Wow... it's been more than a month since I've posted...
I finished reading Reza Aslan's book Zealot a few days ago. If you haven't heard of it, it is an attempt to place Jesus in an historical context and thus make him more understandable. I have to say I have very mixed feelings about the book.
The pros - If we believe in the Incarnation, we have to see that Jesus was not only a man but a man in a very specific time and place. We could argue over what that specificity has to do with God's self revelation, but in any case, we cannot divorce that revelation from that setting. We cannot understand Jesus without placing him in his context and we cannot understand incarnation without understanding contextualization. Aslan does a good job at explaining the social context in which Jesus found himself as well as the particular profusion of Judean self-styled messiahs, gathering followers and calling for the overthrow of Rome. A thorough understanding of the setting is critical for understanding Jesus and his teaching. Aslan helps make that possible. He does the same to a lesser degree for Paul.
The negatives - Aslan aknowledges that Jesus does not quite fit the common models of his day for the messiah but still tries to pigeon hole him into those models, dismissing any possibilities of Jesus bringing anything really unique to the discussion. He goes on to say essentially that Christianity as we know it is an invention of Paul that has very little to do with Jesus.
Additionally, Aslan picks and chooses his scholarship to fit his presuppositions. For example, he refers to Jesus' parables as incomprehensible when scholars going back to Jeremias' seminal 1947 book The Parables of Jesus, says that
the parables were stories that used everyday experiences to reinforce a
single message to the audience in a way they would understand.
And of course, he writes not as a person of faith but as a scholar looking for a more accurate picture of the historical Jesus whom he distinguishes from the Christ of faith. I think there is great value in this approach both for academia and for people of faith all the while knowing that for many Christians, such a differentiation is offensive.
So... my short review is that it is a worthwhile read but do not expect it to be a devotional book nor the best scholarship. It is however a fairly easy read that will help to enlighten the life and times of Jesus of Nazareth.