Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth

Zealot_Holiday_NYTBR_RTG copy

From the internationally bestselling author of No god but God comes a fascinating, provocative, and meticulously researched biography that calls into question everything we thought we knew about Jesus of Nazareth.

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.

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 traipse through the Holy Land, bearing messages from God. This is 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.Two decades after his shameful death, his followers would call him God.


Balancing the Jesus of the Gospels against the historical sources, Aslan explores this diverse and turbulent age and, in doing so, challenges the conventional portraits of Jesus of Nazareth. Aslan describes a man full of conviction and passion, yet rife with contradiction: 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. Aslan explores the reasons why the early Christian church preferred to promulgate an image of Jesus as a peaceful spiritual teacher rather than a politically conscious revolutionary. And he grapples with the riddle of how Jesus understood himself, the mystery that is at the heart of all subsequent claims about his divinity.

Zealot questions what we thought we knew about Jesus of Nazareth—even as it affirms the radical and transformative nature of his life and mission. The result is a thought-provoking, elegantly written biography with the pulse of a fast-paced novel: a singularly brilliant portrait of a man, a time, and the birth of a religion.

Read reviews here and below:






About the Author

rezaaslanDr. Reza Aslan’s bachelor’s degree is in religious studies, with an emphasis on scripture and traditions (which at Santa Clara University means the New Testament). His minor was in biblical Greek. He has a master of theological studies degree from Harvard University, in world religions, and a Ph.D. from the University of California, Santa Barbara, in the sociology of religions. UCSB’s doctoral program is an interdisciplinary one that draws from religion, history, philosophy, and sociology, among other fields. Aslan’s doctorate in the sociology of religions encompasses expertise in the history of religion. Reza also has a master of fine arts degree from the University of Iowa.

Dr. Aslan is currently professor of creative writing at the University of California, Riverside, with a joint appointment in the department of religion, and he teaches in both disciplines. He was previously Wallerstein Distinguished Visiting Professor at Drew University, where he taught from 2012 to 2013, and assistant visiting professor of religion at the University of Iowa, where he taught from 2000 to 2003. He has written three books on religion.

Review & Commentary

6 thoughts on “Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth

  1. Review

    Book Review by Jim High

    Over the Labor Day weekend I finished Resa Aslan’s book, “Zealot – The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth.” If you have not read it yet, I highly recommend it to you. First it is an interesting retelling of the Jesus story and reads like a novel. In places you will think that Aslan is just making stuff up, as he chooses to not insert his footnotes into his story. Although as he quotes scripture, those quotes are referenced chapter and verse from the Bible.

    The story of Jesus of Nazareth is told in only 216 pages of narrative. The Notes and References are also told in a narrative form by chapter at the end, and comprise another 53 pages showing that nothing is made up, but that Aslan is a true scholar of religion, proving yet again that you really can’t know anything about the Bible by reading only the Bible. Reading only the Bible provides no context for what is being said. Aslan provides enormous amounts of context in this book. Context that is important if you are to understand the life and times of the historical Jesus, who lived and died some 2,000 years ago.

    It is also interesting to note two others things. First in the introduction Aslan, who is Iranian, tells the story of his life and his conversion from Islam into an Evangelical Fundamentalist Christian, and then back to Islam. If you have seen that incredibly stupid Fox News reporter trying to ask why a Muslim should be writing about Jesus, and Aslan trying to explain how a religious scholar operates, you will understand why the fact that he is not a Christian like Spong, Borg, and Crossan makes his review of the evidence all the more important. Resa Aslan is not trying to prove Christianity, or to disprove it either. He’s just telling the real story as close as anyone can, given the problems of trying to fine the truth of what actually happened at the time, not what the books of New Testament, written 20 to 150 years later, say happened.

    And the second interesting thing is that Aslan lists in the Bibliography following the Notes section 160 books that he read and used in writing this book, plus 50 articles and 12 dictionaries and encyclopedias. This is probably the most researched book about the historical Jesus to have been published in a long time, which is the very reason you should want to read it.

    So how does the book end and what conclusion does it draw. The final paragraph says it all I think.
    “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.”

    As for me, this book confirms my own conclusions that Jesus of Nazareth, the actual man who lived 2,000 years ago, is real. Jesus the Christ is a fictional creation of the ancient people.
    So where do I think Christians need to go from here based on my conclusions and how do we reform Christianity into something more meaningful for today’s world. I’ve come up with twelve points that I think we must considered as we think about “A New Understanding of Christianity for the 21st Century.” They might make twelve interesting chapters in a book by that title, or some other title like maybe the one below.

    Beyond the Bible / You can’t know about the Bible by reading only the Bible


    Moving from Religion to Reality / A New 12-Step Program

    No. 1 – The Bible is not the Word of God.
    No. 2 – Who was Jesus and what about the Virgin Birth, Miracles, Resurrection and Ascension?
    No. 3 – Heaven and Hell as concepts rather than physical places.
    No. 4 – God “Himself” – as understood in ancient times cannot be brought forward to our time.
    No. 5 – How Christianity was created out of Judaism, because Jesus was clearly a Jew?
    No. 6 – The place and meaning of other religions in the world before and after Christianity.
    No. 7 – Catholics vs. Protestants – Was the Reformation enough?
    No. 8 – Science vs. Religious Faith and Beliefs
    No. 9 – Darwin’s Theory of Evolution and its effect on our understanding of everything.
    No. 10 – Understanding the rise and purpose of Christian Fundamentalism.
    No. 11 – Human discovery of the Universe – Edwin Hubble, Carl Sagan, Neil deGresse Tyson.
    No. 12 – How can we remake our “God Concept” into the Life Force of the Universe, or some other term that more accurately describes what we now know about Life, our Earth, and the whole of the Universe? A Christian Religion Beyond the Bible.

    But read Resa Aslan’s book, Zealot, and draw your own conclusions.

    • Thanks for the review! Sounds as if Aslan has been reading the minds of Straight Thinkers of centuries.
      And did an excellent job. Truth can’t be hidden forever. It emerges as mythology and legend are identified as imposters. A slow, ongoing process aided by honest education, and scholars such as
      Dr. Reza Aslan.

      Another excellent book/novel that broaches the same general topic: dysfunctional-truth that unsettles the misinformed into unsatisfying lives. A somewhat common state in our old world for centuries.
      Book title, “GUYS Growing Up” Amazon, ISBN 978.147.597.8407 http://www.rhmorrison.ca

      Subject: GUYS are responsible for the state of humanity & world resources; Jesus is the Greatest GUY of all! Be well, Roger H. Morrison

  2. Review

    Book Review
    Published: August 5, 2013

    Still a Firebrand, 2,000 Years Later
    ‘Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth’

    Jesus the loving shepherd. Bringer of peace and justice. Teacher of universal morals. Jesus the rabbi. Jesus the philosopher. Jesus the apocalyptic prophet. Jesus the Christ of faith.

    People have constructed many different Jesuses. For at least two centuries, scholars and popular writers have mined the Christian Gospels to “look behind” them, to create a portrait of Jesus, using purely modern methods: the historical Jesus as opposed to the Christ of faith. In his book “Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth,” Reza Aslan follows this long tradition, settling on the hypothesis, also around for hundreds of years, that Jesus was a Jewish zealot, a rebel against Rome and the Romans’ local agents.

    Mr. Aslan’s book has been greeted with unwarranted controversy. Some conservatives seem offended by merely the idea that a Muslim scholar would write a book about Jesus. This should be no more controversial than a Christian scholar’s writing a book about Islam or Muhammad. It happens all the time. Nor is Mr. Aslan’s thesis controversial, at least among scholars of early Christianity.

    According to Mr. Aslan, Jesus was born in Nazareth and grew up a poor laborer. He was a disciple of John the Baptist until John’s arrest. Like John, Jesus preached the imminent arrival of the kingdom of God, which would be an earthly, political state ruled by God or his anointed, a messiah. Jesus never intended to found a church, much less a new religion. He was loyal to the law of Moses as he interpreted it. Jesus opposed not only the Roman overlords, Mr. Aslan writes, but also their representatives in Palestine: “the Temple priests, the wealthy Jewish aristocracy, the Herodian elite.”

