Image: James Tissot, St. Simon, c.1864, Brooklyn Museum
FOR THE PAST SEVERAL WEEKS, pundits have been attacking Reza Aslan’s Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth as something like a work of covert literary terrorism. In the week following the release of the book, the Fox News journalist John Dickerson called Aslan out for masquerading as an historian, penning what he termed a “fast-paced demolition of the core beliefs” of Christianity, and then accused the “liberal media” of endeavoring to hide Aslan’s Muslim faith. Dickerson’s piece led to an avalanche of nasty Amazon reviews and a now-famous on-air interview with Fox based on the question, “Why would a Muslim write a biography of Jesus?” Despite the high sales figures and initial positive acclaim for his book, I’m sure Aslan has been tempted to ask himself the same question.
This backlash is not surprising. There is a long tradition of biographies of Jesus — and, along with it, an equally long tradition of controversy. Zealot is now officially part of both, serving as both a compelling new narrative retelling of the life of Jesus Christ and, thanks to its author’s personal faith, a flashpoint for very contemporary strains of Islamophobia and anti-intellectualism in the media. Aslan has written an informed, humane account of the Jesus of history. It is neither a polemic against the faith, nor even a particularly damaging indictment of its institutions, but rather an engagingly written narrative built around many historical claims — the Gospels were not written by men who knew Jesus, for example — that have been widely agreed upon by historians in and outside of Christianity for decades. It argues that while Jesus of Nazareth — like Brian — was not the messiah, he was a radical leader and overtly political figure whose image was rendered more peaceful, and less overtly Jewish, by his followers after the destruction of Jerusalem and quashing of the Jewish revolt. Moreover, Aslan suggests that by reading him in the context of his culture, and alongside the myriad other revolutionary prophets of his time, we can come up with a picture of Jesus not only more richly detailed for believers, but more historically admirable for non-believers.
Zealot is a work of synthesis and extrapolation rather than revelation — either spiritual or historical. The tradition of the scholarly Jesus biography or, as it’s commonly known, “Life of Jesus” stretches back to the early 19th century when those Biblical historians called “higher critics” aimed to use scientific historiography and archival research in order to determine what we, in modernity, can actually know about Jesus. The depictions they composed looked little like the Christ of myth and iconography, in large part because the sources from which those images are drawn — the Gospels — were themselves revealed to be highly compromised, unreliable historical documents, despite their spiritual power. These biographies sent shockwaves around the world, and many theologians and Christians rose up in anger to decry their blasphemous charges about Jesus’s parentage, his politics, and even the veracity of his miracles.
Indeed, the backlash then looks a lot like the backlash now. The 19th-century American theologian Horace Bushnell, for instance, claimed that D.F. Strauss’s influential The Life of Jesus, Critically Examined represented the “new infidelity,” and that its “bondage under the method of science” promised the “virtual annihilation of the gospels.” And, responding to the vast number of Jesus biographies imported from Europe in the later 19th century — especially French Catholic Ernest Renan’s The Life of Jesus — the popular minister Henry Ward Beecher wrote:
The Lives of Christ which have appeared of late years have naturally partaken largely of the dialectic and critical spirit. They have either attacked or defended. The Gospel, like a city of four gates, has been taken and retaken by alternate parties, or held in part by opposing hosts, while on every side the marks of siege and defence [sic] cover the ground.
For Beecher, Bushnell, and others, the claims of these historians were like to declarations of war. But the reality was that these histories, inasmuch as they unsettled tenets of faith, also opened up new avenues for the Christian imagination. Beecher’s own 1871 Life of Jesus, from which the above quote is drawn, builds upon the insights of scholars like Strauss and Renan to paint a portrait of the Christ that would be more relatable, more human, for his followers.
In the 1920s, Madison Avenue advertising executive Bruce Barton put forward the idea that Jesus Christ was the “founder of modern business,” and, throughout the 20th century, various liberation theologies have looked to the historical record to claim Jesus as a working man, a social outsider, and even a black leader. The possibility of using historical research to speculate on the lived experience of Jesus of Nazareth is an innovation and an inheritance of those practitioners of Bushnell’s “new infidelity.”
