on July 28, 2013
I've read the book (unlike so many of the "reviewers" who gave it one star) and here are some points.
1) This is a popularization of recent (late 20th-early 21st century) reputable scholarship regarding Jesus. There's nothing in this book that would surprise a person (like myself) who has read pretty much all of the accessible scholarship on Jesus published in the last 30 or so years. Just going through the (extensive!) notes and bibliography at the end indicates to me that Aslan has done his homework.
2) Aslan takes the position that Jesus was a zealot for God and God's Temple, but (and this is repeated several times in the book) he was not a member of the Zealot Party, which wouldn't arise until over 30 years after Jesus' death. In this, Jesus was just one of a number of people who arose in the period from the reign of Herod the Great to the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 CE and his fate was like those others. In short, Jesus was killed for his zealotry, which was perceived as a threat to the Roman authorities and particularly to the Jewish sycophants who ran the Temple (and profited nicely from it). This is not a position shared by many members of the religious scholarship fraternity, who have attempted to carve out a position for Jesus where he's a religious figure who did not delve at all into politics. It's an interesting argument that I can't do justice in a few short sentences. If you're interested, you'll have to read the book yourself and decide if Aslan makes his case.
3) Aslan doesn't stop with the death of Jesus, and, as someone writing history, not hagiography, he carefully notes that he can't pass judgment on whether Jesus' resurrection occurred, because it is not a historical event but an event of faith. He then pushes on to a discussion of the earliest Christians and, in particular, the conflict between James the Just, described as the brother of Jesus and the head of the Jerusalem Christians, and Paul of Tarsus, the evangelizer of the Gentile world. This part is definitely worth the read, because it brings out the fact that the early Christians were not "in one accord" but were in fact fractiously divided over what Jesus taught and what it all meant.
4) My only serious factual gripe about the book comes from the first paragraph of Chapter 15, where Aslan describes James the Just as follows: "He himself owned nothing, not even the clothes he wore--simple garments made of linen, not wool." The problem is that historically linen was an elite fabric, not the fabric of the poor. (For example, Luke 16:19 points out that the rich man in Jesus' parable of the rich man and Lazarus wore purple and fine linen and all four gospels are agreed that Jesus was buried in linen.) Making linen from flax took a lot of preparation as compared to wool, which can be spun practically straight from the sheep. But getting back to James the Just: The sources, by putting James in linen, were more likely comparing James to the Temple High Priest, who would have worn linen for the sacrifices.
5) I'm knocking off one star for not being footnoted. Granted, there is an extensive set of chapter-based endnotes (and I strongly suggest reading them, they're as engaging as the book itself), but the lack of footnotes is a serious flaw. Even if the book is intended for a popular audience, it should have been footnoted.
6) As for the assertion that the book is fatally flawed because it's influenced by Aslan's Muslim background: That is flatly false. Let me state again that there is nothing in this book that can't be read in the scholarship done by *Christians* published over the past several decades. Moreover, if Aslan was pushing Islam, you'd think that he'd make a point of saying, "Well, Islam considers Jesus a prophet," but he doesn't. Not at all. The reviews which make the assertion that the book is terrible, horrible and awful because of "OOOOH EVIL ISLAM!!!!" appear to have been influenced by Fox News' promotion of a screed by John Dickerson. As a former journalist for Phoenix New Times, Dickerson should know better, but perhaps that's why Dickerson is no longer a journalist but now pastors a church in Prescott, AZ and churning out inaccurate and inflammatory junk for the fearful faithful.
on July 29, 2013
I read this book primarily because some of the negative reviews were so hysterical in their fear that I was curious what the big deal is. I still am.
I am an ordained pastor with 15 years experience and five advanced degrees in theology. Aslan writes like what he is, a religious historian. His job as an academic is to present a thesis, develop it based on both evidence and his theories of meaning and then let the reading community judge it. He does this well. This is a good and thoughtful book. I disagree with some of Aslan's conclusions. His thesis makes sense but it is not without problems. And at times his writing became tedious.
Nonetheless, I give it four stars because it is an honest book from a gifted scholar that engaged me in a new way of thinking about the topic.
That the author is a Muslim matters to me about as much as the fact that I as a reader am a Preabyterian matters to him. He is a scholar. That is what matters here.
on July 25, 2013
A disclaimer: I'm an atheist, I majored in classics and I paid full price for this book at a brick & mortar. Let that say what it will about my judgment.