    In the last week of Jesus’ life, Mr. Aslan writes, he entered Jerusalem with his disciples in a provocative way that recalled royal entrances described in Jewish scripture. He then enacted a violent cleansing of the Temple: something like radical street theater, except that it took place in a site of supreme holiness.

    Provoked by that action and his other rantings against the Temple and its caretakers, the authorities arrested Jesus. The Romans crucified him as a rebel, a zealot and a pretender to the Judean throne. The charge on the cross is historical: the Romans took Jesus as claiming to be the messianic king of the Jews. Since only the Roman Senate could appoint kings within the Empire, claiming to be a king was treasonous and punishable by the worst kind of death: torture and crucifixion.

    Mr. Aslan’s thesis is not as startling, original or “entirely new” as the book’s publicity claims. Nor is it as outlandish as described by his detractors. That Jesus was a Jewish peasant who attempted to foment a rebellion against the Romans and their Jewish clients has been suggested at least since the posthumous publication of Hermann Samuel Reimarus’s “Fragments” (1774-78). The most famous case for the thesis is the 1967 book by S. G. F. Brandon, “Jesus and the Zealots.” Mr. Aslan follows Mr. Brandon in his general thesis as well as in many details, a borrowing that should have been better acknowledged. (Mr. Brandon gets only a cursory mention in the notes.) And the basic premise that Jesus was zealous for the political future of Israel as the kingdom of God on earth is neither new nor controversial.

    (Mr. Aslan does not fall into the anachronism of making Jesus a member of the Zealot Party as described by Josephus. He knows that party did not exist in Jesus’ day but arose later. Mr. Aslan means zealot with a small “z.”)

    A real strength of the book is that it provides an introduction to first-century Palestine, including economics, politics and religion. Mr. Aslan uses previous scholarship to describe the precarious existence of Jewish peasants and the lower classes, and how the Romans and the Jewish upper class exploited the land and the people. He explains not just the religious but also the economic significance of the Temple, and therefore the power of the priestly class controlling it.

    “Zealot” shares some of the best traits of popular writing on scholarly subjects: it moves at a good pace; it explains complicated issues as simply as possible; it even provides notes for checking its claims.

    But the book also suffers from common problems in popularization, like proposing outdated and simplistic theories for phenomena now seen as more complex. Mr. Aslan depicts earliest Christianity as surviving in two streams after Jesus: a Hellenistic movement headed by Paul, and a Jewish version headed by James. This dualism repeats 19th-century German scholarship. Nowadays, most scholars believe that the Christian movement was much more diverse, even from its very beginnings.

    Mr. Aslan also proposes outdated views when he insists that the idea of a “divine messiah” or a “god-man” would have been “anathema” to the Judaism of the time, or when he writes that it would have been “almost unthinkable” for a 30-year-old Jewish man to be unmarried. Studies of the past few decades — including “King and Messiah as Son of God” (Adela Yarbro Collins and John J. Collins) and my own “Sex and the Single Savior: Gender and Sexuality in Biblical Interpretation” — have overturned these once commonplace assumptions.

    There are several other errors, though most are minor. For instance, Mr. Aslan imagines Jesus standing by the Sea of Galilee with its “salt air.” This “sea,” though, is a freshwater lake.

    Given the debate surrounding this book’s publication, spurred by conservative reaction as well as its own publicity, you would expect the work to advance radical readings of the Gospels. Actually, Mr. Aslan is too credulous when reading the Gospels and Acts of the Apostles. He is rightly skeptical about some passages, like the birth narratives. But he uncritically accepts as fact many other passages, like precisely what Jesus is supposed to have said at his trial before the high priest and full Sanhedrin. In many cases regarding Jesus, as well as Paul and James, Mr. Aslan takes as accurate deeds and sayings most critical scholars would question.

    He also presents as fact what may well be later Christian legend: that Jesus’ ministry lasted three years, that we know in what cities the four Gospels were composed, that Peter was already in Rome when Paul arrived there. There may be a kernel of truth in one or another of these traditions, but they are just that: traditions, not necessarily history.

    Some of Mr. Aslan’s other claims are just speculations with no supporting evidence, more at home in fiction than in scholarship — for example, that Jesus spent at least 10 years living and working in the city of Sepphoris.

