Review: Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth

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

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

Let’s be honest from the beginning here: the only reason this book got as much attention as it did is the infamous badgering of Aslan on one of Fox News’ many farcical shows. The host of that show accused Aslan of cloaking the Islamic view of Jesus under the guise of a legitimate scholarly endeavor, even questioning his ability to discuss the topic from the standpoint of scholarly objectivity because of his personal religious beliefs. Those claims are patently false. Aslan is not, to any sane and reasonable person, automatically disqualified from researching any particular person or event in history merely because of his personal religious beliefs. And, no, this book does not present the Islamic view of Jesus.

That said, a look at the historical documents about Jesus from the Islamic perspective would almost certainly have made for a more interesting, original book. Instead, what we get here is pretty much the same picture that modern scholarship has been painting for the last couple of decades: Jesus was a failed radical revolutionary (“zealot,” to use Aslan’s terminology) with a unique prophetic styles and a not-so-unique apocalyptic message about a coming cataclysm in which the Kingdom of God would come to earth and the fortunes of all people be reversed. For those who keep up with modern scholarship, this is nothing new at all. As one prominent example, Bart D. Ehrman argued for much the same thesis in his book Jesus: Apocalyptic Prophet of the New Millennium, published in 1999.

It’s also not an entirely inaccurate picture. Those who put forward this thesis claim that the resurrection is not grounds for a historian because of its miraculous nature (Ehrman has explicitly made this claim on several occasions and Aslan explicitly makes it in this book). While this claim is, ultimately, a ridiculous cop out, if that is indeed the approach one takes then this picture of Jesus (that described in the previous paragraph) is what one ends up with. Without the resurrection, we have a failed Jewish revolutionary along the same lines as Simon bar Kochba and dozens of others. And that’s what you get in this book.

The one fairly decent part of the book is Aslan’s description of the historical context of early first century Judea, the world Jesus grew up in. He does a good job of painting an interesting and accurate picture, even if his approach is overly negative for no apparent reason (“grubby money changers” in the Temple is one description that comes readily to mind). The book is not worth reading for that alone, however, as most of it is a waste of time given its lack of originality and insight. Everything in this book can be found in a much more persuasive and insightful form in any number of other books.

My advice: if you’re interested in this book, go to the bookstore with a pencil and a sheet of paper. Find this book. Open it up to the bibliography. Make yourself a list of worthwhile reading. Then put this book back on the shelf, as unread as it deserves to be.

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