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

Zealot by Reza Aslan
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really liked it
bookshelves: history, journalistic-synthetic-non-fiction, religion

I really need to get this off my currently reading list, but I can't do a decent review because most of my Jesus books are packed away in crates. I think AN Wilson's Jesus: A Life, though it's nowhere near as scholarly, stands up pretty well to this. I can't pull it out to refer to it, unfortunately. It takes a different tack by trying to integrate all the Jesus personas into a single lifestory... as in, what if Jesus was at one point a zealot and at a later point a hippie and at another point a mystic healer? IE, he evolved from this adolescent revolutionary. Wilson makes an interesting case that all along there was tension between his zealot followers and his hippie Jesus followers (the Sermon on the Mount types). For example, during the fishes and loaves scene, there's this point where people get worked up and he says LET THE MEN STAND DOWN, and then he gets talks to the women about peace and love. That is, he is concerned about where all this rebellious zeal will lead--bloody repression by Rome--and tries to elevate the women's roles as a peacekeeping measure. (Wilson argues that the meltdown in Gethsemane came because the zealots and the hippies disagreed at the end, which isn't that different from what Aslan thinks, so that the various groups, always uneasily allied, really did feel betrayed by one another, with Judas, the zealot, taking the fall.)

It's an interesting argument, though later analyses, like Aslan's, and Aslan of course is mainly building off other scholars who are looking at redactions, feel that the peace stuff came much later, as the Christian Church developed.

I am not entirely convinced that that we can settle upon A Jesus, as opposed to several reformist rabbinical figures who might have formed a composite character that we now think of us as OUR Jesus. That is, there might have been a hippie Jesus and a zealot figure and a mystic, perhaps with similar names, who got merged into one figure around whom all the stories congealed, much as they have around the persona we know think of as King Arthur. (As another example, it now seems that there may have been at least two people merged into Butch Cassidy, and that was barely a century ago, when there are all kinds of historical records and eyewitness accounts. Even these conflict; it is very difficult to straighten out information about folk heroes.)

So what emerges in Aslan's synthesis is that Jesus was kind of a fanatic for as much as can be discerned. As in, a Jewish jihadi. Zealot would be the Jewish word for jihadi, I guess. As in, cleanse the homeland of the foreigners and infidels. Got it? An ISIS type of nut. Aslan concludes with the statement that it's too bad the historical record was so corrupted by the church, which, wanting to make peace with the Roman Empire, which Jesus definitely did not want to do, glossed over all this (you kind of wonder why they bothered, rather than just founding some new church having nothing to do with Jesus, and everything to do with Paul, but whatever), because Jesus was, Aslan thinks, a cool guy to get to know on his own. But I question that statement, because the Jesus he describes sounds like a nutcase to me.

Whereas Aslan avoids considering Jesus's potential nutcasery. He keeps trying to figure out what Jesus might have been thinking, as if Jesus might have been completely sane. I mean, are these guys, who think God is talking to them, who think they have the keys to the Kingdom, EVER sane? Name one. These charismatic religious leaders. Joseph Smith for instance. Name me one. I'm not talking about visionaries like MLK Jr or Gandhi. I'm talking about the end of the world guys, which Jesus was. NAME ME ONE. Jesus sure doesn't sound like he's sane.

The other weird thing about Aslan's analysis is that he keeps repeating that Jesus was illiterate and that he came from a part of the Jewish world and a class of people where they would only have known the most basic verses of the Torah. And then Aslan keeps looking for the parts of the Old Testament, these most obscure parts, where Jesus would have got this or that rationale or justification for strange ideas or preachings. Hm. Is he or is he not illiterate? Is he or is he not well versed? Did his time with John the Baptist bring him up to speed? Or what?

Example, the Son of Man thing. Like many before him, Aslan goes to great lengths to figure out where Jesus might have come up with that stuff. Book of Daniel, Ezekiel, etc. It might be more simple. The Essenes said they were, or maybe they said they worshipped in, the Temple of Man. I think this was because the Temple in Jerusalem had been corrupted. (Aslan does such a great job describing Jerusalem, Year Zero.) Perhaps the Son of Man business just means that Jesus considered himself a son of that Essene tradition, a man uncorrupted by the Jerusalem Temple?

