Comprehensive Review & Analysis: ‘Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth’ by Reza Aslan

January 28, 2014 in Best Of, Book Reviews, Religion, Reviews by pacejmiller

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Like everyone else, I found the title Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth too provocative to ignore. “Zealot” carries certain negative connotations, and the use of the word in the title is clearly by design, intended to stir up a shitstorm which it of course did upon its release.

But beneath all the controversy, Zealot is actually a fairly readable, robustly researched academic work that makes a strong case that the Biblical Jesus Christ is a very different person to the historical Jesus of Nazareth. This is probably already something a lot of non-Christians, and even some more liberal Christians believe, but what this book does is flesh out all the arguments through an analysis of historical documents and the Bible itself, stringing together a narrative that delves into how the religion of Christianity was created in the first place.

Zealot is written by Iranian-American Reza Aslan, who coincidentally shares the same name as the lion from CS Lewis’s Narnia books, which are allegedly veiled Christian stories where the lion is actually God! A lot has been made about the fact that Aslan is a Muslim who converted from Christianity and that he currently works as a creative writing teacher. Both are accurate but overblown because he is also a scholar of religions, someone who holds a PhD in the sociology of religions from the University of California. And really, all you have to do is read a few pages of Zealot to realize that this is not some fanciful creative writing project of some Muslim nut trying to destroy Christianity, but rather a thorough academic work from someone who clearly knows what he’s talking about, or at least projects that image anyway. The Da Vinci Code this is not.

Of course, this is not to say Aslan’s theories about the life of Jesus are correct or that he doesn’t have an agenda (of course he does, and I think it’s motivated by $$$ more than anything else), but most of the accusations that have been hurled his way are pretty embarrassing.

Contrary to some reviews I have read about the book, Zealot is not a straight, blow-by-blow chronological biography of Jesus of Nazareth. The first couple of chapters set up the all-important historical background that helps readers understand the type of world Jesus was born into 2000 years ago, after which each chapter of the book tackles a different aspect or period of Jesus’s life through analyses of the Bible and other historical records. The final chapters, which I found the most fascinating, deal with the resurrection, followed by how Christianity as we know it came into being.

Zealot is also not a piece of “historical fiction” as some have suggested. Granted, Aslan does occasionally delve into what can be described as “creative non-fiction” in some of his descriptions, but to say he is just making things up is a gross exaggeration. For the most part, the book is driven by critical analysis that points out what was likely and what was not likely based on what we know about that time today.

Review

First and foremost, it is important to remember that Zealot is essentially an academic work that has been written with a wider audience in mind. There is accordingly a certain level of historical and religious detail and complexity in what Aslan writes, a lot of which would be difficult for the layman to follow, let alone fully comprehend.

It is a difficult book to get through at times because he blows through a lot of names of people and places very quickly, and people who don’t have at least a bit of knowledge about the Bible or this period of history could find most of it flying straight over their heads. Compounding the situation is that a lot of people back in those days have the exact same names, which means you might have to re-read certain sections if you want to fully understand all the details. I’ll admit I couldn’t be bothered most of the time.

Considering what a tough job it is explaining such a complicated part of history and the need to do it well, Aslan does about as well as you could have expected in keeping the narrative relatively simple and flowing. It is not easy to strike a balance between being comprehensive and informative against being readable and accessible, and I think the fluidity of the narrative and the confident voice with which the story is told is a testament to Aslan’s impressive knowledge of the subject.

The problem with Zealot is that the whole book is written under the presumption that Jesus was not, and could not have been divine, and the narrative is built entirely around the premise that the Biblical Jesus and the historical Jesus are two completely different people. What I mean by that is instead of analysing the available and reliable historical information to reach certain conclusions, Aslan appears to cherry pick parts the Bible and other ancient documents to back up his preconceived conclusion.

