Efforts have been made by scholars for over two millennia to pare away the pious stuff in the Bible and get at the true nature and life of Jesus. This author makes yet one more try at doing that. And does a credible job, one which is an entertaining read.

Zealot: the life and times of Jesus of Nazareth, by Reza Aslan, 2013, is the full name of the book and author.

One of the ways in which Aslan makes the book quite readable is to not footnote everything. He then has a copious notes section at the back of the book which those interested readers can check for sources, other viewpoints, or for further research. Indeed, his book seems extremely well researched. He seems to have taken into account many divergent viewpoints in coming up with his own version of events.

I greatly appreciated this feature of the book (no footnotes), although I must not have paid much attention when beginning to read. I was caught by surprise at the extensive notes! 54 pages worth! But it certainly made the book a more flowing read; it was quite a pleasure, actually.

I certainly did not find myself agreeing with all of Aslan’s points. Thinking back over the book, I would say the point I most strongly disagreed with is that of Jesus being a mostly poor, likely illiterate, peasant labourer from Nazareth. From things I have been reading more recently the picture is emerging of Jesus being fairly well-educated, learning from scholars in Egypt, perhaps India, including Greek and Hebrew scholars closer to home. Being a carpenter, Joseph likely was fairly well-to-do for his place and time.

But there was much, much to like in this book. (And I must say that I don’t read only books that I agree with!!!) One is the overall picture of life in first-century Palestine. The author lays out in very readable, entertaining ways the multitude of forces at work at that time. It certainly gives me a much clearer idea of what life was like for Jesus when he was growing up, and for the people around him.

Another feature of the book I appreciated was the image of James the Just, brother of Jesus. James became leader of the believers in Jerusalem. He was killed around 62 C.E., for disputes with the priestly rulers of the temple. James very much seems to have carried on Jesus’ message and been an able leader of the earliest church.

He also is the most likely author of the epistle of James in the Bible. Reza Aslan says, “That would make James’s epistle arguably one of the most important books in the New Testament. Because one sure way of uncovering what Jesus may have believed is to determine what his brother James believed.” (p 204). Some points where Jesus and his brother agree is, 1) the “. . . passionate concern with the plight of the poor”, in James’s epistle. 2) Another point is James’s “. . . bitter condemnation of the rich.” (p 204). 3) Jesus and James also seem to be “. . . in agreement [over] the role and application of the Law of Moses.” (p 205). “The primary concern of James’s epistle is over how to maintain the proper balance between devotion to the Torah and faith in Jesus as messiah.” (p 206).

While Peter is often held up as the primary leader of the first Church, James almost certainly deserves that title. There is no evidence of Peter ever being a leader of the Church in Jerusalem. It was not until after his move to Rome that Peter became recognized as a Church leader. So, while James was the leader in Jerusalem, Peter was becoming the leader in Rome. Of course, once Jerusalem was destroyed and its inhabitants scattered, James’ role, and that of his successors, diminished, and Rome gradually came to be seen as the center of the Church.

Fascinating stuff! As I said above, an articulate picture of the earliest days of the Church emerged from reading this book.

One of the most powerful moments for me in reading this book came in the Author’s Note at the beginning. Reza Aslan explains how he found Jesus as his Saviour at the age of 15. Born into a lukewarm Muslim home in California after being displaced from their native Iran,

“. . . our lives were scrubbed of all trace of God. That was just fine with me. After all, in the America of the 1980’s being Muslim was like being from Mars. My faith was a bruise, the most obvious symbol of my otherness; it needed to be concealed.

Jesus, on the other hand, was America. He was the central figure in America’s national drama. Accepting him into my heart was as close as I could get to feeling truly American. (p xviii).

He became very evangelical and fervent in his new-found faith. In college, however, as happens to so many of us, he began to have doubts about the biblical account. Initially, “. . . like many people in my situation, I angrily discarded my faith as if it were a costly forgery I had been duped into buying.” (p xix). As he continued academic work in religious studies he found himself increasingly drawn to the life of the historical Jesus. So now, in addition to discovering some life in the Muslim faith of his forefathers, he also finds himself fascinated with the life of Jesus. “. . . two decades of rigorous academic research into the origins of Christianity has made me a more genuinely committed disciple of Jesus of Nazareth than I ever was of Jesus Christ. My hope with this book is to spread the good news of the Jesus of history with the same fervor that I once applied to spreading the story of the Christ.”     (p xx).

What really touched me in his Note was that Reza Aslan travelled such a similar path to my own. The only difference is that what took him probably five years or less, has taken me four decades to realize! Along with Aslan I find myself increasingly questioning the biblical stories and more and more attempting to model my spiritual life on that of Jesus himself. Jesus is worthy of following; the Church’s portrayal of him not so much.

I encourage anyone interested in the earliest bases of the Christian faith to read this book. It is certainly enlightening.

Oh, those fundamentalists!!

Awhile back I was having a good conversation with a friend of mine who I would describe as a conservative, evangelical Christian. I am sure that he put me in a similar category, at least until I made some sort of comment about no longer taking the Bible as my primary source of truth. “WHAT?!!!”, he practically shouted in reply!

