Thursday, August 29, 2013

Book Review: The Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth By Dr. Reza Aslan (Final)

Some of you may have read my initial comments on this book.  I want to preface these remarks with a few thoughts.  First, in my notes, I complained profusely about lack of documentation supporting Dr. Aslan’s statements.  Let me explain:  When I see a statement that makes an observation of a time or a place that the writer could not have experienced in person, I want to see the sources upon which he bases the statement.  For example:
“Whatever languages Jesus may have spoken, there is no reason to think he could read or write in any of them, not even Aramaic.  Luke’s account of the  twelve-year-old Jesus standing in the Temple of Jerusalem debating the finer points of the Hebrew Scriptures with the rabbis and scribes… or his narrative of Jesus at the (nonexistent) synagogue in Nazareth reading from the Isaiah scroll to the astonishment of the Pharisees…, are both fabulous concoctions of the evangelist’s own devising.”
Such a statement automatically evokes a series of questions in my mind:  1) How can Dr. Aslan know that Jesus could not read or write in any language unless he was there in person, or he has the direct or indirect testimony of someone who was there?  2) How does Dr. Aslan know whether or not a synagogue was in Nazareth without having been there himself, or without the direct or indirect testimony of someone who was there? 3) Without corroboration of the first two statements, his conclusion that Luke concocted the stories is totally unsupported and very probably unfair.

I demand that a writer support his statements with documented research, even if I may agree with his statements.   If I see statements like the one I just cited, and it does not have a footnote for its source, I treat it as opinion at best.  More importantly, it makes me immediately suspicious of the writer EVEN if I agree with the statement.

Secondly, I approach a book on its own merits.  I understand that everything we know, and everything we experience goes through our personal filters and results in interpretations of events and information.  Basically, regardless of evidence we may cite for or against a premise, it ultimately boils down to personal biases and opinion.  I don’t have to agree with the premise of the book to enjoy reading it.  In any case, the writer has to approach the topic with honesty.  I do not enjoy bashing, lying, or any kind of gratuitous slamming of an opposing view.  I will stop reading a book if that occurs.

Thirdly, I will not argue with the writer of a book in a review.  I can legitimately state that I disagree with the author, but I will not burden my reader with arguments for or against the premise of the book in question.  My purpose is to review the book on its content, not on its premise.  I will report the author’s point of view and how well he makes his case.  I don’t try to evaluate the merits of the premise except in my own private thoughts.

All of that said, let’s get to Zealot by Dr. Reza Aslan.

What I like:

It’s easy reading.

It gives some interesting historical and cultural background to the environment that Jesus of Nazareth lived in.

Gives interesting and seemingly valid alternative interpretations of New Testament scriptures.

If (and that is a BIG IF) you accept the background information Aslan provides, the resultant portrait of a “historical” Jesus is not unreasonable.

Aslan defines the term “zealot” in the context of the political and social environment assumed at the time of Jesus’s ministry.  A zealot would be a person who adheres strictly to the Torah and the law, refuses to submit to any foreign master, refuses to serve any human master at all, and has an uncompromising devotion to the sovereignty of God.  Some zealots were willing to resort to acts of violence against not only all uncircumcised people and Romans, but against fellow Jews that submitted to the Roman occupation.  Leaders of the zealots often declared themselves to be messiahs.  Messiah had a meaning that has been somewhat misunderstood in modern times, but in Jesus’s time a messiah by definition would be the King of the Jews, or the king of Israel.  Of course, Rome would accept only one king, and that was the emperor of Rome.  A Zealot, by definition was an enemy to Rome, and a messiah would necessarily be an enemy of Rome, as well.  Zealots and messiahs would be punished by crucifixion, a punishment reserved for rebels or revolutionaries.

