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

Zealot might be disturbing for Christian readers. Its author was born into a Muslim family in Iran. After his family emigrated to the United States, he became a Christian for a while. After closely studying the origins of Christianity, however, he became “a more genuinely committed disciple of Jesus of Nazareth than [he] ever was of Jesus Christ”.

As Aslan tells the story, Jesus was born in the humble village of Nazareth, not in a manger in Bethlehem (despite what the Bible says, the Romans never conducted a census that forced everyone to stop work and travel to their birthplace). Jesus was illiterate, worked as a laborer and was probably married (almost all young Jewish men got married in those days). When he was roughly 34 years old, he left Nazareth and began preaching a politically-charged message to his fellow Jews.

At the time, there were lots of angry but hopeful Jews in Palestine. They were anticipating the arrival of a messiah, someone who would establish the Kingdom of God on earth and get rid of the Romans. Some claimed to be the messiah. Others were thought to be the messiah by their followers. Some, including Jesus, were said to have performed exorcisms or miracles. What the various preachers, dissidents, rabble rousers and zealots had in common was their nationalistic desire to kick the Romans out of Palestine and restore Israel to its former glory. 

None of these supposed messiahs claimed to be divine, however. The Jews, of course, were strictly monotheistic. It was enough that the messiah do God’s work by overthrowing the Roman oppressors. Many also hoped for economic reforms, like lower taxes. Jesus, in particular, apparently had a very low opinion of the wealthy priests and merchants who cooperated with the Romans.

Crucifixion was a common punishment for Rome’s enemies, so it was no surprise that Jesus was found guilty of sedition after a few years and executed. Being crucified, however, showed that Jesus wasn’t the messiah after all. The Romans were clearly still in power. Jesus had failed to institute the Kingdom of God. Aslan suggests that some of Jesus’s followers wanted to explain away his apparent failure. They spread the idea that Jesus rose from the dead and would one day return to finish his work. That’s when the Romans would finally be overthrown.

We know that the various books of the New Testament were written decades after Jesus’s crucifixion. We also know that almost all of it was written by men who never met Jesus, never heard him speak and never saw him perform any miracles. Aslan points out lots of inconsistencies and omissions in the New Testament and plausibly argues that many stories told about Jesus were designed to satisfy political and theological agendas. For example, claiming that Jesus was born in Bethlehem was a way to make his birthplace consistent with earlier prophecies about the messiah.

What I found especially interesting in Zealot was Aslan’s discussion of the apostle Paul, who wasn’t one of the original twelve apostles. He was a Jew and a Roman citizen who is said to have encountered an otherworldly Jesus on the road to Damascus a few years after Jesus’s crucifixion.

Whether or not Paul had a vision while traveling to Damascus, he doesn’t seem to have written anything saying that he did (the road to Damascus story is now attributed to Luke, who was apparently one of Paul’s disciples). But, according to Aslan, Paul was mainly responsible for the birth of Christianity as a religion separate from Judaism.

Jesus, of course, was hardly a Christian himself. For example, Aslan says there is no evidence that Jesus ever referred to himself as the “Son of God”. That was a title reserved for the past kings of Israel, like David. It was Paul who promoted the story that Jesus was divine and began referring to Jesus as “Jesus Christ”. Paul also founded churches in other parts of the Roman empire. In fact, more than half of the New Testament was either written by Paul or is about Paul.

Paul’s distinctive views were rejected by the other apostles (the ones who had known Jesus and were still alive), including James the Just, the younger brother of Jesus and the leading figure among the apostles after Jesus’s death. Since Paul couldn’t convince the other Jews that Jesus was divine, he concentrated on convincing the gentiles, some of whom were receptive to his relatively monotheistic message.

Of course, the historical record is extremely spotty with regard to Jesus. Some scholars no doubt disagree with Aslan’s interpretation of the evidence. A Christian, being convinced that Jesus was a unique individual who actually did perform miracles, actually was resurrected and actually was (and is) God’s son, might say it’s pointless to try to understand Jesus from an historical perspective.

In addition, Aslan never really explains why he holds Jesus of Nazareth in such high regard (even if Jesus was anti-Rome and a champion of the poor). Aslan doesn’t even emphasize Jesus’s role as a moral teacher, arguing that the idea of turning the other cheek, for example, didn’t apply to people in general – it only applied to one’s Jewish enemies (and certainly not to Romans, for whom the sword was more appropriate). But I found Aslan’s account extremely interesting and very plausible. Here is part of his concluding summary:

Christianity after the destruction of Jerusalem [by the Romans in 70 C.E.] was almost exclusively a gentile religion; it needed a gentile theology. And that is precisely what Paul provided. The choice between James’s vision of a Jewish religion anchored in the Law of Moses and derived from a Jewish nationalist who fought against Rome, and Paul’s vision of a Roman religion that divorced itself from Jewish provincialism and require nothing for salvation save belief in Christ, was not a difficult one for the second and third generations of Jesus’s followers…

Two thousand years later, the Christ of Paul’s creation has utterly subsumed the Jesus of history. The memory of the revolutionary zealot who walked across Galilee gathering an army of disciples with the goal of establishing the Kingdom of God on earth, the magnetic preacher who defied the authority of the Temple priesthood in Jerusalem, the radical Jewish nationalist who challenged the Roman occupation and lost, has been almost completely lost to history.