A Review of Reza Aslan’s Book Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth

Reza Aslan wrote Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth, which was released this past July.  The book presents an attempt to dig past centuries of theology and religion to the historical life of Jesus of Nazareth, the man that is focal point of the Christian faith. Because of Aslan’s previous books detailing Muslim and Middle East issues, as well as his niche being firmly in academia, the general Christian audience wouldn’t have cared too much about his book, even if they had even heard about it at all. However, that changed after a fateful interview on Fox News (you can view the interview here). The interview, discussed widely due to the ineptness of the journalist conducting it, went viral and skyrocketed the book in notoriety as well to the top of the best-selling lists.

zealot

Many reviews have come out discussing the book. Some are better than others. Too many, quite frankly, were obviously written without reading the book. The kneejerk reaction to a Muslim writing a book about Jesus is a reflex that many people unfortunately share. However, nearing the end of the book myself I have some thoughts to share.

First, Aslan is qualified to write the book. In researching his academic experience, one of his degrees is from Harvard University School of Divinity. And quite frankly, even if he didn’t have religion degrees from quality schools, other excellent books about Christiantopics have been written by people that aren’t steeped in theological degrees. Someone with quality research expertise, which Aslan has from his previous work and experience, could write this book.

Also, Aslan’s story is very compelling. He came from Iran in the 70s to the United States. He converted to Evangelical Christianity at 15, which he admits was a very honest and real experience, but undoubtedly an American one as well. Aslan wanted to be a part of something bigger than himself, and that included God and America. However, as he researched the history concerning Jesus during college, his faith began to wane. At the encouragement of Jesuit priests at his school, he converted to the faith of his forefathers: Islam. This story resonates strongly with many people in the United States today, and may be a reason why the book is so popular to a wider audience than expected. To some, that might color Aslan’s intentions, but Jesus is a highly revered figure in Islam as well. It isn’t out of the ordinary for a Muslim to discuss someone that the Quran holds very highly. 

Aslan is a wonderfully vivid writer. He is currently the Associate Professor of Creative Writing at the University of California Riverside. The way that he skillfully crafts scenes and adds flesh to the historical realities of the time are exquisite. Many people never even conceptualize the realities of living as a conquered people in your own land, but that is an experience that Jesus would’ve lived through. Aslan paints that picture well. Various parts were like reading a movie script. It takes skill to make a dense and potentially boring subject like history engaging, and Aslan succeeds in doing just that.

Reza Aslan

Now, about the book itself, to anyone that’s had classes discussing the historical Jesus, this book doesn’t offer much new information. As a theology student, most of what Aslan is saying I’ve heard before. Aslan is drawing from a deep well of scholarly tradition when he crafts this argument about who Jesus is. This is probably why a large portion of the scholarly community collectively went “meh” when this book came out. People where already entrenched on their respective sides of the issue. While there are a wide range of scholars who would agree and disagree with Aslan’s view, the one thing Aslan’s argument isn’t is new.

Aslan’s basic thesis is that the most important things about Jesus’ life can be deciphered from how he died. Jesus was killed for the crime of sedition. Sedition is aspiration to overthrow the state, which in this case was the Roman Empire. The Romans, Aslan argues, would not have crucified Jesus if he was the gentle, meek figure that is discussed in churches and popular culture today. Instead, Aslan casts Jesus as one of many in a long ling of Jewish revolutionaries with messianic hopes, hopes that had nothing to do with going to heaven or salvation from sin. Instead, the hope was to throw the Romans out of their land and for God to be in charge by any means necessary. He directly challenges the notion that Jesus was an apolitical figure, detached from the realities of the world around him. To Aslan, the very fact that he entertained messianic aspirations meant that Jesus and others saw himself as the one who will organize the Jews and initiate the kingdom of God in their midst. Aslan argues these points vigorously and quite well. It is up to the reader to make his or her own decision about Jesus of Nazareth after reading this book because Aslan’s is crystal clear.

There were some problems that I had with the book. First, I didn’t like the way that Aslan utilized Josephus as a primary source. Josephus was a Jewish historian that was around during the first century, and one of the earliest people to make a non-biblical reference to Jesus’ crucifixion. While he can be useful in some areas, most scholars are wary to place too much weight on his writings as a valid source by itself. To someone that doesn’t know, they might leave Aslan’s work thinking that Josephus was this top-notch historian totally free from bias. I do think that Aslan knows that and is simply using Josephus to move the narrative along, but the average reader probably won’t pick that up.

I also would’ve liked to see some footnotes, or at least citations that indicated where his own original thoughts stopped and other’s began in the actual text. Aslan does include awesome endnotes in the back, so it’s not as if he isn’t quoting his sources. And most of the concerns about terms and ideas that a more experienced reader would have are located in the endnotes; however, the average reader will likely not read this portion of the book (they should, it is very informative). This is more than likely an editorial decision by the publisher. Books that are produced for the general population usually don’t have citations in the text because publishers think that the citations hamper the experience for the lay reader. Rob Bell’s books are similar in that way.

But my major critique of the book is this: the book actually IS about Christianity. Aslan said in numerous interviews that the book isn’t an attack on the faith. From listening to his interviews and his hearing his personal story, I don’t believe that he holds malice toward Christianity. However, it doesn’t take Aslan long to begin calling particular aspects of Jesus’ life that are detailed in the Gospels into question.  Granted, any foray into discussing the historical Jesus will ultimately lead to asking those very questions. In terms of the historical Jesus’ life, there is very little that can be said, or written about, past the fact that he lived, he preached, he was a healer and exorcist, and he died for claiming the ability to overthrow Rome. That really doesn’t make for too much of a book to publish. But including discussions about Jesus’ view of himself or the virgin birth are certainly provocative enough to hold readers’ attention.

The book is separated into three parts. The first third of the book sets the stage for the tumultuous time that Jesus would eventually be born into. The second deals with Jesus and offers suggestions as to how he came to be a person that Rome and the priestly Jews would want to eliminate. But toward the end of the second part and going into the third, the book begins to discuss what happens after Jesus died. And if Aslan’s opinion about who Jesus is isn’t apparent in the rest of the book, it is blatantly obvious once you reach this point. To him, a review of historical evidence demonstrates that the Jesus Christ of faith is the result of the historical Jesus of Nazareth being stripped of what made him revolutionary and Jewish. Instead of promoting the ideals of an illiterate, uneducated peasant revolutionary , hellenized Christian Jews (such as Paul) detached Jesus from earthy concerns and transformed him into a spirit with universal significance. I think it’s misleading to say that this book is not about Christianity when over a third of it goes explicitly into the author’s explanation and critique about the historical events that gave rise to the religion.

With that said, I think there are many gems in this book, and those gems outweigh any problems. Whether you think Jesus was God or just another Jewish rabble-rouser, you’ll learn something from Aslan’s work. If anything, Zealot is a great way to introduce the conversation of the historical Jesus to a new generation of readers, thinkers, and believers. If the historical Jesus is a concept that is new to you, or something that you want an entry-level way into, give the book a try. It’s a good place to start, as long as your research leads you to other sources afterward.

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One thought on “A Review of Reza Aslan’s Book Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth

  1. A major issue of controversy is that a historical analysis of Jesus is, in essence, an attack on the Jesus of faith. If a historical analysis of who Jesus was reveals that the Bible is not inerrant, that Jesus did not claim to be divine, that the religion was largely rooted in Pauline theology and so forth this undermines a major pillar of spiritual authority in the Christian religion.

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