According to Aslan, the typical person from Nazareth would have been poor and illiterate.  Jesus would have been no different, Aslan claims.  But this fact would work in Jesus’s favor, because Jesus spoke with authority in spite of his lack of education, confirming the influence of the Holy Spirit in him.  Jesus followed John the Baptist, and after he was baptized, he set out in a ministry of his own, delivering much the same message as did his mentor, John the Baptist.  Jesus was a Zealot, but his focus was on the corruption in the cult of Judaism, specifically, the priesthood.  Jesus, according to Dr. Aslan, was not the least bit concerned with the Roman occupation of the Holy Land.  Rome would not have had any concerns for Jesus’s activities.  But, the religious order, the cult leaders were concerned that Jesus would succeed in forcing the priests and scribes out of their lucrative and corrupt positions in the temple.  The very powerful high priest, Caiaphas, complained to Roman authorities about this Zealot Jesus who was claiming to be a messiah, i.e., a King of the Jews. This guaranteed the arrest and execution of Jesus of Nazareth.

Rather than use the conventional footnote system for citing his sources, Dr. Aslan provided sixty-four pages of notes by chapter.  In those notes, he cites not only the sources he used but a detailed discussion of other sources with explanations of why he chose one source over another.  His copious notes, to me, were more interesting than his main text.  Dr. Aslan did indeed research his information very well using easily obtainable and reputable resources. He understands many issues far beyond the scope of this book.  

Dr. Aslan offers several alternate interpretations of the New Testament texts.  Again, his interpretations are as skillfully supported as any other interpretation of the texts I have ever read – and I have read many, many exegetes of the New Testament in my life time.  This I can affirm, many of his interpretations and conclusions would not be welcomed in a fundamental Christian environment.  Dr. Aslan views the Gospels as highly contrived pieces, peppered with historical inaccuracies,  embellishments, and biased interpretations designed to convince other Jews that Jesus of Nazareth was the much anticipated “Messiah.”  The Gospel of John, being somewhat different in that it emphasizes the divinity of the Christ, as well.  Aslan constantly reminds the reader that the Gospels were written after the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 B.C. Luke an Matthew borrow much from Mark, but add text to answer some of the challenges against Jesus’s messianic role.  Ironically, since there are no extra Biblical references to Jesus of Nazareth, Dr. Aslan has to rely heavily on the Gospel texts, with all of its inaccuracies, to attempt to place Jesus in his historical surroundings.  Dr. Aslan does more to expose the unreliable nature of the Gospels than he does to place Jesus in a historical context.  Never-the-less, Dr. Aslan does provide many fascinating insights into the culture at the time of Jesus, both from what little information is available from extra Biblical sources, and from brief peeks into the culture gleaned from the Gospel texts.

Above all, I appreciate the enormous amount of research and thought Dr. Aslan has invested in this work combined with his relaxed writing style that makes it so much easier to put one’s head around such an overwhelming undertaking.   An open minded reader will gain a great deal of insight into the New Testament texts, the culture, and the Christian religion.  But, I warn the Evangelical Christian, and the fundamentalist Christian that this book will most likely make you feel uncomfortable at best, but more than likely will provoke anger.  In any case, it will force the reader to think. 

What I don’t like about the book:

The book purports to give the reader a non-theological historical picture of Jesus of Nazareth. But, as Dr. Aslan admits, outside of the New Testament and Flavius Josephus’s Antiquities, there are no historical sources that ever mention Jesus.  Even the one mention of Jesus in the Antiquities is believed to be a spurious interpolation by some well-meaning Christian.  It is no surprise, Dr. Aslan fails to present anything but a speculative view of Jesus of Nazareth based on assumptions he has made from the culture at the time of Jesus and, ironically, interpretations of selected texts from the four New Testament Gospels.

The book is just one more of many books that tries and fails to render a historical view of Jesus of Nazareth.  But that is not all bad.  The reader finishes the book with a much better understanding of the issues than one might have had prior to reading the book.

Monday, August 26, 2013


A few weeks ago, my wife expressed the desire to attend a church service. My son and his wife have found a church they like, and I had assumed that my wife wanted to check it out because she misses some of the fellowship opportunities in churches.

