According to Christian theology, Jesus Christ was as much a flesh-and-blood human being as he was a celestial emissary of God’s will. But it’s difficult—and more unusual—to isolate the person of Jesus from the divine qualities ascribed to him by his followers or from the world-history-altering belief system his teachings gave rise to. Yet separate the divine figure from the earthly man is precisely what religious scholar Reza Aslan sets out do in his new book, “Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth.” Surveying the religious and sociopolitical context in which Jesus lived and operated, Aslan homes in on what he calls the “historical”—as separate from the spiritual—person of Jesus, delving into questions of how he was perceived by his contemporaries and what Jesus understood his own mission to be.
As you might expect, some of Aslan’s theories go against the grain of widely accepted notions about Jesus. He argues, for instance, that Jesus was first and foremost a politically-minded revolutionary who sought to free the Jewish people from Roman control, and that his characterization as a pacifist figure with a primarily spiritual agenda was at least in part the construction of early Christian leaders who, in the decades following Jesus’s death, sought to mold the story of his life and teachings to suit the needs of the faith they were advancing. Aslan also echoes familiar but no less controversial doubts about the validity of the Bible as a historical record. The Scriptures, he has said, “are valuable in the sense that they reveal certain truths to us, but…the facts that they reveal are not as valuable as the truths are.”
Given Aslan’s bold claims and the sensitivities around his subject matter, it’s not surprising that “Zealot” has triggered controversy. Notably, some critics have called into question Aslan’s impartiality as a historian, citing the fact that he happens to be a Muslim. In an interview that has exploded across the Web (thanks in large part to a characteristically dressed-down headline from BuzzFeed, “Is This The Most Embarrassing Interview Fox News Has Ever Done?”), host Lauren Green suggested that, as a Muslim, the Iranian-American scholar brings an inherent bias to his study of Christ, likening him to a Democrat writing a book about a Republican.
While debates over biases in religious scholarship rage on, critical reviews of “Zealot” continue to come in. For the most part, they’re stacked in Aslan’s favor. NPR writes that “Zealot” is “meticulously researched.” Kimberly Marlowe Hartnett of the Seattle Times calls the book “fascinating,” writing that “Aslan may come as close as one can to respecting those who revere Jesus as the peace-loving, turn-the-other-cheek, true son of God depicted in modern Christianity, even as he knocks down that image.” The New Yorker praises Aslan’s “riveting biography” for synthesizing “Scripture and scholarship to create an original account, centered on Jesus’s non-exceptionalism.”
Adam Kirsch of the Jewish life and culture magazine Tablet calls the book “a coherent and often convincing portrait of who Jesus was and what he wanted,” but points to problems in Aslan’s central argument. “The Jesus of the Gospels is much more than a Jewish nationalist,” Kirsch writes. “If he were simply a zealot, he would not be remembered today.” By far the most scathing attack on the book to date comes from Fox News’ John S. Dickerson: “‘Zealot’ is being presented as an objective and scholarly history, not as it actually is—an educated Muslim’s opinions [sic] about Jesus and the ancient Near East.”
All publicity, as they say, is good publicity: By the Monday following the controversial Fox News interview (which aired on Friday, July 26), sales of “Zealot” had increased 35 percent, according to Random House, the book’s publisher.