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Zealot by Reza Aslan

“The event falls outside the scope of history and into the realm of faith.”

Is it possible to write a book on Jesus and have it not be controversial? Reza Aslan would probably say “No.”

Zealot by Reza Aslan is a contentious book for several reasons, though I think most of the reasons are unwarranted.

Many have objected to Aslan’s partiality due to his Islamic background, stating that his view of Jesus is tainted with Islamic ideas. This objection is ridiculous, as almost everything Aslan presents in this book does not line up with the Islamic traditions concerning Jesus of Nazareth. There is an entertaining clip of Aslan being interviewed by a Fox News pundit about his Islamic faith that is annoyingly mindboggling.  

In Zealot, Aslan paints a vivid picture of Jerusalem in the first century under Roman rule and what it was like for a young, poor Jewish man in the time. Once he paints that picture, he then drops Jesus into that world using research. This makes Jesus a more relatable man. Jesus was not some mystical, eternal, immaterial person. He was a real person who lived in a neighborhood in a community and ate food and worked hard. Aslan definitely reminds me that Jesus was a human, which is a significant piece of my Christian faith.

However, there are parts of this book I disagreed with. Aslan obviously does not believe Jesus was the God incarnate or that most of things written in the Gospels are true. He details how the Gospels were written decades after Jesus and mentions that Paul and Peter were actual rivals and not allies in the early Christian church.

Now, I am not an historian so I cannot sit here and adequately rebuke Aslan’s claims. My one class in Christian apologetics does not give me that right. I am sure that five different historians will give you five different versions of the historical Jesus. In the end, this book is a fascinating read and I am not going to throw out everything Aslan says because his research challenges how Christianity interprets Jesus.

I will add this one critique of mine. At the very beginning, Aslan does seem to throw the validity of the Gospels out the window, which is fair because the Gospels may not meet historical standards. That’s fine. However, he then constantly refers to Gospel stories to disclaim or reject an idea about Jesus. Furthermore, Aslan would misinterpret something because it simply did not fit into the Jewish society of the time. For example, Aslan states that when Jesus said “Love your neighbor,” Jesus meant “neighbor” to me “Jew” and not Romans, etc. Then later on, discussing the parable of Good Samaritan, Aslan states that Jesus was primarily criticizing the priests of temple and not focusing on the Samaritan as modern Christianity does. However, when you find the “Love your neighbor” and the Good Samaritan parable in the Gospel, it is one story where Jesus is visibly redefining the Jewish idea of neighbor.

For Aslan, Jesus was just one of many but to others Jesus was the One and that is why His name has endured through the ages.

If you have heard controversial things about this book, I urge you to read it for yourself and not just read some pastor or professor or some weird guy’s review.