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Book on Jesus of Nazareth

  1. Aug 17, 2013 #1
    I just finished Reza Aslan's Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth. It takes the view of examining the life and times of historical Jesus rather than gospel Jesus. This was something I could really appreciate. Obviously there is plenty of information missing about his life so Aslan does a fantastic job of examining the era in which Jesus was relevant too. This can help derive possibilities about him. This period of time for me was extremely hazy and learning all about religious, cultural and politics of the region was fascinating. The whole roman occupation was so tragic but again very interesting. I wholly recommend this book for anyone who is interested in learning more about the historical Jesus and the events that took place around when he alive. It's an extremely dense read with tons of names, dates and technical terms, but it's so worth it. I'm to chapter 3 in my second read through!

    Last edited: May 6, 2017
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  3. Aug 17, 2013 #2


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    Why do you say "rather than"? Is there strong evidence that the historical Jesus is significantly different from the gospel Jesus? I ask about "significant" differences, because there are obvious places in the gospels which are unlikely to be correct (such as the nativity stories) and many passages which are difficult to take literally (such as the miracles). However, are there major differences? Or could one say that the "historical Jesus" is complementary to the view presented in the gospels?
  4. Aug 17, 2013 #3
    In a way yes, but I wouldn't say strong evidence. There are few "strong" evidences for anything about Jesus. The Bible was never meant to be a historical document. It's a book of teachings where the authors were ok with being creative. Facts were not important if it furthered the "truth". One example off the top of my head is that in the Bible Jesus was born in Bethlehem. It was written so as a message that Jesus was connected to King David, which the prophecy said the true Messiah would be. Anyway, given the facts about the era in which he lived, it's much more likely he was a type of revolutionary rather than the softened Bible version.

    I can't do the book much justice. Half the book is just setting the stage of the events in the era (~30BCE-100CE) and it really helps fill in the whos, whats and whys of what happened between the Jews, Romans, and Jesus (extremely tumultuous). It's jammed packed and Alsan is an absolute pro. Pick the book up :)
  5. Aug 17, 2013 #4


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    Back in the 1990s (IIRC) there was a TV series on PBS called "From Jesus to Christ". Several scholars were involved in reconstructing the social and historical context, with some filming in the relevant landscape and at archeological sites, some architect models. But mainly it was about re-imagining the social environment, personality and life of the historical Jesus of Nazareth.

    Elaine Pagel was one of the scholars.

    As I recall they drew some similar conclusions to what I found in the book. Amazon lets you sample most of the first 50 pages free. You miss a few pages now and then but the first big gap in the online sample is at page 51.

    It is very interesting reading, that's for sure. I didn't feel like stopping until I had read most of the first 50 pages.

    The stark ruthlessness of oppression by the Roman Empire coupled with the grim resistance to assimilation on the Jews' part---repeated messianic mutinies, repeatedly and bloodily crushed---is too gruesome a story for me to want to comment.

    But it is an important part of history and from what I saw I too could recommend the book to someone wishing to understand that time.
    Last edited: Aug 17, 2013
  6. Aug 17, 2013 #5


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  7. Aug 18, 2013 #6


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    Keep in mind that there was more or less continuous debate about what documents comprised the "official" Christian bible, starting a few hundred years after the historical events took place and continuing for more than 1000 years. There were many other documents titled "gospels", etc, which were widely circulated (and there are quotations from some of them in the text of the current standard bible) but eventually rejected. The decision making processes were not always objective and rational by modern standards of historical and/or literary criticism.

    Interestingly, one of the main contemporary sources ("The wars of the Jews" by Josephus - there are translations on the web) has no mention at all of Christianity or Jesus, except for one passing reference - and arguably that was added by a copyist long after the book was first written.

    IMO you can't begin to understand the current situation in the middle east without knowing something of this period of history.
  8. Aug 18, 2013 #7
    I find it astonishing that the books of the Bible differ so much in their stories. For example in the Book of Mark which is the oldest John the Baptist plays a very important role in Jesus's "development". In the Book of John, the oldest, John the Baptist is basically a nobody.

    Totally agree, I am blow away with how many important events that took place at the turn of the millennium. None of which are told in bible school. You just get the usual standard 10 page coloring book style story. For some good reason, but ironically in the end I am drawn much closer to the historical Jesus than gospel Jesus.
  9. Aug 18, 2013 #8


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    I think there at least two distinct issues. The problems with the nativity stories are well known. Starting with the gospels themselves, the large scale structure of the stories in Matthew and Luke are different. In one the original home town of Jesus's parents is Bethlehem, in the other it is Nazareth. There is also plenty of solid evidence that the account in Luke is wrong. He talks of a major census, and we know when these happened, and we also know enough of who was governor when, and that in none of these was there a requirement to return to move to another city to rule out the Lukan account. These are all consensus points, and you can read an uncontroversial but popular account (the whole book, not just the discussion of the nativity stories, is basically consensus scholarship) in Robin Lane Fox's "Unauthorized version" https://www.amazon.com/The-Unauthorized-Version-Truth-Fiction/dp/0394573986.

