Thursday, April 26, 2018

Book 126: Zealot

"The messiah was popularly believed to be the descendant of King David, and so his principal task was to rebuild David's kingdom and reestablish the nation of Israel. Thus, to call oneself the messiah at the time of the Roman occupation was tantamount to declaring war on Rome. Indeed, the day would come when these angry bands of peasant gangs would form the backbone of an army of zealous revolutionaries that would force the Romans to flee Jerusalem in humiliation. In those early years of the occupation, however, the bandits were little more than a nuisance. Still, they needed to be stopped; someone had to restore order in the countryside."

Dates read: February 11-16, 2017

Rating: 7/10

I always think it's pretty ridiculous when religious groups mock each other's ideas. Isn't it soooo funny that Hindus hold cows to be sacred? I don't know, Catholics who believe by doctrine that the host literally transforms into the flesh of Christ are actually kind of cannibals, right? It seems like an inimical tenet of religion that some things that sound preposterous are meant to be taken on faith by true believers. And surely the story of Jesus, featuring divine conception upon a virgin and death followed by resurrection, is no more inherently believable than any other. But Jesus's life was recent enough that historical records, however scant, exist of it. So who was Jesus of Nazareth anyways?

Reza Aslan was born into a Persian family and Islamic faith, but was so enamored of the story of Jesus that he converted briefly to Christianity as a teenager. He eventually returned to Islam, but remained fascinated with Jesus. His book, Zealot, is a nonfiction history that looks at the man, not through the lens of his religious/mythological importance, but rather in the context of his time and place: Israel (or rather, the Roman province of Judea) in the early Common Era.

This is not a hatchet job by a nonbeliever intent on denigrating an important figure of faith. But it will challenge some of the fundamental facts Christians take for granted. For example, Jesus' birth. According to Aslan's research, what the Bible states about a census compelling all to return to the cities of their father's birth (leading Jesus to be born in Bethlehem), would have been completely anomalous among the many Roman censuses. While that doesn't necessarily mean it's not true, it does mean that it is much, much more likely that Jesus was both born and raised in Nazareth. He also places Jesus into context as one of many self-annointed Kings of the Jews in the area at the time, and far from the only one that was crucified by Rome for such a crime.

As an agnostic/atheist with a Christian background, I found the book fascinating. This is my first time reading a history of this time period, but Aslan's research seems well-grounded. His writing doesn't come across like an attempt to debunk the Christian religion (indeed, he usually states that the most faith-based aspects of Jesus's life are unknowable by historical accounts), but rather asks the reader to think about the world in which Jesus, whether he was just a man or a prophet or divine, actually lived. For my money, more critical thinking is always a good thing.

Tell me, blog friends...have you ever read into the history of your faith?

One year ago, I was reading: A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius (review to come)

Two years ago, I was reading: The President's Club


  1. This book sounds very interesting. I have seen Aslan on talk shows and he is also very interesting. He and Bill Maher had a little war going on a few years ago when Maher stated his belief that Muslims were practicing an evil religion, or something like that.

    1. Aslan comes at it with a real intellectual curiosity, which is fun to read. And ugh Bill Maher. It feels like anytime he says something worthwhile he immediately follows it by saying three cringeworthy things.