Now, if you seek confirmation that Jesus was/is the one, true Son of God, the savior of humanity, through which all can attain an everlasting life...that's not in this book. If you want a book by a Christian and for Christians, which will echo and confirm your Christian beliefs, then this is not the book for you. Don't buy it, don't waste your time and money. There are plenty of other books out there that are just what you're searching for. I can't give you any recommendations (my apologies) but I'm sure a quick search on google or a trip to your local Christian book seller will get you started. Good luck, have a nice day.
On the other hand, if you have an open mind and an interest in history, you probably will enjoy this book. Christian, Atheist or whatever, there is no denying the impact Jesus has had on history. There is so much we will never know - can never know - about the life and times of Jesus of Nazareth - not the Jesus you learn about at Sunday school or vacation bible study. This book is about the Nazarean, whom every Christian will tell you walked as a man among men. Reza Aslan investigates this man and the world that he was born into, his short life and his agonizing death, and tries to fill in the blanks where he can with conjecture based on scholarship.
To the Kind Reader of this Review: If you are honestly researching this book, I would consider extremely suspect any one or two-star reviews. I don't feel one or two stars is a fair rating of what you can expect. Yet I do have my reservations about this book, though I admit I'm no biblical scholar. I appreciated the notes section, but I would have liked footnotes. I found it repetitive at times, resulting from what i would consider a somewhat unusual organization. And there were some arguments I found unclear or wanting from lack of evidence, but that is just from my first read through. That last opinion may change - one way or the other - with more thoughtful analysis on my part. With all that it mind, I think 4 stars is fair - and I sure wish I had bought it from Amazon...
on July 29, 2013
In total, a decent book for those unfamiliar with research on recovering the historical Jesus, a horrible book for those who cover their ears and sing loudly when reason speaks, and an uneven recap for those with more than two graduate courses under their belts.
on July 26, 2013
It's true that Aslan does not bring new research to the table, which would be extremely ambitious considering the extent of historical scholarly research already existing. There were many additional points of controversy not included, but I realize that they are outside the scope of Aslan's thesis. He does a remarkable job bringing many of the various historical claims and conclusions into a well-written and accessible narrative.
Note the word accessible- many who've devoted years to biblical study may be annoyed (as I was) that each reference and claim didn't have an endnote to the bibliography. There are extensive notes, however, and all scriptural references are included. That said, this is the first nonfiction book that I can confidently give someone to read and know that they can get through and enjoy it. That means a lot to me, since most of my reading is too dry to discuss outside of graduate seminars. I'm excited to give this book to friends who wouldn't usually read scholarly history.
I'd encourage skeptics to give it a try- approach it as history, not scripture, and appreciate what the book has to offer. I personally found the account of Jesus in Zealot much more identifiable than the way he's portrayed in any traditional Christian texts.
on July 28, 2013
I loved this book for a number of reasons. First it was easy to read - especially for a scholarly book. Secondly, In addition to writing about the historical Jesus, "Zealot" dives into the world of early Christian history, the time period right after the crucifixion of Jesus until the death of Peter and Paul in Rome and the destruction of Jerusalem by the Romans in 70 CE.
What do I mean by Churchill's quote? It's what immediately came to my mind when I read a sentence on page 170: "Those who did know Jesus - those who followed him into Jerusalem as its king and helped him cleanse the Temple in God's name, who were there when he was arrested and who watched him die a lonely death - played a surprisingly small role in defining the movement Jesus left behind."
In summary, Aslan's book compares the Jesus of those who succeeded in explaining His ministry and message with those who didn't.
Among the many interesting aspects of the life of Jesus and his early movement addressed by Aslan, "Zealot" explains how Jesus of Nazareth became Jesus the Christ; why Christianity is divorced from its Jewish roots; insights into the friction between the "Hebrew" followers of Christ (led by "James the Just" and based in Jerusalem) and the "Hellenist" followers of Christ, led by Paul and based in the Jewish diaspora.
For those looking for foot-notes within the text, you will have to refer to the 52 pages of citations and Aslan's scholoary discussions found in the back of the book. I found it very easy to read a chapter, then skip to the academic notes and more scholarly discussions pertaining to issues addressed within the pages I just read.
on July 27, 2013
The Zealots were one of the parties identified by Josephus during the turbulent times of the Jewish-Roman war of 66-70 C.E. Jesus was not strictly a member of this party (most likely, the party arose after Jesus' death), but Aslan identifies him as a zealot, in the original sense of the word, i.e., someone with tremendous religious fervor, and unwilling to compromise to foreign domination.
