Historian Jaroslav Pelikan began his insightful book, Jesus Through the Centuries: His Place in the History of Culture, with these provocative words: “Regardless of what anyone may personally think or believe about him, Jesus of Nazareth has been the dominant figure in the history of Western culture for almost twenty centuries.” The question that immediately confronts the competent historian, of course, is why: why did a penniless, itinerant rabbi from a backwater district of the Roman Empire, executed in disgrace, exert such a powerful influence on Western civilization?

Reza Aslan’s best-selling book, Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth, belongs to that genre of works devoted to unearthing the “real historical Jesus.” Like countless authors before him, Aslan claims to have discovered a radically different Jesus from the personality portrayed in the gospels and preached by the church for two millennia. Like his predecessors, he assumes, without any hard evidence, that the Christian community conspired to reinvent Jesus in order to meet pressing social needs. Like them, Aslan delivers an account that fails, with staggering ineptitude, to answer the question that haunts all honest minds about the legacy of the Nazarene.

In Aslan’s retelling, Jesus made no claims to divinity, nor did he interpret his life and death as the crowning act of God’s redemptive mission on earth. Rather, he writes, Jesus was “a zealous revolutionary, swept up, as all Jews of the era were, in the religious and political turmoil of first-century Palestine.” In short, Jesus was a freedom-fighter advocating violence to remove the boot of Roman rule from the neck of his fellow Jews.

Jaroslav Pelikan’s book is worth revisiting in the midst of this latest debate. He reminds us that in each age of history, scholars as well as laymen depict Jesus in ways that endorse their own cultural biases and agendas.

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