Sunday, August 17, 2014

On Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth

Alsan, R. (2013). Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth. New York: Random House.

So I recently read Reza Aslan's (2013) Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth. Aslan, a one time Muslim convert to Christianity (see his "Author's Note") and now theologian, writes a book that is compelling to read about what he claims to be a historical Jesus. In this blog entry, my task is to review this work, but more importantly to give my take, perspective or interpretation of the work. So this review is not objective or anything my librarian colleagues would see as a fair assessment. It is my personal and spiritual interpretation to let you see what I saw as valuable from the work and discuss my reaction to Aslan's arguments. Now you can disagree with what I saw or how I experienced the work, but it still does change the reader's experience and reaction that the book evoked in me as I read it.

To begin, I must say that I appreciated Aslan's "Author's Note". This was where Aslan provided a personal story of how he became interested in Jesus. It is in this section that I find that I have things in common with the author. Being a born again Christian at age 15, then a returning interest in the religion in which I was raised after disillusionment. Then an interest in the scholarship and authentic research on the gospels. However, unlike Aslan, I am okay with managing doubts and working with faith until future information is revealed. For me, faith and hope narratives are the stories told about the future and the past that help to manage the uncertainty of the present and future. And this is what all religious faiths are about, in my opinion: managing the uncertainty about future and present events.

Yet, Aslan's book is not written from that perspective of faith, but uses a method that seeks to be skeptical of the gospel accounts, and attempts to use other sources and traditions apart from that of the Christian church to reconstruct and tell the story of Jesus. Aslan's book focuses on the historical or human Jesus rather than Jesus the Christ. Aslan as such attempts to reconstruct a portrait or biography of the historical character of Jesus based on sources regarding the times of Jesus, in an approach that Pope Benedict XVI (2006) dubs the "historical-critical" method.

Pope Benedict XVI (2006) sums up the limitations of this method, arguing that while one can look for the historical person of Jesus underneath the faith viewpoint of the writers fo the New Testament and beyond Christian tradition, such a method typically leads one to construct Jesus either as an "anti-Roman revolutionary working-though finally failing- to overthrow the ruling powers" or as a "meek moral teacher who approves everything and unaccountably comes to grief"(p. 13). Pope Benedict XVI (2006) adds that "far from uncovering an icon that has been obscured over time" such reconstructions reflect more the author's ideals or beliefs about Jesus (p. 13). When I read about Aslan's Jesus, I see images of what resembles an anti-Roman revolutionary that reflects extremist ideology and violent fundamentalism (I will get into details later).

Nonetheless, like Pope Benedict XVI (2006), I agree that this historical reconstruction of Jesus and his times is useful as the story of Jesus is based on real historical events and not made up stories or fables. As the second book of Peter states, real events were witnessed by the followers of Jesus, from which the faith began and developed (2 Peter 1:16-18). As such, as with folklore, it is very much possible that these real events were given meaning by the apostles and believers until they have been obscured by myth-making and theological interpretation. Aslan is of this view and as such seeks to retell the gospels highlighting what might be truth and what is "pure fiction" or myth and what rings true based on other more credible historical sources (p. 47). 

The first limitation that Aslan points out is that the gospels were written long after the events had transpired. He further argued that the gospels were also not likely to be written by the whom they were named after. He further points out that none of the original 12 apostles could have written the gospels as they were all illiterate Aramaic-speaking peasants, who had no formal training in writing Greek. These are all fair points, but I wished the author would address the issue that even though they may not have penned the works directly, it is very much possible that they could have appointed others to tell their stories on their behalf. 

First, there is Matthew Levi, who was a wealthy tax collector ("Saint Matthew", 2014). Surely he did have the resources to pay for a scribe. Then there is Luke who is said to accompany Paul (Ellis, 2014). Aslan even surmises that Luke was a student of Paul. Sure Luke was educated enough and Greek enough to write his own gospel. Then there is Mark, which could be the same John Mark related to Peter and also hanged out with Paul and Barnabas ("Saint Mark", 2014). Surely he too could have written his own gospel. Then there is John, who lived the longest among the apostles (Hauer, 2002). Even if he did write his story, it is possible that he could have had a scribe to write his biographical portrait of Jesus. As such, it does not seem unreasonable that these men would still be the authors or at least the sources for these gospels. As the second letter of Peter suggests, the apostle felt he had a duty to ensure that what he witnessed was established in the memory of the believers (2 Peter 1:12-15). As such, the motivation to write about and tell of the gospel as experienced by these believers was certainly present, despite the events being recorded decades after they transpired.

