Reza Aslan has a remarkable ability to make ancient stories come alive. I have assigned his earlier books, No god but God: The Origins, Evolution, and Future of Islam and Beyond Fundamentalism, in undergraduate courses on religion and politics, and students repeatedly rank them among their favorite readings of the semester. I will likely assign Aslan’s newest book, Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth, too, because his accessible prose holds their attention like few other texts on the syllabus. (It’s no coincidence that he is Associate Professor of Creative Writing at the University of California, Riverside.)
Aslan also has a penchant for polemics. He rejects opposing views as “simply nonsensical” or “not even remotely credible.” He stakes his own territory with phrases like “there can be no doubt” or “obviously.” This may be an effective strategy for generating publicity: the bluster surrounding his recent appearance on Fox News obscured just how directly both parties benefitted from the exchange. (Zealot is now Amazon’s top selling book.) But Aslan aims to be a historian, and history must be a careful discipline before it is a polemical one if there is to be any hope of pushing beyond the easy divisions of our age.
Here lies the struggle at the heart of Zealot: Aslan seeks to “purge the scriptures of their literary and theological flourishes,” even as those same flourishes define his work. It is a literary flourish to write, “the gospels are not about a man known as Jesus of Nazareth who lived two thousand years ago,” especially when you are using those very gospels to construct your “far more accurate picture of the Jesus of history.” It is a theological flourish to write, “For those who view Jesus as the literally begotten son of God, Jesus’s Jewishness is immaterial,” especially when N.T. Wright is among those listed in your bibliography.
These flourishes do not undermine Zealot’s readability; more likely, they embolden it. But they also explain why Aslan is receiving criticism left and right – no pun intended – from biblical scholars, historians, and theologians alike. Jesus of Nazareth is slipperier and more elusive that Aslan’s history of him suggests, and the textual, historical, and theological debates surrounding his life and legacy will continue.
By all means, order Zealot and read it. Just make sure it isn’t the only book you read about Jesus. Make sure No god but God isn’t the only book you read about the Prophet, too. Neither Jesus nor Muhammad fits neatly into a 200-page book, and no single author is competent to settle the countless historical and theological disputes that surround both men. What attracts us to them generation after generation is precisely their inexhaustibility: the beauty of their lives, the depth of their stories, and the complexity of their legacies.