Almost as if my guides saw that coming, I had been thinking that I need to be sensitive to my wife's religious needs. I had decided a few weeks prior to her bringing it up, that if she wanted to start going to church, I would learn to keep my mouth shut, and attend with her. She did bring it up, and I told her that I was completely OK with it. I promised her that I would be a gentleman and not challenge anything that people said in Sunday school or in a sermon. It would be good for me to exercise grace in the face of teachings that I could not buy into.

I should not have been surprised when she announced that she wanted to go to Irv Cobb's church in northeast Omaha. We had been members there many years ago, and we both developed a strong, abiding respect for Irv and his wife, Jan. I have always been comfortable with Irv, even though we are not in agreement on theological or religious matters, we always seem to be able to just be simple friends.

Well, we went to Irv's church for the main service. We were glad to see many of the old members there as well as Irv and Jan. I have to laugh at myself, though. I was psychologically prepared to listen to Irv's sermon and not analyze it. I had totally forgotten about the hymns. Singing hymns that are full of doctrine, praising Jesus as God. Oi Vey! I could not sing the songs. To do so would have been hypocritical because I simply do not belief in the divinity of Jesus.

Irv's sermon was from Romans. The Apostle Paul is one of my heroes. He was a Jew's Jew. He was a deeply spiritual man. He understood the spiritual journey and the many obstacles to spiritual growth. I had absolutely no problem listening to the sermon. I always appreciate Irv's insights.

What touched me the most about the experience is something Jan told as as we were leaving, “ I don't normally say things like this, and maybe I shouldn't say anything, but I have been praying for you every day since you left the church.”

Wow! First, we know Jan and Irv well enough to know they do not put on airs, they are down to Earth, real, and honest. If Jan says she prayed for us everyday, I believe her. Also, I believe in prayer. My immediate thought when she told us that was, “Only God knows how many times her prayer has kept my family from some extremely difficult circumstances.” I thanked Jan for those prayers. I honestly do appreciate those efforts to intercede and keep us secure.

Am I contradicting myself? I mean, I have expressed my disdain for organized religion, so how can I find it in me to try to tolerate the religions and/or the people involved in them. I admit, I have struggled with that, and I think when one walks away from a religion, it is kind of like a death of sorts, and there are multiple stages one goes through until one finds a balance, or finds him or her self, again. I went through an anger stage, I went through a guilt stage (guilty for being angry and hateful, not guilty for walking away), a justification stage where I had to find the “logical” justification for abandoning the religion (included a lot of reading, and a lot of self examination), and now I am in a near resolution of it all. I am content with what I have done, I am aware of a lot of errors on my part, and I am more aware of people and how religion works. Like Dr. Jonathan Haidt discovered as he wrote his book, The Righteous Mind, humans work best in groups with common cause. The ablility of humans to bond together is what has kept the human race ahead in the natural selection game. Religion is one of the most powerful bonding agents. While religions have been inextricably part of tragic human history, religions have likewise been part of the stories of love and healing. Religion, like any other tool, can be used for good, or for bad. So, for me, I choose now to look at the good it has done.

And I look at people like Irv and Jan, the life they live, and how they work with in the structure of a religion to bring hope and good things to other people.

I am absolutely a lover of the Most High God. I don't just “believe” in God. It is not a matter of faith to me. I have experienced God in my life. I see God daily in my life. I love God above all things, even though I let life distract me, at the end of the day, I bow before Him and thank Him for His kindness and His love. And I thank Him for people like Irv and Jan Cobb.

P.S. It is becoming less and less important for me to justify why I have nothing to do with organized religions in general, and Christianity specifically. I don't need to convince myself of anything anymore, and I don't feel a need to convince someone else to follow me. I am convinced that God is far more loving and accepting than most religions make Him out to be. His love transcends our limitations ands brings us to Him in the end, no matter what we believe at this time. God works within whatever context we happen to be in. He loves us that much.