I feel a bit guilty giving this only three stars. Objectively speaking, it's a meticulously researched and well-written biography and so probably deseI feel a bit guilty giving this only three stars. Objectively speaking, it's a meticulously researched and well-written biography and so probably deserves better. However, it is extremely long and frequently gets lost (or perhaps just thorough) in the technical details of Turing's work. For a general reader such as myself, the book was sometimes a tough slog of incomprehension. If you're better versed in mathematics and computer science than I--and if you're more patient with fine-grained detail than I am--you may find the book more rewarding than I did....more
I enjoyed Zealot much more than my three stars are willing to admit. It's engaging, enlightening, and not at all weighed down by obscurity. In other wI enjoyed Zealot much more than my three stars are willing to admit. It's engaging, enlightening, and not at all weighed down by obscurity. In other words, it's everything academic writing for a popular audience should be. But two big problems plague the book, and they're worth complaining about.
The first problem may be insoluble. Aslan wants to write a book about the historical Jesus, but he has very little to go on but scripture and cultural history. He does a fine job of laying out the accepted biblical scholarship regarding when and by whom the various books of the bible were written (not just the NT, but also the relevant books of the Hebrew scriptures), and he's diligent about repeatedly reminding the reader of the deeply flawed historicity of those texts. But then he supports his arguments with those texts anyway because there is almost nothing else he can rely on for source material.
It's true that many of his arguments are based on a confluence of circumstantial evidence, gathering support from scripture (and occasionally apocrypha), what we know about specific historical figures in the story such as Caiaphas and Pilate, Jewish history of the time, and a wealth of other contextual history. So he's never so obtuse as to treat the gospels as stating accepted truths. But he can't seem to shake the habit of, say, quoting Jesus, when in fact what he's doing is quoting the words put into Jesus' mouth decades after the fact by someone else with his own theological and political agenda. He knows this. He tells his reader this. But he just can't avoid doing it anyway.
The problem, of course, is that people make this little move all the time. Believers and unbelievers, academics and worshipers, and everyone in between; when we reference the bible we nearly always talk about what Jesus did and said, when the plain truth is that we can't even be sure the man actually existed at all. In a world where a sizable minority of reputable scholars in the field would argue he didn't, and where Bart Ehrman feels the need to write a book defending the thesis that he thinks Jesus *probably* existed, the hard truth is that we'll probably never know with anything like certainty one way or the other.
The second problem I have with Zealot is much more personal and subjective. Aslan's core argument is, in a nutshell, to demonstrate that Jesus was a street preacher expounding and intensifying the law of the Torah...a Jewish zealot. This is actually an argument I already agreed with long before this book was written. Both in the prologue and in the epilogue, however, Aslan argues that this makes Jesus of Nazareth (the historical man) a much MORE intriguing and compelling figure than Jesus Christ, the cosmic figure of conventional Christian doctrine. And there I must disagree, at least inasmuch as I find both figures as bizarre.
Jesus Christ (the only son of god, eternally begotten of the father, yada yada yada) was never of much interest to me. I always regarded him as mythology. But in my flirting-with-liberal-Christianity-spiritual-seeker years, I did find the figure of Jesus the man, social justice warrior, powerful and inspiring. But one of the many reasons I wasn't able to embrace even the most theologically liberal variants of Christianity was because the more I read the bible, the more I felt this picture of Jesus was also mythological. As I became more convinced that the Jesus of the gospels (again, see problem #1 above) was more like Aslan's zealot than my dream hippie, the less I liked him. I don't find Aslan's Jesus of Nazareth, Zealot, compelling. I find him repulsive. He's an ardent evangelist and enforcer for one of the most reactionary and inhumane belief systems ever conceived.