Another major problem, which Aslan highlights in the first few pages of the book, is that because there is insufficient information on certain details of Jesus’s life, he is often forced to make “educated guesses” on what was most likely under the circumstances. However, as he appears so self-assured about everything he says, it becomes difficult to distinguish between when he is making a statement based on irrefutable “facts” and when he is making a “guess”, which, even if “educated”, could be biased or skewed so that he can reach certain conclusions that suit his agenda.

To get a clearer picture of how much guesswork was actually involved, you’ll have to rummage through the extensive notes section at the end of the book, which adds about another quarter to a third of the book’s overall length. I would hardly call this section compulsory reading because the majority of it is just additional sources for interested readers to explore. That said, there are some interesting bits in there that elaborate on a lot of the arguments Aslan makes throughout the book, though sometimes they actually undermine his theories by making you realise that there are equally convincing counterarguments.

Of course, if everything was as obvious as Aslan paints it to be, he wouldn’t need to write a book about it. I’m sure plenty of Christian scholars and apologists already have and will continue to poke holes in his so-called “facts” and “educated guesses”, which is simply something that comes with the territory when writing about stuff no one can really know about for sure.

On the whole, Zealot offers no earth-shattering revelations, but it is nevertheless a well-written book with a strong central argument. While not exactly a page turner because all the context and background it needs to constantly provide, readers interested in who the “historical Jesus” might have been should find it an educative and fascinating read.

Key arguments of the book

Aslan essentially summarises the central argument of Zealot in this paragraph: “The firstcentury Jews who wrote about Jesus had already made up their minds about who he was. They were constructing a theological argument about the nature and function of Jesus Christ, not composing a historical biography about a human being.”

What he is saying is that the Bible is far from inerrant (as some loonies claim) and is likely skewed by evangelists with an agenda. He does a great job of providing the context in which the Biblical stories of Jesus came into being, explaining to readers that it was a very different world back then where 97% of people were illiterate and driven by superstitions. His analysis suggests that certain parts of the gospels were likely to have been completely made up by the writers or at least twisted to make Jesus’s life fall in line with Old Testament prophecies.

One technique Aslan employs is to compare and contrast the the gospels to show how the later gospels may have built on myths created by an earlier one. For example, he suggests that John the Baptist apparently once had a huge following as well, with some believing he was even greater than Jesus, but the gospels intentionally tried to lessen his influence and make it abundantly clear that, despite being a great man himself, John was nothing compared to Jesus. Aslan illustrates how through time, John goes from the one who baptizes Jesus to just bearing witness to Jesus’s divinity, when historical records suggest that Jesus likely began his ministry as just another one of John’s disciples and only built his own after John was arrested.

By the way, none of this suggests that Jesus is not who the Bible says he is. But what it does argue is that any suggestion that the Bible is an inerrant document is a joke, and that in reality it is a very flawed book driven by different agendas and plagued with historical and factual inaccuracies and contradictions.

So how did the documents that make up the Bible become this way? Aslan points the finger at Paul, a former Pharisee who never met Jesus when he was alive but inexplicably became a believer after a supposed miraculous meeting with a divine, post-resurrection Jesus, after which he started declaring himself greater than the 12 Apostles and as the one chosen by God to build a new religion.

According to Aslan, Paul (who is painted as a bit of a nutcase) had a different agenda and beliefs to the rest of the remaining members of the 12 Apostles and Jesus’s brother James, who advocated something much closer to what the real life (and non-divine) Jesus preached. Paul’s version of a divine Jesus was completely different and often contradictory to the Jesus who lived. It does not narrate a single event from Jesus’s life and provides little insight into who the living Jesus was — nor did he seem to care.

The two sides actually battled bitterly over Jesus’s legacy, leading to the Apostles demanding that Paul come to Jerusalem to answer for his deviant teachings in 57CE. It was not only the destruction of Jerusalem, which destroyed just about all records of Jesus’s life and link to Judaism, that Paul’s side emerged victorious.

“The transformation of the Nazarean into a divine, preexisting, literal son of God whose death and resurrection launch a new genus eternal beings responsible for judging the world has no basis in any writings about Jesus that are even remotely contemporary with Paul’s (a firm indication that Paul’s Christ was likely his own creation).”

