Review of “Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth” by Reza Aslan

Secular institutions aren’t the only source of laws of course. Zealot by Reza Aslan takes us through the history of early Christianity and the change from Judaism as a source of law to a new philosophy largely interpreted by the former Pharisee (an ancient Jewish sect) later known as St. Paul.


This book has been very controversial largely because of a rather ill-conceived and poorly conducted interview on Fox News that went viral on the Web. In that segment, the interviewer, who clearly had not read the book, didn’t have any interest in the book’s contents, only wanting to indict Aslan for writing about Jesus when he is a Muslim. He had to point out repeatedly that he is a scholar and that his religious orientation should be irrelevant. The content of his work was not addressed. Nevertheless, all the attention propelled the book to the best-seller list.

I am happy to address the content, which is quite good. Aslan doesn’t break any new ground, but he presents the early history before and after the start of the “Common Era” in an entertaining and accessible way.

First of all, he points out that, as historian Y.H. Yerushalmi laid out in his award-winning studies of history and memory, “history” as we think of it now is nothing like it was in the pre-modern era. There were hardly any literate people at any rate to write it. The Bible was the primary “historical” document for a long time, but it was constructed for, and viewed as, a “revealed pattern” (to quote Yerushalmi) of God’s plan for all time. That is, “histories” in antiquity were spiritual documents. Modern history as we know it today did not begin until the Enlightenment. Prior to that, there wasn’t much need for histories, except to glorify battles in order to solidify political power; divine providence caused whatever happened, and it happened in a way to confirm religious expectations. The Bible only elucidated the religious perception of events.

Aslan reviews some of the prophecies that the story of Jesus was expected to validate. He then goes through the gospels and points out the contradictions, historical inaccuracies and fact-massaging that were clearly intended to ensure that Jesus would fit the description of the Messiah predicted by the Old Testament. [The first secular history mentioning Jesus (and then only briefly) wasn’t written until some 60 years after his death, around 93-94AD, by Titus Flavius Josephus.] As will be explained below, this mention was actually made in the course of identifying his brother James.

Josephus lived from 37 A.D. to about 100 A.D.

Josephus lived from 37 A.D. to about 100 A.D.

Aslan also explains some of the ways in which the stories told in the gospels would have been understood differently by the people at that time from the way we interpret them now according to our modern sensibilities. Further, he points out how the nonviolence counseled by Jesus was meant, in the context of the day, to apply only to those who bought into the philosophy of the New Order. As for the others, the rich would be made poor; those in power would have it taken away from them; and in general, they would be at risk of annihilation, just as was recommended for nonbelievers in the Old Testament. Jesus, Aslan argues, believed in the same Jewish faith as his forebears, as laid out in the Bible. Unfortunately, this made him a target for the rich, powerful Romans.

Importantly, Aslan gives a brief accounting of some of the other would-be messiahs at that time in Jerusalem who were also claiming to be The King of the Jews or The Savior of the Jews or The Messiah. They were all beheaded or crucified. (You can see a list of the many messiah claimants here.) So why did the story that Jesus was Messiah prevail?

Relevant section of the Roman Empire at the time Jesus lived

Relevant section of the Roman Empire at the time Jesus lived

The Jesus story had some big advantages over claims about the other messiahs. A huge factor was that Jesus happened to have literate followers who could write about his story and bruit it throughout the land. The second was that Jesus was already dead when these stories about him circulated, so no one could refute them (and if you doubted, you only had to look to the example of Thomas, who learns that more blessed “are those who have not seen and yet believe.” John 20:29). Finally, and most importantly, the followers of Jesus claimed he was resurrected. If they had not insisted on this, Jesus would have been subject to the same discrediting as the other would-be messiahs, whose claims evaporated with their deaths thus proving their inability to bring about the redeemed world.

Disciples of Jesus nevertheless had several problems to overcome so that “their” messiah would be the universally accepted one. One big obstacle at the time was the cult of John the Baptist. The later the gospel was written, the less important John was rendered.

The gospels also omit mention of the Essenes, the messianic sect preceding Jesus, whose writings as revealed by the Dead Sea Scrolls were discovered between 1946 and 1956. But this is not to say the writers of the gospel ignored the Essenes, because not only can some rites and precepts described be traced to the writing of the Essenes, but even some of the sentence construction is too close to be coincidental. (One scholar contends that “St. Paul seems to have used the book [of the Essenes] as a vade mecum.”) Scholars who have studied the scrolls also aver that the head of the Essenes, who was called The Teacher of Righteousness, is an exact prototype of Jesus. (For a brief but thorough discussion of what is in these documents, the excellent book by Edmund Wilson, The Scrolls from the Dead Sea is a good place to start.) As one might imagine, some Christians regard the Dead Sea Scrolls as anathema, since, as Wilson writes, “these new documents have thus loomed as a menace to a variety of rooted assumptions.”

