Stephen Prothero is a professor of religion at Boston University and the author of “The American Bible: How Our Words Unite, Divide, and Define a Nation.”
Scholars and believers alike tend to contrast sharply the founders of Christianity and Islam: Jesus the apolitical man of peace who turns the other cheek; and Muhammad the politician, jurist and general who takes much of the Arabian Peninsula by force. In “Zealot,” Reza Aslan blurs this distinction, depicting Jesus as a “politically conscious Jewish revolutionary” whose kingdom is decidedly of this world.
Aslan is an Iranian American Muslim, a religious-studies scholar and a creative-writing professor who lives in Los Angeles, where he runs a company called Aslan Media. So we should not be surprised to encounter in “Zealot” a life of Jesus that reads like a movie treatment, all the way down to these key scenes:
(Random House) - “Zealot: the Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth” by Reza Aslan, published by Random House.
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EXTERIOR. STREETS OF JERUSALEM
In a moment that “more than any other word or deed, helps reveal who Jesus was and what Jesus meant,” an illiterate peasant is entering Jerusalem, riding on a donkey, as riotous crowds shout “Hosanna!” But Jesus of Nazareth is not demonstrating his humility, as you might have heard in a Palm Sunday sermon. He is demonstrating his kingship. “The long-awaited messiah — the true King of the Jews — has come to free Israel from its bondage” to Rome.
CUT TO: JERUSALEM TEMPLE — NEXT DAY
“In a rage,” Jesus lays waste to the public courtyard of the Jerusalem Temple, overturning the tables of money changers, driving out animal vendors and otherwise enraging Jewish priests and Roman rulers alike.
In Aslan’s telling, these two scenes introduce a “revolutionary zealot who walked across the Galilee gathering an army of disciples” to rain “God’s wrath . . . down upon the rich, the strong, and the powerful.” The rest of the book is devoted to fleshing out this portrait and explaining how and why Paul and other early Christians transformed Jesus from a man at war into a man of peace.
Like every other scholar with the chutzpah to try to divide the historical Jesus accurately from the Christ of Christian faith, Aslan does a lot of cherry-picking. Why credit the Palm Sunday story as historical when it so obviously serves to “fulfill” a prophesy from the Hebrew Bible: “Behold, your king is coming to you; righteous and victorious is he, humble and riding upon an ass” (Zechariah 9:9)? More to the point, why credit and emphasize violent passages in the Gospels while discrediting and deemphasizing peaceful ones? Why believe that Jesus really told his disciples, “If you do not have a sword, go sell your cloak and buy one” (Luke 22:36)? Why the skepticism when it comes to “love your enemies” (Matthew 5:44)?
And what about the obvious problems with the argument that Jesus was not just a political revolutionary — as biblical scholar John Dominic Crossan and others have argued — but a violent one? What are we to make of Jesus’s apparent lack of interest in doing anything practical whatsoever to prepare for holy war? If he has come to fight for “a real kingdom, with an actual king,” where are his soldiers and their weapons? And why no battle plan?