Book Review: Zealot, the life and times of Jesus of Nazareth by Reza Aslan.


This book came to my attention because of the uproar it caused on American television. The actual fuss was about the fact that Reza Aslan, a religious historian, was a Muslim who had written about the life of Jesus. Fox News seemed to find this highly suspect, and the embarrassing Fox News interview of the author led to amusing commentary on the web and on television, including the Daily Show with John Stewart.

I have just finished the book, and can recommend it to anyone who wants a good understanding of the tumultuous times that Jesus lived in. Aslan writes in a style that is accessible to lay people and scholars alike, and he provides an overview of the time leading up to Jesus’ life, his ministry, and the earliest days of the Christian church.

Aslan clearly knows the era well, and provides a very helpful picture of the way that people were relating to their Roman occupiers, to the priesthood in charge of the temple, and to the ways that these relationships were different for Galileans (like Jesus and his disciples) as compared to the residents of Jerusalem. He gives us a good sense of the many people of the time who claimed to be the messiah, how they tried to live out their claims, and what happened to each of them (almost all of them were killed in one way or another).

If readers want more detail, Aslan has included an extensive section of notes at the end of the book. In this section I learned, for example, that the practice of keeping the sacrificial animals in the outer court of the temple (remember Jesus throwing over the tables of the money changers and releasing the animals?) was quite recent, probably less than a year old, so that Jesus’ actions would have been seen as a challenge to the authority of Caiaphas, the High Priest who made that decision.

Aslan also draws very clearly the dispute between the Apostle Paul and the Jerusalem church, headed by James, the brother of Jesus, in terms that make clear parts of the Bible that I have wondered about for years.

The only part of this book that disappointed me was that there is not enough about the actual life of Jesus himself. Of course, the very good reason for this is that we know so little that can be verified historically. Most of what I have studied on the life of Jesus has been written by scholars of the Bible, while Reza Aslan is a scholar of history. I found his approach refreshing and fascinating. He challenges assumptions on both the traditional and radical edges of study.

What Aslan presents is a picture of a compelling but mysterious man whose zeal for God inspired his followers to go with him from the relative safety of Galilee (no area was really safe for Messiahs then) right to the heart of Judaism, to challenge the corrupt priesthood and their collusion with the Roman occupiers.

He goes on to paint a picture of the early Christian church starting off as a branch of the Jewish faith, clearly led by Jesus’ brother, James. The debate with Paul, which is reflected in scripture, he presents as core to the development of the more traditional Christian church which developed, especially after the destruction of Jerusalem.

I highly recommend this book to anyone who wants a fresh look at the life of Jesus, and the beginnings of our faith. I found the book compelling and challenging at the same time.

Let me know what you think!


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