'Zealot' Offers Version of 'Historic Jesus'; Reza Aslan's Jesus Is a Revolutionary with a 'Complex Attitude toward Violence.'; NONFICTION - BOOKS

Article excerpt

Attempts to reconstruct the real Jesus of Nazareth Jesus the man, as opposed to Jesus the Christ have been an academic pastime since the Enlightenment. In the early 20th century, Albert Schweitzer's book "The Quest of the Historical Jesus" squashed the mostly fanciful efforts of the 18th and 19th centuries, pointing out the ways in which their subjects were cast in their authors' own images.

Jesus has been proposed as an educated Pharisee and as an illiterate peasant, as a peaceful reformer and as a hard-core revolutionary, his character filled in with fictions or stripped down to basics. The essential problem, however, with any attempt to reconstruct Jesus' life and views is that we just don't know enough about the man.

These things we do know: Jesus was from Nazareth in the backwater district of Galilee, was baptized by John the Baptist, was recognized for his healings and other miracles, taught widely, argued with assorted Jewish authorities and was crucified by order of the fifth Roman Prefect of Judea, Pontius Pilatus.

After Schweitzer's squelching, the questing recommenced at midcentury and has continued ever since. The most recent group to gain widespread notice, beginning in the 1980s, is the "Jesus Seminar." Composed of a set of reasonable, rational male American and European academics, the group produced a reasonable, rational Jesus. Schweitzer could have predicted it.

Now comes Reza Aslan, an Iranian-born scholar of religions and academic who converted to evangelical Christianity in high school and returned to Islam as a young adult. His Jesus is a zealot, a revolutionary with "a complex attitude toward violence," opposed to the rule of the priests who ran the Temple, intolerant of non-Jews, a "simple peasant" who was put to death for sedition.

"Zealot" is the result of much study and supplied with an ample set of notes and bibliography. It's a generally well-written (aside from some regrettable sentence fragments and the verb "prance" as consistently applied to priests) and readable popularization of contemporary scholarship on the subject.

"Zealot" often provides useful context and background information. Aslan gives reasons people might think that Jesus was the prophet Elijah returned to earth (they were both itinerant, had disciples and provided "signs and wonders" that often involved food). …