Reza Aslan’s central thesis in Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth is that Jesus was a revolutionary who predicted Rome’s sudden overthrow and a restoration of Jewish political sovereignty, like many other messianic figures of that period.
– Contains a lot of very interesting information on the religio-political climate of 1st century Judea. I came away with a much deeper understanding of why Jesus eschewed the title of ‘Messiah/Christ’, freighted as it was with political connotations
– Provides a surprisingly honest, though brief, discussion of the resurrection of Jesus. Aslan agrees that the disciples probably did have experiences of the resurrected Jesus. After Jesus’ death, “something extraordinary happened,” he writes, but concludes that whatever happened is “outside the scope of history” (p. 174).
– Aslan’s central thesis suffers from major problems. First, he believes that after the destruction of Jerusalem in 70AD, the authors of the gospels had to “transform their messiah from a fierce Jewish nationalist into a pacifist preacher” and that “all traces of revolutionary zeal [had] to be removed” (p. 150). The difficulty here is that neither the earliest gospel sources we have (Mark and Q) nor the later ones (Matthew, Luke, and John) portray Jesus as a revolutionary zealot. Second, the gospels are not our earliest Christian sources on the life of Jesus: Paul’s letters are. Yet these letters (written in 50-60 AD, well before the destruction of the temple) contain exactly the same non-violent, non-nationalistic, apolitical message that the gospels do. Aslan explains this fact by creating an elaborate narrative in which Paul is a rogue apostle whose teaching is utterly opposed to that of Jesus or the other apostles.
So his reasoning is: we can’t trust the later gospels (composed 90-100 A.D. by Aslan’s reckoning), because they were ‘scrubbed’ of Jesus’ political zeal. We can’t trust the early gospel sources (composed 50-70A.D.), because they were also scrubbed of Jesus’ political zeal. We can’t trust Paul (50-60A.D.) because he invented the non-political message that he preached. And we can’t trust Acts (composed 100 A.D.) because it hides the real conflict between James and Paul. So what should we trust? Apparently, we should trust the apocryphal Pseudo-Clementines which were “compiled sometime around 300 [A.D.]” (p. 269) because they are compatible with Aslan’s narrative. I think I’d rather trust a box of actual clementines.
– In a number of places, Aslan’s exegesis is questionable (why did he feel it necessary to translate the Greek himself, p. xx?) or he will simply ignore verses that contradict his claims. One example of this tendency is found in his discussion of Jesus’ predictions about his “rejection, arrest, torture, and execution (Matt. 16:21, 17:22-23, 20:18-19; Mark 8:31, 9:31, 10:33; Luke 9:22, 44, 18:32-33).” Aslan says that “the sheer volume of Jesus’s statements about his inevitable capture and crucifixion indicates that his frequent self-prophesies may be historical.” (p. 124) What Aslan fails to mention is that 8 out of these 9 references include Jesus’ prediction of his resurrection as well. Why does Aslan omit this detail from his summary of these verses? Another example is in his discussion of Gal. 2:9, where Paul meets “James, Peter, and John, whom he derides as the ‘so-called pillars of the church’ (Galatians 2:9)” (p. 185). Since there is supposedly such antagonism between these apostles and Paul, why doesn’t Aslan mention that the same verse talks about them extending to Paul the “right hand of fellowship”?
– Aslan’s vivid literary imagination made it hard for me to take the book seriously. In places, it reads like the cut-scenes from Assassin’s Creed.
Moderately good as entertainment. Of more more limited value as historical scholarship.