Zealot is neither a Barton-esque document of grotesque self-justification nor is it a work of liberation theology. But it is, certainly, a part of this diverse lineage. In 1906, the German theologian and historian Albert Schweitzer wrote, “Each successive epoch of theology found its own thoughts in Jesus; that was, indeed, the only way in which it could make Him live.” Fox News is incorrect to assume that Aslan’s Muslim faith makes Zealot a subversive, anti-Christian screed, but they are not entirely wrong to imagine that Aslan brings some manner of his own personality to that of his Jesus. Aslan insists in the introduction that too often scholars “see themselves — their own reflection — in the image of Jesus they have constructed.” But, pace Schweitzer, it’s only ever been the personality of the author that could bring light and life to the historical Jesus, no matter how objective or scientific the research material. And more so than any spurious charge of Islamic bias, I’m struck by the way Zealot is shaped by Aslan’s dual professions as a sociologist and a popular storyteller.
Zealot draws our attention first to the way that individuals are shaped, even trapped, by their social circumstances, and, in that way, it is a powerful document about how difficult it is for any historical personage to rise above the fray. It is a sociologist’s account of Jesus in his time, as attentive to state formations in the Roman colonies and demographics in Jerusalem as it is to the question of whether and how Jesus walked on water. As a portrait of a society as much as a biography of Jesus, Aslan frequently places Jesus in lists of other prophets, healers, and revolutionaries whose historical attributes render them virtually identical to the man who would form the basis of Western civilization. Explaining how the famous “King of the Jews” inscription above Jesus’s head on the cross was more common than we might think, for instance, Aslan writes:
And so, like every bandit and revolutionary, every rabble-rousing zealot and apocalyptic prophet who came before and after him — like Hezekiah and Judas, Theudas and Athronges, the Egyptian and the Samaritan, Simon Son of Giora and Simon Son of Kochba — Jesus of Nazareth is executed for daring to claim the mantle of king and messiah.
Many faithful might object to clumping their savior in with this multitude of the forgotten, but the socializing of Jesus in this way is one of Zealot’s best and most revelatory tasks.
Aslan does not ask, “What would Jesus do?” Instead, he asks, “What would someone like Jesus do?” A key thesis, and a central optic for nearly all of Aslan’s analyses, is the very un-exceptionality of Jesus. Zealot repeatedly rests on assertions or offers counter-arguments extrapolated from Jesus’s social setting and identity. With such a thin historical record to go on, Aslan paints a picture of Jesus as a typical Galilean, Jew, wonder-worker, and even executed criminal. “As a Jew,” Aslan writes at one point, “Jesus was concerned exclusively with the fate of his fellow Jews.” Elsewhere, he contends that, “If one knew nothing else about Jesus of Nazareth save that he was crucified by Rome, one would know practically all that was needed to uncover who he was, what he was, and why he ended up nailed to a cross.” This logic can occasionally feel reductive or overly tidy, but Aslan’s is very much a portrait based on what one can safely assume or extrapolate from the bare facts of his life. Zealot’s Jesus is typical, ordinary, a cause and a symptom of his times. But, rather than allowing Jesus to fade into a blurry mass, Aslan sketches brilliant portraits of nearly all of the players mentioned above and more. And his Jesus is made all the more vibrant a character for the vibrancy of those around him.
These are attributes one might expect from a book written by a PhD in the sociology of religions, but Aslan’s skill as a creative writer gives the book its defining texture. Aslan does not fabricate detail like a novelist, but he is a master of the novelistic set-piece. From the thrilling prologue recounting the assassination of the high priest Jonathan or the Roman siege of Masada, Zealot’s historical analyses — based as they are on a kind of historical sociology of Palestine — are buoyed by incidents from the life of the time told with all the pacing and prose of popular fiction.
Perhaps because Aslan is himself a creative writer and a contemporary student of the humanities, Zealot is a strong argument for the social and even literary construction of meaning. While the book contends that Jesus was, in many ways, just another king of the Jews, it also contends that he was lifted from this obscurity by the ingenious work of the evangelists in the early church. Indeed, Aslan admiringly refers to the Gospels as a “breathtakingly bold redefinition, not just of the messianic prophecies but of the very nature and function of the Jewish messiah.” Zealot is, in this way, the story of a relatively ordinary political revolutionary rescued by a completely extraordinary storytelling machine.
Zealot is by no means a herald of new news, nor ought it be an earth-shattering revelation of scandalous new details about the life of Jesus. Thinking back to Schweitzer, then, we ought not ask what Reza Aslan reveals to us about Jesus, but what Reza Aslan’s Jesus reveals about us. Is there some significance, in the age of Occupy Wall Street and the Arab Spring, to a story about the fall of an unassailable empire and the breaking of the cycle of failed revolutions? Can a generation of Obama supporters disappointed by their president draw any lessons from a story that systematically refuses to indulge in the Great Man Theory of history? Zealot, like the Jesus it presents, is both a product and a prophet of its own time.