Monday, August 5, 2013

Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth by Reza Aslan: A review

My rating: 4 of 5 stars


Noted religious scholar Reza Aslan set out to write a biography of Jesus of Nazareth, the man. It was a daunting task given the fact that there are only two known contemporary historical references to his subject, one by Pliny the Younger and one by Jewish historian Josephus. And both of those references are simply made in passing and contain little information. In fact, the reference by Josephus is made as he is discussing the influence of Jesus' brother James.

James, known as "the Just," was the leader in Jerusalem of those who followed his brother's teachings and he was a highly respected and influential man among both the Jewish and Roman communities there.

James lived his brother's philosophy. He was a strong defender of the poor and weak against the wealthy and powerful. As such, he came into conflict with the greedy high priest, Ananus, who was a reverse Robin Hood kind of guy. He believed in stealing from the poor and giving to the rich - mainly himself.

Ananus had James executed in 62 C.E. That unjust killing caused a wave of protest in Jerusalem and led to Ananus' downfall. Frankly, this book left me hoping for another biography - one of James the Just, brother of Jesus. He seems a fascinating character.

But, back to Jesus.

What is a historian/biographer to do when there are such meager references to the object of his research? In Aslan's case, he has chosen to take the Gospels which portray Jesus' life, but were written several decades after his death and not by men who had actually known him, and has examined them in contrast and comparison with the well-documented contemporary histories of the period in which Jesus lived in Palestine.

If there is one thing that the Romans were good at - besides war and building roads and aqueducts and...well, maybe a few other things - it was keeping records of events in their empire. And so we can learn very easily what was going on in that relatively insignificant backwater of the Roman Empire during the  period when Jesus lived.

Aslan finds that some of the things reported by the Gospels do not add up. They do not comport with the Roman records. For example, the story about his being born in Bethlehem because his parents had to go there to be taxed. Didn't happen, Aslan found.

The Roman tax collectors were extremely efficient and people were taxed where they lived so as not to remove them from their daily work, so Joseph and Mary would have paid taxes in Nazareth. It seems likely, therefore, that Jesus was actually born in Nazareth. Plus, of course, he was known throughout his life as "the Nazarean."

Aslan does find confirmation or at least supporting documentation for some other events that are reported in the Gospels. But the most interesting part of his research, for me at least, dealt with the cultural and political atmosphere of the period.

It was a time that was rife with the spirit of revolution and apolcalyptic fervor. Hundreds of men claiming to be messiahs walked the land, preaching, healing the sick and performing miracles. Most, if not all of them, ended their lives on the cross, convicted of sedition. Crucifixion for the Romans was a form of punishment that was reserved for such crimes against the state and that was the crime of which Jesus was ultimately convicted.

Aslan follows Jesus as he meets John the Baptist and is baptized into his discipleship. He maintains that the preaching that Jesus did after that experience was a continuation of John's message.

He left his home and became an itinerant preacher and miracle worker, gathering disciples and followers to him as he walked across Galilee, Samaria, and finally entered Judea and Jerusalem, where his story ended.

Except, of course, it didn't. Within decades after his shameful death on the cross, his followers would begin to call him God. So, what made him different from all those other "messiahs" of the period whose names are now forgotten? The radical and transformative nature of Jesus of Nazareth's life and death and their continuing influence on human history cannot be denied.

The Jesus described by Aslan seems very much a part of the spirit of zealotry that marked the period and certainly his followers were full of zeal as they continued to spread his message after his death. I think the author has done an excellent job of teasing out the history of the man and his movement. Moreover, he has presented a thoroughly human man who was full of conviction and passion, but also full of contradictions, as, in fact, are most human beings. He was a man of peace who exhorted his followers to arm themselves with swords; an exorcist and miracle worker who urged his disciples to keep his identity a secret. He was a politically conscious revolutionary whose promise of liberation from Rome went unfulfilled in his brief lifetime.

Aslan has written in a popular style that is easily accessible to the nonacademic audience. This is a brief book for a brief life, but there are copious notes and bibliography added for those who want to get further into the story. I found it an enjoyable read, one which gave a whole new perspective to the life of the simple illiterate Galilean peasant and day worker whose life changed the world.



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