Is the Jesus of the Bible the real, historical Jesus? Most of academia would probably say no, that the story found in Scripture has been embellished by religion and that Jesus the man has been lost to time. Some would even say that the question doesn’t matter, since Jesus is more important as a symbol than the actual person ever could be. Reza Aslan’s book, Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth claims to answer the basics of who Jesus was during his life.
It’s a bit of a challenge to review this book. On one hand, it’s not a Christian book. Aslan has no problem saying that this part or that part of the Gospel is “pure fiction.” The conclusions he comes to are very worldly, and the Jesus he finds is not the same Jesus any born-again person has found. Still, the portrait of Jesus that he paints is worth looking into. He does a superb job of giving the reader a picture of the world Jesus lived in and the influences that would have had a bearing on his life. It’s the kind of pop-history book that a lot of people are going to disagree with, but it’s got a lot to offer someone looking for a greater understanding of Jesus’ world and an important part of who he was as a person.
I would not recommend this book to a new Christian, or someone insecure in their faith. At the same time, I would encourage the wary to not be afraid to read and listen to opposing views because it is usually worthwhile to hear from others. Everyone has something to offer, and if you’re able to sift through what’s valuable and what’s not, everyone has something to teach you. Zealot offers a challenge to the Biblical account, dismissing entire Gospel stories as made-up, even while admitting that the New Testament is the best source of information we have on who Jesus was.
So, what should a Christian expect to get out of Zealot?
Aslan’s main argument is that the story of Jesus the Christ is different from Jesus the Messiah, and that since the Gospels were crafted years after Jesus lived, much of the story has been invented or retold by people with a very different view of Jesus than those that actually traveled with him. He claims that accounts such as the Virgin Birth, Herod’s “Slaughter of the Innocents” just after Jesus was born, Jesus’ baptism and transfiguration, and others were added after the fact to legitimize him as the expected Anointed One. The “historical Jesus” lies somewhere beneath these stories. He was a simple peasant worker, probably born out of wedlock, who became a traveling preacher and opposed the corruption of the religious order of his day, which were in league with Rome in oppressing Israel. The two most important keys to understanding who Jesus the man was, according to Aslan, are the Cleansing of the Temple and the fact that he was crucified by Rome—a punishment generally reserved for making examples out of those that were guilty of sedition. Basically, Aslan sees Jesus as an attempted revolutionary, maybe even one that realized he was going to be killed for going against Rome, certainly no pacifist—Jesus’ gentler, saintly character was more of an invention by later Christians than an accurate portrayal of “Jesus the Zealot”—but a Jewish nationalist that might have thought he was the Messiah, and certainly allowed others to believe so, but was killed without fulfilling any of the Messianic expectations of his people.
Now, obviously as Christians we do not agree with that. Still, it’s important to understand why many historians do. The reason I’m recommending Zealot—with reservation—is that it gives great insight into what the expectations of the Messiah were during Jesus’ time, why many of the Jewish people believed he was a false Messiah, like so many of the other historical failed “Messiahs” that came before and after Jesus. The book gives more information on some historical figures that have little written about them in the Bible, including Pontius Pilate. I would argue that Aslan is mistaken in saying that the Bible does not indicate how cruel and vicious a person Pilate was. The Gospel account is pretty clear on his character: “There were some present at that very time who told him about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mingled with their sacrifices,” (Luke 13:1). Pilate literally defiled the Jewish sacrifices with the blood of criminals he’d executed. This Biblical scene shows both his brutality as governor, and his contempt for the Jewish people and their religious practices. In addition to Jesus, Aslan’s book tries to flesh out other historical figures that don’t get much “screen time” in the Bible. Zealot also does a fantastic job of sketching out a picture of the first big division in the early church and what that meant for the furthering of the Gospel.
Was Jesus really a nationalist more concerned with reclaiming the nation from Rome and the corrupt priesthood than saving people’s souls? Well, no, I don’t think so. But I do think God’s offer of Jesus as Messiah to Israel was a genuine one. And I think what happened, and the unfolding of God’s Plan for Salvation, is a lot more complicated than “the Jews rejected him.” Aslan does talk a little about the anti-Jewish movement in Christianity. It’s a subject that deserves more space than is given in his book—or in this review—and it’s also something more Christians need to be aware of.
If a believer picked up this book and ignored Aslan’s disregard for Jesus’ spiritual message, and ignored all the instances he claims were fictitious, they would still find a lot of Jesus in the book. The author talks about Jesus’ miraculous ministry, and how itinerant exorcists were not uncommon. He discusses the Cleansing of the Temple and Triumphal Entry and what it meant to both the Jews and the Romans. He shows how Paul’s ministry and apostolic claim was received by many in the church, and what Paul’s teaching meant for transforming what early Christians believed about the Gospel. The chapters on Paul are worth the price of admission, even though I disagree with an important argument he makes in them.
The most compelling part of Zealot is Aslan’s discussion of how Jews of the day interpreted certain passages of Scripture, how revolutionary the concept of the Resurrection was to them, and how completely unprecedented the early believers’ new interpretation of Jewish Scripture was. There is some really good stuff here, even though Aslan is arguing that the early church redefined the Messianic prophecies. To the believer, of course, these prophecies were simply being understood for the first time, and not redefined at all. Still, the argument is very much worth reading.
Aslan has some unexpected things to say about the Resurrection. Of course he thinks it’s a fantastical story that does not belong in history books, but he admits that Jesus’ followers, the ones that actually knew him and walked with him, were willing to lay down their lives for the belief that he physically rose from the dead. He doesn’t elaborate on this since he’s not trying to confirm the Gospel story, but he does not dismiss how important it is that these weren’t people dying for something they heard happened thousands of years ago, but as first-hand witnesses of Jesus’ life.
This is not a Christian book. It was not written by a Christian author. It does not tell the story of Jesus the Savior. What it does do is give a really good look at one aspect of Jesus’ life and ministry, even peeling back things we Christians regard as truth to get a closer look at that particular facet of his character, and what Aslan sees as the very heart of who Jesus was. If I were reviewing this book based on how accurate it is compared to the Biblical account, or how encouraging it is to your faith, I’d give it a poor score. As a purely academic work, it’s interesting, though Aslan himself admits in the book’s introduction that there are many academics as intelligent and credentialed as he that would disagree with its conclusions in favor of their own views on the “historical Jesus.” As a book that shows what Jesus’ world looked like, the effect that world might have had on his ministry, what the Jewish expectations of the Messiah were and how they were subverted by the Gospel taught by the fledgling faith, Zealot has a lot to offer. If you have any interest in apologetics and Biblical history, this is a book worth reading.
+ Some great insight into the world of Jesus and what the Messianic expectations were + Well-written and engaging + Sheds historical light on familiar Scriptures
- Makes assumptions and draws some conclusions that contradict the Bible - Not encouraging for Christians -Undermines faith in general
The Bottom Line
Zealot is not a book that supports the Biblical story of Jesus, but it is an interesting book that shows what life in Jesus' time was like and what the expectations of the Messiah were.