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

17568801Title: Zealot- The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth

Author: Reza Aslan

Rating: 4 stars

There’s something I have to confess. I am a religion junkie.

I used to spend Sunday afternoons as a child watching something called Mysteries of the Bible, a historical survey of Biblical times that went way over my head at the time but still fascinated me. I came fairly close, within a class or two, of minoring in religion in college. That spot was ultimately taken by history, because I was not ready to go so in depth with my studies, but I still love learning about the history and development of religions from all cultures, and read lots of popular religious surveys.

When I heard that Reza Aslan had written a biography of the historical Jesus, I knew I had to read it as soon as possible. Jesus is a figure very close to my heart, even as I no longer hold to most of the tenents of faith I was raised with. I was also skeptical about what Aslan would have to say. The number of “facts” that can be said to be known about the historical Jesus of Nazareth are few, and can be very divisive. But Zealot turned out to be very compelling narrative, very accessible to general readers while backed up with extensive research.

Most of the book has little to do with the historical Jesus in and of himself. Aslan takes what is known about Jewish culture in such a tumultuous and transformtive time, and what is known about men who interacted with and followed Jesus, to construct a template of how the historical Jesus probably acted, who he probably was.

He begins his narrative with the Jewish Revolt of 66 CE and the subsequent destruction of Jerusalem. This, not the birth, ministry, or death of Jesus, turns out to be the central linchpin of the book, as he argues that it is with the destruction of the Temple that the Jesus cult was able to fully break from the Jewish roots of the faith. Christology and the Roman church truly began at this point, but most links to Jesus the man, Jesus the Nazarene, were buried.

He also spends a lot of time talking about figures such as John the Baptist, James the brother of Jesus, Paul, corrupt high priests of the Temple, and Roman officials. There were many ideas I have already been exposed to, but also many things that were new to me, and yet make complete logical sense (for instance–Jesus of Nazareth was probably initially a disciple of John the Baptist. Something that had never even crossed my mind, but struck me as a complete ‘of course!’ moment).

The book is small, barely weighing in at two hundred pages, but there are a ton of notes and further reading at the back for anyone interested in how Aslan came to his conclusions, or looking for greater depth of study. The student part of me would have preferred footnotes and in-text reference, but the structure of the book does make sense. It’s cleaner, makes for faster reading, and I would assume hooks more causal readers who would be turned off my footnotes and tiny text.

In addition to his Ph.D, Aslan also holds an MFA in Fiction, and it shows in the meticulous construction of his prose. Zealot is beautifully written, with vividly drawn descriptions of the Temple, the life of the peasantry, and of a world overflowing with wandering messiahs.

Some, especially conservative Christians and Bible literalists, may find this book controversial. They should not. Having a greater understanding of the historical roots of the world’s largest religion is important to keeping that religion relevant in the modern world. Whether you believe Jesus was divine, a man, or some combination thereof, there is no doubt he was a charismatic and fascinating figure, and Aslan shows how he gained such a hold over the human imagination through the most humble and prosaic of roots.

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6 Comments

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6 responses to “Review: Zealot- The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth by Reza Aslan

  1. Bruce

    I want to read this book! Good review…one constructive note regarding 3rd paragraph, 2nd sentence…should be “…tenets of faith…”:

    http://americanenglishdoctor.com/wordpress/tenet-and-tenant

  2. chris

    Odd it was left out the the author is a Muslim and none of the ideas from his book are new.

    • hlmorris85

      I never claimed the ideas were “new,” I merely stated that many were new to me.

      Aslan’s religious beliefs have nothing to do with his abilities as a writer or scholar, although if you’d done your research you’d know he has a background in evangelical Christianity. Even so–since when are only members of a religious group allowed to write about that religion?

      This review is based on my own opinion of my reading experience. If you have any actual critiques of my writing or valid disagreements about my opinion of the book, please share them. Otherwise, please take your close-minded bigotry elsewhere.

      • chris

        I’m curious how you came to the conclusion I’m a close minded bigot? Maybe I wanted to be your friend! I don’t think friends should be that mean to each other, though.
        And yes it is important his beliefs because much of the interpretation of his books are from just that …interpretation. If knowing he is muslim then one might ask why he would be interested in writing such a book in the first place! Let’s be honest…the book is well written but does further his point about Jesus as written in the Quran. One would definitely want to take that into consideration when they read the book! . And with the leaps of opinion that he claims as fact, it can’t be ignored.
        Also, did you know that you assumed you knew that I was a bigot by me writing one sentence? You grouped and labeled me without knowing me as a person which ironically makes you a bigot 🙂

      • hlmorris85

        You know what, mea culpa. I’m having a difficult week, and your implication that I maliciously left out information for whatever reason you might imagine was the last straw. I lashed out, when I should have just ignored you and moved on with my day. What you see as so important, I consider irrelevant. It has no bearing on my reading of the book. You’re welcome to disagree with that, but it does not change the fact that this is a blog of personal opinions. Please do not try to dictate what I should or should not have included in my review, and I will refrain from namecalling.

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