    On the other hand the view that Jesus was a revolutionary in a way substantially different from that presented in the gospels is controversial, with regards to the literature before Aslan's book. There is essentially no agreement on this point. For a modern view that I do not necessarily agree with, but can recommend because it is well argued, is John Meier's "Marginal Jew". You can get his 4-volume work if you're a serious weight trainer and MTW has become too light, otherwise there's this video http://www.uctv.tv/shows/John-P-Meier-Jesus-the-Jew-But-What-Sort-of-Jew-5984. I'll have to read Aslan's book to see if he says anything new. Wikipedia gives a broad account of the various views of the "historical Jesus": http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Quest_for_the_historical_Jesus and http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Historical_Jesus
    Last edited by a moderator: May 6, 2017
  10. Aug 19, 2013 #9


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  11. Aug 21, 2013 #10


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    I just started the book. It is an interesting read for me, particularly in the context of other texts.

    I think it is valuable from the standpoint of comments about Jesus, but also from the discussion of the peoples and history of the period.
  12. Aug 21, 2013 #11
    Indeed! It's been said before, but he doesn't uncover any new startling information, but rather frames and compiles the best known data into an interesting read. I really enjoy his writing style. Let me know what you through when you are done! :)
  13. Aug 21, 2013 #12
    I don't have a dog in this fight, since I'm a Hindu, but here's a critical view of Aslan's book. There are actually quite a few serious critiques of his book (and some not-so-serious ones)..
  14. Aug 22, 2013 #13


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    In lugita15's link Alan Jacobs says that Aslan's thesis is similar to Crossan's. I thought Crossan's proposal was that Jesus was some sort of cynic philosopher, rather than a revolutionary - or did I misunderstand "revolutionary" (I was naively thinking of Les Miserables) in Greg Bernhardt's post? Does Aslan largely agree with Crossan that Jesus was a cynic philosopher?
    Last edited: Aug 22, 2013
  15. Aug 22, 2013 #14


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    I don't know what you misunderstood.

    ? I guess you need to read that again? Hmmmm?
  16. Aug 23, 2013 #15


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    I took a quick look at Aslan's book. His writing is certainly engaging, and reading is very easy going. It's a bit hard for me on a quick read to know how different Aslan's view is from Crossan's. On the one hand, Aslan says Jesus was a "politically conscious revolutionary", whereas Crossan's view is quite apolitical. One of Crossan's major points is that Jesus was much more peaceful than Christians later were. On the other hand, Aslan explicitly says that Jesus seems to have never explicitly advocated violence.

    I guess Aslan must be saying that Jesus implicitly advocated violence against the Romans. If I correctly understand that to be his thesis, then it is different from Crossan's in a major way. What I don't understand about Aslan's thesis (assuming I'm interpreting it correctly) is how it explains the formation of the church after Jesus's death without a "literal" resurrection in which the body got up and walked in a way that was verifiable by believers and nonbelievers. If Jesus had advocated an "earthly" kingdom, then how could the movement survive without a literal resurrection? On the other hand, if Jesus had advocated a "heavenly" kingdom, then it seems more plausible to me that the movement could survive without a literal resurrection.

    Aslan does adddress this in Part III of his book. He does say that the concept of resurrection in the early church is without parallel in the thought of the time. Most of Part III seems to be about how Paul's views may have differed from those of the church in Jerusalem. However, as Aslan agrees, the Jerusalem church existed before Paul, and had its belief in the resurrection before Paul. So whether or not Paul's Christianity is largely discontinuous from the Jerusalem church's seems irrelevant to this question.

    That's a useful link. There's a short excerpt of Crossan's view there, and that of two others, Shaye Cohen and L. Michael White. So one can see the range of scholarly opinion.

    Last edited: Aug 23, 2013
  17. Sep 9, 2013 #16

    I haven't read the book but from the reviews I saw* it seems that he's doing a very poor job. So I think it's unlikely that his book will have any impact on Academia (zealot?, only this was missing in the Jesus Studies academic departments where we have already a long series of competing Jesuses :), did he use the criteria of authentication to derive that conclusion?).

    Bart Ehrman is a much better alternative, personally I agree with him (writing in the tradition of Albert Schweitzer) that Jesus can be best understood as an apocalyptic prophet. Anyway I find much more interesting these days the debate between historicists and mythicists following the publication of Ehrman's book 'Did Jesus exist?' (whose argument is not so weak as Richard Carrier claim, let's see what can Carrier produce pro mythicism in his forthcoming book, due to appear early next year, the first peer reviewed book pro mythicism in the last 60 years :) ).

    Last edited: Sep 9, 2013
  18. Sep 9, 2013 #17
    Your right because that was not it's purpose. It's for general audience. Not for introducing new discoveries.
  19. Sep 9, 2013 #18
    The problem is that he claims Jesus was a zealot. And that's not an old discovery (accepted or at least tolerated in academia). He can be easily accused of at least misleading the general public.
  20. Sep 9, 2013 #19
    Why is that a problem?
  21. Sep 9, 2013 #20
    I am interested by Truth. If Aslan labeled his book 'fiction' there is no problem of course. But I think it's otherwise, he makes an epistemological claim. Which totally fails it seems.
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