The Radical Reformer


Zealot – The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth, by Reza Aslan


Many people raised in the Christian faith assume that the historical Jesus and the Jesus of the Bible’s New Testament are one and the same. Not so, says the author – and a trove of divinity and Biblical scholars. This book, the product of twenty years of research, is Aslan’s attempt to sift through the historical records of Palestine at the time of Jesus’ brief life, and also the meager records of both Jesus’ life and the early years of the movement he spawned. In the end Aslan is reduced to comparing specific scriptural happenstances to general historical records of the time and place in assembling a likely historical picture of Jesus.

I won’t detail the many instances Aslan gives of erroneous statements in the gospels when compared to abundant and accepted historical records, except to state two things:

  1. Aslan believes, as is eminently reasonable, that these gospel letters, written down many decades after the occurrences they depict, suffer from the inevitable distortion of so many years of word of mouth passage.
  2. Some distortions and outright erroneous records of recorded history in the New Testament, were done, not to provide true historical records, but to appeal to specific cultural groups.

But, from the historical, spiritual, and academic papers, texts, histories, etc., that Aslan delved into, he comes up with the more or less commonly accepted truths:

  1. Jesus never meant to begin a new religion. His radical activities’ purpose was to bring the practices of the Jewish cult back to those of the Torah.
  2. To the Romans, Jesus was nothing special – at the time, there was a Jew on every street corner claiming to be a messiah, and Jesus was just one of the many.
  3. Upon Jesus’ death, his brother James was left in charge of Jesus’ movement. Why? Because he was the most faithful to the laws of Moses.
  4. There was an early conflict in the movement between James and the other direct followers of Jesus: Saul of Tarsus (Paul) claimed, for obvious reasons, to have direct contact with Jesus’ spirit, and his teachings diverged widely from those James was trying to carry on.
  5. Why, then, is Paul so prominent in the New Testament? When the Romans destroyed Jerusalem, James, who was stoned to death, and his followers, lost out to Paul, who wished to in effect to begin a new spiritual cult, one that would be predominantly gentile. Thus Paul was the de facto originator of what we now know as the Christian faith.

I’m not a historian, certainly not a Biblical scholar, but I find little reason to fault Aslan’s logic, except for a possible bias toward history, which of course was his project here.


My rating: 19 of 20 stars


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