John's Reviews > Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth

Zealot by Reza Aslan
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it was amazing

Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth by Reza Aslan is the best and most accessible exploration of the historical evidence for the life and mission of Jesus of Nazareth that I’ve read. He renders it an exciting and compelling tale.

I’ve been a fan of Dr. Aslan since I read his book, No God but God, in 2006. I’ve been fascinated by the search for the historical Jesus for much of my life. I couldn’t wait to read Zealot.

I wasn’t disappointed.

I’m already familiar with many of the theories regarding the historicity of Jesus, so most of the evidence presented by Dr. Aslan, and many of the basic ideas in this work, aren’t new to me. What stands out in Zealot is the degree to which Dr. Aslan paints Jesus as a revolutionary. Many theories about the historical Jesus recognize that he was a revolutionary to some degree, but it’s common for such arguments to be qualified — Jesus was a revolutionary even if he didn’t intend to be. Dr. Aslan is convinced that Jesus fully intended to lead an earthly revolution, to oust Rome from Judea and to overthrow the corrupt Temple priests, and to reform Judea into a kingdom belonging to God and the Jews alone.

Dr. Aslan is convinced that Jesus was nothing short of a zealot, one in a long line of Jewish revolutionaries. Dr. Aslan has convinced me, as well.

The historical Jesus is better documented than most people realize: ancient historians such as Josephus and the Roman Plinys, documents such as the Dead Sea Scrolls, and the reliably historical passages from the New Testament, all serve to inform us of who Jesus might have been. Dr. Aslan is deeply and widely informed on these sources and he synthesizes them into a cohesive picture of the historical Jesus that’s compelling and believable.

I particularly appreciate how well Zealot paints a picture of Judea during the time of Roman occupation. The century from the reign of Augustus Caesar to the Great Revolt of 66 C.E. was one of the most turbulent and violent periods in Jewish history. This is the time when Jesus lived and conducted his mission, yet this historical perspective is almost entirely absent from the New Testament. It’s impossible to understand why Jesus did what he did without anchoring his words and actions in the time and place that he called home. Dr. Aslan fills in this essential context and makes it powerful.

What I find most valuable about this book, however, is Dr. Aslan’s explanation of how and why the historical Jesus was transformed by his followers in the decades after his crucifixion from a failed political revolutionary into a spiritual being unconcerned with earthly matters. Dr. Aslan explores the conflicts that arose between James and Paul, the destruction of Judea by Rome after the Great Revolt, and the necessity in the subsequent Jewish diaspora to distance themselves from the zealous nationalism that led to it.

Even absent Dr. Aslan’s portrait of Jesus, Zealot is a wonderful and concise history of Roman Judea and earliest days of the Christian movement.

Finally, I must note that I’m particularly impressed with Dr. Aslan’s eager acknowledgment of the work of many scholars who disagree with his interpretations of the historical evidence. In the extensive "Notes" section at the end of the book, he presents these contrary opinions and offers several titles for further reading, as well as further resources which agree with his arguments. Such academic honesty is truly refreshing.

For readers who are new to the search for the historical Jesus, I know of no better starting point than Zealot.

For readers who are already familiar with the scholarship in this field, Zealot offers a concise summary of the evidence and a compelling interpretation of it.


UPDATE — November 27, 2014

In the weeks since I read Zealot, I've spent some time exploring the critical reception the work has received. I've noticed something interesting:

Many professional historians are criticizing it rather harshly. In particular, historians who specialize in the study of the historical Jesus, the early history of Christianity, and the classical history of Judaism.

It's been noted that Dr. Aslan's academic credentials—though impressive for what they are—aren't what one would hope for in the author of work focusing on the historical Jesus. In particular, it's been pointed out that Dr. Aslan has never written any peer reviewed works on this subject.

In the world of academic history, that's a big red flag.

And while I'm sure that he has studied the history of the religions of Abraham in greater depth than most people, none of his degrees are history degrees, none granted by accredited history programs. That matters in the world of academia.

A couple of historians I've spoken to about Zealot have taken exception to the style of Dr. Aslan's writing—it's unscholarly. As one put it, “He uses too many adjectives.” He's too eager to resort to extreme and polarizing statements, declaring things “ridiculous,” etc.

He fails to specify which translations are his own and which come from other sources. Regarding which passages from the New Testament he accepts as authentic and which he rejects, he's less than transparent about the methodology he used to make those decisions.

The reality is this—Zealot can't be taken as a work of serious, scholarly history. It suffers from fundamental flaws of methodology and it would never survive peer review.

On the other hand, Dr. Aslan never intended this to be a work of scholarly history...

Looking back, I realize something—it never occurred to me to read Zealot as a work of serious historical inquiry. I never expected it to uphold rigorous academic standards. Being familiar with some of his previous books, I knew that this is pop history and I didn't look for it to be anything more.

Far more than that, I knew that this book was written to provoke. Dr. Aslan writes to challenge orthodoxy—not the orthodoxy of historical scholarship but religious orthodoxy. He writes to tweak the noses of present-day fundamentalists, to oppose the increasing polarization and extremism of religious communities by challenging their core beliefs. This book doesn't occupy the world of history so much as it attacks the world of dogmatic religion.

I enjoy Dr. Aslan's work not as a historian but as a provocateur.

I want his vision of a zealous, revolutionary Jesus to be true. I enjoy this book because I like that idea.

But if multiple professional historians, experts in this field of study, tell me that there are serious flaws in Dr. Aslan's work, I need to take that into account and temper my enthusiasm somewhat.

(If you're interested, my two personal favorite critical reviews of Zealot are these:

"How Reza Aslan's Jesus is giving history a bad name" by John Dickson, from the Australian Broadcasting Corporation, August 9, 2013—

"What Jesus Wasn't: Zealot" by Allan Nadler, from the Jewish Review of Book, August 11, 2013—
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Reading Progress

October 26, 2014 – Started Reading
October 26, 2014 – Shelved
October 26, 2014 –
October 27, 2014 –
October 31, 2014 –
November 9, 2014 – Finished Reading

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