Aslan's biography of Jesus is quite in accord with conventional scholarship, but of course, his aggregate merit is his ability to present hard facts and complex reasoning to a lay audience. In Aslan's account, Jesus' life must be understood especially in the context of Roman domination. At around the time of Jesus' birth, Judas the Galilean's rebellion took off; this incited a Roman response, and Sephoris (a major city near Nazarteh, Jesus' hometown) was burned to the ground. Jesus, a Galilean peasant, must have been extremely aware of this, and this is surely reflected in his public ministry.
Aslan is quite emphatic in that Jesus was one among many messianic figures in 1st Century Palestine. Judas, Theudas, the Egyptian, the Samaritan, among others, each started messianic and apocalyptic movements, none of which were successful. Even if diverse, these movements were both politically and religiously motivated: facing brutal Roman domination, they arose with the expectation that God would intervene to vindicate Israel and the oppressed, establish his Kingdom and expel, once and for all the foreign occupants.
Jesus was most likely a disciple of John the Baptist, but once his movement was dissolved by Herod Antipas (Josephus' account is much more trustworthy than Mark and Matthew's), Jesus began his own new movement. In Aslan's account, Jesus' ministry is imbued with zealotry, in the sense that no compromise is assumed vis-à-vis the Roman occupation. Whatever passages reflect an intention to compromise with Roman authorities (with the possible exception of "Render unto Caesar" saying), are most likely unhistorical, after-the-fact sayings placed by the gospels' authors who, after the Jewish defeat, sought to accommodate their religion to the definite reality of Roman control.
Aslan does not quite say that Jesus was prepared to call for armed action against the Romans, but he does present him as a figure of combined revolutionary and apocalyptic zeal. In Aslan's account, Jesus is extremely politically conscious. I agree with the apocalyptic part. Certainly, Jesus thought of himself as the apocalyptic Son of Man, a figure that would rise on the clouds in the mist of God's wrathful and glorious intervention to expel the oppressors and vindicate the oppressed. But, I doubt Jesus thought he could accelerate such events by taking armed action. His apocalyptic enthusiasm, on the contrary, makes one suspect that Jesus would have thought that God would take care of it all, and that human action would be needless. Jesus' movement would resemble more passive apocalyptic sects, such as Jehovah's Witnesses, than active religious fundamentalists, such as Al Qaeda. I would take seriously John Dominic Crossan's argument that, if Jesus had truly called form armed action, Pilate would have persecuted and executed his followers. The fact that only Jesus was executed at that time, must be a sign that his ministry was considered a threat, but not as dangerous as the previous messianic figures whose followers were all executed.
Be that as it may, Aslan is quite right when he argues the priestly Jewish aristocracy, aptly accommodated to Roman domination, was also uncomfortable with Jesus' denunciation of corrupt Temple practices. And, most certainly, his feverous cleansing of the Temple in Jerusalem, called the attention of both Roman and priestly authorities. Aslan correctly argues that Jesus was executed by the Romans for sedition (the Temple guards may have collaborated in his apprehension, but the Sanhedrin trial is surely fiction, and the account of Jewish participation in his condemnation is probably a literate fabrication in order to gain Roman favor after the destruction of Jerusalem). Pilate, a brutal administrator, would not have hesitated to immediately put an end to the slightest sign of social perturbation, especially during the preparations for Jewish Passover.
Aslan's account is thoroughly secular, so he has no patience for miracles and the resurrection. He devotes almost no time to explore what may have been behind the disciples' claim to encounter a resurrected Jesus. But, he does pay close attention to the way the disciples faced the fact that their master had failed miserably. According to Aslan, the disciples made a fine adjustment: even if he had been crucified, Jesus was after all the Messiah. For, the Hebrew scriptures were far from clear about what the Messiah was supposed to do, and the followers of Jesus soon found enough passages in the Hebrew Bible that described suffering figures. Even if these passages were not messianic prophecies in their original context, Jesus' followers concluded that, indeed, Jesus' death as a suffering Meesiah had been predicted all along. Thus, unlike previous messianic movements that were easily dissolved, this adjustment allowed Jesus' movement to continue.
The most valuable part of the book, in my estimation, is the two final chapters. Aslan describes the role played by Paul and James in the further development of Jesus' movement. Contrary to the beliefs of Christian piety (especially expounded in the book of Acts), the rivalry between Paul and James (and Peter) was quite bitter. Paul, a Hellenistic intruder who never met Jesus, began to preach an independent message of openness to the gentiles and disregard for the Mosaic Law. James, Jesus' brother and leader of the Jerusalem Church, was not strictly opposed to reaching out to gentiles (he eventually agreed to waive the circumcision requirement for gentiles at the council of Jerusalem), but he did desire to keep his brother's movement within the boundaries of Judaism, as Jesus had intended all along. James sent missionaries to counter Paul's preaching. In the final confrontation in Jerusalem, James required Paul to go through purification in the Temple, and Paul's willingness to do so suggests a disposition to recant his former views.
