The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth
By Reza Aslan
Random House Trade Paperbacks, 2014
ISBN 978-0-8129-8148-3; 296 pages
How credible is a book about the historical Jesus written by a Muslim? About as credible as many Christian titles when one considers the wide range of what is available today.
Zealot by Reza Aslan (just out in paperback edition) is a worthy narrative by an excellent storyteller whose work should appeal to Jew, Christian and Muslim alike. So why has there been such controversy since its first appearance a year ago? This begs some explanation.
Aslan is an American Muslim whose family had secular Iranian roots; as a young boy, he experienced Jesus as Saviour and Lord at an evangelical Bible camp in California. While a university student, he went through a crisis of faith and was helped by Christian mentors to revisit and reclaim his Islamic faith. He could no longer affirm a Jesus by means of a claim to the inerrant scriptures through which he had entered Christianity. Nevertheless, he continued to explore the meaning of Jesus for his own life and, 20 years later, he has “become a more genuinely committed disciple of Jesus of Nazareth than [he] ever was of Jesus Christ.”
“My hope,” Aslan says in his introduction, “is to spread the good news of the Jesus of history with the same fervor I once applied to the story of Christ.”
Reading this book brings the realization that we all look at Jesus through our own eyes and experience, whether we are ordinary lay people or biblical scholars. There are many ways of seeing and interpreting him. Reading the reviews of Aslan’s book makes it clear that many would agree or disagree with him depending on the school of thought they presently accept.
What also becomes clear from a reading of the text is that the author is a talented raconteur- if not a biblical historian; whose work is a helpful introduction to the Jesus of history-if it is not all that innovative or original.
The book is divided into three parts of about one-third each. The first describes the tumultuous times into which Jesus was born. The second, according to Aslan, tells of how he became a person hated by his Roman overlords and the priestly temple establishment. The third presents the author’s version of how the early church began to reshape the Jesus of history into the Christ of faith. In other words, this is Aslan’s version of how a human became God, or how a humble Jew from hinterland Galilee evolved into a Spirit of universal significance.
The value of this book is not to be found in its biblical scholarship or in its fine qualities as a prose narrative. What makes it special is that it is written by a Western Muslim who-during a period of doubt-was encouraged by Christians to reassess his Islamic roots. He ultimately reconverted to the faith of his ancestors with a new sense of belonging. Yet, he could not forget about Jesus. For some decades, as a religious scholar, he has studied Jesus’ Jewish antecedents and the New Testament record, following those mentors who spoke most meaningfully him.
Aslan portrays Jesus as a teacher and a political revolutionary who ended up on the wrong side of the Jewish and Roman establishment. For some, his death ended it. For others, it provided the basis for a new faith that began to proclaim him as Lord and Saviour. For still others, Jesus became a prophet of great importance.
Here is a book that could open a pathway to an exciting, three-way interfaith dialogue in local church, synagogue or mosque.
Wayne A. Holst teaches religion and culture at the University of Calgary and helps to co-ordinate adult spiritual development at St. David’s United Church in Calgary.