Incisive, confused, scholarly, amateurish -- book review of "Zealot" by Reza Aslan

I wish that the furor over Reza Aslan’s book, “Zealot,” had never occurred. The outage over a Mulim writing a book about Jesus was a huge distraction, and set up the kind of phony battle lines that our culture is famous for. On one side, the conservative and Islamophobes who hated the book on principle because of its author's religious identity. On the other, the atheists and the kind of reflexive liberals who support whatever their enemies hate. In the middle are those like me who hope to read the book on its own merits.

And while those merits are well-deserved, they are too often shaky.

The main thesis of Zealot is that Jesus of Nazareth was very much a person of his own era. Like many others in his day, he was antagonistic to the economic inequities that were becoming more pronounced in first-century Galilee. Like many others, he looked upon the Roman occupiers as signs of evil times in Israel. Aslan wants us to believe that Jesus, while not an armed rebel leader, was a Jewish nationalist bent on removing the Romans fro m Israel. It’s this thesis that, In the end, he fails to prove.

Along the way, however, Aslan treats us to many aspects of 1st century life that are generally unknown to casual believers, and which are worthwhile keeping in the mix when we try to understand Jesus and his times. He will also introduce readers to aspects of New Testament scholarship and history that are shocking to the lay worshipper, yet are (for the most part) well established among non-fundamentalist scholars. While he has a tendency to embrace the most shocking scholarly hypotheses  (no Joseph!) and accepts or rejects the historicity of certain gospel traditions in his own unique manner, his opinions are not out of line with what many scholars say about Jesus and the first century world.

In the first century, the ancient subsistence farming economy was breaking down under the pressure of increased taxation from the Romans. Small shareholders found it increasingly difficult to  maintain themselves in an economy where 50% of their earnings were siphoned off to the Romans, to local landowners to pay off debts, or to the Temple treasury in Jerusalem. Add to this the local political instability. When kings like Herod the Great were in power, they hired lavishly from the local peasantry to build and to decorate their new cities. When kings died or were overthrown in revolts, these artisans and other workers were out of work, unable to return to failed farms and unable to find new work.

Aslan does a nice job of explaining the Temple economy, which required Jews to sacrifice animals (which cost money) in order to fulfill their religious observances. He does skate the edge of anti-Semitism by calling the priestly class, and their money changing network,  "moneygrubbers." But to the average illiterate and impoverished Jew, with no other recourse for forgiveness of sins and removal of impurity, the machinery of the Temple’s sacrificial system was ruinous financially. It might well be that this led people like Jesus to wonder whether  it was also empty spiritually.

Aslan tries hard to draw a straight line between the Jesus of the gospels and the various messiahs and rebels that sprouted up during this time period. He thinks that when Jesus asks his disciples whether they have swords (they produce two) this makes him a bandit leader. He takes literally Jesus’s statement that he came not to bring peace, but the sword. He claims that "Render under to Caesar" was a political statement about returning the land to Jewish ownership. And he makes too much of the short, violent scuffle in Gethsemane when Jesus was arrested. Yet though it's doubtful that Jesus welcomed the Romans into Israel, there is a great deal of subtlety here that Aslan does not bring up. For instance, Jesus's command to turn the other cheek is hardly the kind of advice a Rome-hater would proffer. And neither is his advice to walk two miles with the soldier who pressed him to carry a load for one mile. If Jesus wanted Rome to go, it was God who would make that happen. And that is a critical difference between Messiah Jesus and all the other messiahs of his age.

Aslan is correct in his statements that Jesus foresaw a reversal of fortune in the near future. (Read Luke's "Magnificat" if you want to get an idea of how radical was early Christianity!) Jesus saw the Twelve disciples as judges who would rule over the twelve tribes of Israel. He saw himself as the Son of Man, a conquering figure drawn from the Bible’s eschatological tradition. Aslan is correct that Jesus offered a critique of the Temple system, at a time when the Temple leaders and Roman overlords were in uneasy alliance against rebels and others who would cause disturbances. And he is correct in seeing Jesus’s cleansing of the Temple – with its direct physical action against the money changers – as the action that precipitated his arrest and death. Finally, he is completely on target by noting that crucifixion was a Roman punishment, not a Jewish one. It was reserved for political crimes – sedition, rebellion, treason and revolt.

While Christians have complicated and overthought Jesus's teaching in order to make him seem too other-wordly,  Aslan has gone too far the other way, making him too ordinary. For Jesus to have been seen as a threat to Rome and the Temple did not require him to advocate physical violence against them. Given the cruel and suspicious times, it was enough that he was actively planning to rule Israel, after God intervened in history, in place of the Romans. An ethical teacher and self-styled prophet, whose healings taught the peasantry that God was on their side, didn't have to raise a finger or an army to seem like a threat to established power. Merely by publicly standing against them, rather than sinking into safety and anonymity, Jesus drew too much public attention to himself and had to be dealt with. Pilate's writing on Jesus's titulus -- "King of the Jews" -- was a cruel joke,  something that Aslan thinks the Romans, those spawners of satirists and bawdy poets, were incapable of.

Though "Zealot" contains a great deal of scholarship, the book has serious faults. Aslan minimizes the range of opinion within biblical scholarship.  One scholar might reject the birth narratives as entirely spurious, while another finds some or much truth in them. Aslan, for instance, goes farther tha n most in suggesting that Joseph, Mary's betrothed and Jesus's step father, did not exist. He suggests that Mary was an unwed mother, which has some possible support in Jesus's opponents calling him "Son of Mary." But though this is a legitimate hypothesis, it's hardly the consensus of scholars. Aslan is also somewhat arbitrary in his rejection of gospel verses that he doesn't like. Gone are the trial before Pilate, the infancy narratives (Jesus was born in Nazareth) and even a synagogue in Jesus's hometown (though he later backtracks and suggests that there might have been a room devoted to the Torah). And he is maddenigly contradictory. The Jews of Jesus time were mostly illiterate, yet Jeses seems to have been familiar with Scripture, and his disciples enough so to immediately bring to mind that Jesus as being "zealous for the law" when he cleaned the Temple. Most unforgivably, though, for Aslan and his editors, he commits some serious errors of fact. He thinks the Sea of Galilee was salty, when it is an inland, fresh-water lake. He confuses James the son of Zebedee with James the brother of the Lord. He claims (in opposition to actual archeological finds) that Jesus was nailed through wrists (OK , so says the possibly-forged Shroud of Turin) and ankles, which don't have the same bone structure as wrists! And that Jesus  carried the crossbeam of the cross (most scholars agree on this) but that it was attached to an upright laid on the ground, which was then hoisted up into position. Though these errors not consequential to his thesis about Jesus as a religiously-zealous Jewish nationalist, they do point to a rather slapdash creation for what should have been a very careful analysis.

For all its shortcomings, Aslan's "Zealot" is not a bad book. It is certainly not an attack on Christianity or on the person of Jesus. And, taken with a grain of salt, it will expose readers to controversies about Jesus's life that scholars have been wrestling with for years. The book is the continuing effort, by people of goodwill twenty centuries after the death of Jesus, to make sense of a figure of immense complexity and seeming contradictions. I don’t agree that  Aslan's Jesus is as "compelling, charismatic and praiseworthy" as the Christ worshipped in churches. But taken with an element of caution and skepticism, it does sketch a story of his times that is richer and more robust than the watered down Jesus of sermons and popular culture.