The setting of Reza Alsan’s controversial history, Zealot: The Life and Times Of Jesus of Nazareth, parallels the situation in Israel/Palestine today. Then as now there was an occupation. Then as now this occupation bred anger that resulted in extreme violence. Other researchers attempting to place Jesus in historical context have previously discussed the unrest, rebellions, and assassinations that troubled the region during Jesus‘ time and Aslan happens to belong to the camp who believes Jesus was one of the many rebel messiahs fomenting a Jewish rebellion against the Roman occupiers. Aslan’s book stands out, however, because he has a gift for presenting dry academic material in popular blockbuster format. He succeeds brilliantly in dramatizing history for the non-expert without seriously compromising the scholarly nature of his enterprise.
The book advances the theory that the pacifist Jesus we all know is a fabrication by early Christian writers to stay out of trouble with Rome and to extend the appeal of the new faith to non-Jews. The real Jesus, Aslan says, didn’t intend to encourage pacifism in the face of the Roman occupation and certainly didn’t mean to address all of humanity, just fellow Jews. This thesis strikes at the heart of Christian belief and has led some–most famously FOX News–to question whether Aslan’s motive is more religiopolitical than scholarly.
The notion that Aslan’s thesis is influenced by his Muslim faith can’t be sustained because Islam holds Jesus in high regard as a true prophet. But whether or not Zealot contains a political message can be reasonably debated. The parallel to the modern day occupation of Palestine by what the Arab natives regard as European occupiers is too close. Jews in the time of Jesus occasionally erupted into violent insurrections against their occupiers just as Hamas does today. The book itself never draws this parallel, but it is a similarity that is easy for the reader to see. For example, Professor Allan Nadler asks in The Jewish Review of Books,
“…is Aslan’s insistence on the essential “Jewishness” of both Jesus and his zealous political program not also a way of suggesting that Judaism and Jesus, no less than Islam and Mohammed, are religions and prophets that share a similarly sordid history of political violence; that the messianic peasant-zealot from Nazareth was a man no more literate and no less violent than the prophet Mohammed?”
However, regardless of what can be read into the book, what can be read directly from the book often puts the reader through healthy intellectual workouts, as any good book should. A particularly enticing chapter includes Aslan’s novel interpretation of the “render unto Caesar” passage in the New Testament. As the story goes, someone in the crowd asks Jesus whether Jews should pay taxes to Rome. This is a tense scene where the hostile questioner is attempting to provoke Jesus into publicly making an inflammatory statement against Rome. The wrong answer means the death sentence. Jesus cleverly sidesteps entrapment by famously separating church and state. He takes a coin and asks whose name is on it? The crowd replies, Caesar‘s. So Jesus says, “Render therefore unto Caesar the things which are Caesar’s and unto God the things that are Gods.” But Aslan maintains that far from trying to avoid the trap Jesus welcomed the opportunity to deliver his revolutionary message. In Aslan’s reading of the Greek original, Jesus actually said, “Well, then, give back to Caesar the property that belongs to Caesar, and give back to God the property that belongs to God.” Which “property that belongs to God“ could Jesus possibly mean except the land He gave His people? With this tiny and plausible adjustment in translation Aslan transforms the cautiously diplomatic Jesus into an angry rebel knowingly inviting martyrdom! By this time Aslan has masterfully showcased historical evidence of a turbulent Palestine under the Roman boot so that his unorthodox translation is not only believable but appears as the most reasonable take on the famous New Testament passage.
Zealot is a fast and engaging read. It is compacted with enough material to stock book clubs with hours of socializing and to keep class discussions going long after the bell. It’s weakness isn’t part of the book per se but in the author’s note where Aslan opens a can of worms by discussing his personal religious beliefs. The issue of the Author abandoning his Christian faith to become a Muslim is too complex to fit in a four page note. The question of why Islam and not Christianity is big enough to be a distraction. On the other hand this untidiness in mixing the personal with the academic may be part of what makes Aslan so interesting to best-seller readers. He may have wisely sacrificed form to bring intimacy to his voice and add emotional substance to his book. After all, when a writer challenges the beliefs of a large number of Christians, Jews, Muslims and atheists and still makes it to the number one spot on the New York Times Best Seller list, it’s hard to argue with his form.