Book Review of Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth




Note: This article originally appeared on billpen and is authored by Bill Pardi

Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of NazarethZealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth by Reza Aslan

four star

Zealot is the controversial new book by Reza Aslan. Controversy has come not only from the book’s content, but also from media reaction and even Aslan’s own background:

  • There is premise of the book: that Jesus was just a man, and spent his brief adult years trying to create a rebellion against Rome, not to preach peace and a future in heaven.
  • There was the outrageous (but entertaining) Fox News inquisition interview that went viral and put Zealot on top of the best seller list.
  • There is Aslan’s own religion — he’s a Muslim, but was formerly an Evangelical Christian – and he’s writing about Jesus.
  • There is Aslan’s credentials – he’s a self-described “scholar of religion” (he has 3 degrees in the subject), but is currently a Professor of Creative Writing at UC Riverside.

All of that sounded too good to pass up and I decided to give it a read.

Aslan is hardcore. By that I mean he takes a hardcore approach to looking at Jesus as an historical person. His starting assumption is similar to that of many historians writing about a larger than life figure: what was the historical context in which this person lived, and what was it about him or her that ultimately created the legend? The implication of course is that the actual person wasn’t in reality what he or his followers claimed or what history made him out to be. In that way Zealot is more Aslan’s quest for historical accuracy than philosophical truth.

Aslan’s work is in many ways a popular compendium of a number of academic sources on his subject. Even so, Aslan draws his own conclusions and has a distinct point of view. He not only assumes Jesus wasn’t a deity, but in fact claims that real Jesus didn’t even see himself that way. He spends a large portion of the book setting up the time period in which Jesus was born and raised. He describes the harsh oppression that the Jews lived under well before Jesus’ birth and into his adulthood. He describes the constant stream of would-be messiahs all with similar messages to the one Jesus adopted, but each with slightly unique points of emphasis. Some versions of the messianic rhetoric played better than others with the Jewish crowd, but most all ended in execution, either from a Roman sword or, if Rome suspected the worst, crucifixion. Most of the Jewish religious order, according to Aslan, colluded with the Roman government to keep the locals in line. To prove that they superseded the local authorities and demonstrate their bona-fides, travelling messiahs would use illusions and magic to show that they could channel the supernatural. These rebels, or lestai, would travel the region, preaching their message of deliverance from the Roman Empire and in many cases gathering rather large followings before being permanently stopped by the Roman authorities.

This is the world that Jesus, an uneducated peasant from a tiny, barely-functional town in Palestine was born into. Aslan outlines Jesus’ likely journey from subsistence farmer in Nazareth to sometime carpenter in bigger towns to regional Jewish messiah and rebel against Roman authority in Palestine.

As the narrative gets to the end of Jesus’ career Aslan goes into great detail about what got him crucified. At that point in Roman history crucifixion was the punishment of choice for sedition. Aslan paints Jesus not a peaceful messiah looking for a future heavenly kingdom, but as a zealot advocating a new earthly kingdom in his own lifetime with himself at its head. The author points out that at that time in Roman/Jewish relations a message of peaceful, spiritual rescue of mankind somewhere in the future would have been ignored by the authorities and not resulted in trial and execution. But Jesus got caught up in the ongoing rebellion of his day and emerged as a popular leader, at least in the outskirts of Palestine. Once he made his way into the bigger cities, his rebellion against the synagogue and messages about establishing a new kingdom would not be tolerated. He describes how Jesus’ public statements about him establishing a new kingdom and (sometimes violent) run-ins with the temple leaders resulted in his being brought before Pilot and ultimately executed.

Where the New Testament accounts of Jesus and his resulting movement conflict with Aslan’s historical data, he claims that the narrative in the canonical New Testament are simply representative of a lot of history of the era – some facts blended with some fiction. The writers of the New Testament, all writing at least 70 years after Jesus death were, according to Aslan, relaying the story and message of who they believed was a messiah, not simply capturing history. To make their story viable, they needed to embellish or change the historical facts that didn’t fit the narrative they were trying to tell, and that was not unexpected or viewed as deceptive. As an example, the story of how Pilot felt guilt over condemning Jesus and turning his fate over to the Jews as part of an annual custom of freeing one prisoner was probably mostly fiction. According to Aslan the historical Pilot was known as a ruthless governor who killed Jews as a matter of regular practice without any indication of remorse. The idea of him feeling guilt over yet another rebellious Jew simply doesn’t fit with the historical character. Add to that the question of how a Jewish writer decades later would know what occurred in Pilot’s inner chamber and have access to his emotional state. And outside the gospels there is no record of any custom of annual prisoner release ever taking place anywhere in Palestine. Even the gospels disagree on whether it was a Jewish or Roman custom. The gospel narrative, Aslan states, was likely included as a political move in the first century as more converts were coming from the Roman world than the Jewish world, and the church didn’t want to make a Roman governor responsible for the death of the messiah they were preaching to them about.

Some critics of Zealot accuse Aslan of cherry-picking his use of Biblical passages, citing some as history and some as myth. I agree, though I didn’t find it egregious. More often than not he explained why he felt something “probably happened” as written, and why other passages were “unlikely” and others “almost certainly made up.” He does a good job throughout providing the historical context for each event, and uses multiple source material to back up his claims. Having said that, there were several instances in the book where I did feel he glossed over certain passages, or selectively chose his material to provide better backing to his claim.

Overall though, Zealot is well written, well documented and has a direct point of view on the historical Jesus. But it’s not going to change anyone’s mind about Jesus’ deity, either for believers or non-believers, with the possible exception of those on the fence. Even so, I think Zealot is an important book for both camps. While the believer will dismiss Aslan’s basic premise and conclusions as the opinions of a non-Christian historian, there is enough detail about Jesus’ contemporary society to provide them greater insight into the world where he started the movement to which they now belong. The non-believer will get a rich view into the man around which a religion was born that has attracted millions and endured for more than two millennia.

Note: This article originally appeared on billpen and is authored by Bill Pardi



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