"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
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
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. …