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  The author pored over texts and other historical documents.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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