“Simon Peter replied, “You are the Christ, the Son of the Living God.””—Matthew 16:16
Reza Aslan’s Zealot is one of my most fascinating reads of all time, mostly because I grew up in church and have attended several kinds since. But also because the book’s subject matter is intensely controversial and unabashedly provocative.
Simply put, Zealot is a book about Jesus. Not Jesus the Christ, as the Bible posits him, but the historical Jesus: the Jesus of Nazareth.
Putting the Bible Together
“After months of heated negotiations, the council handed to Constantine what became known as the Nicene Creed, outlining for the first time the officially sanctioned, orthodox beliefs of the Christian church. Jesus is the literal son of God, the creed declared. He is Light from Light, true God from true God, begotten not made, of the same substance as the father. Those who disagreed with the creed, those like the Arians who believed that “there was a time when [Jesus] was not,” they were immediately banished from the empire and their teachings violently suppressed.”(Aslan 214)
The Bible, as its readers may or may not know, was put together in 325 C.E by Rome’s first Christian emperor, Constantine. Before its official compilation, what people believed about our relationship with God and about Jesus—one of Palestine’s many messianic aspirants—were scattered into letters and contradictory doctrines all over the Greco-Roman Empire. The excerpt above reveals how the books of the Bible and the beliefs they espoused were hand-picked by man, based on their alignment with the empire’s beliefs and purposes. It also reveals how the current, officially sanctioned bible deliberately excluded many other letters and books and had detractors, and therefore most probably does not tell the complete story about Christianity, Jesus and Judaic traditions. It is a human construct, for human purposes.
The Jesus of History Vs. Jesus the Christ
Detailing the socio-political atmosphere of Palestine before and after Jesus’s time, Aslan places him squarely within his historical context. Aslan ploughs through historical records, juxtaposing them against the biblical narrative; when they don’t match up, he explains this mismatch in quite satisfying detail. For those who are interested, they can follow and read more in-depth into Zealot’s notes and bibliography at the back of the book.
We are trained in literature to always critique a book objectively. However, for a subject matter as personal as this, it is impossible to completely eschew subjectivity. Like the author, the reader inevitably brings the entirety of his or her experiences into the meaning-making process.
The main reason I had such a hard time putting Zealot down was the enormous relief of finally finding concrete, historically grounded answers to the multiple, uncomfortable contradictions so apparent in the bible and and the resultant questions I had. Questions to which answers varied wildly between basically every single Christian I’ve posed them too. Beyond that, Zealot narrative is immensely readable and well-written.
Contradictions in the New Testament Explained
In Zealot, these contradictions are patiently, factually explained. For example, why Paul’s doctrines on how we are saved by faith and not by works are completely unreconcilable with Jesus’s beatitudes (and why they make up two-thirds of the New Testament even though Paul wasn’t one of the Twelve). Or why the four gospels document the same occurrences all slightly differently and why James’s letter at the end of the New Testament is so law-based and in such stark contrast to Paul’s letters. There are a multitude of other discrepancies and ‘facts’ that Aslan addresses as well.
Most importantly (to me), we learn that Jesus is simply one of the many self-declared-but-failed Messiahs in a line of many that came both before and after him. His legacy lasts because he is the only one whose disciples claim to have risen from the dead; to be God incarnate—a ‘truth’ ‘concretised’ by Stephen, who claimed to have a vision of Jesus at the right hand of God before he was stoned to death, and Paul, who insisted he was more important than the apostles. We also learn that the gospels were composed long after Jesus’s death, and therefore, many ‘facts’ were fabricated or embellished to prove their doctrines right and/or to appeal to the Hellenistic Jews and gentiles they were written for. For example, in the last gospel to be written, the book of John, the writer claims that the Jews declared ‘we have no King but Caesar!” when Pilate desperately tries to convince the Jews to have mercy on Jesus. This is blatantly untrue: historical evidence shows the Jews’ hatred for Roman rule, and that Pilate was summoned to Rome after a complaint lodged against his brutality and his tendency to send thousands to the cross without trial or reason. Yet, by the time the book of John was written, evangelists to Rome needed to disassociate all Roman responsibility in the messiah’s death, placing the blame on the Jews instead.
Is Jesus the Son of God?
Zealot doesn’t answer the question at the crux of it all directly: “is Jesus the Son of God?”. Instead, it narrates in detail the sequence of events that led to the Church deciding that Jesus is, and lets the reader come to their own conclusion. Aslan’s position on this subject isn’t conclusive; Zealot makes it clear that its purpose quite isn’t to give a definitive answer to this question, but to depict the historical Jesus under the centuries of myths about him. To reveal the Jesus of Nazareth beneath Jesus the Christ.
Zealot is far from comprehensive; it’s purpose is in unveiling the historical Jesus, and therefore it chronicles only relevant information. Nevertheless, this book is an excellent, accessible place to begin with should one seek to find out how the Bible and ‘truths’ about Jesus were put together and came to be. How these have evolved from their tumultuous mosaic in first century Palestine to the neat, child-friendly Sunday school stories of today.
Zealot is highly controversial, and there will be thousands who read it who will agree with neither the book nor this post. And I’m perfectly okay with that.
But true education begins when we are willing to expose ourselves to different sides of a topic or an issue. Learning from sources other than the main authoritative text (in this case, the Bible) always helps us see a bigger picture that we may not have considered before.
Zealot is new historicism at its best, a book I’d recommend to not only Christians seeking answers, but to everyone who wants to learn the history of this age-old religion governing billions of people’s lives all over the world.
May we continue to read more and think bigger.