As the book of Acts narrates, Paul was apprehended during this incident, and eventually marched off to Rome. Aslan's point, however, is that the true leader of early Christianity was James, and his stand was most likely the original teaching of Jesus. Paul's theology was a posterior invention. Nevertheless, historical contingencies gave Paul's ideas the upper hand. James was executed by the High Priest Ananus (in a purely political maneuver, not due to religious reasons), so Jamesian Christianity suffered a significant blow. More importantly, after the Jewish-Roman war, it was no longer tenable to keep Jesus' movement within the boundaries of Judaism. Thus, Paul's ideas, long after his death, became mainstream Christianity.
Aslan's book is not greatly innovative, and not overly scholarly, either. But, his undisputed prosaic talent makes it a great contribution to the lay reader who desires to introduce herself to the historical Jesus' studies. It would have been desirable that, given Aslan's background in writing about Islam and terrorist movements, he would have explored the connection between Jesus' zealotry and the contemporary revival of religious fundamentalism.
Reading Reza Aslan's short history of Islam, "No God but God," one quickly understood the book's purpose. As a Western educated theologian, Aslan wished to take Islam back to its roots. He sought to compose a portrait of the prophet Mohammed that was enlightened and egalitarian. Likewise, by "contextualizing" early Islam, he sought to redefine certain key terms, as well as crack the veneration of the prophet that has with the centuries has grown akin to worship, ironically making the great idol-shatterer into an idol-in-spirit. Scholars raised many legitimate questions about Aslan's arguments. He gave short shrift to the cultural context of pre-Islamic Arabia. His discussion of the rise of the Shi'a/Sunni rupture read too much like tragic high fiction and not enough like Machiavellian realpolitik. Yet these criticisms missed the point: Aslan's goals were less historical than theological. As has been true with Christianity since before Martin Luther, a reconsideration of the past can often light a path that takes believers into a brighter future.
While such new examination of Mohammed is relatively recent, the "historical Jesus movement" has been on-going for more than 200 years. As such, Aslan's purpose with his newest book, "Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth" is something of a mystery. What exactly does Aslan have to add to the reconstructionist project?
The answer seems to be not much. While Aslan's fluid precisely observed prose make for a good read, his book does not seem to add much of anything to an already rich vein of scholarship. For example, one expects that few readers will be surprised that Jesus of Nazareth was born a Jew, lived as a Jew, and died as a Jew in a deeply Jewish context. Perhaps some will be unaware of the extent of Roman brutality, the meaning of messianism in Jesus's milieu, and/or the degree to which Paul of Tarsus constructed out of Jesus a character that neither he nor his Apostles would have recognized. Such readers will no doubt find this book interesting. Aslan likewise does a good job painting the factionalized ferment that was Roman Judea and discussing - albeit a bit too deterministically -- how it gave rise to the Jesus movement. That said, lots of authors have produced work at least as strong as Aslan's and in many cases with more nuance and better scholarship.
Aslan does a do good job brushing away the layered stories that smother the life of the historical Jesus. Some Christians will surely find this troubling. Contrary to a newly popularized and often repeated claims, the historical Jesus status of a carpenter did not mark him as "middle class" (a designation that didn't exist in that period). Quite the contrary, carpenter represents a poor translation of tekton, a term which meant builder or day laborer and was applied by Romans to the great mass of illiterate Israelite peasants. Likewise, one can safely assume that the historical Jesus was either wholly or nearly illiterate. Christians will almost certainly share the early Christians trouble with Jesus relationship as a disciple to John the Baptist, a topic to which Aslan gives considerable attention. Again, born a poor Jew, Jesus died a poor Jew, at the hands of a Roman governor with so much Jewish blood on his hand the whole Jordan River could not have washed those stained hands clean.
