Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth, by Reza Aslan – This book received a certain amount of notoriety due to a really stupid interview on Fox News, when Lauren Green asked why a Muslim would write about the founder of Christianity. In fairness, that doesn’t mean that Green is stupid so much as it does that she’s appealing to a stupid audience, and one that knows nothing about Islam. After all, Jesus is pretty important in the Quran as well. Besides, in some ways I think a non-Christian is better suited to write a scholarly book on Jesus, since they wouldn’t have the same need to defend his status as Son of God. And Aslan was a Christian for a while anyway. It’s also amusing that his last name was that of the Jesus figure in the Chronicles of Narnia, although it really just means “lion.”
Really, the book itself doesn’t say much about Jesus that I hadn’t read before, but it’s written in an engaging style that made it a good read. As the title suggests, the main thesis is that Jesus was, well, a zealot. Not a capital-Z Zealot, as in the group that launched a violent rebellion against Rome, but someone with beliefs along much the same lines. He was a Jewish nationalist who wanted an end Roman rule, and while he might not have been a violent man himself, he acknowledged the inevitability of armed rebellion. His disciples are mentioned as having carried swords, after all. His preaching of peace has to be understood in a Jewish context, being meant for relations within the Jewish community, not necessarily toward foreigners. The Kingdom of God would have been understood at the time as an actual physical kingdom, and Jesus was executed for seditious activity. Accepting Jesus as Messiah after his death required a reinterpretation of the whole concept of the Messiah. It was when Paul began preaching to the Gentiles that Jesus was largely taken out of the Jewish context and made into a more universal savior.
Aslan examines the fact that Jesus referred to himself as the Son of Man, a reference to the “one like a son of man” in Daniel 7:13. “Son of man” really just means a human, but due to the mystical significance of the figure in Daniel, it came to be used as a messianic title. Aslan argues that Jesus was the first to use this phrase as a kingly title. It’s used that way in the Similitudes of Enoch, but there’s some debate over when this manuscript originated, and it might have actually been from AFTER Jesus’ lifetime.
The author makes some good points, and I must say I’m somewhat attached to the idea of Jesus as a pacifist in general, but Aslan mentions Rudolf Bultmann’s statement that scholars trying to reconstruct Jesus often end up with a reflection of themselves rather than the actual historical figure. And as far as I can recall, Aslan doesn’t really hazard a guess as to how much Jesus held to the prospect of armed rebellion. As I said, not particularly original, but still worth reading, and its popularity will hopefully introduce these ideas to more people.