One of the advantages of moving to St. Paul is the ability to get to the Law School via the shuttle between the University of St. Thomas’ two campuses rather than driving to school. And the advantage of that is that I get to read during my commute.
The extra reading time this week allowed me to finish Reza Aslan’s Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth. The book, which reached the top of the New York Times bestseller list, has generated a lot of heat in many quarters and, after hearing and reading about it so often, I was interested in reading it.
I am not a Biblical scholar and so I do not have the expertise to independently assess the quality of Aslan’s scholarship. My reading of those who do have expertise suggests that the book does not make any claims that have not been made before and many question the quality of the author’s research and claims. According to one professor of New Testament, “Aslan seems to have bought into an outdated model of Christian development.” According to another, the book presents “a historically reconstructed Jesus, not the Jesus that appears on the pages of Scripture.” Another suggests Alsan offer a “superficial caricature” of Jesus. (Many other things have been written by people who do not seem to have read the book; I ignore those for obvious reasons.)
All of that may be true, but I found the book an interesting and provocative read. It offers some alternative readings of familiar Gospel passages (such as Jesus’ instruction to give to Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God what is God’s) that are worth sitting with. And, while much of what is there may not be new, the book is written in an accessible manner that anyone can read. Many people accept uncritically things they learned as a child about their faith. Everyone, in my view, benefits from thinking critically about their faith and if reading this book encourages Christians to do so, that is a good, not a bad thing.
I also agree with an early New York Times review of the book that one of the book’s strengths is its picture of first-century Palestine. Many Christians have very little knowledge of the religious, economic and political environment into which Jesus was born and preached. Understanding the relationship between Rome and the Jewish upper class, as well as the role of the Temple and the power of those who controlled it, is a helpful aid in reading the Gospels.
Among criticisms of the book that I find disturbing is the feeling among some conservatives that it is somehow offensive for a Muslim scholar to write a book about Jesus. Why that is more controversial than a Christian scholar’s writing a book about Islam or Muhammad is baffling to me.
While it would be a mistake to read this book uncritically, accepting the truth of all Aslan suggests, I do think it is a worthwhile read – both in its discussion of Jesus’ life and in its treatment of the early Church after the death and resurrection of Jesus.