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

**** Recommend it

When it first came out in 2013, this book took a lot of heat from religious scholars that did not agree with Reza Aslan’s point of view. I think there were some sour greats too because it shot to the top of the NYTs best seller’s list and the the many works of these scholars’ on the same material did not. One of their main points was that since Reza Aslan was not saying something new about the material, somehow the book had no value. It is the same reaction that scholars give Malcom Gladwell too. These two authors synthesize deep research on complex subjects outside their field and try to make it readable and entertaining for the masses. When you do that, you are going to explain some of the deep-level details wrong or at least with not enough nuance to be completely correct. In other words, instead of writing an entire book on the subject or a chapter, the idea might get a sentence. For a non-scholar like me, I find that valuable. 

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From my side, the big hit on Aslan’s “research” is that he clearly states in numerous examples that the accepted gospels of the New Testament— Mark, Matthew, Luke and John— and other religious documents written at the same time are pure fiction, but then he cites them routinely to make his points. From his point of view, he would probably say that he was trying to get at the historical meaning of the Gospels by analyzing what they said not as historical truths but by analyzing what they were trying to say. He also states in the foreword that biblical scholars unanimously agree that if a fact is present in all four of the Gospels, then it is likely a historical truth. I find that ludicrous. 

But I did find the book fascinating. Aslan gave me some things to think about in areas that I had not considered before.

Here is what I learned: 

  • The bulk of Aslan’s ideas came from a 1967 book called “Jesus and the Zealots” written by S.G.F. Brandon
  • During Jesus’ ministry (28-30 CE), there were 72 disciples. Some were women and named in the Gospels. But the inner circle, The Twelve, were the principal bearers of Jesus’s message—the apostoloi, or “ambassadors”—apostles sent off to neighboring towns and villages to preach independently and without supervision. They would not be the leaders of Jesus’s movement, but rather its chief missionaries. Yet the Twelve had another more symbolic function, one that would manifest itself later in Jesus’s ministry. For they will come to represent the restoration of the twelve tribes of Israel, long since destroyed and scattered. 
  • The texts used by scholars to research the historical Jesus were not written by historians. In fact the idea of a historian who checks and triple checks every fact was unknown to these writers. They were trying to craft a consistent message, dogma, or doctrine. They weren’t interested in historical facts. 
  • Jesus was not the only messiah running around Jerusalem. Before and after his death, there were boatloads of them. Rome considered all of them seditionists and when they caused enough trouble, Roman leaders would have them crucified. 
  • Jesus was not the only miracle worker running around Jerusalem either. There were tons. Magic was a thing back in the day and showmen and miracle workers not associated with religion were legitimate ways to make a living. 
  • The two other men crucified with Jesus had a sign on their cross labeled “lestai” which meant bandit or Thief. But these words meant seditionist back in the day, not just simple thievery. Rome reserved crucifixion for revolting slaves as an example to deter. Jesus’s sign reads “ ‘titulus’ meaning KING OF THE JEWS. His crime: striving for kingly rule; sedition. And so, like every bandit and revolutionary, every rabble-rousing zealot and apocalyptic prophet who came before or after him—like Hezekiah and Judas, Theudas and Athronges, the Egyptian and the Samaritan, Simon son of Giora and Simon son of Kochba—Jesus of Nazareth is killed for daring to claim the mantle of king and messiah.” 
  • The famous biblical story of Pontious Pilate, washing his hands of the entire matter, is likely pure fiction. He signed the death orders of many jews during his reign and likely didn’t give Jesus a second thought. 
  • The biblical story of Mary and Joseph traveling to Bethlehem for the census is likely pure fiction too. Jesus was born in Nazareth, a small backwater. Mary was also likely an unwed mother. 
  • The biblical story of Jesus on a rampage inside the Jerusalem Temple represents what Jesus was about compared to the other Messiahs. Rome’s playbook after conquering a land was to appoint local leaders to run things and to collect taxes. They let the conquered people keep their religions. In Jerusalem priests worked for the Romans, not the Jewish people. The poor had no way to even access the temple. You had to pay big money even to get close and most of that went to the local Jewish priests (plus taxes off the top for the Romans.) Jesus thought that anybody in the religion could have access to God without having to pay money. He thought the the Jewish priests were corrupt. The Jewish priests wanted Jesus crucified, not the Jewish people. 
  • Jesus’ reign lasted only two years from the time he came into Jerusalem until his death. 
  • “Jesus was part of a large family that included at least four brothers who are named in the gospels—James, Joseph, Simon, and Judas—and an unknown number of sisters who, while mentioned in the gospels, are unfortunately not named.” 
  • James, Jesus’ brother, became the leader of the movement after Jesus’ death. He was well respected by the Jewish people and devout to the Tora. He followed all the rules as well as preached about Jesus’ way of bringing God to everybody. 
  • Paul was a rebel. He preached Jesus’ way but said you didn’t have to follow the Tora Rules. 
  • Team James mostly stayed in Jerusalem. They hated what Paul was doing outside of Jerusalem and brought him back a couple of times to chew his ass. When the Romans razed Jerusalem in 70 CE, they destroyed all of the writings of Team James. After the destruction, the bulk of the writings that survived came from Paul as he wrote letters to Jewish leaders outside Jerusalem. His promise that you could be close to God without having to follow the Torah appealed to gentiles especially in Rome and thus became the incipient split of Christianity and Jewish faith. 

I enjoyed this book. I never understood why the Jews wanted to crucify one of their own until I read this. I never understood how Christianity split from the Jewish faith. I never understood the relationships between Jesus, John the Baptist, and Paul and I defiantly didn’t know about the significance of Jesus’ brother, James. I recommend it. 


“Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth,” by Reza Aslan, Read by Reza Aslan, Published by Random House (NY), 16 July 2013, Last Visited 30 April 2020,

*** This is a Security Bloggers Network syndicated blog from Terebrate authored by Rick. Read the original post at: