirit? If you have faith, then it is indeed possible.