Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth by Reza Aslan
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
In fall of 1995, I heard a paradigm-shifting lecture delivered by a philosophy professor who happened to be a lay leader at my Unitarian Universalist fellowship. Titled "Paul's Little Invention," he laid out some of the history of the early church and explained why Paul, not Jesus' own followers, got the foothold in Rome and created a new religion in Jesus' name only. Through the ideas he presented, I was able to finally pinpoint the theological and philosophical problems I had with mainstream Christianity and find what was left of truth for myself. I blame Paul for my split with the church of my youth, and he's probably responsible for many similar disillusionments over the last two millenia.
Aslan's book is an expansion of the ideas I first encountered in 1995. He meticulously explains the social, political, and religious climate in which the historical Jesus lived and taught, and through this, it is simple to see why he gained a following and what made him stand out from many other miracle workers and self-proclaimed messiahs in the area. Even just understanding that the Roman punishment for sedition was crucifixion makes very clear what was happening the last week of Jesus' life and removes some of the mystery.
In my opinion, the greatest loss of the early (and probably contemporary) church is the sidelining of Jesus' brother James, who took up his ministry in Judea and continued to practice Hebrew law while gaining followers within Judaism. Because the early church felt it necessary to emphasize Mary's perpetual virginity, the fact that as a married woman she would have had a number of other children over time was conveniently ignored, and James faded into ecclesiastical obscurity. But contemporary writings of his time paint him as a pious, law-abiding, inspiring figure even to church leaders, despite the fact that he was an illiterate peasant living in extreme poverty in accordance with his brother's teachings. The world is poorer for the lack of illumination on his example.
Zealot clarified a lot of points for me about the history of the times, the timeline of events, and the reasons why certain paths were taken in the early church. Paul was reviled by practicing Jews for his refutation of Hebrew law; once the Temple was destroyed in 70AD and Jews scattered through the region, Paul's teachings gained significance in the gentile world; James had already been put to death.
Read this if you are interested in Biblical history and want to know how things came about. A third of the book at the end contains extensive notes and references. I agree with Aslan's conclusion: the real historical Jesus of Nazareth is much more compelling a person than Paul's little invention.
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