The second limitation that Aslan points out is that Mark seems to be the first gospel and source that informs the other later gospels. No issue at all. Modern folkloric studies have discovered that once a folklore or tradition is written, it influences and affects future tellings. No news there!

A third point that Aslan makes is that there seem to be historical inaccuracies in the gospels. Yet, I find that point to be true of any writing or written source that is recorded after the events have transpired when people rely on memory or oral tradition. There is bound to be omissions and additions to the material. Further, the practice of adding to Christian writings seems to be so prevalent, that the final testimony of John revealing Jesus the Christ in the book of Revelations seek to deter this practice by pronouncing a curse on those who altered the original source. But even if the gospel writers mixed up some dates or names of people and places, such mistakes are easily negligible. These things do not change the fact that they are still based on real events that transpired told by fallible human beings based on oral traditions passed down from the early church as well as reliant on the memory of those who witnessed these events. 

Yes Aslan paints the picture that Jesus was a failed Messiah, who carried out healings and miracles, with the aim of gathering a band of followers armed with swords to overthrow the priestly caste and establish God's new world order in Jerusalem. (Aslan is clear however that there is no historical contention that Jesus was a miracle worker. Some of his miracles such as healings and curing people of demons were in fact practiced by others in his time.) Aslan further suggests that it is the followers of Jesus who decided to repaint his failed campaign in order to explain his death and the new order had not yet arrived as was expected.

Yet, the problem that Aslan can not or does not go around is the belief in the resurrection of Jesus. While disciples could have use proof texting to find verses in the Scriptures to justify how Jesus fit into Messianic prophecies, it is unlikely that they could fabricate stories about Jesus rising from the dead, so much to the extent that they would risk their lives and die for such a fabrication. In addition, belief in the resurrection was so real and genuine that even James, the brother of Jesus, who saw Jesus after the resurrection, repented and believed in Jesus and later headed or led the Christian movement.

Further, Aslan, acknowledges and names the many false Messiahs in that time. Yet he acknowledges that with the exception of John the Baptist, Jesus is the only one that had followers that still saw him as the Messiah after his death and established one of the world's largest religious following.

Finally, what was most valuable for me from Aslan's book was the historical look at Jewish extremism and terrorism in the times of the Roman occupation. For me, this has many parallels to today's Muslim extremism and terrorism in the time of what many today call "Israeli occupation" of Jerusalem or "Palestine". From this reconstruction of history, I learned that terrorism for an ideological cause did not begin with 9/11, but was prevalent at the birth of Jesus, where Jewish peasants with much zeal sought to bring about an end to Roman rule or occupation and to commence God's rule through the use of violence and terror. I saw in Aslan's historical accounts or reconstruction our world today where Islamist extremist and terrorist groups like Boko Haram, the Islamic State (ISIS) and Hamas, seek to usher in Allah's prophecies through the use of violence. And as a result, I am offered a view as to why such groups operate as they do and how they use historical events in the scriptures to justify their present actions. The main idea that they take from the stories of scriptures is that God or Allah will only act when the believers act with zeal to accomplish his will. I thoroughly disagree with this "zealot" interpretation of scripture that requires being the subject of a future blog posting.


Ellis, E. (2014). Saint Luke. Encyclopædia Britannica. Retrieved from 

Chadwick, H. (2014). Saint John the Apostle. In Encyclopædia Britannica. Retrieved from

Hauer, C. (2002). John the evangelist, Saint. (pp. 216-217) In Traver, A. G. (Ed.). From polis to empire, the ancient world, c. 800 B.C.-A.D. 500: A biographical dictionary. Westport, Conn: Greenwood Press.

Pope Benedict XVI. (2006). Jesus of Nazareth: From the baptism in the Jordan to the transfiguration. Doubleday: Toronto. [Read as an e-book)

Saint Mark. (2014). In Encyclopædia Britannica. Retrieved from

Saint Matthew. (2014). In Encyclopædia Britannica. Retrieved from

1 comment:

Mark-Shane Scale said...

No doubt, my Catholic brethren have already done a supreme job in preparing Christians for this book: