Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth - Reza Aslan Let"s face it. Theologians and religious historians will never get along. I am reminded of a scene in Clifford Simaks' clever time travel novel, [b:Mastodonia|1436437|Mastodonia|Clifford D. Simak|http://d202m5krfqbpi5.cloudfront.net/books/1373913320s/1436437.jpg|1426998]. The inventor of a patented method of time travel is met by a rabbi, a priest, and a Protestant minister who wants to buy the exclusive rights of travel to the time of Jesus Christ. The inventor says, "That's wonderful. You three can go back and find out the truth about Jesus." But the three have other plans. They want to totally close off time travel to that period. For them, and for the faith of their followers, it was better not to know. In this area, the three leaders of the these religions agreed that ignorance is best.

When it comes to the "real world's" search for the historical Jesus. I think there is a similar form of friction involved. A lot of people simply do not want to read historical facts especially if it conflicts with their faith. Aslan is bound to have to confront asinine interviews like the now notorious one he was subjected to at Fox News. I'm sure evangelists are already gearing up the cottage industry of rebuking the points of Zealot now that it is a best selling book. But hopefully cooler heads will prevail as people read this book and examine Aslan's evidence for his claims about Jesus.

But they are not really his claims. Aslan presents no earth-shaking revelations and no new information that has not been dug up by historians before. Where the author excels is taking all this information about the time of Jesus and presenting in a coherent, detailed and very entertaining format. Aslan researches the life and times of Jesus of Nazareth, a Jew living in a time where Rome rules over Jewish territories, and rules often cruelly. It is a time when prophets claiming to be the Messiah abound and the religious hierarchy is often corrupt. Jesus is one the men claiming to be the Messiah, yet the author shows where his message differs and how his followers changed that message after his death. The main point here, and the one that is going to rile up the faithful is that Jesus is portrayed as not only Jewish (no big surprise there) but one of the Zealot teachers who preached the return of Jewish rule and an earthly "Kingdom of God", not one in the hereafter. Christianity actually arrives about 50 years after his death when Paul redesigns it into a religion for Gentiles and not the exclusive Jewish message that Jesus and the apostles originally meant it to be.

But Aslan's real triumph isn't his claims about Jesus but how well he enacts the place and time that all this took place. For a non-fiction work of this kind, it is the most easily read and most engrossing one that I've experienced. It really comes alive as he describes the cultural, religious and political environments. Both minor and major characters are dealt with in amazing care and details. And I think this is where Aslan really helps us understand. Placing the actions of Jesus, Paul, the apostles, Herod, Pilate and the rest of the cast firmly in context with the historical reality helps us understand what was really happening.

But if you are dealing with events that are only documented in Gospels which were not written by their namesakes and written 70 to 100 years after the fact, you have to make some judicial assumptions. Aslan uses other writings of the time to evaluate what is myth and what is fact. In some cases, he shows how certain events could not happen due to what we know historically; for instance The slaughtering of children by Herod after Jesus' birth that has no basis in fact as Herod the Great's history was highly documented by contemporary historians and no such event is recorded to have happened or the birth of Jesus in Bethlehem in which most scholars agree he was actually born in Nazareth and the story of his birth in Bethlehem was placed to justify certain aspects of the Messiah prophecy. But other times, Aslan discredits events, such as the resurrection, as being "Faith events" and not one of historical relevance for study. Of course, this is where people of faith will protest most and use aspects of Aslan's own upbringing to discredit him as we have seen in the fore-mentioned Fox interview. Yet what it should come down to is whether the author's own research is credible and validated. Aslan's research does hold up extremely well with what I've already known yet he also gave me a lot of facts I was not familiar with and did it in a way that kept me guessing as if this was an exciting suspense tale; the perfect combination of historical research and narration.

What it really comes down to, as you read this excellent book, is that you will accept or not accept it based on your own ability to have an open mind and to question your own beliefs and assumptions. And that's fine. What a person will do with the insight in this book is totally up to the individual. But it is an important book to read and I cannot recommend it too highly for persons of all faiths...or none.