The backlash to Reza Aslan’s book Zealot: the Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth confirms the old adage that, in polite circles, it’s best to steer away from religion, politics and sex. Aslan has virtually nothing to say about sex, but plenty about religion and politics. Indeed, Aslan’s central thesis is that if we want to understand Jesus it is his politics we should concern ourselves with; a politics so destabilising of the existing order that the church that bears his name whitewashed it to make it palatable to the Romans and to every power structure since.

‘The common depiction of Jesus as an inveterate peacemaker who “loved his enemies” and “turned the other cheek” has been built mostly on his portrayal as an apolitical preacher with no interest in or, for that matter, knowledge of the politically turbulent world in which he lived. That picture of Jesus [is]… a complete fabrication.’

The idea of Jesus as a revolutionary is not new. Crossan, Tully and Eisenman, among others, have covered similar ground either in text or on screen. It’s difficult to escape the conclusion, therefore, that the furore surrounding the book has more to do with Aslan being a Muslim than an especially provocative scholar. The hysterical (even by Fox News’ standards) interview between Aslan and Lauren Green, in which Green demands to know why a Muslim would write about Jesus, speaks volumes about our current anxieties. As Bethanie Blanchard points out ‘the implication in Green’s line of questioning is that there is something inherently problematic with those of Islamic faith writing about Christianity’. Green’s implicit xenophobia is matched by her ignorance. She calls Jesus ‘the founder of Christianity’. Twice. If Aslan had pointed out to Green that Jesus was a Jew, she might have imploded.

But is the book any good?

The lay reader wanting an accessible account of first century Palestine should find pleasure in Zealot. Aslan captures the tumultuous stew of economic pressures, nationalist ambitions and messianic fervour characterising the period. Throughout the book, there is a palpable sense of what life was like for the Jews under Roman occupation and how they responded: from the accommodation of the wealthy temple priests to the sometimes violent resistance of the disaffected and dispossessed.

Zealot also makes an elegant case for how the gospels should be ‘read’, rather than approaching the (almost certainly) factually inaccurate story of the census that took Jesus and his parents to Bethlehem as a fabrication:

‘What is important to understand…is that [Luke’s] readers, still living under Roman dominion, would have known that Luke’s account of Quirinius’ census was factually inaccurate…Luke would have had no idea what we in the modern world even mean when we say the word “history”. The notion of history as a critical analysis of observable and verifiable events in the past is a product of the modern age; it would have been an altogether foreign concept to the gospel writers for whom history was not a matter of uncovering facts, but of revealing truths…they were less interested in what actually happened than in what it meant.’

Aslan keeps his attention firmly on Jesus’ politics, meaning his Jesus is somewhat narrow and one-dimensional. There’s no hint of the conflicted Jesus of Nikos Kazantzakis’ The Last Temptation of Christ or the tortured and lonely figure of John Carroll’s The Existential Jesus. Was Jesus wry? Frenetic? Approachable? Enigmatic? Aslan doesn’t provide any insight into Jesus as a personality and as a result he comes across as a rather bloodless fanatic.

Like all such books, Aslan’s suffers from the insoluble problem of source material. Most of what we know about Jesus as a historical figure derives from the canonical and non canonical gospels, the hypothesised ‘Q’ documents and a handful of Roman historians. Somewhat disingenuously, Aslan at times uses the material to support his argument and at other times claims the (same) material cannot be relied upon. So, for example, while the Pauline version of events is dismissed as self-serving, the Jamesian version ‘no doubt represents what [James] believed’.

As to the question of Jesus’ divinity, Aslan wisely leaves it well alone. His interest is in the historical Jesus: the Jesus who came from a poor, Galilean backwater, was probably illiterate and chafing under the twin bondage of Roman occupation and Temple tithes. ‘Everything else,’ Aslan says, ‘is a matter of faith’.

S.A. Jones is the author of the novel Red Dress Walking. Her essays and commentary have appeared in The Age, The Guardian, Overland, The Drum, Crikey and Kill Your Darlings. Her new novel Isabelle of the Moon and Stars is due for release in late 2014.