I must start – it seems – by admitting that I have no academic credentials which qualify me to assess the accuracy and the validity of Reza Aslan's book on Jesus. I'm not a historian, or a sociologist, or a holder of a PhD of any kind (and I'm not planning to get a PhD anytime soon). I am a book editor though, and a writer of two books, and a columnist with thousands of articles under my name. As such, I can tell you that reading Aslan is a joy. He knows how to write a story, he knows how to paint a place and a time; there's humor in his writing, and possibly some measure of hyperbole. 'Zealot' feels like a book for the public, not a scholarly volume intended for the highly knowledgeable few (I don't mean to imply that the latter is necessarily boring, of course).
I also have to state – again, a sign of the times – that I'm Jewish. I believe most of you have noticed this fact by this now, but in this context it probably needs some more emphasis: I'm a Jewish columnist, reading and writing about a Muslim scholar who wrote a book about the father of Christianity. Is it acceptable for a Jewish columnist to write about a Muslim scholar without getting into some sort of a conflict of interests? Is it ok for me to write about a book that deals with Christianity? In my defense I'll say: this book isn't really about Christianity, it is about the Jewish society of the early first millennium. It's about Jerusalem, the Galilee, Jewish zealots and high priests, the war of Jews against the rule of the Romans, religious awakening.
I began reading the book, incidentally, before it went viral – that is, before the now-infamous Fox News interview. It was, I have to agree, an embarrassing interview, but I also agree that Aslan seemed prepared for this line of questioning (if you are from Mars, he was asked- again and again- whether being a Muslim doesn't disqualify him from writing about Jesus), and ready to counter-attack. I'm trying to walk a bit of a tight rope here: on the one hand, I believe that Aslan is definitely the good guy in this story, but on the other, it also seems that he isn't completely innocent. Evidently, making what seems like calculated noise was a wise decision on his part. The book is a bestseller. Aslan is getting his share of the limelight. And as for the bigots – they wouldn’t have read his book anyways. The more they attack, the more Aslan's natural readership will respond by reading his volume.
There's a detailed debate being waged now about the authors' academic credentials. The readers of First Things might know by now that Aslan doesn't have a "a Ph.D. in the history of religions" as he said, but rather in sociology, though there's no doubt that Aslan did a lot of religion-related research. Does it matter? I think not. In fact, it doesn't even matter if Aslan has any degree. If he were a shoemaker, or a gardener, writing wonderfully and accurately and passionately about Jesus, wouldn’t you read his book? David Hazony, writing on his Facebook page, got it exactly right: "What ever happened to judging a writer based on the quality of his or her research and ideas? Why does he have to raise his eyebrows and say 'But I have a PhD' instead of saying, 'But I wrote something true and important?' Can't he sell his content instead of his degrees? He ends up contributing to the same intellectual inanity that he is protesting against".
Back to the book: As I was reading it yesterday evening, I laughed out loud when I reached the part in which Aslan describes an incident of a Roman soldier exposing his bare behind to the public (and the way Josephus paints this incident). It is a good thing to be able to laugh while reading a book about Jesus (no insult to Jews, Romans, Christians, or bare behinds intended). It is also a good thing when a book teaches you something you didn't know, or sends you in search of more information. Aslan's book might do just that to some of its readers, and it would also make some of them feel uneasy. His book isn't "anti" Christian, but it is also not "pro" Christian. Aslan doesn't quite accept the word of the Gospels on every issue. He describes Jesus as illiterate, and paints him as the accidental initiator of a religion. But as Aslan said in his interview with Time, he also paints Jesus as "an incredibly compelling individual, one worthy of being followed".
In the coming weeks, when more people will be reading him, and true scholars of religions will begin addressing his narrative, we'll have more information with which to place Aslan's piece in the larger picture of Jesus scholarship. While I'm sure there will be debate about some facts, there will be more debate about the interpretation of events and even more about the choice of language. Writing about Jesus – and Aslan is the first to admit this - involves a hefty measure of speculation and interpretation. And Aslan's version is lively, vivid, readable, and not very Christian.
That some Jews will also find reasons to be annoyed by the book is guaranteed. I hope they have enough sense to focus their criticism on facts and interpretation, not on the faith of the writer.
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