Book: Zealot

Zealot has recently been in the press because a news anchor grilled its author, Reza Aslan, on why he'd write a book about Jesus if he was a Muslim. (Answer: it's his job). But beneath this hype is a gripping work redefining the historical Jesus, who turns out to be a much different man than we might think.

“I have not come to bring peace on earth, but the sword” is the quote from Matthew that opens Reza Aslan’s historical biography of one of the most divisive figures in human history: Jesus of Nazareth. Not the quote most commonly associated with the messiah of the Christian faith, but one that is emblematic of a man who Alsan argues has been misappropriated from the very moment of his death. Zealot takes the reader through the life of Jesus, using a mixture of biblical and historical evidence to help construct the life of a first century preacher in Palestine. A man following in a steep tradition of pastoral Jews raging against the machine through the gathering of disciples and messianic preaching. A man who aiming to do the will of God by removing the Roman gentiles from his homeland and reinvigorate his own Jewish faith through radically cleansing it of the high-ranking priests who had allowed them in the first place. This in depth study also analyses the influence of the early members of his church, the historicism of the gospels, and discussions on the nature of early Jewish worship and its context on the splattered canvas of Roman conquest.

As well as an exhaustive background in biblical scholarship, Aslan is associate professor of creative writing at the University of California, and it shows. His arguments are clear and eloquent, and provide as strong feeling of narrative even while adhering to the conventions of displacing time and context that we are used to encountering in historical non-fiction. Aslan can immediately place the reader in first-century Palestine through his evocative prose: you can smell the cinnamon in the air, feel the sting of sand in the wind, hear the yelp of livestock, taste the iron of blood. A particularly moving passage describes what the life of a ‘woodworker’ in this time would have been: rather than a soft-lit picturesque carpenter’s workshop, this young man would have only found work rebuilding the towns that the Romans had recently sacked as consequence of rebellious Jews not paying tribute to Rome. Biography is not just the presentation of facts, but an attempt to gaze into the experience of another human being. Aslan’s blend of historical discussion and fluid prose are the perfect breeding ground for understanding to take place.

As with any work relating to religion or figures of worship there has been much discussion of Aslan’s “intent”, most famously by those who don’t seem to understand the concept of scholarship. Any study of this period is one fraught with pitfalls, even from a purely historical perspective. History was written and consumed in an entirely different fashion in the first century, and these figures come with millennia of historical flotsam behind them. This has forced previous attempts at biblical biography, like Ann Wroe’s Pilate, to instead focus on how their stories are told rather than the figures themselves. Zealot does a great job at discussing these issues, and puts all evidence in the context of first century Palestinian historiography. In terms of “intent”, upon opening Zealot Aslan makes his own quite clear: he is not here to tarnish images or shatter faith, but to recontextualize a man whose message had been hijacked almost immediately after his death. A man who, Aslan concludes, seems much more worthy of following than the multitude of images entrenched in popular culture.

This makes Zealot a perfect entry into historical discussion for those who are not accustomed to reading it. However, it is most certainly not light on scholarship. Aslan’s references are exhaustive, and I recommend reading after the epilogue for the most lucid notes section I have ever encountered in a scholarly text. Rather than cluttered footnotes Aslan actively discusses his source material for each individual chapter at the back of the book, making for fascinating reading on a whole different level. A biography of this nature is always a delicate balance of argument and evidence, and Aslan navigates this with grace and finesse. Zealot is gripping and informative, and presents a new intriguing look into the works of a man who continues to play a role in the unfolding of history.

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