Aslan goes on to claim that the only writings about Jesus apart from the so-called Q document that existed in 70CE were the letters of Paul, which became the primary vehicle for the Christian movement and a heavy influence on the gospels. Tellingly, more than half the 27 books that make up the New Testament are either by or about Paul. Two millennia later, as Aslan says, “the Christ of Paul’s creation has utterly subsumed the Jesus of history.”

To be fair to Aslan, he is reasonably objective when it comes to certain aspects of Jesus’s life that might suggest divinity. For example, he admits that there is ample historical evidence that Jesus healed the sick and performed “miracles.” Aslan does, however, place Jesus’s remarkable feats in context by pointing out that so-called miracle workers were very prevalent back in those days (in fact, there was an entire industry), with the only difference being that Jesus did not charge for his services.

On the pivotal question of the resurrection, Aslan is unable to answer definitively, saying that it is a “matter of faith,” though he argues what is clear is that  if Jesus did rise from the dead he did not do so “according to the scriptures” (ie, it was not prophecized) as claimed in the Bible.

Aslan also concludes that the resurrection as described in the Bible is “not a historical event” because by the time these stories were written, six decades after the event, the evangelists had heard “just about every conceivable objection to the resurrection, and they were able to create narratives to counter each and every one of them.” The result, Aslan claims, is that the resurrection as described is not a historical event but “carefully crafted rebuttals.”

Having said that, Aslan also recognizes the wealth of evidence supporting the resurrection. “However, there is this nagging fact to consider: one after another of those who claimed to have witnessed the risen Jesus went to their own gruesome deaths refusing to recant their testimony,” Aslan admits in the book. As he points out, these people died not because they were asked to deny matters of faith, but because they were asked to deny something they themselves personally, directly encountered. 

This may come as a disappointment to some readers hoping to find something that will challenge what are arguably the most incredible claims in the Bible, but full credit to Aslan for admitting that there is insufficient evidence to reach the conclusion that these miraculous things can be dismissed outright.

Other claims

Some of the other arguments Aslan makes and “facts” he points out in Zealot include:

– The term “zealot”, in the context of Jesus’s time, is someone who believes in only the one truth god and no others. That’s the “zealot” he is referring to in the title of his book.

– Practically every word ever written about Jesus of Nazareth, including every gospel story in Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, was written by people who, like Stephen and Paul, never actually knew Jesus when he was alive.

– No one has ever seen the originals of the gospels and it is generally accepted that the gospels (with the possible exception of Luke) were not written by the people after which they have been named. Accordingly, it’s impossible to tell whether the copies (even the oldest one we have) that are in circulation now have been tampered with.

– People back in Jesus’s time did not have a sense of what the word “history” meant, meaning they were not documenting things for future generations, and what the writings meant was more important to whether they were factually accurate.

– 97% of people back in Jesus’s time (including possibly Jesus himself) were illiterate and prone to manipulation.

– “Messiah” did not necessarily mean “God” back in those days as the prophecies in the scriptures were not clear and were confusing and contradictory. There were in fact many messiahs throughout history and even just in Jesus’s time.

– The narrative of Jesus’s birth is riddled with problems and contradictions, including claims in a couple of the gospel that he was born in Bethlehem as opposed to the obscure village of Nazareth. Aslan says Jesus almost certainly had many brothers and sisters, which shoots a big hole in the Catholic claim that Mary was a virgin for life.

– Jesus started off as merely just another disciple of John the Baptist. Jesus’s earliest disciples only started following him after John was arrested.

– Contrary to claims, Jesus was in fact very aware of the political landscape. Aslan tears down the image of a Jesus who only cared about preaching the word of God. He claims that Jesus’s prophecies about being arrested, tortured and crucified could be seen as either made up by future generations or simply “predictable” because that’s what happened to every self-proclaiming messiah who dared to challenge Rome.

