Attempts to reconstruct the real Jesus of Nazareth — Jesus the man, as opposed to Jesus the Christ — have been an academic pastime since the Enlightenment. In the early 20th century, Albert Schweitzer's book "The Quest of the Historical Jesus" squashed the mostly fanciful efforts of the 18th and 19th centuries, pointing out the ways in which their subjects were cast in their authors' own images.
Jesus has been proposed as an educated Pharisee and as an illiterate peasant, as a peaceful reformer and as a hard-core revolutionary, his character filled in with fictions or stripped down to basics. The essential problem, however, with any attempt to reconstruct Jesus' life and views is that we just don't know enough about the man.
These things we do know: Jesus was from Nazareth in the backwater district of Galilee, was baptized by John the Baptist, was recognized for his healings and other miracles, taught widely, argued with assorted Jewish authorities and was crucified by order of the fifth Roman Prefect of Judea, Pontius Pilatus.
After Schweitzer's squelching, the questing recommenced at midcentury and has continued ever since. The most recent group to gain widespread notice, beginning in the 1980s, is the "Jesus Seminar." Composed of a set of reasonable, rational male American and European academics, the group produced a reasonable, rational Jesus. Schweitzer could have predicted it.
Now comes Reza Aslan, an Iranian-born scholar of religions and academic who converted to evangelical Christianity in high school and returned to Islam as a young adult. His Jesus is a zealot, a revolutionary with "a complex attitude toward violence," opposed to the rule of the priests who ran the Temple, intolerant of non-Jews, a "simple peasant" who was put to death for sedition.
"Zealot" is the result of much study and supplied with an ample set of notes and bibliography. It's a generally well-written (aside from some regrettable sentence fragments and the verb "prance" as consistently applied to priests) and readable popularization of contemporary scholarship on the subject.
"Zealot" often provides useful context and background information. Aslan gives reasons people might think that Jesus was the prophet Elijah returned to earth (they were both itinerant, had disciples and provided "signs and wonders" that often involved food). He offers the truth about the census in which "all the world should be taxed." In 6 A.D., the governor Quirinius called for a census of people and property in the region to assist in taxation, but nobody left home; the evangelist Luke is simply trying find a way to put the Messiah into his prophesied hometown of Bethlehem.
To come up with his particular portrait, Aslan has had to exaggerate certain features and ignore others. That has led to some misstatements. "Crucifixion was a punishment that Rome reserved almost exclusively for the crime of sedition," he writes. It was also commonplace for pirates, slaves and robbers who were not insurrectionists.
Aslan is also selective in his use of citations. One of the major faults of his thesis is to miscast Torah as uniformly hostile to non-Jews. He quotes Exodus 23:31-33, on driving out the Canaanites et al. from the Promised Land, but ignores an earlier verse in the same chapter, 23:9: "Do not oppress the alien, for you know how it feels to be an alien; you yourselves were aliens in Egypt." He notes Jesus' initial rejection of the Syrophoenician woman's cry for healing for her daughter in Mark 27:25-30 on the grounds that she's a Gentile; he ignores Jesus' offer to heal the servant of a Roman centurion in Matthew 8:5-13 and Luke 7:1-10.
Some of his statements are surprising. Aslan refers to the apostle Peter as "the first bishop of Rome," although there is no historic evidence, and no contemporary tradition, for Peter's presence in the city. (Paul, who was there, and who mentioned many others by name, doesn't seem to have run into his archrival.) In any case, bishops came after the apostolic period, as the Christian movement became more organized.
Aslan differs from other contemporary scholars in not contesting Jesus' healings, but observing that he "was not the only miracle worker trolling through Palestine healing the sick and casting out demons."
"Zealot" offers some interesting angles on Jesus in his time and place. Ultimately, though, it suffers from the same lack of objective facts about Jesus as every other work of its type. Once we get past the few things we really know about Jesus, as Aslan himself writes in the conclusion to his book's introduction, "Everything else is a matter of faith."
Post-Dispatch classical music critic Sarah Bryan Miller is a graduate of the Episcopal School for Ministry and a licensed lay preacher in the Diocese of Missouri.