You're welcome, Aslan, you can have that for free, though a footnote would be nice.

Window into my mind: throughout I struggled with the way Aslan used revolutionary. I kept feeling that "revolutionary" applied to people who fight against their OWN governments, rather than against invading or conquering forces. For example, in the American Revolution, British subjects fought British Monarchist forces in order to establish a new form of government on one part of British territory. In the Russian Revolution, Russian Communists fought Russian Autocratic forces to establish a new form of government. In the French Revolution... etc. I don't think Jesus was a revolutionary. He was a rebel or a insurrectionist or--this is probably best--a leader of the resistance. Unless Jesus's argument can be seen as primarily with Jewish collaborators rather than with Rome, and that his idea was to create a new Jewish order never before seen. Then perhaps he was a revolutionary. I wasn't quite clear on which it was, anyhow.

Good, stimulating read, and highly recommended. Aslan may not be right that this is the only historical Jesus, but it's just one more piece of evidence pointing to how much of a fabrication Christianity is. Certainly the Jesus as represented by Christianity did not exist, ever, and there is no "core truth" there, either. Or rather, the core Jesus that has survived in any Biblical versions is not likely to be any Jesus we will ever like.

He's more likely to be the fire and brimstone guy that the fundamentalists believe in, though unfortunately for them, hostile to Gentiles.

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Reading Progress

October 1, 2013 – Shelved as: to-read
October 1, 2013 – Shelved
April 9, 2015 – Started Reading
April 9, 2015 – 0.0% "Intro and 2 chaps in. Pretty sure I already know what I think and what he's missing. But I'll reserve judgment."
April 11, 2015 – 0.0% "The description of the temple practices--blood sacrifice--circa year zero--is pretty disgusting. "The priests burn incense to ward off fetor and disease but the mixture of myrrh and cinnamon, saffron and frankincense cannot mask the insufferable stench of slaughter.""
April 11, 2015 – 0.0% ""The very term 'theocracy' was coined specifically [by Josephus] to describe Jerusalem.""
April 11, 2015 – 0.0% "Jewish zealotry sounds a lot like jihad: "strict adherence to Torah and Law, refusal to serve any foreign master...uncompromising devotion to sovereignty of walk in the blazing footsteps of the prophets and heroes of old... who dealt ruthlessly w idolatry and w those who transgressed God's law...zealous warriors cleansed [the land] of foreigners and idolators, just as God demanded.""
April 12, 2015 – 0.0% ""28 CE, ascetic preacher named John began baptizing in the Jordan...when [his] popularity became too great to control, Pilate's tetrarch had him executed [ca] 30 CE. A couple of yrs later, a peasant laborer named Jesus of Nazareth led a band...into Jerusalem..assaulted the Temple, overturned the tables of the moneychangers, freed the sacrificial animals. He too was ... sentenced to death by Pilate (cont'd)"
April 12, 2015 – 0.0% "... "Three years afer that, in 36 CE, a messiah known only as 'the Samaritan,' gathered a group of followers atop Mt Gerizim, where he claimed he would reveal 'sacred vessels hidden by Moses. Pilate responded w Roman soldiers who cut the Samaritan's faithful multiple to pieces. [Whereupon} Pilate was exiled to Gaul." [Tho you might argue that it had been Palestine that was the exile.]"
April 12, 2015 – 0.0% "In 46 CE, 2 sons of Judas the Galilean, Jacob and Simon, launched their own revolutionary [sic; Aslan consistently confuses revolutionary w insurgent] movement in footsteps of father and grandfather; both were crucified."
April 12, 2015 – 0.0% "I'm going somewhere with all this."
May 1, 2015 – 0.0% "I'm done, but wonder if I can review this without access to my library on Jesus stuff, most of which is crated in my basement..."
June 2, 2015 – Shelved as: history
June 2, 2015 – Shelved as: journalistic-synthetic-non-fiction
June 2, 2015 – Finished Reading
August 11, 2019 – Shelved as: religion

Comments Showing 1-2 of 2 (2 new)

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message 1: by Joel (new) - added it

Joel Bass Thanks for the illuminating review. Lots to think about. Though I have to say, the snark in me wonders what C.S. Lewis would think of this book being written by a man named "Aslan." :-)

Claudia Putnam :) = lion in Persian which you probably already knew.

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