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Sheila Kumar's Storehouse

Published on: 08/14/15 10:36 AM

Book review: Zealot by Reza Aslan

Some books the regular reader needs to come to only after the brouhaha dies down.

Zealot by Reza Aslan is one such book. The author says it is a historical study of Jesus the Nazarene,  as opposed to Jesus the Christ.

Reza Aslan sets the book in first-century Palestine and paints the backdrop in pointillist style, before he brings in Jesus. This is Galilee aflame and Aslan describes the peasant-warriors who took up the sword and tried to fight the Roman occupation.

He tells of those who came before Jesus: Hezekiah, Simon, Athrongeus, Judas the Galilean, Theudas, all zealots who preached the word of God with fervour. He draws a compact if potted portrait of Herod the Jew who was a friend of Rome and ruthless in his dealings with fellow Jews.

So who exactly is Aslan’s Jesus? An itinerant preacher/professional wonder worker (aka magician)? A disciple of John the Baptist who took on John’s mantle after the latter was killed? A rabble-rouser, a man who preached sedition and was therefore, punished as seditionists were by the Romans, with crucifixion? Or all of the above, and more?

While Aslan has taken much flak for purportedly cherry-picking the facts he lays before us, Zealot does train a searchlight on the old legends like Jesus` birthplace being a manger in Bethlehem; his flight to Egypt to escape Herod; his possible levels of indigence and literacy; his marital status; Pontius Pilate washing his hands after Jesus is brought before him; the mysterious `Son of Man` description; Saul/Paul`s role in opening the new religion to gentiles; even Salome’s dance for Antipas.

Parts of the book intrigue in the way very good books intrigue. John the Baptist`s equation with Jesus is presented in a cogent manner. The dichotomy between this simple man of Nazareth and the man who came to be known as the Christ is depicted very interestingly, as is the fact that eventually, the task of defining Jesus` message was taken up by educated, urban, Greek-speaking Diaspora Jews.

Aslan slices off the emotional content of the Jesus story, taking the position that the gospel writers and evangelists did a neat mix and match of the facts on hand to create the Christ. For all that it seems a (gentle) pitting of Christology vs history, much of the account has a ring of the theatre, especially in the aftermath of the arrest in the garden of Gethsemane.

In an interview, Reza Aslan has said that he hopes his book will provide readers with a more complete sense of the world in which Jesus lived. My own takeaways came from the flanks of the book, as it were.

The bloody history of Galilee before and during the brutal, merciless Roman occupation explains something of the scorched earth policy witnessed time and again in those (eternally?) beleaguered parts. And I was staggered to find there is such an impressive trove of scholarship on the historical Jesus.

And oh my god, what a striking jacket! One keeps going back to that gentle face on the cover. If that is the face of a zealot, I’m Cleopatra.

Jesus ChristReza AslanZealot

Sheila Kumar • August 14, 2015

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