This is not a book about the person subsequent Christians believe is truly God and truly human; it's a vivid picture of turbulent and bloody eruptions in first century Roman-occupied Palestinian countryside and in the Jewish temple city of Jerusalem. That's what the historical records -- as opposed to the founding documents of the Jesus movement, the Gospels -- make available.
Aslan recounts the trajectories of five or six of these disruptive Jewish revolutionaries, most of whom were hailed as "messiah" by themselves or by their followers; all of them and their movements were brutally suppressed and are largely forgotten.
Aslan places the Gospel stories of the wandering Nazarene preacher within the cosmos of Jesus' contemporaries. Here's a sample of how he explicates Gospel accounts of miraculous healing.
Though Aslan is (at least by ancestral culture) a Muslim, this book reads as a very Jewish account of the founding figure of Christianity. The hinge that turned the times in Aslan's telling is the destruction of the Jerusalem Temple, the essential center of Jewish religion, and the murder of the city's people by the empire forty years after the empire had casually snuffed out the insignificant Galilean. Rome intended to kill or completely scatter this troublesome bunch and so thoroughly succeeded that the result was a new form of Torah Judaism, centered on the book rather than the Temple, that is the ancestor of today's religion.
This development killed off the Jewish adherents of the Jesus movement still located in Jerusalem just as thoroughly as it killed off establishment Jewish leaders and practice. The suppression of Jewish Temple religion put the gentile converts assembled by the controversial apostle Paul at the center of the emerging worship of Jesus. According to Aslan, the horrible example of what the empire had done to militant Jews encouraged Christian communities to separate themselves from remaining faithful Jews and to renounce the militant strands in the Jesus story such as their leader's assault on Temple commerce and corruption. Early Christians wanted to keep their heads down and avoid unsettling the powers that might eradicate them. Paul had once been considered an outlier by the Jesus community around James the brother of Jesus -- but no longer.
This interpretation of the emergence of the religion of Christianity is not original with Aslan. In fact, it comes up periodically as historians grapple with the sheer improbability that such an obscure figure and his movement might have have somehow sparked a worldwide religion. Unimaginative Christians routinely find such interpretations offensive; Aslan has been the target of a lot of ignorant insults about his exegesis of the historical record -- and the controversy made his little book a best seller.
I appreciated Aslan's honest statement of the real problem with the history of Jesus -- that in the absence of much of what moderns consider evidence, that we find ourselves trying to plumb the truth of his life at all. This book provides an unvarnished account of the brutality of an empire past ...