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Monday, July 22, 2013 - Page updated at 04:30 a.m.

Book review
‘Zealot’: Jesus as revolutionary in a turbulent age

By Kimberly Marlowe Hartnett
Special to The Seattle Times

“Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth”

by Reza Aslan

Random House, 296 pp., $27

A scholar who sets out to put the record straight on Jesus is an anomalous creature, eager (perhaps even driven) to share diligent research and original conclusions with the very people most likely to be rattled by his findings.

“Zealot” by Reza Aslan is a fascinating book, and no doubt will be chosen by many a well-meaning and hurried gift-giver who imagines a devout Christian recipient will be delighted. Be advised, dear reader, Sunday school this isn’t. Yet Aslan may come as close as one can to respecting those who revere Jesus as the peace-loving, turn-the-other-cheek, true son of God depicted in modern Christianity, even as he knocks down that image.

He does so by knowledgeably placing the historical Jesus alongside the Christ constructed in Scripture and Christian tradition. He tells the reader early on that for every “eminently authoritative argument made about the historical Jesus,” there is one refuting it. Instead of revisiting the layer upon layer of theories and counterarguments, he makes his own succinct case. If he occasionally makes his conclusions sound a little too airtight, he goes on to explain (in text and the very helpful notes) how he arrived there.

Aslan sets the stage in the introductory pages, writing that “... there are only two hard historical facts about Jesus of Nazareth upon which we can confidently rely…[he] was a Jew who led a popular Jewish movement in Palestine at the beginning of the first century C.E.; the second is that Rome crucified him for doing so.” Jesus, he writes was “crucified by Rome because his messianic aspirations threatened the occupation of Palestine, and his zealotry endangered the Temple authorities.”

Aslan is steeped in the history, languages and scriptural foundation of the biblical scholar and is a very clear writer with an authoritative, but not pedantic, voice. Those of us who wade into this genre often know how rare that is.

His own religious background is multifarious: born into a secular Muslim family in Iran, he discovered Jesus at age 15 while at summer camp in California. His years of academic research brought him to regard the object of his devotion as a man and a revolutionary.

The short life and chaotic times of the most famous Nazarene are fascinatingly and convincingly drawn by Aslan, beginning with the corrupt world of Jerusalem in 30 C.E., specifically the oft-re-created scene of the raging Jesus upending the tables of the money changers sitting in the outer court of the elaborate Jewish Temple. (Not to spoil the surprises, but even that event emerges with a new interpretation.)

Aslan does not insist that the majesty and miracles of the Bible are fantasy; he tells instead of the powerful needs and energy that drove the evolution of what we know as the Christian canon. One of the sharpest turns he describes came after the Crucifixion of Jesus, when his followers struggled to reconcile that hideous death with their understanding of messianic victory, ultimately reinterpreting his message to have promised a kingdom of heaven, not an earthly one.

Kimberly Marlowe Hartnett lives and writes in Portland.