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.