Religious historian Reza Aslan’s examination of Jesus of Nazareth sparked a lot of interest and controversy last summer. It was actually one of the interviews that Aslan did on The Daily Show that led me to put Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth on my To Read list. After reading it, so much of the discussion surrounding the controversy was beside the point and clearly politically motivated. It is a book in which many people seem to have had difficulties separating academic history from what they perceive as attacks against their personal beliefs. I simply found it fascinating, but then, I’m a huge history nerd and this book actually addressed many of the questions I had growing up but which weren’t answered during the years of CCD classes I endured.
Aslan’s book gives a brief but thorough history of the political situation in the Israel/Palestine area in the years leading up to and the start of Roman occupation of the area. He continues to explain the larger political picture during Jesus’ lifetime and in the years after his execution. There is some speculation regarding how and why the message of the Christian church came to be based on the situation the Jews faced under Roman rule, and that could cause problems for some people who choose to view it as an attack on their religion. However I did not find the tone of the book to be one of attack, but rather curiosity and illumination.
Early on, Aslan tries to establish the boundaries between the figure of Christ and the historic man who was called Jesus of Nazareth. It is something I felt he did wonderfully. It is also, however, an example that the reader must actively choose to follow. As with the figure of Christ, you must also be able to distinguish the Church as an institution from the religion and beliefs that they profess. It can be tricky, but it is possible. If you can’t put aside personal beliefs, however strong or ingrained they may be, just long enough to consider other sides of a situation or other perspectives, you’re limiting yourself.
There is a tendency, as with most history books, for the who’s who to get confusing. An abbreviated chronology in the beginning of the book is handy but it’s still hard to keep the players straight, especially given that a handful of first names were common and there were few if any last names to distinguish one person from another. Titles, formal and informal, were used consistently but when mixed in amongst the individuals’ actions, it can still be unclear. A few family trees would also have been handy.
For me, the best part of the book was what the final few chapters put forth regarding how and why the early Christian church developed the way it did, and where it did. It focused on issues I was only ever vaguely conscious of, like why Christianity failed to flourish in the very area where Jesus was active. Having been raised Catholic, I was still somewhat familiar with the Gospels and Paul’s various letters, but was never presented with the greater context of when those letters were written or what Paul’s relationship to the other early Christians was. It was fascinating to see him presented in a different way. The humanizing of so many familiar but previously distant figures was refreshing.