Book Review: Zealot, by Reza Aslan

(I received a promotional copy from Netgalley)
link to the book on Amazon

Have you ever really wondered what Jesus was like?

Growing up, I can remember seeing one too many pictures of Jesus as a blondish haired Caucasian man snuggling with a lamb, and thinking, “you’ve got to be kidding me.”  I read through the gospels very slowly, really trying to understand Jesus’s tone.  Not his words, so much, as his tone.  What did he sound like?  What did he look like?  What did he act like?  Who was he, not in the sense of was he the son of God or not, but who was he as a person?  I can remember the first time I told my dad, rather proudly, that a lot of the time I thought Jesus was being ironic.

“What?” Dad replies.

“I think he was teasing the disciples.  Being ironic.”  I felt proud of myself.

Dad laughed and said, “so you think the Messiah had time to joke around?”

Seriously.  How could you walk around for three years being the freaking Messiah and NOT take time to joke around?

All of that to say, I appreciate Reza Aslan’s deliberative attempt to paint a picture of Jesus not just as the Messiah, not just as a person in a historical context (but brace yourself for five exhaustive chapters of that) but as a man, who had a family and friends and kids that he ran around snot-nosed on the street with, and had a tone of voice and a sense of self that went beyond “I’M GOD, YO.”

This book is as intimate a portrayal of a somewhat secretive man that died thousands of years ago as could be done, I would imagine.  The author pored over texts and other historical documents.  He puts Jesus in a setting that is well-fleshed out, and answers a lot of really nagging questions about the use of language and theater that Jesus must have had reasons for.  Why did Jesus call himself the Son of Man?  What in the world was up with riding the donkey, waving the palm fronds, or turning over the tables of the money lenders?  What would life have been like for a carpenter living in Galilee?  Where would Jesus have worked?  Whose circles would he have run in?

While some aspects of Aslan’s work will probably raise eyebrows (for instance, how in the picture was Joseph as Jesus’ father?  Was the virgin birth a literal story or a fictitious cover for the fact that Jesus was really just Mary’s son?) there is a lot of real gold to be found in the midst of the rubble of broken assumptions.  My favorite theme was how much the tensions between the Priesthood, the Romans, and the Messiah really all boiled down to money.  Did Jesus threaten the temple’s ability to fleece the illiterate farm workers?  Was that why they hated him so much?

I thoroughly enjoyed this read.  It’s in depth enough to be really illuminating but short enough to not eat months of your life (you are on notice, NT Wright).  While Aslan does challenge a lot of assumptions his tone never becomes patronizing or flip.  I would definitely recommend this book to anyone who finds themselves curious about the nature of Christ as a person.

I give this book 5 Jesus-Cuddling-Lamb bookmarks.

Highly recommended.

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4 thoughts on “Book Review: Zealot, by Reza Aslan

  1. Boy has this book been causing a storm. I was actually taught by Jesuits growing up and they were typically ready to embrace the “Jesus was an actual, historical person and did things people do.” We discussed whether he misbehaved as a kid, told jokes, got annoyed? I think all the answers to these are almost certainly yes. I love wondering what day-to-day Jesus was like.

    • I started reading the book two weeks ago, and I remember so clearly when I told my husband I thought it would piss off people on both sides, and he asked me why, and I explained a few of Aslan’s main points and Ken said, “why would anyone get angry?”

      Man, oh man… people WANT to be angry! I love that you grew up with the idea of Jesus as a person. I wish everyone could have that experience.

  2. I have been finding the discussion absolutely fascinating. I had no idea that crucifixion was a punishment solely for treason and sedition, that many of the biblical stories were not necessarily intended literally, and the difference between the Jewish and Christian concepts of the Messiah.

    I find the historical context of Jesus to be illuminating.

    • I find it incredibly illuminating as well. A book I am just starting to read (at my husband’s suggestion) is NT Wright’s Surprised by Hope which talks a lot about the fallout from the resurrection and the historical context of Christ. I think it’s really important to read things that challenge my assumptions about faith. The more challenged I am, the sweeter it all tastes (if that makes sense.)

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