Book Review: Zealot

Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth

by Reza Aslan

I have rarely encountered a more appropriate title on a book. This book is exactly what the title says it is: it is the life and the times of the historical figure of Jesus, who, according to the information provided, was essentially a zealot.

Two immediate points that have to be raised: the man is not the Christ, and though the Bible is the primary source of information along with the other apocrypha, Aslan never tries to talk about the risen Son of God as though that was the actual person. As a historian and religious scholar, Aslan considers the religious version of Jesus to be a matter of faith unrelated to the person who actually lived 2000 years ago in what is now Israel; the Gospels and the New Testament, Aslan explains in great detail, were all written by people who had had no contact at all with the historical figure of Jesus son of Joseph, and most of the New Testament was written by (or at least in the name of) an educated, Roman, Greek-speaking Jew who had no interest in the poor illiterate Jewish preacher from Galilee – St. Paul preferred the perfect embodiment of God that is now so familiar to modern Christians. The second point is that “zealot” is a word that meant something very specific in Jesus’s time, and the term applies quite well to Jesus himself; whether the modern meaning of the word would also apply is a different matter.

The basic idea is this: Jesus son of Mary and Joseph was a Nazarene. Right? Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews? Wasn’t that what the Romans wrote on the plaque over his head when they crucified him? So Nazareth is a tiny village in Galilee in northern Israel, where, like almost all of what came to be called Palestine by the Romans, the people lived in mud huts, with their livestock taking up one of the two rooms, spoke Aramaic, could not read or write, and believed that the Temple in Jerusalem was the place where God’s presence existed on Earth, but could only be approached by the High Priest. Jesus was not born in a manger in the barn outside a crowded inn in Bethlehem; his family would have had no reason to travel to Bethlehem, and certainly no Asian kings popped by with gold and frankincense and myrrh to worship at his side. So Jesus was an illiterate dirt-poor laborer – probably not even specifically a carpenter, since wood was an expensive building material that nobody in Nazareth would have been able to afford – whose mother was certainly not a virgin, who had brothers and sisters, and who lived his life under the oppressive control of the Roman empire. That life ended somewhere around 30 C.E. (Because Jesus was probably born around 4 BCE, a factoid that emblemizes absolutely all of the doublethink necessary to accept the Church’s version of this: the man was born four years before the first “year of Our Lord.”) when he was crucified for trying to incite a rebellion against the Roman control of Palestine, and against the corrupt high priests of the Temple. That’s the story told in this book.

Aslan says, and he’s right, that the historical Jesus is worth learning about. It’s a much less grandiose story; take away all of the I-am-the-son-of-THE-LORD-YOUR-GOD stuff, and Jesus had very small and comparatively humble intentions: he wanted to free Israel from the Romans, and (probably) rule the Jews as their king on Earth, the descendant (spiritually if not literally – but maybe literally) of King David, the founder of the nation. But that was plenty of ambition to be going on with, considering the fate of every other would-be messiah and king of the Jews under the Roman occupation. That fate is one of the linchpins of Aslan’s understanding of Jesus, because unlike Jesus himself, there is plenty of historical information about the Romans and crucifixion. He discards all of the standard arguments about Jesus’s trial and Crucifixion, and takes it down to what makes the most sense: the plaque over Jesus’s head was the Roman statement of his crime, not sarcastic, not ironic, but exact. The man wanted to be King of the Jews; he made a splash by gathering a large following, parading into Jerusalem exactly in the manner of an Earthly king, and then busting into the Temple and stirring up shit. The man who would later be turned into the “Prince of Peace” actually wanted the Romans, and the corrupt priests of the Temple, killed: he wanted God to smite them with a curse. (That’s the “zealot” part. The Jews believed that, if one had sufficient zeal for the lord, that God would aid them directly in winning their wars and destroying their enemies. Jesus wanted that, too. He wanted to be a warrior for God and Israel.) This is the rabble-rouser who told his disciples to make sure they brought swords to the Garden of Gethsemane, and if they didn’t have one, to sell their coats and buy two swords. He then got caught, and he got executed; that’s the end of the story – apart from what happened to his legend as it got re-created by his followers and adherents. I’d bet that one of the toughest pieces of this book to read, for a devoted believer in the literal Bible, is when Aslan lists the several would-be messiahs who were all trying to overthrow Roman control of Palestine around the same time: in that list, Jesus is one of the smaller and less impressive ones. Though really, if he was exactly what Aslan says he was, then Jesus of Nazareth had far more faith, courage, and conviction than I can imagine; I have more respect for this patriotic Jewish preacher than I do for the Christ. (I am, of course, an atheist and emphatically not Christian.)

I thought it was fascinating. This book is an outstanding piece of popular historical scholarship. Aslan gives extensive notes that show all sides of the issue, including the work of theologians who disagree entirely with the premise of this book; it is easy to read, clearly explained to a modern person like myself with no fundamental grounding at all in the history or the Bible; at the end, I’m pretty well convinced that he’s right, and I feel like I could sit down and explain the whole thing to someone else. I think that’s the best recommendation I can give.

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