A Modern View of an Ancient Nazarene

Article by annalia

With so many writings about Jesus already in existence, one has to wonder why Reza Aslan would want to contribute another. However, from the outset, Aslan makes it clear that ZEALOT: THE LIFE AND TIMES OF JESUS OF NAZARETH is a study of the historical Jesus--not to be confused with Jesus the Christian icon, who has become a celebrity in his own right.

Aslan's hope? “To spread the good news of the Jesus of history with the same fervor that [he] once applied to spreading the story of Christ.” It’s a big hope, but he is diplomatic in his introduction. He defends the narrative in the book as “the most accurate and reasonable argument” and points readers who are interested in the debate to the back of the book where he has “exhaustively detailed [his] research, and, whenever possible, provided the arguments of those who disagree with [his] interpretation.” (And there is interpretation: Aslan did all Greek translations of the New Testament himself.)

Aside from Aslan's extensive knowledge--which allows him to pivot between time periods, subjects, and perspectives with ease--the main thing that struck me about ZEALOT was Aslan's quest for truth. Take, for instance, a moment in part two when he examines John the Baptist and his role in baptizing Jesus. When Jesus came to John, John was the “superior” figure--a “popular, well-respected, and almost universally acknowledged priest and prophet.” Because John had established himself first, his most loyal followers refused to acknowledge Jesus's legacy, even long after both figures were dead.

So how did the role reversal between John and Jesus come about? Aslan suggests that the gospels “massaged” the story in order to comfort their readers. Mark’s version of John the Baptist is a “wholly independent figure who baptizes Jesus as one among many who come to him seeking repentance,” whereas, in Matthew’s version, John does not baptize Jesus at first, insisting that Jesus should be the one baptizing him; it is not until Jesus gives John permission that John performs his duty. The depictions become more and more conservative until, in the gospel of John (the fourth gospel), John is not a baptist at all. John does not even baptise Jesus. Rather, John simply says, “I have been sent before him...He must increase, as I must decrease” (John 3:28-30).

Aslan uses these discrepancies not only to highlight the contradictions in the Bible but to reinforce that the Bible as a text was never meant to be a factual document. Rather, Aslan argues that writers of the Bible portrayed Jesus to fit the times in which they were writing. Jesus became whatever his audience needed him to be, which is why separating Jesus of Nazareth from Jesus the Christ is so critical--and why Aslan’s work is so necessary.


Tickets for Reza Aslan's September 19 presentation of ZEALOT at Christ Church Cathedral, Episcopal are on sale now. Click here for all the details.

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