I actually learned about the book from an interview Dr. Aslan did on the Daily Show. And as someone who is deeply fascinated by The Second Temple Period, I decided to order and read the book. As an aside, if you want to see a cinematic depiction of just how insane that time period was, I highly recommend Monty Python’s The Life of Brian. It is in no way historically accurate, but it certainly captures the zeitgeist of the period.In reading Zealot, I must admit, I did not find much that was surprising. Many of the arguments he presents have been offered up by other scholars. But I did find the book to be very readable as it is clearly aimed at non-academics. As the author explained, he is interested in pursuing what little is known about the historical Jesus as opposed to the theological figure who is known around the world as Christ (the Greek term for mashiach or messiah).
Needless to say there are some who are very upset by this book because Dr. Aslan is a Muslim. The argument being that Muslims cannot write about Christianity without having some sort of agenda. Now truth be told, every scholar has an agenda. They have an argument or arguments they wish to present. This is why there are so many books about Abraham Lincoln, for example. However the danger is when one dismisses an argument based on the person rather than the merits of the argument.Aslan is arguing that Jesus was a complicated man who lived in complicated times. His life was filled with contradictions. And as the author writes in his introduction he was a “politically conscious Jewish revolutionary who, two thousand years ago, walked across the Galilean countryside, gathering followers for a messianic movement who with the goal of establishing the Kingdom of God but whose mission failed when, after a provocative entry into Jerusalem and a brazen attack on the Temple, he was arrested and executed by Rome for the crime of sedition. It is also about how, in the aftermath of Jesus’ failure to establish God’s reign on earth, his followers reinterpreted not only Jesus’s mission and identity, but also the very nature and definition of the Jewish messiah” (pg. xxx).
It is this reinterpretation of his mission and the events surrounding his life, that have led to much of the suffering sustained by Jews over the past two thousand years. Blame was shifted from Rome to the Jews as early Christians were trying to convince Romans to worship Jesus and believe in this newly forming religion. Much of which can be traced in another excellent work: Constantine's Sword: The Church and the Jews by James Carroll.
I mention all of this because in order to know our own history, we have to own it. We have to study it, and we have to be engaged with it. This means sometimes we hear and learn things that make us uncomfortable and challenge our assumptions and preconceptions about who and what we are. But isn’t that the whole point of Elul? To challenge ourselves not just in spiritual ways, but also in academic ways too!As Jews, we need to understand the times and events of the Second Temple Period just as much as our Christian friends and neighbors. Because Christianity was not the only movement to emerge. There was another movement as well: Rabbinic Judaism.
And in case you were wondering, here is the video: