By Stephen Prothero,
Scholars and believers alike tend to contrast sharply the founders of Christianity and Islam: Jesus the apolitical man of peace who turns the other cheek; and Muhammad the politician, jurist and general who takes much of the Arabian Peninsula by force. In “Zealot,” Reza Aslan blurs this distinction, depicting Jesus as a “politically conscious Jewish revolutionary” whose kingdom is decidedly of this world.
Aslan is an Iranian American Muslim, a religious-studies scholar and a creative-writing professor who lives in Los Angeles, where he runs a company called Aslan Media. So we should not be surprised to encounter in “Zealot” a life of Jesus that reads like a movie treatment, all the way down to these key scenes:
EXTERIOR. STREETS OF JERUSALEM
In a moment that “more than any other word or deed, helps reveal who Jesus was and what Jesus meant,” an illiterate peasant is entering Jerusalem, riding on a donkey, as riotous crowds shout “Hosanna!” But Jesus of Nazareth is not demonstrating his humility, as you might have heard in a Palm Sunday sermon. He is demonstrating his kingship. “The long-awaited messiah — the true King of the Jews — has come to free Israel from its bondage” to Rome.
CUT TO: JERUSALEM TEMPLE — NEXT DAY
“In a rage,” Jesus lays waste to the public courtyard of the Jerusalem Temple, overturning the tables of money changers, driving out animal vendors and otherwise enraging Jewish priests and Roman rulers alike.
In Aslan’s telling, these two scenes introduce a “revolutionary zealot who walked across the Galilee gathering an army of disciples” to rain “God’s wrath . . . down upon the rich, the strong, and the powerful.” The rest of the book is devoted to fleshing out this portrait and explaining how and why Paul and other early Christians transformed Jesus from a man at war into a man of peace.
Like every other scholar with the chutzpah to try to divide the historical Jesus accurately from the Christ of Christian faith, Aslan does a lot of cherry-picking. Why credit the Palm Sunday story as historical when it so obviously serves to “fulfill” a prophesy from the Hebrew Bible: “Behold, your king is coming to you; righteous and victorious is he, humble and riding upon an ass” (Zechariah 9:9)?
More to the point, why credit and emphasize violent passages in the Gospels while discrediting and deemphasizing peaceful ones? Why believe that Jesus really told his disciples, “If you do not have a sword, go sell your cloak and buy one” (Luke 22:36)? Why the skepticism when it comes to “love your enemies” (Matthew 5:44)?
And what about the obvious problems with the argument that Jesus was not just a political revolutionary — as biblical scholar John Dominic Crossan and others have argued — but a violent one? What are we to make of Jesus’s apparent lack of interest in doing anything practical whatsoever to prepare for holy war? If he has come to fight for “a real kingdom, with an actual king,” where are his soldiers and their weapons? And why no battle plan?
The short answer to these questions is that Aslan is more a storyteller here than a historian. Throughout “Zealot,” he refers to selected New Testament passages as “preposterous,” “fanciful,” “patently fictitious” and “obviously contrived.” But Matthew, Mark, Luke and John are not the only ones spinning Jesuses out of fertile imaginations.
Still, there is much to commend here.
Aslan’s accounts of efforts by early Christians to diminish the status of John the Baptist and James the brother of Jesus are compelling. So is his reading of the iconic Good Samaritan story as a critique of priests and the Temple cult. Moreover, Aslan’s overarching argument — that the early Christian movement depoliticized Jesus to make nice with Rome after a failed Jewish revolt left Jerusalem in ruins — makes a lot of sense, assuming that Jesus really was a failed revolutionary. But how do we know that?
Unfortunately, there isn’t much new here other than Aslan’s slick writing and cinematic sensibilities. In a now-notorious Fox News interview that propelled the book toward the top of the bestseller lists, Lauren Green questioned whether a Muslim should be writing about Christianity’s founder. But the real problem is that Aslan, like thousands of “historical Jesus” experts before him, refuses to say “I don’t know” with anything near the frequency required for the task. He, too, purports to be an intrepid archaeologist for historical truth, excavating the “real” Jesus out of the “propagandistic legend” that has grown up around him. But he, too, remakes Jesus in his own image.
In the end, “Zealot” offers readers not the historical Jesus but a Jesus for our place and time — an American Jesus for the 21st century, and more specifically for a post-Sept. 11 society struggling to make sense of Christianity’s ongoing rivalry with Islam.
Nearly a decade ago, in “The Passion of the Christ,” Mel Gibson gave us a whipped and scourged hero, terrorized as we all were by the jihadist attacks of 2001. In “Zealot,” Aslan gives us a Jesus who fights back, and not in the manner of Gandhi. But his rebellion fails. Roman authorities crucify him for sedition. His followers scatter. And those who return in his name reinvent him as a pacifist lording over a purely spiritual kingdom.
In short, Jesus was a frustrated Muhammad — a man who, like Islam’s founder, came to revolutionize the world by force yet, unlike Muhammad, failed. This makes for a good read. It might even make for a good movie. Just don’t tell me it’s true.
Stephen Prothero is a professor of religion at Boston University and the author of “The American Bible: How Our Words Unite, Divide, and Define a Nation.”
ZEALOT The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth By Reza Aslan Random House. 296 pp. $27