Review: Zealot. The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth – Reza Aslan

Zealot Reza Aslan 1My version:
Genre: Non Fiction History, Biblical history, Jesus of Nazareth
The Westbourne Press
First published: 2014

Two thousand years ago, an itinerant Jewish preacher and miracle worker walked across the Galilee, gathering followers to establish what he called the “Kingdom of God.” The revolutionary movement he launched was so threatening to the established order that he was captured, tortured, and executed as a state criminal.

Within decades after his shameful death, his followers would call him God.

Sifting through centuries of mythmaking, Reza Aslan sheds new light on one of history’s most influential and enigmatic characters by examining Jesus through the lens of the tumultuous era in which he lived: first-century Palestine, an age awash in apocalyptic fervor. Scores of Jewish prophets, preachers, and would-be messiahs wandered through the Holy Land, bearing messages from God. This was the age of zealotry—a fervent nationalism that made resistance to the Roman occupation a sacred duty incumbent on all Jews. And few figures better exemplified this principle than the charismatic Galilean who defied both the imperial authorities and their allies in the Jewish religious hierarchy.

The first thing to remember, is that the historical Jesus has very, very little, almost nothing to do with the biblical Jesus. Those Jesus’ (four Gospels, a source (Q) and other gospels that didn’t make it into the New Testament), were written for an audience, to give that audience what they wanted to hear. Reza Aslan writes about the historical Jesus, sifting through what might be derived from truth in the New Testament and the little – the couple of lines there are surviving directly about the historical Jesus – there are no contemporary records of the real Jesus, the man who wandered Galilee a couple of thousand years ago.

“The notion that the leader of a popular Messianic movement calling for the imposition of the “Kingdom of God” – a term that would have been understood by Jew and Gentile alike as implying revolt against Rome – could have remained uninvolved in the revolutionary fervour that had gripped nearly every Jew in Judea, is simply ridiculous.”

Zealot Reza Aslan 2This is above all a fascinating examination of the area of Judea, two thousand years ago. Most of it was new information to me, it still produces an “of course” when you read it. Jesus wasn’t a Christian. He was a Jew. If he was born in Nazareth, then we need to remember how Nazareth was at the time – a small collection of hovels in the middle of nowhere. He could not have made a living there, from carpentry. There wasn’t a Roman census at the time. A Roman census didn’t require people to travel back to the place of their birth. So no stable, manger, three wise men. People in Galilee, were illiterate, so no arguing the finer points of the Jewish law in a temple as a child.

“A man of peace who exhorted his followers to arm themselves with swords; an exorcist and faith healer who urged his disciples to keep his identity a secret; and ultimately the seditious “King of the Jews” whose promise of liberation from Rome went unfulfilled in his brief lifetime.”


Reza Aslan
Reza Aslan

Why are there twelve disciples, when there were thousands of people who followed him? The penalty for sedition, for trying to or advocating the overthrow Roman rule, was crucifiction. Pontious Pilot was so ruthless, so prone to killing people by crucifiction, that complaints were made about him – in Rome. Jesus was just the latest in a long, long line of Jewish rebels, calling themselves messiah and for the overthrow of the Roman occupation. Pilot wouldn’t have argued the finer points of Jesus’ guilt or otherwise, with the Jewish priests, in the middle of the night. They wouldn’t have convened at night, that was forbidden. People were crucified and left on the crosses, as a warning to others. They weren’t taken down. Their bones would have been picked clean by crows and dogs. Paul never saw Jesus, never heard him preach, never knew him. He wasn’t a disciple. Yet, he claimed to be the only disciple, that he had been a disciple before he was born… He was sanctioned by the living Apostles and brough back to Jerusalem for censure, three times. He was at odds with what the Apostles who were with Jesus, knew him and were related to him. His teachings were discarded by the early church in Rome, yet it is Paul’s version we know Jesus by today.

“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. That is a shame. Because the one thing any comprehensive study of the historical Jesus should hopefully reveal, is that Jesus of Nazareth – Jesus the man – is every bit as compelling, charismatic and praiseworthy as Jesus the Christ. He is, in short, someone worth believing in.”

Zealot is concise and compelling, objective and utterly fascinating. It’s not a ‘forget everything you thought you knew about Jesus’ because some of it obviously will come in handy, but it isn’t far off. If you’ve got an open mind, you’ll probably through it all, find yourself agreeing with Rezla Aslan, that the man who really was Jesus, is someone worth believing in.

You can buy Zealot from

Related reviews on Speesh Reads:

The Lost Gospel Simcha JakoboviciThe Jesus Discovery 2

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