Anyone who knows much about me knows how I like to hear both sides of a story. I think most people tend make up their minds before hearing all the facts. They tend to pick a side and then spend the rest of their life seeking to solidify and support that side without ever seriously investigating the opposing view. I can’t live like that anymore. I see no reason why I should fear facts or ideas that contradict my current thinking if I am honestly seeking truth. Most fear and resist being wrong more than just about anything else. This is especially true when it comes to issues of faith.
The Zealot is a book I would consider on the opposing end of my faith. Most of what I believe about Jesus and God, I gleam primarily from the Bible which I believe is a revelation from God. I come largely from an evangelical or fundamentalist’s perspective which considers the Bible as inspired by God and to some degree inerrant, depending on how you define that term. Such a view of the Bible is not without it’s flaws or opposition. Reza Aslan’s book, Zealot, is the best written explanation of an opposing view that I have ever encountered.
The book is written as a historic novel. I have never read anything like it. It is filled with historical, cultural, linguistic, and biblical research which is normally only discussed by the by the upper echelon of Christian scholars. Aslan is not presenting any new data, but his manner of writing brings the information to a level that can be understood by the masses which means his views are more likely to be heard than opposing scholars. There isn’t any of the esoteric language or dryness normally associated theological research. The book is literally captivating. I could hardly put it down. I completed the book in less than 48 hours even though my schedule was quite full. Every free moment, I picked it back up.
Here lies both the genius, and the incredible danger of the book. If I was to rate the book on its ability to entertain, teach, and captivate, I would give it the top score possible. For this reason, I would also consider it faith-destroying for many of the readers, especially for those brought up with a high respect for the biblical text. Therefore, I can not recommend it for people unless they are going give equal consideration to those who vehemently disagree with Aslan.
To Aslan’s credit, he explains in the introduction:
For every well-attested, heavily researched, and eminently authoritative argument made about the historical Jesus, there is an equally well-attested, equally researched, and equally authoritative argument opposing it. (Kindle edition 133-135)
It is imperative to keep this point in mind as you’re reading the book. However, the average reader, I fear, will not. Few people have the time or the desire to engage in a long and arduous study to consider all the facts involved. The fact is, we are dealing with matters that are outside of the realm of historical investigation. Yes, there is a great deal of information, and all sides will gather the information which supports their position, but in the end it will come down to a matter of faith.
Aslan makes some great points with his research. The historical information is one of the greatest assets of the book. However, he also makes great leaps in his assumptions which he presents as facts. To be honest, all sides of the issue do this to some degree even my own. It is in the process of filling in the blanks, that we are prone to our greatest errors. I do not disagree with with Aslan’s research, but I couldn’t disagree more with his assumptions drawn from those historic facts.
Aslan uses the biblical text when it supports his conclusions, but at other points, he completely disregards it as a fabrication. He doesn’t deny Jesus was able to fascinate the crowds with miraculous signs, but Aslan maintains several other people were doing comparable signs. Magicians were well known as well as exorcist during that time period. Jesus was simply one of them. Jesus, in Aslan’s view, was a poverty stricken illiterate peasant with a desire to usher in the kingdom of God. Jesus was a man, an incredibly good man, but he failed in his aspirations. It was Jesus’ followers who made him into God and the founder of what has become a gentile religion with all sorts of influences from the pagan world.
I appreciate Aslan’s work and his gifted writing ability. On the other hand, I’m afraid his best-selling book will mislead many away from God. I don’t think this is the author’s intention at all, but I’m afraid that will be the result. The most important statement in the entire book is the first sentence of the introduction: “It is a miracle that we know anything at all about the man called Jesus of Nazareth.” Before reading any of the rest of the book, the reader needs to greatly consider that statement.
To Aslan, the spread of Christianity was based on false presumptions. He sees Paul as taking the church in a completely different direction than the Jewish Christians in Jerusalem who were lead by James. An interesting theory, but a theory none the less. If you take God out of the story, I don’t think it could have ever happened. It is one thing to give your life for what you believe. It is quite another to go through beatings, imprisonment, the loss of all luxuries, and ultimately death for a cause you know to be false. You can’t remove God from the story of Jesus; they are in inseparable.
I do think we need to respect the difference between faith and knowledge. It makes me incredibly nervous whenever I hear a person utter the words, “I know.” Faith may be supported by knowledge, but it is not the same. Coming to that conclusion was difficult for me, but I now see it as beneficial. Those who think they know become arrogant, intolerant, and incapable of learning. Those are the elements that have caused the church the greatest harm. An earnest heart that strives to serve God through humility, fidelity, and compassion will be blessed. Those are the elements that have made the church flourish.