Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth

After having seen the kerfuffle on YouTube where Reza Aslan took Fox News host Lauren Green to task for her attack of his scholarship, and his daring to write about Jesus while he, Mr. Aslan, is a Muslim, I was intrigued by the book. Most of the interview is Ms. Green looking like an idiot, stressing over and over again that, gasp, he’s a MUSLIM, so how could he possibly write about JESUS? He upbraids her, and explains a bit about how scholarship works, and how as a scholar of ancient religions, he studies Christianity, Judaism, and Islam. The most interesting part of the interview, to me, was not the argument between them, but instead when he talks a bit about the historical Jesus, vs. Jesus Christ, and the time and politics in Jerusalem while Jesus lived there.

A quick search will tell you that Dr. Aslan perhaps oversold himself. While he has certainly studied ancient religions, he has done little original research in the field, and is an associate professor of creative writing. I suspect he knew what he was in for with Fox News (you’d have to be stupid not to, and he’s not stupid), and decided to make the most of the situation. He succeeded, and we bought the book. (I’m too cheap to pay full price for a hardcover, but while we were in Portland, Ted discovered that he had a Powell’s gift card in his wallet that had enough on it for that plus another book or two.)

This is where I tell you that, if you hadn’t noticed, I’m not much of a non-fiction reader. I enjoy novels and literature mostly, with the occasional detective story and once in a great while, poetry. But I decided to try anyway.

I found Zealot to be an interesting glimpse into the world of 2,000 years ago Jerusalem. The structure of the economy, of the Temple, of the religion and its adherents, was all new to me. From there, we learn a bit about the life and death of Jesus, and last about the split in the beliefs of the followers of Jesus that lead to modern Christianity. I learned a lot about the history of Jerusalem and the struggle against the Roman empire, and a bit about what different interpretations of events and even phrases might mean.

I had two problems with the book. One is my own, and the other perhaps valid. My own problem was that it was non-fiction, and sometimes, I find that to be boring. This book was no exception. I sometimes found myself interested, and then other times, not the least bit. Sometimes the book would give me information early on, and then repeat it later, which made me wonder if I had imagined reading it in the first place, or if it had merely been introduced in an earlier chapter, but would be fleshed out a bit more later.

The second problem I had was that I found his reliance on the Bible and the Gospels to be frustrating. It seems somehow disingenuous to me that he started out saying, we know very little about the historical Jesus, so much of this was written much later and with specific religious and political motivations, so we cannot rely upon the Gospels much for facts.  But then a few chapters later, he quotes the Gospels again and again and again, and accepts the stories as fact. Which is it? I wanted to ask him to pick a side.

I wonder if my Christian friends would find the book interesting, insulting, challenging, reaffirming, or what. I hesitate to discuss it with any of them, however, because I’m more interested in the historical person, and I’m not sure how that meshes with the religious figure.

Would I recommend this book? If you’re interested in a historic lesson on Jerusalem in the days of the Roman Empire, yes. If you don’t know much about the historic Jesus, OK, this could be a primer. I’d check it out of the library, or at least wait for it to be released in paperback.

2 thoughts on “Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth

  1. I was interested in your take on it because of seeing him in interviews. I wouldn’t read it. I got plenty of that back when I was in churches. I don’t think he or anybody else can really know given the times where writing something down didn’t automatically mean it was truth. I wonder if he used the Gnostic gospels at all.

  2. He’s certainly selling a lot of books! I think his Fox News interview did more for his book sales than anything he’s done on NPR or other media. History, as they say, is argument without end. And when you factor in a major religious figure, well, you’re going to get plenty of nitpicking. Still, it’s looks like a good read and will get to it as soon as I finish the book I’m reading now. 🙂

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