When Jesus asked his disciples, "Who do men say that I am?" they tentatively responded with "John the Baptist, Elijah, one of the prophets." Peter went to the head of the class with, "You are the Christ!"
In modern research we now have: a religious reformer, a New Moses, a charismatic wonder-worker, a subversive, Cynic philosopher, the first Marxist, a magician, an apocalyptic prophet, a feminist, and, of course, a god.
"Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth"
By Reza Aslan
Random House ($27).
For Reza Aslan, Jesus was a secret "zealot."
In "Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth," Mr. Aslan revisits an older claim that Jesus was a revolutionary who "zealously" promoted the literal overthrow of the Roman Empire and its agents in the Jerusalem Temple.
Born in Iran and educated in the United States, Mr. Aslan is an associate professor of creative writing at the University of California, Riverside, where he also teaches courses on religion. His "No God but God" was a compelling introduction into Islam.
The success of that book propelled him as a spokesperson for Islam, and thus some interviewers were surprised -- and outraged -- that a Muslim scholar wrote a biography of Jesus. The discourse resulting from such a stupid debate, most notoriously on Fox News in late July, does not deserve further space.
Rather than questions concerning personal insights in light of objectivity, the more important question to ask is what is the point of this particular life of Jesus?
Mr. Aslan's Jesus rails against a corrupt system on behalf of the poor, the sick, the downtrodden and the exploited. Who couldn't like this Jesus? (I would like to see this Jesus take on Congress.)
In interviews, Mr. Aslan agrees with the notion that all scholars reconstruct the Jesus they want to see, as he has done. Such selection is necessary because our earliest documents were all written by men who were not eyewitnesses and who had never met Jesus.
But we also judge each other's work on the rationale behind our choices, building upon previous scholarship, which leads to a cogent argument. Without footnotes within the body of the text, Mr. Aslan expects the reader to trust his choices, without benefit of his or other scholarly evidence.
Mr. Aslan focuses on the incident in the Temple of Jerusalem, when Jesus overturned the tables of the money-changers and drove out the animal sellers. For Mr. Aslan, this scene is "historical," while most others are "fiction."
But this event is the culmination of his opening chapters, which relate the conditions in first-century Judea under Roman rule (and the Jewish aristocracy), and the history of other messianic contenders who also fought against tyranny. Mr. Aslan tells a very compelling story, which resonates with the struggle against tyranny down the ages, including our own. However, much of this history is drawn from the first-century Jewish writer Josephus (who also railed against Jewish leadership for his own purposes), but Mr. Aslan accepts that version as historical, without analysis.
"Zealot" is an attempt to discover "Jesus of Nazareth," the "man" from Galilee, in contradistinction to "Jesus the Christ," the "god" of Christianity. Unfortunately, Mr. Aslan has taken the traditional path of older -- and outdated -- theology and scholarship by reconstructing Jesus in juxtaposition to the Jewish priesthood.
In order for Jesus to shine in the context of Second Temple Judaism, there has to be an oppositional foil for his teaching. Jesus cared about the poor; hence, the Jews did not. Jesus taught ethics; the priests only cared about ritual, etc. This view has been overturned in the past few decades, but Mr. Aslan lists none of this new research in his bibliography.
Mr. Aslan accuses the Apostle Paul of being a renegade Jew who turned his back on Judaism, and invented "the Christ," which led directly to the Nicene Creed of the Trinity. His portrait of Paul is egregious, outdated and ahistorical because he uses the book of Acts as the main source for Paul's missions.
Again, there is a body of research, a "new perspective on Paul," which correctly recognizes that Paul remained within the framework of Judaism throughout his ministry. Mr. Aslan is apparently unaware of any of these scholars or the issues involved in this reassessment.
On the other hand, while historians will disagree with his methodology, Mr. Aslan is first and foremost telling a story. Much of his academic work involves the impact of religion on modern culture, and it is clear that a "zealot" Jesus is his solution to modern problems of the continuing class struggle between rich and poor, the powerful and the oppressed.
But Mr. Aslan's portrait of Jesus as a "good" zealot leaves unanswered the question of the relationship between "zeal" and violence. Mr. Aslan accepts as historical the passage in Luke where Jesus tells his disciples to arm themselves with swords. What is at stake with aligning Jesus with a sword? Does this mean that violence is acceptable in a good cause, "in the name of God"? The reader must decide.
Reza Aslan will speak from 6 to 8 p.m. Sept. 17 at the New Hazlett Theater, North Side. The lecture is sponsored by Carnegie Mellon University and the World Affairs Council of Pittsburgh. Buy tickets ($15 to $50) at worldpittsburgh.org or 412-281-7970.bookreviews
Rebecca Denova is a lecturer in the history of early Christianity at the University of Pittsburgh (firstname.lastname@example.org).