The first-century Jews who wrote about Jesus had already made up their minds about who he was. They were constructing a theological argument about the nature and function of Jesus as Christ, not composing a historical biography about a human being.”
Writing about Jesus Christ is a daunting task. So much has already been written about him and his life is so important to religious history, that constructing any sort of argument about who he was as a person is nearly an impossible task. The life of Jesus was so extraordinary, so influential on world history, that any treatise about his life will be fundamentally missing some key aspect of his life.
For Reza Aslan’s credit, Zealot does an excellent job creating a biography of Jesus’s life that feels complete, which is a feat, considering that the book runs a mere 215 pages. This is helped by the fact that Aslan is trying to prove a very specific points. In Zealot, Aslan attempts to uncover the historical Jesus, to strip away the theological importance of his life and look at what Jesus was like as a man, and more importantly, how he fit in with the world into which he was born. Aslan proposes that the early Christian church changed the image of Jesus from a political, Jewish revolutionary and made him a neutral, completely spiritually focused God. According to Aslan, the early Christians took Jesus of Nazareth and turned him into Jesus the Christ.
At first, this is an outlook that is problematic for Christians, especially those very involved in the theology of their church. Looking at the revolutionary side of Jesus over the spiritual side goes against the grain of mainstream Christian thought. We have been trained to view Jesus solely on a spiritual level, and looking at Jesus as a man and a product of his time initially seems to cheapen the theological importance of Jesus the Christ as a divine being. When I started Zealot, I originally had that thought.
But as I continued to read the book, I realized that the portrait of Jesus as a man is equally worthy of emulation as Jesus the Begotten Son of God. When we look at Jesus’s life from the perspective of the time period that he lived in, we can see why he was such a fascinating figure. For the Jews who were used to a rich and opulent priest caste, Jesus put religion into their own hands. With Jesus anybody could be healed, anybody could be saved. It did not matter if a person was poor and outcast, they still had the ability to access the love of God. Jesus the man of Nazareth fought for the people, and he promised a world that would overcome the rigor structure of caste based religion, and allow even the poorest person to be raised and worthy of salvation.
This perspective may seem clear when reading the gospels, but it has been obscured by theology that presents a Jesus who was only concerned with celestial and spiritual ideals, and had little to do with the political life of the people he was around. But the gospels show that Jesus’s ministry was revolutionary. It is this revolutionary outlook that Aslan uncovers, but ignoring the spiritual side of Jesus’s life can be uncomfortable for some.
It is important to note that Aslan only presents one perspective on Jesus’s life. He is trying to look at the political side of the ministry, not so much the spiritual. However, he is not trying to say that his perspective is the only perspective that matters. Rather, he is trying to uncover a dimension of the life of Jesus that has been lost. He is not trying to destroy Jesus’s name and he is not trying to say that the teaching of Jesus as the Christ is wrong. He is trying to add depth to it. This is what much of the Christian opposition to Zealot has failed to grasp (which was very pronounced in an embarrassing Fox News interview).
Now, I am not saying that I 100% agree with Aslan’s claims. Like anything religious, you need to figure it out for yourself. If somebody is trying to present a religious idea to you, it is important to test it on your own, and decide if the concept helps your spiritual life. With that criteria, I feel like Aslan’s books really helped me understand the world that Jesus lived in and how his followers viewed him. I also enjoyed seeing how the theological teaching about Jesus evolved over time. I felt like sometimes Aslan presented Jesus as too mortal, and seemed to completely ignore the obvious spiritual implication of some of Jesus’s teachings, instead looking at them as failed political statements. But hearing different ideas was interesting.
I think that the most important thing that can be taken away from Zealot is that a literal reading of the scriptures causes problems, and that we should view the gospels less as a history and more of a theological statement. Aslan explains:
..most people in the ancient world, did not make a sharp distinction between myth and reality. The two were intimately tied together in their spiritual experience. That is to say, they were less interested in what actually happened, than in what it meant. It would have been perfectly normal, indeed expected, for a writer in the ancient world, to tell tales of gods and heroes, whose fundamental facts would have been recognized as false, but whose underlying message would have been seen as true.
With that in mind we can better navigate some of the historical contradictions in the New Testament, but also look at what the writers were trying to tell us more effectively. In this way, we can better understand the message of the New Testament by understanding the political and social aspects of Jesus’s preaching. Adding more depth to our scriptural passage is never a bad thing. I would recommend Zealot for that reason, but with a warning. You need to be able to evaluate it on its own standing and decide for yourself what to take and what to leave. If you are one that is easily offended by hearing different views about religion, Zealot is not for you, but if you are one that wants to learn more about Jesus’ life from an academic standpoint, this is a helpful, exciting and easy to read book.