‘Zealot’: Jesus of the sword

Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth

Reza Aslan

Random House, $27

Austin writer Owen Egerton, whose latest is “Everyone Says That at the End of the World,” will be in conversation with Reza Aslan at 4 p.m. Saturday in the House Chamber.

If Jesus of Nazareth were to visit a modern-day church, he would be dumbfounded by the peace-loving, gentle Christ described in the sermons and songs. And if he were to discover these songs of worship were referring to him, Jesus might burst into tears or laughter or, even more likely, start a riot.

Such is the Jesus we find in Reza Aslan’s impressive book “Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth.” Aslan follows up his best-selling description of the origins of Islam, “No god but God,” with an exploration of early Christianity and the controversial figure at its center. Balancing impressive scholarship and highly accessible prose, Aslan sets out to extract the historical Jesus from the faith-inspired Gospels and testimonies.

To understand the man, Aslan argues, it is essential to understand his time and place. Covering the centuries surrounding the brief ministry of Jesus, Aslan paints a picture of a land ripped apart by fierce rebellions, merciless overlords, corrupt priests, inept governors and an ever-widening gap between the haves and have-nots. In the midst of this turmoil appears a messiah, in fact several messiahs: Judas the Galilean, Simon of Peran, Theudas the wonder worker, Simon son of Kochba and many others promising freedom from Rome and its Jewish collaborators.

The Jesus that emerges in Aslan’s book is one in an extended line of zealots with messianic ambitions. He’s an illiterate revolutionary less concerned with pacifism and personal salvation than he is with recovering the Temple from the corrupt priests and ending the Roman occupation — with violence if necessary. Jesus is not interested in founding a new religion. He aims, instead, to establish a Kingdom of God — not an otherworldly utopia, but a Jewish political, cultural and religious kingdom rooted here on earth and centered around the laws of the Torah.

This Jesus is not God in the flesh, not the Alpha and Omega, and not a Christian.

He’s a Jewish zealot willing to engage in violence to rid Palestine of its occupiers. With this idea as his cornerstone, Aslan offers alternate readings of Jesus’ teachings. Calls to “turn the other cheek” and “love your neighbor” are guidelines for a Jewish community, not an appeal for universal brotherly love. The healing of a leper is an attempt to undermine the authority of the Temple. Jesus promises a kingdom where the hungry are fed, the poor are relieved, and the rich and powerful face the violent wrath of God. The present order is about to be forcefully destroyed. “The Kingdom of God,” Aslan assures us, “is a call to revolution, plain and simple.”

But the revolution fails.

With little fanfare, the would-be King of the Jews is seized by Temple authorities, tried and executed by the Romans for crimes of insurrection. Just another in a long list of failed messiahs.

So how did this executed rebel and religious zealot come to be known as the incarnation of God? How did this peasant healer from a backwater village become one of the key figures in human history?

Aslan does an excellent job of describing the intriguing personalities of the early church: James the Just, the loyal, ascetic Jew and brother of Jesus who took up the mantle of leadership after his brother’s death, and Paul, a bitterly maligned convert with a radically alternative theology. Only after Rome’s brutal destruction of the Temple in 70 CE, Aslan argues, does Paul’s supernatural, preeminent God-Man overshadow the rebellious Jewish nationalist Jesus of history. In a painful twist, Paul’s Christ eventually becomes the central religious symbol of the empire Jesus had hoped to topple.

Aslan admits that the few facts we know about the historical Jesus can lead to a variety of interpretations and fills more than 50 pages with excellent notes that not only acknowledge his sources and expand the discussion but also point to the differing views of other scholars. The notes act as an excellent supplement to the streamlined prose of the book.

A reader may disagree with some of Aslan’s conclusions or feel he overemphasizes certain aspects of Jesus’ mission. But one cannot help but be impressed by his compelling insight and energetic scholarship as he challenges centuries-old assumptions.

By placing Jesus in the context of his own time and culture, Aslan reveals an ambitious zealot with a thirst for social and economic justice and a heart for revolution. Many readers will find this Jesus more intriguing, complex and strikingly more human in his victories and failures than the Christ of the Christian faith.