    By profession, Mr. Aslan is not a scholar of ancient Judaism or Christianity. He teaches creative writing. And he is a good writer. “Zealot” is not innovative or original scholarship, but it makes an entertaining read. It is also a serious presentation of one plausible portrait of the life of Jesus of Nazareth.

    Dale B. Martin is the Woolsey professor of religious studies at Yale University.

    Originally published here:

    • This seems to me bore Progressive Christian hoopla. They have a habit of claiming more than should be claimed and a tendency to omit the footnotes claiming that the publishers told them to do so. Scholarly documents, if they are to be seriously scholarly, need the footnotes and publishers of scholarly materials are not going to advise anyone to omit them. Clearly this not a document written from a clear understanding of First Century Judaism. If you wish to see material that is much better founded (and that denies that Jesus was a zealot…small z or big z) see the works of Geza Vermes. You will be better rewarded.

  3. A bloodthirsty Jesus?

    You won’t find many more liberal than I, but “Zealot” seems to give no credence to themes in the Hebrew Bible or New Testament that do not harmonize with its thesis that:

    “…the God who repeatedly commands the wholesale slaughter of every foreign man, woman, and child who occupies the land of the Jews, the ‘blood-spattered God’ of Abraham, and Moses, and Jacob, and Joshua (Isaiah 63:3), the God who ‘shatters the heads of his enemies,’ bids his warriors to bathe their feet in their blood and leave their corpses to be eaten by dogs (Psalms 68:21-23) – that is the *only* God that Jesus knew and the *sole* God he worshiped…. The oft-repeated commandment to ‘love your neighbor as yourself’ was originally given strictly in the context of internal relations within Israel. The verse in question reads: ‘You shall not take vengeance or bear a grudge against any of your people, but you shall love your neighbor as yourself” (Leviticus 19:18). To the Israelites, as well as to Jesus’s community in first-century Palestine, ‘neighbor’ meant one’s fellow Jews. With regard to the treatment of foreigners and outsiders, oppressors and occupiers, however, the Torah could not be clearer: ‘You shall drive them out before you. You shall make no covenant with them and their gods. They shall not live in your land’ (Exodus 23:31-33).” (pp.121-2)

    What happens to the continuation of Leviticus 19: “When an alien lives with you in your land, do not mistreat him. The alien living with you must be treated as one of your native-born. Love him as yourself, for you were aliens in Egypt. I am the Lord your God” (Leviticus 19:33-34) ?

    Because the powerful themes of compassion and inclusion in the Hebrew Bible are missing, and difficult-to-support theories are maintained, such as that “Paul is speaking about himself when he cites Isaiah 49:1-6 regarding ‘the root of Jesse’ serving as ‘a light to the Gentiles,’ ” (p.266) it is very difficult to take “Zealot” seriously. I have been a big fan of Aslan, and I am hoping I do not have to revise my reliance on “No God but God .” Staying tuned, disappointed but hopeful.

  4. I am disappointed to see that the old controversies about trying to define whether Jesus was a “real” person or a “true” Messiah continue to give rise to more popularization of the Latest Research. When will scholars and those who read them finally accept that the human mind needs to believe in something beyond the struggles and hardships that this world has always presented to its residents? The only difference between the crab scuttling away from what eats it and us scuttling away from bombs, etc. is that we need to blame someone for our problems, and we need to make sense of being alive where our neighbor is not likely to love us as him or herself unless we have something they need.

    In other words, believing in something beyond the craziness of our own tendencies is essential to us staying sane! Whatever it is that we find makes the most meaningful purpose behind our condition as the thinking beast will be what we cling to until or unless we are shown that meaning to lead to more problems. The “ultimate” truth can never be agreed upon: look at how many sects exist just in Protestant Christianity, and more keep breaking off! And these all supposedly have access to the “truths” evident in the Bible.

    My wish for humankind is to learn how to honor the hidden truths within each of our own beings: those truths that truly do wish good for one’s neighbors, which can only happen when our own sense of safety is secured. However that is brought about, it cannot be other than in that other dimension of sensing that is usually called “spiritual”. Let’s just keep seeking for how to find our own spiritual connections to something beyond the Self, and then honor that in each one of this world’s entities, plant and animal included, since we cannot exist alone and separate!

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