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By Reza Aslan. Random House. 336 pages. $27
Thursday, August 8, 2013
The old adage of not judging a book by its cover holds true for Reza Aslan’s latest work, “Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth.” The cover, with its dark hues and half-portrait of Jesus perched above the large font ZEALOT screams controversy, and possibly, the inflaming of passions. Some people will be turned away , and some will even step away from this work because it is a biography of Jesus, written by a practicing Muslim.
“Zealot” is quite possibly the most intriguing and well-written historical work so far this year, and certainly ranks near the top of all books that have focused on Jesus. Aslan’s path — already controversial in some quarters — is to research Jesus as a historical figure rather than a religious one. As a result, he treats Jesus as a person and places him in the context of the time period, citing illiteracy statistics, for example, and also attempting to explain the confusion surrounding Jesus’ birthplace.
The narrative moves at a brisk pace, and excluding footnotes is just more than 200 pages. Within those 200 pages, though, Aslan manages to create a narrative that is at once historical, filled with facts, and also highly readable, no small feat for any writer. In some places, “Zealot” even starts to read like a Dan Brown novel, only with a better sense of pacing and style. During these passages, in particular, Aslan breathes life into the characters, sensing their motivations and explaining their weaknesses. And it’s not only Jesus who becomes an interesting conundrum, but also Herod, John the Baptist and Pontius Pilate, among others.
Another way in which Aslan excels is in depicting the strife of the time . While it is easy to acknowledge Roman occupation as a cause of radicalism, Aslan also examines how crushing poverty and a series of Roman missteps toward Jewish sensitivities eventually led to a bloody and violent uprising, spurred by a series of radical “messiahs,” including Jesus himself, who often worked to inflame the passions of his fellow zealots. In Aslan’s hands, Jesus becomes, well, human, a living being with actual wants and desires, and Jesus is no less affected by the events of his time than anyone else.
In the process, Aslan is bound to step on some toes, but any anger directed at this work is going to be the fault of the reader rather than the author. Aslan, for example, re-places Jesus in his historical context, when the Romans were occupying the Jewish homelands. Aslan labels Jesus a “radical,” and rightly so: His opinions and beliefs were indeed in direct and dangerous defiance to Roman laws.
Even the title of the book, “Zealot,” is bound to provoke some who are willing to jump to conclusions. In our society today, “zealot” has negative connotations, but in Jesus’ time, a “zealot” was someone who adhered to Jewish beliefs and wanted to end the Roman occupation and punish any collaborators.
Even though “Zealot” seems to be geared toward controversy, only those who actively seek or create controversy will be upset by Aslan’s work. Indeed, some could point out some of the parallels between Aslan’s history and modern-day events, but building such a bridge would be to completely miss Aslan’s purpose.
Otherwise, anyone — both religious and not religious — will benefit from reading “Zealot” and understanding the crucial narrative that shaped much of the world as we know it today.
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