Zealot, by Reza Aslan, is a serious, though unconvincing attempt to discover the Jesus of history, which it combines with a celebration of Jesus the man. The quest for the historical Jesus, that is Jesus as he can be recovered by the discipine of historical study, has always been fraught with difficulty, and Aslan adds nothing to the quest. Most of the book consists of known material, and I see little originality. However, the author is to be commended for his willingness to accept the unconventional, that Jesus did perform miraculous acts, and for his use of historical material to celebrate a historic personage, something which is sometimes neglected by academic historians.
It is important to state that this author is a genuine scholar who is trying to express a seriously held view, and this thankfully excludes him from the category of sensationalists, who write spurious material for maximum cash. Aslan writes well, far more clearly than many academics. He is honest about his presuppositions, telling us that of his influences from Islam and evangelical Christianity. This is always an advantage in a religious writer.
Religious books can be devotional, academic, popular or sensational. This book, whose style indicates that it is written for a general readership, is clearly a popular work. Yet it is at the higher, more academic end of the market, for it is well sourced, as its bibiography shows. But it does not reflect a high enough level of thought, as issues are not discussed in great enough depth. An example of lack of depth is his claim that the trial of Jesus before Pilate never happened, as Pilate would not have bothered witha trial. Yet Aslan overlooks that the Sanhedrin asked for a trial and that Pilate might well have felt the need for a trial, as Jesus was an important person and the arrest was at a sensitive time.Aslan later contradicts himselt by conceding that there might have been a brief trial. This contradiction is made worse by the fact that earlier on he rightly notes that the consensus of opinion among the ancients was that Jesus worked wonders and that this is indicative of the fact that he did; yest he overlooks the fact that the consensus of opinion was that Jesus was tried by Pilate. No one doubted the basic facts, even though they often rejected the Christ faith.
Much of the book is wasted. The first few chapters deal with the history of the Jews up to the destruction of Jerusalem. This is not clearly focused on the point, and I became impatient with the book. There are also some problem claims which reflect inadequate scholarship or use of language. Early on he spoke of legions of troops in Jesus' homeland, unaware that that there were no legions based in the country, the nearest legionary base being in Syria. He also speaks of the commandment to eradicate the inhabitants of the land being delivered to the early Hebrews, whereas it was only concocted in the Deuteronomic history in 621 bc and is therefore a later text that put words into Moses' mouth.
The book discusses Jesus in terms of his historical circumstances. While this is important in any account of a person, it overlooks the analysis of his character from a detailed examination of his words and deeds and his impact upon others.In the case of Jesus his spiritual impact on others was so great that this needs to be taken into account more than it is in this book. People are not simply the products of historical circumstances, they respond to them, sometimes creatively, always individually, and this aspect of Jesus is not brought out in Aslan's work.
The book finally moves on to the history of Chrisianity after Jesus, but its popular style leads Aslan to construct an entirely fictitious story of Stephen's entry into the Jesus movement. This narrative has no academic credibility and wastes the readers' time.
The book is the result of twenty years of research, Aslan tells us. As one who has spent over forty years reading and writing about religious matters, it taught me nothing about religion that I did not know already and made claims with which I could not agree.