I came across Zealot on Facebook, actually, in a roundabout kind of way. Someone had posted a link to the Fox News interview with Reza Aslan, which was a total train wreck and should have been highly embarrassing for those involved at Fox. Mr. Aslan spoke with authority and integrity, and thus attracted me to his book. Reza Aslan is an Iranian-American writer, scholar of religions, and a Muslim - which I thought would add a very interesting perspective to his history of Jesus of Nazareth.
Reza Aslan does a wonderful job creating the context and culture of the historical Jesus, painting an excellent picture of the world in which he lived. Leaning heavily on the records left by Rome, the political, religions, and cultural atmosphere of Jerusalem and it's surrounding areas during Jesus' life become living landscapes in the mind of the reader. For this reason alone, I would recommend this book.
At the start of Zealot, Mr. Aslan brings up the notion that pseudepigrapha (religious or scholarly writings falsely attributed to biblical characters) were quite commonplace and considered more of a tribute to the character represented than an actual forgery. This has been the stance of many biblical scholars that I have read over the years, but recently I came across a logical and compelling counter-argument for this theory. Bart D. Ehrman's Forged argues that forgery in antiquity was taken just as seriously as forgery is today, and given his evidence, I tend to agree. Reading Mr. Aslan's easy dismissal of forgery as "perfectly acceptable" back-in-the-day immediately had my skeptic's view on high alert. I chose to give him the benefit of the doubt, however, and continued the journey.
Mr. Aslan takes us on a cultural adventure wherein he discusses the seeming multitude of "prophets" and "messiahs" that roamed the countryside before, during, and after the time of Jesus, many of whom suffered the same fate as Jesus, ultimately dying on the cross or by stoning. This plays a major role in the political and religious atmosphere at the time of Jesus' ministry, and affected how both the Roman and Jewish leaders responded to him. Religious zealots of the time were considered a threat to Rome, and treated as though on par with traitors - the penalty for which was death. Rome and it's representatives held the Jews to very strict law during this period, ruling with an iron fist, and the people responded with threats of rebellion. A stunning atmosphere to imagine a pacifist carpenter preaching peace to be ensconced in.
At first, there seems to be some contradictions concerning crucifixion and its prevalence during this period. In one section, Mr. Aslan speaks of how widespread and common crucifixion actually was back then, while in another he discusses the fact that crucifixion was reserved "solely for the most extreme political crimes: treason, rebellion, sedition, banditry" (p. 464, iPad version). If crucifixions were only utilized for the "most extreme" crimes, but were also common and widespread, it leaves the reader with the image of a politically extreme climate where bandits and zealots popped up every-which-where. Keeping in mind that the Jews were an occupied nation, and that Rome was not the most forgiving of masters, this theory goes a long way toward demonstrating the atmosphere that Jesus and his ministry were facing.
The ideas put forth by Reza Aslan are interesting and, for the most part, fresh (or an old idea from a fresh perspective) and genuinely thought provoking. All-in-all, I would recommend Zealot for readers of all interest levels and religions. The historicity of Jesus and his impact on today's culture all over the world, are often in contradiction. Books like Zealot go a long way in opening up the conversation about who Jesus actually was, and what impact he meant to have versus what impact he actually has.
If you are interested in reading more books along these lines I would also recommend the following:
Forged by Bart D. Ehrman - concerning forgery in antiquity and how culture responded to it.
The Making of the New Revised Standard Version of the Bible by Bruce M. Metzger, Robert C. Dentan and Walter Harrelson - three of the men on the translation committee for the NRSV Bible.
Misquoting Jesus by Bart D. Ehrman - possibly my favorite book on this subject, so far.