Finding a Balance Between Fact and Faith, History and Religion – A Review of Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth by Reza Aslan

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I think everyone, at some point in their lives, comes to that moment when they question the religion they were born into. Some people get to that point sooner, or later, than others, but I think everyone questions their religion (and I’m inclined to think that anyone who says otherwise is lying in the extreme). This is, I think, a healthy and important part of growing up. Some people emerge from this period of questioning with a stronger belief in their religion than before, while others come out of it rejecting it entirely. Many more never really stop questioning, trying to find a balance between their religion and a more skeptical, questioning worldview.

I am one of those people. Like many Filipinos I was baptized into the Roman Catholic Church in accordance with common custom in my country, and studied in Catholic schools all my life. Catechism classes were a required part of the curriculum of every school I attended (including college), and during my elementary and high school years, the school held Mass every first Friday of the month, and everybody was required to attend. As for my family, it doesn’t strictly practice Catholicism, but everyone is firmly Christian in belief. During college I began questioning that religion, and nowadays I’m more inclined to be incredibly skeptical of any organized religion, though most especially of the Church.

At the center of this religion to which my entire family subscribes (and which I’ve become skeptical of) is the figure after whom the religion is named: Jesus Christ, the Messiah, the Son of God. What is fascinating, though, is that there are so many stories told about who he was and what he did, depending on which texts one is looking at, and/or which people one is listening to. In an attempt to gain a better, more objective understanding of this person whose influence upon the world is so deep and far-reaching, I decided to read Reza Aslan’s Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth – well, that, and the now-infamous Fox News interview.

In Zealot, Aslan claims that there is a difference between Jesus of Nazareth, and Jesus the Christ: the former is a real, historical personage, the other is a construct made up of ideas and ideologies that would eventually form the core of one of the most widespread religions in the world. In his attempt to clearly show the difference between these two iterations of Jesus, Aslan turns to contemporary sources (or as close as he can get to contemporary) as the time period he is investigating, but primarily to the gospels as a source of information regarding Jesus’s life. This is, of course, problematic, because the Synoptic gospels (the Four Gospels of Mark, Matthew, Luke, and John) were never meant to function as historical records (or at least, not in the same way a contemporary reader would define “historical”). But with careful historical research, Aslan shows it is possible to strip the layers of authorial intent built on Jesus’s story as told in the Synoptics to get to the heart of who Jesus of Nazareth might have been. In doing so, he also reveals how Jesus of Nazareth became Jesus the Christ, and from there, Jesus Christ, and thus explaining the contradictory nature of the gospels and the beliefs of the early Christian Church.

And the picture Aslan reveals of Jesus of Nazareth is unusual, and in many ways a far cry from the Jesus most Christians are familiar with. Instead of the mild-mannered wandering preacher proclaiming that his followers must “turn the other cheek,” Jesus of Nazareth was more likely to have been a revolutionary, and a rather bloody-minded one that that, intent on freeing the Jews from their Roman oppressors and their allies amongst the high priesthood who ran the Temple of Jerusalem and, therefore, Jewish society as a whole. Jesus did not “turn the other cheek;” instead he sought to overthrow the oppressors of his people and fight for the right of the Jews to govern themselves as they saw fit, without the oversight of Rome or the corruption of the priestly caste in the Temple. It was only later, in the aftermath of the Fall of Jerusalem and in the hands of a convert named Paul, that Jesus’s life story took the form by which Christians know it today: deliberately shaped to convert Diaspora Jews (Jews who lived outside of the traditional Jewish homeland) and non-Jews to the fledgling religion.

I found there was plenty that was interesting about Aslan’s book – and, for that matter, rather enjoyable. Aslan’s prose is remarkably readable: he has a gift for creating a sense of atmosphere and milieu that can be hard to find even in writers of fiction. As a lover of historical fiction I found this a pleasant surprise, since I had braced myself for something fascinating but dry, though to be fair I’m accustomed to reading dry material on occasion and can put up with rather long spells of it if I have to. What I got, though, was this:

“The war with Rome begins not with a clang of swords but with the lick of a dagger drawn from an assassin’s cloak.”

That’s the first paragraph of “Prologue: A Different Sort of Sacrifice”, from Part I of the book. Though an Author’s Note, an Introduction, and a Chronology come before Part I, they hardly detract from the power of that first line (and from the rest of that chapter, for that matter, which is written in the same cinematic style as that opening line). It’s something one would expect from a historical novel, or even from a fantasy novel, and yet here it is, opening what I expected would be a straightforward piece of historical nonfiction. Aslan also repeats that kind of writing in other parts of the book, so it was a treat to get to those parts and get lost in something that was not only educational, but entertaining, too. So few historical nonfiction writers attempt to do that in their works that it makes for a very pleasant change.

However, this is a nonfiction book, and though Aslan’s writing style makes it easy to go through the book without wanting to put it down after a few pages, there is still the matter of content to consider. I cannot speak with any authority on whether or not what Aslan says about Jesus is accurate, but I will say that it is interesting, and, more importantly, encourages the reader to ask questions. In the endnotes Aslan presents additional information and counterarguments by other scholars to his own assertions, and they were almost as interesting a read as the main body of the book (I say “almost” because the endnotes don’t quite have the same flair as the rest of the book).

What I appreciate the most about what Aslan’s done with Zealot, though, is how he doesn’t invalidate Christianity in an attempt to bolster his own views. He makes it very clear that he is trying to find Jesus of Nazareth, the historical figure; he is not trying to bring down Jesus Christ, who is a figure of faith. It just so happens that in order to find the former, he needs to dismantle everything that most people know about the latter – and this is where some people run into trouble while reading the book. I’ve read reviews online wherein it’s clear that the reviewer’s primary issue is the inability to make that distinction, so he or she takes offense, resulting in a wholly negative perspective on the book. Said reviewers must have completely missed (or ignored) Aslan’s constant reiteration of the difference between Jesus of Nazareth and Jesus Christ, and this is rather sad, because these readers are missing the chance to understand not just Jesus of Nazareth, but also Jesus Christ, at a greater depth than they normally would on their own.

Overall, Zealot is an interesting and eye-opening book. Aslan’s image of Jesus of Nazareth – a revolutionary determined to overthrow the greatest empire of the Western world, along with the corrupt government it helps foster – is not one most people think about, but in a world seething with political troubles, Aslan argues that Jesus the Revolutionary might be a more relatable figure than Jesus Christ. Aslan also states that Jesus Christ is still an important figure, and is no less valid for the dismantling Aslan does to him in order to find Jesus of Nazareth. However, this book is sure to press some buttons at least in a lot of people, so it’s best not to read this book unless one is capable of being open-minded about what it says. Otherwise, much will be lost or wasted on the reader, and it is truly a pity if that were to happen.

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