Print Edition: September 25, 2013
Will the real Jesus please stand up?
Believers and non-believers alike have been hell-bent on gathering authentic information on the historical Jesus, a contest that started as early as 60 BCE. Zealot is touted as another book of answers for curious readers: what was the “real” Jesus like?
Reza Aslan’s book got a lot of attention on social media, thanks to an awkward Fox News interview where he pushed one simple message: “My book is about Jesus the man, not Jesus the Christ.” Aslan’s point is key to understanding his new book. There are two different concepts of Jesus of Nazareth: one is a spiritual entity, the other is an empirical person.
In the mass media sphere, Reza Aslan has been criticized for being a Muslim and not a Christian. This is inconsequential to his book. What needs to be made clear is that Zealot is not a work in Christian theology; it is a history of Christian—and pre-Christian—theology.
As booksellers and mass media often do, they have painted Zealot as scandalous and revolutionary. However, there are no dramatically new or offensive ideas in Aslan’s work. What we have here is a high level of scholarship about the political and cultural history of Jesus’ time, rather than the specific man himself. The goal of the book is to understand the era in order to understand the man of whom we have so little evidence.
This is where Zealot runs into trouble with most of its eager Christian readers. The proof of Jesus—as a purely historical man—relies on very few historical documents. Aslan writes in his introduction, “Jesus (the one they call Messiah) probably existed.” What Aslan argues is that Jesus was as much of a political leader as a spiritual one. His crucifixion was acted out by the Romans in order to stop a full-on rebellion against the state.
Aslan doesn’t move much into the theological field because his mission is to focus on what scholars know rather than what they believe. That makes for an informative political history – not the best summer beach reading.
For those familiar with Christian scholarship, there is very little in Zealot that hasn’t been discussed before. At times, it’s fun for Aslan to point out that Jesus probably wasn’t a carpenter, his mother wasn’t a virgin, and he couldn’t read or write. That kind of trivia is useful at cocktail parties, but it also serves to show how a narrative of a man—not the facts—can serve to illustrate a greater truth.
It’s easy to draw comparisons with the socio-political state of the Jewish people during the time of Zealot and how we utilize neo-Marxist thought today. However, Reza keeps critical language on the neutral side, favoring the tone of an historian. Aslan spends a lot of time showing us the contradictions of the canonized gospels, which—while interesting—never leave us with a concrete perspective.
Ultimately, Zealot is about power. Aslan’s historical Jesus is a symbol of power for the oppressed. It’s about how revolutions get traction and the power of myth. In that way, Zealot is about faith. Not faith in Christianity, but faith in human revolution. Zealot makes it clear that both stories of Jesus (as a man and as a god) have power in their own way.