DECODING THE BESTSELLING JESUS BIOGRAPHY
By Reza Aslan Allen & Unwin, 336pp, $29.95
REZA Aslan’s new biography of Jesus hit The New York Times bestseller list in provocative circumstances: the author was grilled on Fox News. Why has a Muslim written a book about the founder of Christianity, interviewer Lauren Green asked, several times — and the footage went viral on YouTube.
The Iranian-American author is in fact an ex-Christian (though he was born into the Muslim faith). And he has the almost impossibly glamorous name, for a Christ biographer, of Aslan. It would be wrong to say, ‘‘ Hands off our lion!’’ but anyone who knows how much that Lion King in CS Lewis is a figure of You Know Who will gape at the coincidence.
In Zealot, Aslan wants to take the God out of Jesus and shock the world with the reductive perspectives of biblical scholarship. The fact the book is based on the research of believers who assert their faith has nothing to fear from their learning (as the Dominican priest Roland de Vaux told Edmund Wilson after the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls in 1947) doesn’t stop Aslan having a field day suggesting the historical Jesus was one more Jewish crazy lurching towards crucifixion in a Jerusalem that was headed towards the destruction of the Temple and the annihilation of the city in AD70.
Literary critic George Steiner once said that when he was a child he was asked which three people from history he would most like to meet. Jesus, Homer and Shakespeare, he replied. Why? To find out whether they really existed.
It’s a greedy, prescient, precocious answer. Someone, after all — not necessarily the same someone or only one of him — composed the Greek epics. Someone, whether an enigma from Stratford or another of the same name, wrote the plays that are the greatest works in the English language.
And did Someone deliver the Sermon on the Mount? ‘‘ Blessed are the merciful for they shall obtain mercy . . . blessed are the meek for they shall inherit the Earth’’? Did he say of Mary Magdalene, or some woman like her, ‘‘ Much is forgiven her for she has loved much’’? Did he say, ‘‘ Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind and shalt love thy neighbour as thyself’’?
Zealot comes with the luminous iconography of the thing it would decry: the cover is adorned with a detail from El Greco’s Cristo Salvator Mundi, a work that presents with a tragic luminescence the quintessential Renaissance image, long-faced and moist-eyed, of the compassionate Christ, the one to whom all who are heavy-laden come, the redeemer of the world.
Moreover, this attempt to reduce Jesus Christ to the scratchy records of an already sceptical history would have no resonance without the race memory of the God man.
The difficulty with all hunts for the historical Jesus is they depend on where the seekers hang their hats. If you believe he was the second person of the blessed trinity, very God of very Gods, you may be bemused by the talk of the illiterate peasant who was just some millenarian nutter. And the same problem afflicts the documents: do the Gospels Synoptic and Johannine represent one of the fullest biographical quarries we have of an individual from the reign of Tiberius or are they the merest myth-making?
Aslan wants to get at the real Jesus behind the God hype. He is full of neatly provocative remarks about Jesus as a nonentity, or someone set to be one. Here’s his summary of the Crucifixion: That is how, on a bald hill, covered in crosses, beset by the cries and moans of agony of hundreds of dying criminals, as a murder of crows circles over his head, waiting for him to breathe his last, the messiah, known as Jesus of Nazareth, would have met his ignominious end, would have met his end like every other messiah who came before or after him. Except that unlike those other messiahs this one would not be forgotten.
One thing that should be immediately apparent about this is the banal rhetoric. Aslan has a doctorate in comparative religion and is a former Truman Capote fellow at the University of Iowa creative writing school. In fact Zealot is a bit of a rehearsal of thin factoids with the aid of an opportunist’s megaphone.
Early on in the much more temperate and urbane 50-page supplement to the book (in lieu of footnotes), Aslan cheerfully admits: I’m greatly indebted to John P. Meier’s epic work A Marginal Jew: Rethinking the Historical Jesus . . . as his definitive look at the historical Jesus planted the seeds of the present book in my mind. Father Meier’s book answers the question of why we have so little historical information about the man who so thoroughly changed the course of human history. His thesis — that we know so little about Jesus because in his lifetime he would have been viewed as little more than a marginal Jewish peasant from the backwoods of Galilee — forms the theoretical groundwork for the book you are reading. Of course, I argue further that part of the reason we know so little about the historical Jesus is that his messianic mission — historical as it may have turned out to be — was not uncommon in firstcentury Palestine.
We learn elsewhere that Aslan needs a dictionary to do his notably unflash translations from the Greek and that the translations from the Hebrew and Aramaic are by a colleague. So what we get is a rhetorical inflation of a deflationary image.
Jesus grew up in Nazareth, which was a dump, without even a temple. He was probably illegitimate and James, the chap who goes on to become the head of the Christians in Jerusalem and who quarrels with Paul in the name of more Jewish orthodoxy, was certainly, not possibly, his brother. He grew up in a world of bandits and assassins who made war on a priesthood that must be understood in — rather narrowly conceived — modern class terms as simply exploitative.
He was an obscure figure in the predestruction of Jerusalem world, a world rife with messianism and violence and where the Romans were ferocious and bloodthirsty. Aslan details the cruelties of Pilate and declares dogmatically that the introspectively self-doubting character of the Gospel account, washing away his guilt, is an impossibility.
He details Josephus’s account of the Masada, the tragic mass suicide of the surviving Jewish remnant, though he is never lucidly historical about how the Jews wrested control from the Romans in the first place.
Although Aslan does not subdue Jesus to