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Back in 1906, Albert Schweitzer's Quest of the Historical Jesus argued that you can't carve a true biography of Jesus out of the Gospels, because none of the New Testament authors ever meant to write history in the modern sense. About all you could say with any certainty was that Jesus was a prophet and preacher who looked forward to a proximate, apocalyptic end of the world—which of course never happened. Any hope of validating or rejecting the many contradictory narrative and theological strands in Christian Scripture through reliable outside sources (Josephus, Tacitus, etc.) was doomed because there were so few of them (and none with any decisive data). Of course, that hasn't stopped thousands of would-be Jesus-historians, whether simple-mindedly pious or degreed experts, from trying; and their work is everywhere.

But it hasn't been successful, and we can see why early on in Aslan's book. A PhD in the Sociology from U.C. Santa Barbara, now somewhat incongruously teaching creative writing at U.C. Riverside, Aslan, who is Iranian-American, found Jesus at age 15 in an Evangelical summer camp, but became a disbeliever in college, and then spent “two decades of rigorous academic research into the origins of Christianity.” Explaining his method he writes: “The only access one can have to the real Jesus comes not from the stories that were told about him after his death [i.e., every word of the Gospels, plus part of Acts 1-2], but rather from the smatterings of facts that we can gather from his life as part of a large Jewish family of woodworkers/builders struggling to survive in the small Galilean village of Nazareth.”

Actually, Aslan will go on to mine and exploit all sorts of texts from those “stories,” trusting them when they suit his purpose. But his thesis runs like this: As a poor, oppressed worker in a particularly rebellious corner of 1st-century Palestine, Jesus MUST have shared the widespread bitter resentment at Imperial Rome's autocratic treatment of Jews, its crushing taxes, and its brutal disregard for Judaic religion and culture. Bloody revolution was in the air; Jesus breathed it in, and therefore he had to be a Zealot.

Yes, Azlan has read the Bible, but he constantly plays fast and loose with it. To stress the perennially bloodthirsty mood in Judea, he points out that, “when the Jews [er, make that Israelites] first came into this land a thousand years earlier [more like 1200], God had decreed that they massacre every man, woman, and child they encountered, that they slaughter every ox, goat, and sheep they came across, that they burn every farm, every field, every crop, every living thing without exception so as to ensure that the land would belong solely to those who worshipped this one God and no other.”

But, apart from the sparing of the Gibeonites (Hurrians) in Jos. 9. 3ff., it's clear from both archeological digs and texts like the opening of the Book of Judges (“the people of Israel inquired of the Lord, who shall go up first for us against the Canaanites, to fight against them”) that the genocidal wipe-out described in Joshua was an epic myth and that for all its history Israel remained a mixed population.

Every time Jesus declares himself to the Messiah (Jn 4.26 and so on), Aslan is electrified, because he translates this as, “I am the warrior-liberator sent to rescue Israel.” Even when Jesus deliberately dodges or hides his Zealot-identity (as in the “messianic-secret” passages), this too proves the depth of his messianic self-consciousness, because he knew just how explosive the claim was. But how can we sure Jesus ever said anything attributed to him in the Gospels, since we've been warned away from all “stories” written down after his death? Where to find those “smatterings of facts” we can rely on?

Luke says that Jesus (atypically, no?) bade his disciples, “let him who has no sword sell his mantle and buy one” (22.36). But then, what about all the pacifistic verses in the Sermon on the Mount? Or Mt. 26.52 (“all who take the sword will perish by the sword”)? All that talk about not resisting evil must have been put into Jesus' mouth after the failure of his mission on Calvary. Aslan sees Jesus' cleansing of the Temple as the act of a devout guerrilla-leader. But Matthew's account, like the others, is crisp and short (60 words or so), so Aslan makes it six times longer, and beefs it up with imaginary details, like having the disciples join Jesus in the havoc, creating a huge chaotic mess, and then conjuring up a corps of Roman guards, who rush in but somehow fail to apprehend the Zealot perpetrator. Aslan thinks that Jesus' ducking the question of whether it was lawful to pay tribute to Caesar (Lk. 20.25) was in fact a patriotic call to arms, since giving to God what is God's was a code-phrase for liberating the land from the Romans. Aslan hastens to note that Jesus “wasn't a violent revolutionary bent on armed rebellion,” but that's the tradition he assigns him to. And how could his messiah-like entrance into Jerusalem, which provoked such a wild popular response, not have been a deliberate act of subversion? But once again, can those stories be trusted? And is it remotely possible that Jesus saw himself as another kind of messiah, a non-violent one?

Aslan wants to have it both ways: He treasures the scene where Jesus confesses to Caiaphas that he's the messiah (Mt. 27.64), only to admit that the episode is full of fictive elements. He welcomes Peter's acclaiming Jesus as the Christ in Mt. 16.16, but then he insists that the following lines, “And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church,” are a later addition.

Aslan goes on to make the familiar case that the Resurrection accounts were invented to repair the damage done by the very public catastrophe of Jesus' death and that the emergence of St. Paul led to the definitive erasure of the true (historical) messianic Jesus. Any secular thinker is free to deny the resurrection, but Aslan goes too far in painting Paul as a hater of Judaism. He ignores Paul's passionate demonstrations of reverence and love for his people: “For I could wish that that I myself were accursed and cut off from Christ for the sake of my brethren, my kinsmen by race. They are Israelites, and to them belong the sonship, the glory, the covenants, the giving of the law, the worship, and the promises; to them belong the patriarchs, and of their race, according to the flesh, is the Christ” (Rom 9.3-5).

Paul led Christians onto a triumphant new religious path, and thereafter any belief in Jesus as a this-worldly messiah was bound to disappear. But there's no need for Aslan to overstate Paul's conflicts with followers of Jesus like Peter and James (which seem to have been about Jewish-gentile conflicts, not the divine nature of Jesus). It's true, Acts 15 has James warmly receiving Paul and his mission to the gentiles—but, Aslan says, Luke (the supposed author of Acts) was always a “sycophant” of Paul. So there.

Romantic fantasies of Jesus as a Zealot, however unlikely, aren't totally impossible. But if you play this game, you ought to get your details right. Aslan says that Jesus was an illiterate peasant, but then he can't explain how he got to know the Tanakh so well. Couldn't somebody have taught him? He says that Jesus' relations with the Pharisees were “fairly civil and even friendly”—completely ignoring the ferocious blasts in Mt. 23 (“Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites!”). He says Paul himself never talked about being blinded by the vision on the road to Damascus, but he did that in Acts 22.6-11. He calls both Herod the Great and Herod Antipas Jews, but the mother of the former was a Nabataean, and the mother of the latter a Samaritan; and their Idumean blood from grandfather Herod Antipater made Jews deeply suspicious of them. Elsewhere, Aslan places Tarsus on the Mediterranean (it's 12 miles inland) and garbles a couple of Greek terms.

But none of that is fatal. Readers of Aslan's No god but God and Fundamentalism will recognize, and newcomers will appreciate, his vivid, lucid, intense prose, and the good job he does of boiling down technical issues for the lay person. (He uses no footnotes, but accompanies each chapter with a mini-essay on sources and controversies related to what he's discussing.) The result is always lively and at least debatable.

But Aslan can't escape the nemesis of all Jesus-biographers: There just isn't enough material. Had he frankly acknowledged that and skipped all his” you are there” embellishments, he would have written a much sounder story, but also a much less striking and congenial one.