Zealot, by Reza Aslan

I might not have noticed this book if Fox News
hadn’t done an interview
with the author that was widely reported as a failed attempt at a
hatchet job.

I enjoyed the book a lot. This
review
in the New York Times, by Dale B. Martin, who is the
Woolsey professor of religious studies at Yale University,
suggests that there’s current scholarship that casts some doubt on
ideas that Aslan presents as facts. But he doesn’t suggest any
books about such scholarship that are as readable as this one.

What makes this especially readable is that the notes are
separate from the texts — Aslan is a college professor, but he
obviously knows that books written by professors for other
professors don’t make the best seller lists. So he writes what he
considers the best guess about the history, and then for each
chapter has a notes section that lists the books he used, and
suggests further reading. (This is the references to other
contemporary writers; the biblical texts are referenced by chapter
and verse in context in the usual way.)

The best part of the book is the description of the politics
and economics of first century Palestine. Anyone’s guesses about
exactly what role the early Christians played in that mess are
clearly open to question, but in this century we really know a lot about how the
Romans, Greeks, Jews and other groups related to each other that
makes the stories in the New Testament make a lot more sense.

I especially liked the description of James the brother of
Jesus. (Aslan does not believe that brother meant half-brother or
cousin. I think I doubted that when the nuns said it in seventh
grade, too.) Here’s the first paragraph of that chapter:

They called James, the brother of Jesus, “James the Just.” In Jerusalem, the city he had made his home after his brother’s death, James was recognized by all for his unsurpassed piety and his tireless defense of the poor. He himself owned nothing, not even the clothes he wore—simple garments made of linen, not wool. He drank no wine and ate no meat. He took no baths. No razor ever touched his head, nor did he smear himself with scented oils. It was said he spent so much time bent in worship, beseeching God’s forgiveness for the people, that his knees grew hard as a camel’s.

His thesis is that Christianity would have become a
very different religion if the Hebrew faction led by James hadn’t been wiped
out by the Roman destruction of Jerusalem in 65 C.E, leaving the
Greek faction led by Paul in charge by default. Martin
claims that this description of the early church is
oversimplified, but doesn’t claim that you won’t get the current
complicated view by reading the books in the notes section to that
chapter.

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