And having grown up in a conservative religious environment, I readily understand his reply. But the way I used to view scriptures is no longer adequate for me. And for a number of reasons.

And the main reasons for this switch are taken from the Bible itself! My most recent epiphany is the example of Jesus. Where did Jesus get his “truth”? How did he hear God speaking? What was Jesus’ claim to authority for the things he taught? Jesus certainly knew the scriptures. He was able to engage the scriptural experts in their debates. The Bible contains a story of him amazing some of those experts at a young age with his wisdom and grasp of scriptural truth.

Another reason is the biblical assertion that God is the same yesterday, today and forever, that he does not change. If that is actually true, why do we think he no longer speaks to us like he did 2000 years ago? Did he cease speaking with the publication of the scriptures?

The Hebrew scriptures were written down in their present form approximately 500 years BCE. Prior to this, there was undoubtedly some form of written scripture, certainly including the “law”, and probably including all or most of the first five books of what Christians refer to as the “old” testament. The word of God came primarily, in those days, through the mouths of prophets. Through Elijah, Isaiah, Jeremiah and all the other prophets whose words have been preserved in scripture, God was speaking.

Once all these scriptures were gathered together into one document, and written down and copied from generation to generation, the words of the prophets mostly dried up. We have very little record of God speaking during the 500 years between the writing down of the Hebrew scriptures and when Jesus appeared on the scene.

What had grown up instead was a tradition of debating, studying, learning, and teaching those scriptures. This pattern was very well established by the time Jesus came around.

After the time of Jesus there was another time period of documents being written down to preserve the teachings of Jesus and the events of his life and those of his earliest followers. This time period of writing began around 2-3 decades after Jesus’ life and lasted till about 7-8 decades after. This time period holds true for those documents which were eventually included in the Christian scriptures, a decision that occurred some 3 centuries after the events of Jesus’ life. There were many documents written during these 300+ years which were not included in the Bible we have today. And indeed, even that decision was not unanimously accepted, either at the time, or later. As late as the 1500’s, the time of the protestant reformation, there was still some debate occurring about which writings should or should not be included in the Bible.

And the debate continues! Did God cease speaking when the scriptures were finalized into the form we have in the Christian Bible today?

Every time a question arises about truth, the biblical ones among us immediately ask whether it agrees with the Bible. There seems to be a sense that a danger exists if a new idea does not agree.

All my life, lived in a church setting and hearing countless sermons and bible studies, I have heard the call to follow Jesus. Be obedient to God and his word. Don’t hold back in living the life of a Christian.

Well, I must ask myself, what happens if following Jesus, God, his word, leads me into areas that conflict directly with the scriptures? Do I follow God, or do I follow the Bible? How do I reconcile this discrepancy?

Several principles seem applicable here: number one is that I think that the conflict does not occur with scripture itself. I believe that it occurs only in the way scripture is being interpreted. So if something I say seems to go against what scripture says, ask yourself whether it actually, really does, or whether my “truth” is only another way to see the scripture. My own thinking on this matter is that if I encounter a truth which does not fit with what scripture is saying then it must be my understanding of the Bible which is suspect. It may not fit with the way scripture is being interpreted by organized religion but if my experience of truth is firm and sure then I have to question how scripture is being taught.

Another principle is that of being obedient. If I am a true follower of Jesus, am I not to follow his example of taking my cue for truth from my relationship with God’s Spirit as did Jesus? How many times does scripture record Jesus as spending time in solitude? Never is there evidence that he carried with him a copy of the Bible and used it to reference his teachings, the wisdom he was passing on to his followers.

Another principle is that of trust. Do I really trust God? Or do I expect him to lead me into falsehood and deception? Looking at the way I discerned truth in my more fundamentalist days I see myself as having put a whole lot of trust in my intellect and in the intellect of those around me. So much of what I lived was what I figured out from scripture as being truth, or what teachers and writers I “trusted” were expounding as being truth. If it made sense to me then I incorporated it into my belief system.

Therefore a large part of the shift within myself that I sense happening, is that of moving from a world formed largely from my mind, to one formed more from my heart.

I feel completely safe on the path I am following. I trust God implicitly and completely. I believe he would never lead me astray. I am not impulsive. That is, I do not immediately jump into new ways of living and believing without a lot of contemplation and prayer. I am careful about what I do, how I live, what I believe in. This caution has meant long years of struggling with new ideas. It has meant that my own spiritual journey has been a long and arduous one. I don’t always know whether this cautious approach to life has been good or not! But I am reassured that I am on a good path. And I accept that this is part of my personality, it is part of who I am, so why fight it?

I see others who are much quicker to accept new ideas and move into them without as much caution. I admire these folk. But this is not me. It has taken me decades to move to the point in my life I find myself. Some move into similar places in a matter of years or months. And that is okay with me. I think that the way the world is evolving we will find more and more people moving quicker and quicker into new understandings of truth. I do not mind that. In my mid-sixties, I have greatly enjoyed my life and the spiritual path I have walked thus far. I can only imagine that the path ahead will continue to be as exciting, as exhilarating, as I have experienced to date.

May the dialogue continue!!!!