ZEALOT: Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth

A few months ago I read about an interview on the Fox network that made an ugly accusation. Reza Aslan who had written a book on Jesus Christ was an Islamic. What gave him the right to publish such a book? They didn’t mention that Aslan as a young man was converted to Christianity, albeit a fundamentalist style of Christianity. Of course it gave Reza Aslan the publicity he needed, his book is still on the New York Times “best seller” list.

Since our work demands the we keep up with ‘issues’, I can finally say that I have read the book and so would like to make a few comments. I am neither a historian nor a scripture scholar, though I do study both. As far as critiquing the book is concerned I am indebted to a book review in the New York Times by Dale Martin of Yale University.

Aslan was entitled to write this book. He is a scholar, although like me neither historian nor scripture scholar. He has strong opinions that are not necessarily based on facts. He is also entitled to give an opinion that contradicts the Catholic Church teaching, he is not a Catholic. Because I am a Catholic priest, I know that I am a biased interpreter of scripture. I believe that Jesus Christ is truly God and truly man, that he died on the Cross and Rose from the Dead. I also believe that Paul was inspired by the Holy Spirit and so his writing and preaching has inspired my own life and preaching. Consequently my conclusions differ substantially from those of Reza Aslan.

But Aslan has made me rethink the life and times of Jesus. He accurately describes the world into which Jesus was born. I know that the Gospels do not provide accurate historical information. Jesus was born into poverty, he did not receive quality education. He was born into a brutal world. I know that many people in the time of Jesus claimed to be Messiah, and suffered similar deaths. I know that Jesus suffered all the human limitations of his environment and Aslan told of the depth of those privations. However, that does not reduce him in any way, it does though challenge those of us who think he led a privileged life. When Jesus asked his friends, “Who do people say that I am?” – it was a real question, he needed to know!

We also know that it was not just religious leaders who wanted him put to death, but Pilate as well, who cared nothing for him, and who crucified thousands of others.

I do not think that the authority of James contradicted the authority of Peter, nor that Paul had to be humbled by James. I do not think that James was the leader of the Judaizers who haunted Paul, nor that Paul and Peter had nothing to do with one another – all assertions of Aslan.

If we want to study the life and times of Jesus, there are better books. I think that Elizabeth Johnson in her book on Mary, “Mary Truly Our Sister” provides a more grounded study. I have learned much from people like Donald Senior and Raymond Brown. But Aslan does write in a racy style that is easy to read. And he knew his subject better than the interviewer on Fox TV!