Zealot is a straightforward yet scholarly account of the life of Jesus, unencumbered by metaphysical speculation about what Christians regard as religious mysteries. For atheists or agnostics with an interest in mythology and religion as a social phenomena, Reza Aslan has done exactly what it says on the cover. It’s about “the life and times of Jesus of Nazareth.”
Other readers may feel short-changed by the focus on the material facts of the life of Jesus in the context of first century Palestine. Yet others, apparently without reading the book, have been upset by the fact that it’s written by a Muslim, as if his religion disqualified Aslan from writing on the subject. See this toe-curlingly embarrassing clip from Fox News for a particularly egregious example.
As well as being a scholar of religions, Aslan is also an Associate Professor of Creative Writing at the University of California, Riverside, and he takes a novelistic approach that emphasizes story, setting, and characterization. He begins in the present tense, taking us on a journey through the Temple in Jerusalem to witness the assassination of the High Priest in 56 CE by Jewish zealots. Along the way, he introduces us to the architecture, personnel, and functions of the Temple, even the smells of the place during Passover. It’s a brilliant, almost cinematic, introduction to the key facts.
Aslan accepts that a real, historical Jesus, a disciple of John the Baptist, was the basis for Christianity. As a careful scholar, however, he always distinguishes between the Jewish Jesus and accretions of the Christ mythos. While there are no footnotes to clutter up the text, he writes exhaustive chapter notes at the end of the book.
His historical background covers the period of Roman rule, up to and beyond the Jewish-Roman War of 66-70 CE, encompassing the many Jewish Messiahs, of which Jesus is the most well-known. The title of the book, Zealot, points to their common characteristic, outrage at both Roman occupation and the collaboration of the Temple authorities.
In conjunction with his focus on the historical Jesus, Aslan is painstakingly agnostic about the miracles recorded in the Gospels, those which allegedly occurred during his ministry and the resurrection itself. He merely notes that most people accepted them as true. As an atheist, I wanted more scientific rigour, but you can’t have everything.
Aslan spends some time analyzing what the word “Messiah” meant to Jews at the time, since the definition is central to the story of Jesus. To that end, he deconstructs the Gospel accounts to reveal Jesus as a zealot, leader of a movement aiming to wrest control of Israel from Roman rule. In terms of verifiable events in the life of Jesus, however, Aslan devotes the bulk of the book to the events of the Passover Festival in Jerusalem. In part this is because there are so few verifiable events.
The idea of Jesus as Jewish zealot is not a new interpretation – I remember reading a book written in the Seventies with this premise – but Aslan’s combined scholarship and novelistic skills make a compelling argument. In the event, it was an easy sale, since I’ve long subscribed to the idea.
He is particularly interesting on the religious rivalry between the Jewish mother church in Jerusalem and Saul of Tarsus’ conception of Jesus as Christ. The former, led by James, brother of Jesus, saw him as a Jewish Messiah, and their church bound by the laws of the Torah. Saul, who became Paul after his attack of hysterical blindness on the road to Damascus, preached a vision of an eternal Christ to the gentiles. If Aslan’s novelistic approach lets down the scholarly side, it’s here. You can see in his characterization that he clearly dislikes Paul. As do I, so we’re on the same page. If I had a time machine, Paul would not be history. Literally.
This is not a book everyone will warm to, but I’ve not read a better account of the life of Jesus in his historical context. Highly recommended.