Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth
I understand bad reviews.
Sometimes books really just don’t live up to expectation. Sometimes the style is disconcerting. Sometimes the idea is good but the execution terrible.
I understand that reviews are subjective and that every reader has the right to an opinion.
I understand all that and yet it never fails to rile me when a book I like gets pilloried for the wrong reasons.
A very good example: Reza Aslan’s controversial book, Zealot.
It became controversial for the wrong reason right off the bat. A particularly insipid Fox News anchor criticized not the book’s contents, but the fact that the author is Muslim and therefore immediately suspect for writing about Jesus Christ.
Before I go into my own review let me just quickly respond to three of the most common criticisms levied against the book. These are based on the reviews I saw on Goodreads.
One: “it’s not academic”. The criticism stems from the fact that Aslan writes in a very readable manner. Since he didn’t write in incoherent jargon, some reviewers decided that this meant the book wasn’t scholarly.
Let me assure you – as someone in the academe – that there are academics who are fully capable of not writing like absolute tools (also, Aslan has a degree in Creative Writing). Just because something is accessible doesn’t mean it’s not scholarly.
The book is an academic work. It presents its thesis clearly, offers theoretical and historical context, outlines its arguments clearly, and presents its sources for further reading. In fact, it offers alternative interpretations and clearly acknowledges the researcher’s limitations.
Two: “it’s not original”.
This is something that rankles me no end. Maybe these people based their entire idea of the academe on Indiana Jones; I don’t know. The fact is that scholarly work is almost always built on the works of others.
This is actually one of the hallmarks of scholarly work. You’re building your research on the findings of those who came before you.
As far as research is concerned, you can look at a topic that’s been done to death and evaluate it using a new framework, new discourse, new approach, etc etc etc.
Aslan is upfront with his framework. This is an attempt to understand the historic Jesus of Nazareth through the study of the socio-economic and political context of his time. He cites all his sources, offering readers the option to follow up and read other sources if they think Aslan was incorrect in his conclusion.
Three: “Aslan isn’t credible”. Now this irritated me the most. I don’t know Reza Aslan, and I have not read any of his other books apart from Zealot.
When you evaluate a researcher’s credentials, however, you have to look at his or her body of work. You don’t just look at the curriculum vitae. The criticism stems from his sociology degree, which critics believed meant he didn’t really specialize in religion.
Degrees and courses are not the best gauge of a person’s specialization. For example, an MD after a person’s name tells you that he/she is a doctor. It doesn’t tell you the doctor’s specialization.
It’s better to look at the person’s body of work. Aslan’s research has always been focused religion, particularly in West Asia. This means that based on his work and the affirmation of his peers (he’s published, after all), Aslan can be considered an expert in the field of religion.
(Again, I don’t know the guy from Adam; I’m responding based on my own experiences as a teacher and researcher.)
Anyway, now that I’m done ranting, let me go to my real review.
I like the book. I evaluated it the same way I would a scholarly paper: clear thesis; logical and convincing arguments; and good, reliable sources.
The book is not definitive, meaning it is just one way of interpreting the available data. I’m sure if you read other books on Christ you will find similarities and differences, particularly in theoretical application and interpretation.
And that’s an important point, I guess. A scholarly work is always open for further discourse. Aslan is not trying to discredit Jesus or harm any particular faith. The book is a look at the historical Jesus — someone commonly ignored because we have been presented with Jesus the Messiah all our lives.
Can Christians read and enjoy this book? Definitely.
It doesn’t “debunk” faith. There is room for the faithful to combine the historical Jesus and their beliefs, I think. Certainly, some points might rattle a few chains, like the unfavorable presentation of Paul and the political motivation behind the “virgin birth” story.
What I liked best, I think, was the very intelligent approach. (I would not expect less from academic work, of course.) Some books on religious figures try to be too sensational, which turns me off greatly. You don’t have to exaggerate when you have really interesting data to share. This book gets that just right, presenting a very logical and interesting look at what life Jesus of Nazareth would have led in those turbulent times.
Lastly, I think the book is excellent because it gave me a clearer understanding of how Christianity developed into the version we know today.
See, most religions emerge as either (a) an attempt to understand the world or (b) a response to the stifling norm. For example, Japan’s Shinto and Mongolia’s Sky Worship show man’s need to assign deity to powerful natural phenomenon that they can’t explain. Buddhism, on the other hand, is a response to stifling social conditions, specifically Hinduism’s caste system.
The Brahmins held all the power, and the rest of society had to live as the priests dictated. The marginalized — the poor untouchables — had no hope of fighting back against such entrenched, “god”-approved social stratification.
I sort of thought Christianity was a fluke. It didn’t seem to follow the usual anthropological patterns of religious organizations. With this book, though, it’s a lot clearer. The early form of Jesus’ teachings — that is, Jesus, not Paul — is reactionary. It’s almost exactly similar to Buddha and his desire to make salvation a personal rather than priest-regulated matter.
Jesus of Nazareth tried to fight the bloated and corrupt priesthood, prioritized the poor, and encouraged a personal relationship with God.
Now, I’m not religious. As far as my beliefs go, it’s still a toss up between the Mongolian Sky and GRMM’s God of Death. But after reading Aslan’s book, I can honestly say that I have developed a lot more respect for Jesus now than all my years in a Christian high school (and a Catholic university) could have ever inspired.
This Jesus, who called himself Son of Man, who fought for change against an entrenched religious elite and one of the most powerful empires the world has ever seen — this is a man I can understand and love.
I like Jesus Christ. I do. His exhortations to love one another and stop judging others (he did hang out with tax collectors and “whores”) are definitely inspiring and noteworthy.
It’s just unfortunate that in the effort to make Jesus a lot more palatable, we are left with a vague, esoteric, unknowable superman-Gandhi hybrid. It’ll take more work to unravel and finally meet the incredible fire-brand rebel who fought when there was no hope winning, and died fearlessly for his beliefs.