I, as likely thousands of others, came to learn of Reza Aslan's latest book, Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth, after watching the sadly hilarious Fox News interview with Lauren Green. Her first question—"You're a Muslim, so why did you write a book about the founder of Christianity?"—was as tragically ignorant as it was amusingly farcical. Not long after, I penned a response posing a different question: Why wouldn't a Muslim write about Jesus?
In fact, this Muslim has been writing about Jesus for over a decade, for Christ figures prominently in Islamic belief and scripture. Yet, although the Quran does mention many aspect of Jesus' life and ministry, it does not give a complete story. Hence, I bought Dr. Aslan's book with great enthusiasm.
And I was not disappointed.
I have been reading about early Church history for many years now, fascinated by the development of Church doctrine about the nature of Christ. Indeed, I approached these writings as a Muslim believer, one who does not accept the divinity of Christ, curious and fascinated about how Jesus' followers came to see him as being God himself. A study of the historical Jesus was the piece that was missing, and Zealot completed the puzzle perfectly.
True, there have been countless scholarly studies on the life of the historical Jesus of Nazareth, but these works are not available to me as a layperson (and I probably would not want to read them, either, due to their complexity). Thus, Dr. Aslan's book is a welcome addition, and in an interview with John Williams of the New York Times, Dr. Aslan explained:
What I've done is take this debate that scholars are immersed in and simply made it accessible to a nonscholarly audience. It's something I wish more scholars would do, in various fields.
I am very glad he did.
As I voraciously took in the book, I wanted to see who the man Jesus really was. I wanted to get a sense of what this—from my perspective as a Muslim—mighty Prophet and Messiah was like, and Dr. Aslan, through his exceptional story-telling ability, was able to paint a picture I can easily visualize in my own mind. Indeed, it does not fit into the nice and neat commonplace view of Christ as the "Prince of Peace," but Zealot offers a convincing explanation of who Jesus really could have been.
Moreover, his extensive notes about each chapter (which I highly recommend reading) excellently flesh out the scholarly debate over the various aspects of Jesus' life and ministry about which Dr. Aslan is writing. What baffles me about some of his critics is that they do not seem to allow him to have a scholarly opinion. The Jesus Aslan portrays in Zealot is his scholarly opinion, based on his own reading of the literature, about who Jesus Christ was. And he cites those scholars who disagree with him right there in black and white in the notes. So, what's the problem?
I also found quite fascinating his take on Jesus' famous saying: "So give back to Caesar what is Caesar's, and to God what is God's" in Matthew 22:21. Aslan explains that, far from being an elusive answer to a question designed to get him in trouble with the authorities, it is a revolutionary statement: the coin itself is Caesar's and should be given back to him. But the land of Palestine? That belongs to God, and it should go back to God. Although I never looked at it that way, it is definitely a plausible explanation.
The same is true with the story about the Good Samaritan. Rather than it being a parable about how the Samaritans—who were reviled by the Jews of Palestine—can still be good, Aslan explains that the story is really about how horrible the two priests, who leave the beaten man laying in the street, truly are. Again, although I never looked at it that way, it is definitely a plausible explanation. Furthermore, Aslan's telling of Jesus' attacking the Temple is quite cool.
Now, Reza Aslan does cast doubt on the virgin birth of Jesus, something that the Quran affirms, and I believe as a Muslim. But his explanation about how the historical Jesus couldn't have been born from a virgin was not convincing to me. Take this passage in Mark 6:2-3:
When the Sabbath came, he began to teach in the synagogue, and many who heard him were amazed. "Where did this man get these things?" they asked. "What's this wisdom that has been given him? What are these remarkable miracles he is performing? Isn't this the carpenter? Isn't this Mary's son and the brother of James, Joseph, Judas and Simon? Aren't his sisters here with us?" And they took offense at him.