Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth, by Raza Aslan

Nine stars

Finding Rena Aslam’s biography of Jesus of Nazareth was timely, this being the holiest of weeks for many Christians around the world. Some readers are likely familiar with the key events in Jesus’ life: family discussions, Sunday School classes, or even sermons at a weekly gathering spot. Taking those repetitive moments in mind when the same stories and lessons were rehashed, Aslam wrestles the story of Jesus away from the documented Gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John) and applies historical fact, thereby developing a strong and documented biography. While some may call this blasphemy, the curious and patient reader will surely be captivated by some of the clarity Aslam offers in his presentation. Eye opening and very educational in this week’s lead-up to the death of the man known as Jesus of Nazareth, a book that is sure to stir up many emotions.

Aslan lays some of the strong groundwork at the outset by explaining to the reader that the four Gospels best known for depicting the inculcated biography of Jesus do so from the ‘Christ’ perspective rather than that of his manliness. By this, Aslan explains that the four authors documented their tales to highlight the glorified depiction of events, rather than those founded in fact. Additionally, the reader must accept that the Gospel writers published accounts well after events took place, in locations and languages other than that which was spoken at the time. This delayed and biased lens ensures that Jesus the Man was lost and outshone by his ‘Christ’ persona, though no one thought to tell those who read these chapters for centuries thereafter. This should not pose a problem for anyone other than the evangelical Christian (of whom the author was once a member), who feel that the written Word is entirely truthful and literal (Aslan’s words, not mine). There are also a number of historical inaccuracies that arise in the Gospel tellings, which Aslan is clear to discuss throughout, alongside rectifying them with any documentation he has been able to ascertain. Armed with these building blocks, Aslan takes the reader along the journey of Jesus the Man for a biography that offers much inspiration and entertainment. 

Jesus was likely born to Joseph and Mary, as has been depicted, though there is much dispute about why they were in Bethlehem at the time of the baby’s birth. Roman taxation rationale was not to have individuals travel back to their place of birth, but where they were employed, so Aslan is left to wonder why the Gospel authors thought to add this interesting tidbit. Raised in the poor community of Nazareth, Jesus had a plain childhood, surely free some any formal education, leaving him illiterate and surely unable to have read from any scroll in the Temple (a place that never existed in Nazareth). When he was old enough to earn a living, Jesus likely left Nazareth to work as a carpenter, as his father had, in the provincial capital of Sepphoris, making the day-long walk home regularly. Sepphoris had been destroyed by recent insurrections that were quelled by the Jewish leaders and, if necessary, Roman centurions, though fire gutted large portions of the city. A youth free from conflict or much excitement, this would contrast greatly with the life that Jesus could expect when it took up his next profession.

With a gap in time in the life of Jesus and nothing to report, let us take a minute to explore the historical view into the region and its political scene. The Roman Empire ruled with an iron fist, using Jewish regional leaders to handle many of the day to day skirmishes of the people. It is here that we find the likes of ‘King’ Herod, who was anything but a king. He came from a lineage known to oversee Jews in the region and worked to stack the temples and positions of High Priests to stand in line with his own views. However, at the time, there were many who claimed to be messiahs and King of the Jews, forcing Herod and even the Roman Governor to quell rebellions and gather up the rabble rousers before putting them to death (as mentioned above in Sepphoris). There were literally scores of men who claimed to be messianic in nature, many listed by Aslan throughout the text. John the Baptist proves to be the most recognisable and served to pave the way for this Jesus, acting as a prophet. Many will know that Herod sought to quell John’s rankings by beheading him, one of the most common means of silencing Jewish unrest. 

While Jesus did consider John a mentor, the former began his own ministry and found a strong collection of followers. As an itinerant preacher, Jesus quoted the Hebrew Bible and spoke of what was to come. Aslan discusses many nuances in the Gospel texts that exemplify the fact that Jesus never proclaimed himself as Messiah, but it was attributed to him by others, both the followers and the writers (decades or a century later). Interestingly enough, Jesus was not one to self-aggrandise, even when others thought it important to do so. Walking on water? Healing the lame? Aslan offers interesting perspectives on these events, based less in miracles and more along the lines of linguistic interpretation and author bias. Jesus travelled around Judaea, preaching and piquing the interest of many, but not causing many issues for the Jewish elders or priests. All that changed after he rode into Jerusalem and crossed paths with the High Priests: stormed into the Temple, overturned the tables, and upset the money changers. Plots to bring this Jesus before the Sanhedrin, a quasi-religious court, to account for his actions began, culminating on the eve of Passover. Aslan pokes many holes into the entire Sanhedrin trial, taking the rules of the court and applying them to the depictions in the Gospels. This was surely inserted to appease an unsuspecting readership who would not have understood the specifics. Jesus then headed to the Roman Governor, Pontius Pilate, a ruthless man who hated the Jews and was known for ordering so many executions that official complaints made their way back to Rome. Aslan questions the apparent ‘Passover release’ that is well known to Christians, whereby Jesus could have been released as a peace offering, finding no record of this practice in the Roman books anywhere or at any time. Sentenced to die by Pilate, Jesus was led out to be crucified, where the public could watch and be deterred from repeating the rabble rousing that brought about this sentence. The death and burial of Jesus seemed to go by somewhat normally, though there are key elements of hyperbole to exacerbate the importance. 

The aforementioned ‘biographers’ of Jesus took their time and eventually penned versions of events, though it was one man, Saul (Paul) who takes up the charge and begins turning this man into a Messiah through his own writings and speaking. Aslan does not try to justify or vilify any of these actions or writings, but simply tries to put them into context for the curious reader. Jesus of Nazareth had an interesting life, even if it was likely sanitized and glorified for Bibles around the world. Anyone who has a life worth knowing makes for a wonderful biography subject and Aslan effectively weaves a superior narrative.

In looking back on some of the content I wrote above, one might presume that I am sitting on the fence of blasphemy. I prefer to see it as opening my mind to new possibilities based on fact. I will not enter into (or even entertain) a debate on fact versus faith, but it is interesting to revisit some of the stories or foundational beliefs that I held, influenced by time, language and interpretation. History is that childhood game of ‘Telephone’, whereby the message is bastardised over time. This is no fault of any person, it simply happens. Open-mindedness can sometimes prove difficult, though it is the most liberating feeling!

How a man such as Jesus could not only receive so much attention at the time but been singled out as any different than any of the other messianic men who preceded him is truly baffling. Aslan presents these queries in a way that invites discussion, but does not deride anyone. I have not read any of his past work, so I cannot compare it, though the clarity and attention to detail is second to none. I was completely enthralled to learn many of the nuances found within the book and how they differ greatly with the events that I had been led to believe happened those two thousand years ago. Aslan offers up his sources and acknowledges that there are many interpretations, which I will do as well. I am drinking no one’s Kool-Aid (Flavor-Aid actually, but that is another biography entirely) in having completed this, but am impressed with the alternate opinions that have been accentuated herein. I hope others will take the time to read this and synthesise it. I know some have found it too dense or too ‘much’. This is a highly academic subject and does lead itself to some convoluted and somewhat analytical narratives, which makes its presentation somewhat daunting. Patience and dedication should help any reader interested in learning more, if only to have something interesting to offer at Easter Dinner when the potatoes are done and the hot cross buns are still baking.

Kudos, Mr. Aslam for opening my mind and eyes to so much in this book. I am pleased to have found something so comprehensive and digestible for my layman mind. I shall surely keep my eyes open to see what else you have to offer.

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