Zealot by Reza Aslan takes us through the history of early Christianity and the change from Judaism as a source of law to a new philosophy largely interpreted by the former Pharisee (an ancient Jewish sect) later known as St. Paul.
This book has been very controversial largely because of a rather ill-conceived and poorly conducted interview on Fox News that went viral on the Web. In that segment, the interviewer, who clearly had not read the book, didn’t have any interest in the book’s contents, only wanting to indict Aslan for writing about Jesus when he is a Muslim. He had to point out repeatedly that he is a scholar and that his religious orientation should be irrelevant. The content of his work was not addressed. Nevertheless, all the attention propelled the book to the best-seller list.
I am happy to address the content, which is quite good. Aslan doesn’t break any new ground, but he presents the early history before and after the start of the “Common Era” in an entertaining and accessible way.
Aslan reviews some of the prophecies that the story of Jesus was expected to validate. He then goes through the gospels and points out the contradictions, historical inaccuracies and fact-massaging that were clearly intended to ensure that Jesus would fit the description of the Messiah predicted by the Old Testament.
Aslan also explains some of the ways in which the stories told in the gospels would have been understood differently by the people at that time from the way we interpret them now according to our modern sensibilities.
Importantly, Aslan gives a brief accounting of some of the other would-be messiahs at that time in Jerusalem who were also claiming to be The King of the Jews or The Savior of the Jews or The Messiah. They were all beheaded or crucified. So why did the story of Jesus prevail? Aslan spends the remainder of the book telling us how and why that happened.
Evaluation: This is an informative, entertaining, and thought-provoking book. The information Aslan imparts is extremely valuable for those who have not read any early Christian history. The ground he covers has been plowed often before, but usually in a more inaccessible way. This is a history of Jesus for the people, and one that is thoroughly subscribed to by historians (if not theologians). Aslan does an excellent job of presenting it, in my opinion.
I listened to this book in audio form, and it was read by the author. I thought he was a great choice for a narrator, because he loaded his arguments with passion and conviction.
Published unabridged on 7 compact discs by Random House Audio, a division of Random House, Inc., 2013