In Bad Faith 18: Accidental Miracles of History – A Review of Reza Aslan’s “Zealot”
Lately I’ve been reading books analyzing Religion and New Testament Christianity in particular; actually that’s nothing new for me. If I’m not indulging in some sci-fi than I’m usually reading the latest from several writers, such as Bart Ehrman or Karen Armstrong. One of the books I’ve recently read is by Reza Aslan, an Iranian-American academic who has attracted a lot of attention over the past year for Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth
Re-watching the interview, it was probably a mistake for Aslan to repeatedly come back to his expertise as a Ph.D. I’ve personally heard respected pastors say from the pulpit that Ph.D. stood for “phenomenally dumb” (and even the seminary equivalent Th.D as “tremendously dumb”). So, it was probably a mistake to expect the interviewer to understand what Aslan was trying to communicate by talking about his expertise as a scholar in religion. At the core was the distrust that a non-Christian could undertake a “fair” exploration of the subject matter without biasing his book. Alas, the question of whether the book was biased or not was moot to the interviewer, who gave no indication as to whether she bothered to read it. Oops.
As someone who read the book (well, I listened to the unabridged audible book version), who has a B.A. in Biblical Studies from an Evangelical university (after spending two-years as a Religious Studies major at a Jesuit university), I can say that Aslan did what he set out to do, based on some of the best historical records from the period around the first century, to spell out what one can say about the life of Jesus of Nazareth. For me there were two basic take-aways. The first was that the land of Palestine reeked of messianic preachers in the centuries before and after the carpenter from Galilee. It would seem that there was no shortage of religious movements or prophets in those days. In fact, the only real unique thing might be that Jesus wasn’t also forgotten by history, like all the other hundreds or thousands who sprang up in the Jewish countryside. The second take-away was that, far from the gentle preacher of the beatitudes (Matthew chapters 5-7), it’s more likely, based on how Jesus was executed, that he was a preacher of the End Times, proclaiming that the world would be soon overthrown and that the God of Israel was going to bring this Evil Age to an End. Basically, because he was crucified, a punishment reserved mostly for political troublemakers, Jesus was more like John the Baptist and less Jesus, Meek and Mild. If anyone should have been upset with Aslan’s book, it would be the more liberal Christians, who would be more interested in presenting Jesus as an all-loving non-judgmental messiah, instead of the Galilean firebrand overturning the tables near the temple and calling down God’s judgment on those engaged in filthy commerce in the name of God.
The book wasn’t about proving any point of view other than looking at the culture of the time and piecing together what few things could be proven from the historical record. As a more liberal person, I would have preferred the Jesus of Matthew 5-7 versus the political troublemaker, but I cannot find fault with Aslan’s investigation. Any comment beyond that goes beyond the scope of the book’s stated intention and reveals a bias of the one finding fault. In that the Fox interviewer clearly could not understand how Aslan’s Muslim faith wouldn’t bias his book says volumes about the interviewer’s inability to not let her own beliefs (or faith) prejudice her own “journalism.” Insisting that this scholar could not do an unbiased book says more about this group’s inability to be unbiased themselves. My guess is had Fox News not shot themselves in the foot with the interview, which soon afterward went viral, Aslan’s book might have slipped by without much notice. But seeing that we’re here and especially for those who have never looked into an academic approach to first century history, the book might be a good introductory primer. The miracle is that the story of this eschatological Galilean preacher wasn’t lost to time, and maybe that’s enough to encourage a second look or deeper glance.