– Jesus’s so-called trial before Pontius Pilate was a complete fabrication as Pilate would have never given Jesus the time of day given that at least a dozen similar “trials” were conducted on the same day. Likely also to be a fabrication is the entire narrative from the Last Supper to Jesus’s arrest up until his crucifixion.

– The story that it was the Jews who wanted Jesus crucified made absolutely no sense. It was likely made up for a Roman audience and thus tried to shift the blame away from Rome, though as a result it has sparked 2,000 years of anti-Semitism.

– Jesus was crucified alongside other lestai, which Aslan claims actually means other revolutionaries like him, rather than the general “evildoers” used in Luke’s gospel because he was uncomfortable with its political implications.

– The truth is that Jesus was executed for sedition, not blasphemy for claiming he was divine as the gospels claim, as the laws state clearly that the punishment for blasphemy is death by stoning, not crucifixion. Aslan says the “flagrant inaccuracies” of the procedures and rituals and traditions in Jesus’s trial and execution show a complete lack of understanding by the early evangelists.

– Jesus’s predictions about the the arrival of the Kingdom of God and a new world order never arrived. In fact, Aslan claims that “Kingdom of God” back then did not mean “heaven” as we know it and actually referred to a Jewish realm on earth where people followed the rules of a deity as opposed to a human king. The suggestion is that Jesus wanted to crown himself “king” of the new order, but a king who will serve the people as opposed to the other way around.

– Jesus did not perceive himself in the way early church leaders did. He never openly referred to himself as messiah or the Son of God (he actually called himself, ambiguously, Son of Man), which in any case did not mean that he was literally God’s offspring but was instead the traditional designation for Israel’s kings. Even King David was called Son of God multiple times in the Bible.

– Stephen, the first person to be martyred for calling Jesus “Christ” and stoned to death for blasphemy, had never met Jesus, was never involved in his life, nor witnessed his death. In addition, Stephen was not a scribe or scholar and did not know the scriptures well, plus he preached to an uneducated and illiterate crowd.

– Luke attributed a long speech to Stephen which was likely to have been made up. Luke says Stephen looked up to the heavens and saw Jesus standing at the right hand of God, which became a favourite image of the early Christian community — and that was how Jesus became God. As Aslan writes: “One can say that it was not only Stephen who died that day outside the gates of Jerusalem. Buried with him under the rubble of stones is that last trace of the historical person known as Jesus of Nazareth.”

– The original Aramaic-speaking followers of Jesus, including remnants of the 12 Apostles, clashed with the Greek-speaking Diaspora Jews, the ones who claimed Jesus was God. And it was their conflict that resulted in two competing camps of Christian interpretation in the decades after the crucifixion, one led by Christian convert Paul and the other by Jesus’s brother James. Paul’s version of the divine Jesus won out after the destruction of Jerusalem.

– The story of how Paul met the risen Jesus on the road to Damascus, including his blinding and subsequent cure, is “a bit of propagandistic legend created by the evangelist Luke, one of Paul’s young devotees,” Aslan contends, as Paul himself never recounts the story of being blinded by the sight of Jesus nearly a decade after the crucifixion.

– There are some great stories about the boy Jesus in the gnostic gospels, especially The Infancy Gospel of Thomas, in which a petulant Jesus flaunts his magical powers by bringing clay birds to life or striking dead neighborhood kids who fail to show him deference.

Conclusion

The ideas in Zealot will be debated to death and I don’t have the requisite knowledge to throw in my two cents about what I think of Aslan’s arguments, as compelling as they are. At the end of the day, no one really knows, or else there wouldn’t be a whole market of books advocating and dissing the truth of Christianity. What Zealot does do very well, however, is provide an alternate version of events to the Bible and point out likely fallacies of the Holy Book, which Aslan paints — at the very least — as an unreliable or undependable account of historical events. Ultimately, what you believe about Jesus remains a matter of faith, though having said that, Zealot could go a long way in helping you make or prevent you from making that leap.

Rating: 3.5/5