Separating Jesus the Man From the Myth

Reza Aslan Finds the Person Beneath Centuries of Dogma

The Gospel According to Reza: Reza Aslan, in his new book, “Zealot,” maintains that it was unlikely Jesus was able to read or write.
Getty Images/Hulton Archive
The Gospel According to Reza: Reza Aslan, in his new book, “Zealot,” maintains that it was unlikely Jesus was able to read or write.

By Naomi Alderman

Published July 29, 2013, issue of August 02, 2013.
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Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth
By Reza Aslan
Random House, 336 pages, $27

Is it possible to change the tenor of public debate on a subject with a piece of writing? Is it conceivable that the “general reader” still exists, that judgment-suspended individual who picks up a book because she or he is interested in the topic and wants to know more, and not — as so often seems to be the case on the Internet — out of a desire to have prejudices confirmed or to be irritated by the “obviously wrong”?

Can we imagine that in a religious landscape as polarized as today’s, with fundamentalists and atheists ranged against each other with seemingly no points of commonality, we could calmly attempt to separate out the historical truths and convenient fictions behind the world’s most famous man?

The only real concern over “Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth,” Reza Aslan’s masterful investigation of the historical Jesus, is whether there is still an audience open-minded enough to be able to read and take onboard its messages.

For the Jesus he finds when the accreted layers of centuries of worship are scraped off is rather different from the one we might be used to, and all the more interesting, human and relevant for that.

“Zealot” is a work of tremendous scholarly synthesis. Aslan, an Iranian born scholar, surveys the literature around Jesus — what we might know of a man of his time, what the Gospels tell us of his life, what we can discover from contemporary writings and archaeology — and weaves together this material into a highly convincing account of Jesus the man.


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