A segment of the Dead Sea Scrolls

A segment of the Dead Sea Scrolls

Another problem early Christians had was the importance of James the Just, the brother of Jesus. In the New Testament, Jesus names James as his successor several times, with only one late addition in one gospel naming Simon Peter instead. And in fact, the earliest reference to Jesus, by the scholar Josephus, was actually made only in relation to his brother James, who served as Bishop of Jerusalem before he was killed for his beliefs. James was apparently quite influential in the time following Jesus’s death. But there were two main reasons his role had to be attenuated in the records. The most obvious was that he was supposedly the brother of Jesus; this contradicted the Catholic doctrine of perpetual virginity for Mary. [Some Christian sects object not to the maternity issue, but the identity of the father. The United Church of God, for example, calls James the “half-brother” of Jesus, elucidating that “Though Jesus and James had the same mother, Jesus was the son not of Joseph, as James was, but of God the Father Himself.” Yet other Christian sects resolve the issue by claiming James was the cousin of Jesus.]

The second predicament posed by James was that James and Paul were not only rivals but enemies, and had a totally different conception of who and what Jesus was. James still insisted on conformity with Jewish religious precepts, with the only addition being that it was Jesus who was the Messiah, whose coming [still] is also basic to Jewish belief. Paul had a very different idea of what being “Christian” meant, and Paul was well-placed, literate, and solicitous of the Romans.

But Paul got very lucky. The Roman army besieged and conquered the city of Jerusalem in 70 AD, sacking the city and destroying the Temple. The remaining followers of Jesus who were not killed were scattered to the winds. Paul, already in the diaspora, now had no rivals left. The story of James’ importance was gradually eliminated, with Paul’s role superseding it.

The Arch of Titus is an honorific arch in Rome constructed in c. 82 AD by the Roman Emperor Domitian shortly after the death of his older brother Titus.  It was made to commemorate Titus' victories, including the Siege of Jerusalem in 70 AD.

The Arch of Titus is an honorific arch in Rome constructed in c. 82 AD by the Roman Emperor Domitian shortly after the death of his older brother Titus. It was made to commemorate Titus’ victories, including the Siege of Jerusalem in 70 AD.

So what was the legacy of Paul and how did he radically change the message of Jesus?

One central message of Paul was that Christians should be seen as absolutely distinct from Jews. He did not want them lumped together by the Romans, since Jews were in great disfavor with, and in physical danger from, Romans for daring to protest their dictatorship. On the contrary, Paul averred, the Christians were not only different from Jews and refused to obey Jewish laws, but Christians didn’t even blame Romans for the death of their Savior; rather, he insisted, it was the fault of the Jews. (Azlan explains, however, in great detail however why the Pontius Pilate story could never have happened.)

Paul was eager not only to appease the Romans but to win the power struggle with the “Hebrew” Jews for control Christianity. These so-called “Hebrew” Jews included all the original Disciples, who still adhered to Jewish laws. Paul’s letters ripped apart both them and their beliefs, indicating that obedience to Jewish laws showed the influence of the devil. Don’t go to Temple, Paul said; God’s Sprit dwells within you. Circumcision is bad because it indicates you follow Jewish law, and anyway, those who advocate circumcision only do so “that they may glory in your flesh.” It is only men of “faith” who are blessed; men of “law” (i.e., Jews) are cursed. And so on. (Corinthians and Galatians.) In Colossians Paul further admonishes Jews to reject the law, stop living it, and put on “Christian ways.” He gets more censorious still in Titus: Jews are “detestable, disobedient, unfit for any good deed.” This may well have been written after James called Paul to Jerusalem to reprimand him for straying so far from the teachings of Jesus.

Aslan blames Paul’s power struggles for the next 2000 years of Christian antisemitism.

Area of Paul's ministry

Area of Paul’s ministry

He also analyzes Paul’s emphasis on Jesus as Holy Ghost rather than as a historical figure. This dovetailed with Paul’s need to establish that he, Paul, who had communed with the spirit of Jesus, was superior to those disciples who had just known him in his human incarnation. It also helped believers make the logical transition from belief in a Kingdom of God that was material to one that would, for the time being, be spiritual. This idea was radically different than any other conceptions about the messiah.

Discussion: The only criticism I would make of the book is that Aslan does take some of the gospel as – well, gospel. After making sure we know the many ways in which (a) the stories pertain more to establishing the fulfillment of prophecies than facts and (b) in any event, nothing was written about Jesus until many years after his death, why would any of it necessarily be true, or why should we take some of it with a grain of salt but not all of it? If all three of the synoptic Gospels agree on any one event, it may just mean that all of the writers felt it was important to maintain that event transpired. Similarly, the omission of something by all three may mean that it didn’t conform with the predictions, not that it didn’t happen. I don’t see how he can justify pulling out some items as true and dismissing others.

Evaluation: Overall, this is an informative, entertaining, and thought-provoking book. The information Aslan imparts is extremely valuable for those who have not read any early Christian history. The ground he covers has been plowed often before, but usually in a more inaccessible way. This is a history of Jesus for the people, and one that is thoroughly subscribed to by historians (if not theologians). Aslan does an excellent job of presenting it, in my opinion.

I listened to this book in audio form, and it was read by the author. I thought he was a great choice for a narrator, because he loaded his arguments with passion and conviction.

Rating: 4.5/5

Published unabridged on 7 compact discs by Random House Audio, a division of Random House, Inc., 2013


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