Book Review: Zealot by Reza Aslan

Sometime around the winter of 2007 I was warmly sequestered in my university’s library reading Rev. John Meier’s first volume of his seminal work, “A Marginal Jew: Rethinking the Historical Jesus”.  by the time I had come to Meier’s work, I had seen copies of it in both my mothers and grandparent’s houses. It was a literary achievement when it was published in 1991, a year that marked the passing of many totems formerly revered.

since the 1970’s at least, revisionists and theologians have begun asking more probing questions about the life of historical Jesus of Nazareth. no longer content to review the story of god’s supposed son and heir from the realm of theology alone.

in large part any discussion of Jesus as a person separated from the acts which history has supposedly ascribed to him is troublesome because virtually all the people who knew him were illiterate tradesmen. thus any investigation then involves carefully parsing sentences and comparison with historical and archeological data.

I mention Meier’s work before moving on to Aslan’s work because Aslan himself acknowledges in his endnotes that he is very much indebted to the research Meier did and the trail he helped forge.

what makes Aslan’s work compelling is not that he necessarily says anything remarkably new about the historical Jesus, but that he says it so much better than anybody previously. other than Meier, former evangelical and current agnostic theologian Bart Ehrmann is perhaps the best known of what I like to refer to as revisionist theologians.

Ehrmann’s works on both the Gnostic gospels and the gospel of Judas are relatively well known in popular and academic circles, but to my knowledge neither write with the strength in both prose and style that Aslan does.

Perhaps the only area Aslan less than excels is in his critique of the nature of Roman rule in both the Levant and elsewhere. Where Aslan sees needless ruthlessness I see elements of progress. I am not and will not defend actions against the civilian populous that are inarguably brutal and extreme. However  I think that a point can be made that either because of or in spite of the brutality, Rome created roads, infrastructure and a large education infrastructure like anything the world had seen previously. therefore my question is broadly stated to ask what Aslan or any critic of Roman policy would do otherwise. It’s an intellectually lazy tactic to refute a policy without offering an alternative.

but barring this admittedly slightly trivial retort, on the whole Aslan succeeds in creating a complex narrative about who modern historians have come to believe Jesus was and what his mission was.

Zealot by Reza Aslan. Random House Publishing: 2013 336 pages. Purchased Copy.