As a big fan of both Reza Aslan and Jesus, though not in that order, I got out ahead of the stampede to buy Aslan’s new book, “Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth.”
In case you were camping without your iPhone all this last week, Lauren Green of Fox News made a history book about religion the hottest thing on Amazon by asking the author, “You’re a Muslim, so why did you write a book about the founder of Christianity?” The uproar that followed has made Aslan a “liberal folk hero,” according to a Daily Beast account of his sold-out appearance at Powell’s Books in Portland, Ore., on Wednesday. No wonder the author turned the other cheek, so to speak, saying he feels kind of bad for Green.
Not that surprisingly, less has been written about what’s actually in the book everybody’s talking about. According to one of the blurbs on the jacket, it “rips Jesus out of all the contexts we thought he belonged in and holds him forth as someone entirely new.” Only, here’s a shocker for you: The Jesus he presents is, yes, a radical, countercultural figure who wanted to overturn not just the tables in the Temple but the whole established order.
In other words, he’s the Jesus I’ve known my entire adult life as a believing Christian.
The view of Jesus as toned down by early church leaders who wanted to make Christianity more palatable in and to Rome was new to me decades ago — when I took a New Testament course at my Catholic college. As was the argument about when he began to be seen as God, though Aslan states as a fact that the early church came up with that idea.
That’s not to say that his book isn’t worth your time; it is, especially as a portrait of the place and time in which Jesus lived. Have you ever thought of the motley bunch of fishermen he recruited as his first disciples as “mostly culled from the fishing village’s disaffected youth” in Capernaum? Or known that Pontius Pilate was so enthusiastic an executioner that he was eventually recalled to Rome for excessive cruelty?
Aslan tells a great story, and though he’s also been slammed for primarily being a creative writing teacher, I know a few academics who could benefit from a class like that.
I do have some problems with “Zealot,” though, first and foremost a couple of passages about the Jews of 1st century Palestine. He describes the Royal Portico of the Temple of Jerusalem as both the administrative quarters of the Sanhedrin and the spot “where a clatter of merchants and grubby money changers lie in wait as you make your way up the underground stairs and onto the spacious sunlit plaza.” Grubby, seriously?
There are repeated references to high priests who “prance about.” And calling King Herod’s offspring “his nebbish sons,” just seems over the top. (A Jewish friend who’s read the book, too, thought it was even worse than that — thoughtless, and careless, even if Aslan was perhaps tossing in a Yiddish word in an effort to be funny.) At some points, his writing evokes the high priests of Mel Gibson’s dreadful “Passion of the Christ” — and you weren’t expecting that from a “liberal folk hero,” were you? Neither was I, after reading and loving his wonderful “No God But God: The Origins, Evolution, and Future of Islam.”
Speaking of careless, he sometimes gets carried away and goes further than he ought to; in a book that underscores how little we really know about the historical Jesus, there might have been less, “That didn’t happen, period,” and more, “We can’t know that.”
I’m also taken aback by what might be called Aslan’s naivete — even though he studied religion at Harvard and used to be a Christian himself. For instance, he seems to think it would blow away most readers of the Gospels to learn that the history they lay out wasn’t meant to be taken literally: “What is important to understand about Luke’s infancy narrative,” he tells us, “is that his readers, still living under Roman dominion, would have known that Luke’s account of Quirinius’s census was factually inaccurate….This is an extremely difficult matter for modern readers of the gospels to grasp, but Luke never meant for his story about Jesus’s birth at Bethlehem to be understood as historical fact.”
Actually, if he’d been at Christmas Eve Mass at my Jesuit parish a couple of years ago, he could have heard right there that the census in Luke’s infancy narrative — you know, that “a decree went out from Caesar Augustus, that a census be taken of all the inhabited earth” — is so chock-a-block with factual errors that it couldn’t have happened that way. Which didn’t make anybody get up and storm out or anything, even if it wasn’t the most festive moment to be setting us straight. (Next year, will we hear that the angels didn’t sing?)
Throughout the book, Aslan makes a distinction between Jesus the man of history and Jesus the Christ of faith. To him, Jesus the man, who fought and died for social justice, is more admirable than the huggable peacenik Jesus the Christ whom Aslan found so accessible and comforting as a teenager. But the Christ of my faith is the radical, and this book a lot less revolutionary than advertised.