A summary of Reza Aslan's Zealot

Principal author:
John L. Clark


Thinking about the history of Jesus requires thinking historically about the era in which he lived and the circumstances surrounding the early stories written about him. In his book, Zealot, Resa Aslan provides a valuable (and compelling) historical framework for approaching these topics, but ends up using it to say more about the development of early Christianity than about Jesus.

The beginning of the first millenium CE was a tumultuous time in Palestine. Roman control over the region was unstable, and its tolerance for the Jews there would come to an end with the Roman-Jewish war of 66 CE and the thorough destruction of the Jewish temple in Jerusalem in 70 CE. At one point in his book Zealot, Reza Aslan provides a brief survey of the various Jewish “preachers, prophets, bandits, and messiahs” [Asl2013, p49] whose zeal for God threatened to subvert Roman authority in the decades leading up to the war, and Jesus of Nazareth only merits passing mention there. Yet this is a feint: Aslan does want to look intensely at this Jesus—and the meaning of Jesus—in history, but he wants to be extremely clear that no truth about the history of Jesus can be obtained without inspecting the flow of history itself. Any understanding of the history of Jesus of Nazareth must draw from his immediate Jewish milieu, including the fervent struggles by and among those who followed him to grasp his meaning after he died—and rose.

In Zealot, Aslan summarizes a large body of existing research that emphasizes the importance of Judaism to Jesus, but he does so in a way that provides an immediate and vibrant glimpse into what it may have been like to experience that reality. A very common thread within the culture, politics, and faith of Jews at the time—as if any of those could have been unbound from the others—was their deep desire for and expectation of liberation. Jews such as Jesus faithfully expected God to lead them to freedom from acute historical oppression. Looking particularly at the period of Roman dominion, the plight of the poor was intensifying, and the stream of Jews trying to spark a rebellion were consistently crushed—often killed, as Jesus was.

Aslan only roughly sketches the longer history of foreign subjugation of Palestine, but the cycle of conquest and liberation was deeply embedded in Jewish awareness. Understanding the meaning of the Bible in full, and indeed the life and stories about Jesus in particular, would benefit from a rich treatment of the Jewish historical experience far beyond what Aslan briefly sketches. That said, Aslan provides enough of an overview (of Roman rule) for the reader to appreciate the many Jewish figures—including Jesus—who resisted Roman influence, and who were often killed for it.

When it comes to the central figure of Christianity, this book works early and often to aggressively strip away much that many assume to know about Jesus. In particular, Aslan highlights that the canonical Christian gospels are laden with myth, filled with stories that Jesus' disciples constructed over time to help understand and explain what Jesus meant, particularly in the context of Judaism and even more so in the context of the destruction of the temple. Even so, Aslan still leans heavily on the gospels for the thread of his narrative, which can seem disorienting. It also threatens to dilute his argument, particularly as he relates the history of both man and myth with a pointedly critical tone. But here he is examining the historical Jesus in parallel with the earliest stories that developed around that Jesus, so as to understand each more clearly. There is a methodological irony here, as this requires the same discipline of the reader—to find the substance and meaning that ricochet through a charged text—for Aslan's book as Aslan is applying to the earliest Christian scriptures. So while there is much to recommend Zealot, the details of Aslan's argument require careful handling.

Jesus placed himself, and his whole ministry, in opposition to foreign oppression—Roman rule—with particular anger directed at Jewish collaborators. It is important to see that Jesus responded in a human way to the political situation of his time, important in no small part because of the parallels and continuities between that situation and the one which we have inherited as its legacy. Aslan emphasizes clearly that Jesus was a political threat to Roman power over the Jews, that he was executed for sedition.


After all, an attack on the business of the Temple is akin to an attack on the priestly nobility, which, considering the Temple’s tangled relationship with Rome, is tantamount to an attack on Rome itself.

 --[Asl2013, p75]
Aslan lays out the most likely historical details about Jesus, but he does not make anything more than a glancing attempt to understand the form that Jesus wanted his resistance to take. Nonviolent resistance to oppression has become its own religion in the 20th and 21st centuries, and it has had meaningful intercourse with contemporary Christianity. Aslan only provides a cursory and noncommital consideration of whether Jesus advocated violence as part of his campaign, though. At this point in his analysis, I would have liked to see Aslan address the sorts of arguments that John Howard Yoder presented in his book The Politics of Jesus. After considering his Earthly ministry, the historical Jesus as presented by Aslan ends up seeming enigmatic, bold but ultimately futile.

