Aslan’s accounts of efforts by early Christians to diminish the status of John the Baptist and James the brother of Jesus are compelling. So is his reading of the iconic Good Samaritan story as a critique of priests and the Temple cult. Moreover, Aslan’s overarching argument — that the early Christian movement depoliticized Jesus to make nice with Rome after a failed Jewish revolt left Jerusalem in ruins — makes a lot of sense, assuming that Jesus really was a failed revolutionary. But how do we know that?
Unfortunately, there isn’t much new here other than Aslan’s slick writing and cinematic sensibilities. In a now-notorious Fox News interview that propelled the book toward the top of the bestseller lists, Lauren Green questioned whether a Muslim should be writing about Christianity’s founder. But the real problem is that Aslan, like thousands of “historical Jesus” experts before him, refuses to say “I don’t know” with anything near the frequency required for the task. He, too, purports to be an intrepid archaeologist for historical truth, excavating the “real” Jesus out of the “propagandistic legend” that has grown up around him. But he, too, remakes Jesus in his own image.
In the end, “Zealot” offers readers not the historical Jesus but a Jesus for our place and time — an American Jesus for the 21st century, and more specifically for a post-Sept. 11 society struggling to make sense of Christianity’s ongoing rivalry with Islam.
Nearly a decade ago, in “The Passion of the Christ,” Mel Gibson gave us a whipped and scourged hero, terrorized as we all were by the jihadist attacks of 2001. In “Zealot,” Aslan gives us a Jesus who fights back, and not in the manner of Gandhi. But his rebellion fails. Roman authorities crucify him for sedition. His followers scatter. And those who return in his name reinvent him as a pacifist lording over a purely spiritual kingdom.
In short, Jesus was a frustrated Muhammad — a man who, like Islam’s founder, came to revolutionize the world by force yet, unlike Muhammad, failed. This makes for a good read. It might even make for a good movie. Just don’t tell me it’s true.
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.”