Tuesday, November 26, 2013

"Zealot" by Reza Aslan

I first heard about Zealot from an interview with Aslan (my husband couldn't help but comment on the coincidence/irony [depending on how you read it] of the name) on NPR. Plenty of books have been written about the historical Jesus--what Aslan terms the "Jesus of Nazareth," as opposed to "Jesus the Christ," worshiped by modern Christians. But what makes Aslan, as an author, stand out is that he's Muslim, though he converted to Christianity for a period of time as a teenager. Ultimately, though, Aslan's personal background is irrelevant in Zealot, which seeks to explain the historical context for Jesus' life and ministry.

It's this context that has been stripped away from modern Christianity, which seems to argue that Jesus' message is timeless and the time period in which he lived is arbitrary. And while the generic platitudes of Christianity--turn the other cheek; love God, etc.--aren't rooted in any time period, Jesus certainly was. He existed as a Jewish man (and the identity is significant) at a period of Roman occupation of the Jewish people. Like other revolutionaries of his time, his goal was freedom from Rome: an independent country of God's chosen people. He was the called the Messiah, but was done so like many others before him. I once had someone tell me the "proof" that Jesus was the literal son of God was that "no one" would have called himself the Messiah unless he was the son of God or was absolutely crazy. Somehow this "either/or" proposition was supposed to convince me (I guess I was supposed to be offended by the suggestion that Jesus could have been crazy?). Aslan effectively argues that there's a third option--that Jesus was called the Messiah in a long tradition of non-crazy devout believers who took the title. Such an argument doesn't discount the other two options, but it does reject the premise of the "either/or" argument.

Aslan suggests that the significant Jewish underpinnings of Jesus were stripped away after the destruction of Jerusalem, when Christianity became a Roman religion. Of course they would want to remove the cultural significance of his actual life and preachings.

Aslan addresses simple, basic misunderstandings about the Bible. Like the fact that the New Testament books concerning Jesus were written after Jesus' death, by people who never knew him (and not by the people for whom the books are named), and by people who had clear agendas. This doesn't mean that the writers of the books of the Bible were lying, but they also weren't recording "history" in the way that we presume history books are written today. They had a specific ideological goal in mind, and their stories reflect that.

Similarly, Aslan notes that basic elements of the Jesus myth are absurd--like Joseph and Mary going back to Bethlehem on the night of Jesus' birth. From Aslan: "Luke's suggestion that the entire Roman economy would periodically be placed on hold as every Roman subject was forced to uproot himself and his entire family in order to travel great distances to the place of his father's birth, and then wait there patiently, perhaps for months, for an official to take stock of his family and his possessions, which in any case, he would have left behind in his place of residence, is, in a word, preposterous" (30). There's nothing wrong with studying the stories of the Bible, but only as myths and parables designed for a purpose--not as literal "truth."

Zealot is in no way out to "debunk" Christianity. In many places, Aslan notes that items are matters, ultimately, of faith. For example, he does not try to give scientific explanations for Jesus' attributed miracles, as the argument would ultimately be fruitless. Either you believe he's the son of God and performed them, or you believe they never happened and were inventions by the Bible authors. There's no way to "prove" one way or another. Instead, Aslan attempts to lay out the known historical record of Jesus, producing a book that I think could actually enrich Christianity.

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