Except for that point about Jesus rising from the dead, which was the basis for the following that continued on in Jerusalem, and elsewhere, in his name. Aslan aknowledges that this is a pure matter of faith, a departure from the continuity of history, but that it was also willfully, even insanely attested by his disciples.


[T]here 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. That is not, in itself, unusual. Many zealous Jews died horribly for refusing to deny their beliefs. But these first followers of Jesus were not being asked to reject matters of faith based on events that took place centuries, even millennia, before. They were being asked to deny something they themselves personally, directly encountered.

 --[Asl2013, p174]
It was also, according to Aslan, completely out of place in Judaism.

Despite two millennia of Christian apologetics, the fact is that belief in a dying and rising messiah simply did not exist in Judaism.

 --[Asl2013, p165]
It would be very interesting to examine historical Jewish theology (or even these “two millennia of Christian apologetics”) with respect to this claim, but unfortunately Aslan leaves this unsupported. Faith in the power and meaning of Jesus did persist after his death, although how this faith emerged from within existing Jewish awareness remains a mysterious riddle of this book.

In continuing to track how we have come to know Jesus, Aslan examines the history of the earliest sources written by his followers. Perhaps surprisingly (and this is revealing in its own right), this book about Jesus relies heavily on an inspection of figures such as Paul, Stephen, and James, but it fits Aslan's larger argument to acknowledge that we have come to know Jesus through those who sought to follow him. The book looks critically at Paul, suggesting that he may have unilaterally established a novel theology centered around a peculiar identity of Christ. Paul came into conflict with community leadership in Jerusalem, and in particular with James, who was the main leader after Jesus departed. The arguments are mentioned in the book of Acts, and even in Paul's own letters, though we receive little of James' side of the dispute from these sources.

For it is literate Greek-speaking Jews who would commit the stories about Jesus and his early community to writing. And this is exactly where the story veers into horror: the obliteration of the temple and Jerusalem are cataclysmic for the community of disciples of Jesus there. Afterwards, the Greek-speaking followers of Jesus retold the stories in ways that minimized the chance of offending the empire.


Meanwhile, in triumphant Rome, a short while after the Temple of the Lord had been desecrated, the Jewish nation scattered to the winds, and the religion made a pariah, tradition says a Jew named John Mark took up his quill and composed the first words to the first gospel written about the messiah known as Jesus of Nazareth—not in Hebrew, the language of God, nor in Aramaic, the language of Jesus, but in Greek, the language of the heathens. The language of the impure. The language of the victors.

This is the beginning of the good news of Jesus the Christ.

 --[Asl2013, p69–70]
And thus—for example—was Pontius Pilate able to wash his hands of responsibility in the matter of one Jesus of Nazareth, as the story is often told. The book ends its account with the incorporation of this new Christianity into the framework of the Roman Empire, and with the institution of a Christian scripture canon that is overwhelmingly written or influenced by Paul and his thought, and which contains only one book associated with James.

Aslan's discourse here cuts the story short at some very compelling points. Unfortunately, this is the case with any story, any history, but thankfully Aslan's framing encourages rather than abrogates digging deeper into the story. Much of Jewish identity prior to the destruction of the Temple was shaped by occupation, extending back before Roman rule. And the history of Christian compromise with dominant systems of power continues right up to the present. The stories that we have learned and taught about Jesus of Nazareth have been and continue to be profoundly important. We can try to tell a history of the life of Jesus, but from the beginning stories about him conveyed meaning for their authors quite different from strict historic truth. Reza Aslan is not content to try to excavate the specifically historical Jesus of Nazareth; no, instead, in this book he considers both the man and the myths about the man. The stories that we tell, including those about such a momentous figure as Jesus, are themselves shaped by the pressures of history; they inevitably incorporate propaganda and evolve into myth. Aslan is very interested in the history of these stories, of the process by which they developed, and only by attempting to understand the historical context of the stories themselves does Aslan pause to sketch a possible historical Jesus. But be not soothed by the temporal distance at which Aslan, and we, operate, for these historical pressures were horrifyingly severe, and the reverberations remain so down to the present.


Reza Aslan. Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth. Random House, 2013.

This page was first published on 2013-12-20 20:08:00-05:00.

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