Jesus a New Story Modern Scholarship Overlooked in 'Zealot,' Reza Aslan's Examination of the Life of Christ

Article excerpt

"ZEALOT: THE LIFE AND TIMES OF JESUS OF NAZARETH"

BY REZA ASLAN

Random House ($27)

When Jesus asked his disciples, "Who do men say that I am?" they tentatively responded with "John the Baptist, Elijah, one of the prophets." Peter went to the head of the class with, "You are the Christ!"

In modern research we now have: a religious reformer, a New Moses, a charismatic wonder-worker, a subversive, Cynic philosopher, the first Marxist, a magician, an apocalyptic prophet, a feminist, and, of course, a god.

For Reza Aslan, Jesus was a secret "zealot."

In "Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth," Mr. Aslan revisits an older claim that Jesus was a revolutionary who "zealously" promoted the literal overthrow of the Roman Empire and its agents in the Jerusalem Temple.

Born in Iran and educated in the United States, Mr. Aslan is an associate professor of creative writing at the University of California, Riverside, where he also teaches courses on religion. His "No God but God" was a compelling introduction into Islam.

The success of that book propelled him as a spokesperson for Islam, and thus some interviewers were surprised -- and outraged -- that a Muslim scholar wrote a biography of Jesus. The discourse resulting from such a stupid debate, most notoriously on Fox News in late July, does not deserve further space.

Rather than questions concerning personal insights in light of objectivity, the more important question to ask is what is the point of this particular life of Jesus?

Mr. Aslan's Jesus rails against a corrupt system on behalf of the poor, the sick, the downtrodden and the exploited. Who couldn't like this Jesus? (I would like to see this Jesus take on Congress.)

In interviews, Mr. Aslan agrees with the notion that all scholars reconstruct the Jesus they want to see, as he has done. Such selection is necessary because our earliest documents were all written by men who were not eyewitnesses and who had never met Jesus.

But we also judge each other's work on the rationale behind our choices, building upon previous scholarship, which leads to a cogent argument. Without footnotes within the body of the text, Mr. Aslan expects the reader to trust his choices, without benefit of his or other scholarly evidence.

Mr. Aslan focuses on the incident in the Temple of Jerusalem, when Jesus overturned the tables of the money-changers and drove out the animal sellers. For Mr. Aslan, this scene is "historical," while most others are "fiction."

But this event is the culmination of his opening chapters, which relate the conditions in first-century Judea under Roman rule (and the Jewish aristocracy), and the history of other messianic contenders who also fought against tyranny. …