My issue with Aslan's analysis arises from his tendency to take issues of great controversy and present them as settled. Since he eschews citations, readers will be left taking his word for claims and methods which many scholars would dispute. In terms of facts, time and again Aslan makes assertions that range from the problematic to the likely incorrect. Take for example his unsupported claim that the author of Luke's Gospel was like the author of Mark and Matthew "...a Greek speaking Diaspora Jew." This view runs contrary to the vast majority of scholars, who see Luke as a Gentile, writing for Gentiles, drawing on only limited original Jewish sources. Of course Aslan has every right to side with the minority scholarly view here, but he should make that plain to his reader rather than simply asserting his opinion as fact. The same can be said of Aslan's belief in a late dating for Mark's Gospel. Again, that puts him within the range of scholarly opinion, but on an issue where people make strong arguments on both sides. With regards to Mark, Aslan is in the majority when he argues that it was written for a Roman gentile audience. Still, he not only fails to recognize the very existence of differing views, but also misses the most interesting thing about Mark's Gospel - that while written by a Jew for gentiles, the gospel's theology represents a deeply Jewish Christian text and that it advocates an Adoptionist world view (that Jesus was not born divine, but adopted later by God), an idea that was declared heretical at Nicaea.
I was likewise uncomfortable with Aslan's tendency to pick and choose passages from the various Gospels to construct his Jesus. As the excellent scholar Bart Ehrman cleverly pointed out, many tend to read the Christian Scripture as if there was a Gospel of "MarkMatthewLukeJohn." This is plainly not the case. Each Gospel exists as a literary whole and each offers Jesus in a different light. In Mark, he is a rabble rousing insurgent who suffers terribly. In John, a divinity with only the barest grasp on the world (which explains why the former was a popular text among Jesus Jewish followers and the latter among Gnostics). The Jesus who in death yelled "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?" (Mark and Matthew) isn't the same Jesus as the one who says, "Father, into your hands I commit my spirit (Luke) or the one who calmly reports "it is done" (John) before bowing his head to death. Aslan asserts a common consistent narrative where none can be found.
One must also wonder at Aslan's narrative about the spread of Christianity through the Roman Empire, a subject about which scholarly controversy abounds. One thing is certain, his claim that the Nicene Creed was "...merely codifying a creed that was already a majority opinion...of the entire Christian community" will send more than a few heads spinning.
In the end, Aslan's "Zealot" offers an interesting account. He constructs a highly readable narrative about how the "zeal" of First Century Judea gave rise to Jesus and his movement. Many will praise Aslan for the ease with which he presents that material. I only wish he had been more trusting of his readers' ability to digest questions with no ready answers instead of time and again coming down on the side of simplicity and clear answers.
on July 28, 2013
I have heard Dr. Aslan lecture, speak, preach and interview as a religious scholar in several venues. This book provides historians, people of faith and religious scholars with an important view of the political climate in which Jesus lived and why he was a threat to the Roman establishment. Regardless of one's faith, there is still a need to understand history and why things happened the way they did. In order to do this, it is necessary to remove the magic and the mystery surrounding a topic and to provide the reader with facts. This book does exactly that. As a person of faith who also loves history and who constantly seeks to understand the dynamics of past societies and the driving forces behind them, I found this book to be riveting.
Dr. Aslan spoke at All Saints Episcopal Church in Pasadena, CA and provided the congregation with a moving glimpse into the historical Jesus. It is wonderful to step outside of the Vacation Bible School stories and to have a deeper understanding about the dynamics of the world 2000 years ago when these revolutionary changes occurred in the Palestine. In order to understand the world, it is important to know the required history. Dr. Aslan gives anyone interested in this subject matter a wonderful gift with his comprehensive understanding of this subject matter. This book is not a rebuttal to one's faith. It is a companion piece.
on July 29, 2013
First, let me start by saying that I am a believer in Christianity. I make that known because I have read many of the reviews from "Christians" that I find to be ignorant as well as uninformed. By "uninformed", I mean I find it hard to believe some of the reviewers read the book. Nonetheless, I think this book does an excellent job of looking at the life of the man. The author doesn't try to devalue the Christian belief, rather he leaves the faith based portion of the story to be filled in by the reader.
On to the review:
I started this book with an open mind as I wanted to learn about the historical Jesus, and not read some affirmation of my faith. I got just what I wanted. For most of my life, the only things I knew about Jesus were only details that related to Jesus Christ, not Jesus of Nazareth. I found this book to be a very interesting look at the man that changed the course of human history.
I am not a self described "scholar", and I spend my time reading more often than not as entertainment rather than learning. The lack of footnotes didn't affect me at all, and I highly recommend reading the end-notes. I deducted one star because there were times I struggled to follow the author. I couldn't determine how certain (small) portions of the book related to the content I was currently reading. Of course, that could (and probably is) a personal issue...