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


Rating: 4.5 Stars ****

The war with Rome begins not with a clang of swords but with the lick of a dagger drawn from an assassin’s cloak.

This book is not a biography of Jesus Christ. It is not about the religious figure, it is about the historical figure Jesus of Nazareth. In this book, Reza Aslan describes the political and social situation of the time Jesus of Nazareth grew up in and also the events that happened after his death that influenced the movement that would later become Christianity.

The Good
This biography is incredibly well-written and very readable. Reza Aslan manages to evoke a rich picture of life in Palestine at that time and of the historical events that happened.

Three rebels on a hill covered in crosses, each cross bearing the racked and bloodied body of a man who dared defy the will of Rome.

What I found incredibly fascinating was to learn about the historical Jesus and get to know about the man behind the mythology. Due to this mythologization and the amount of time that has passed, it is difficult to piece together a history but Reza Aslan does an admirable job.

In the end, there are only two historical facts about Jesus of Nazareth upon which we can confidently rely: the first is that Jesus was a Jew who led a popular Jewish movement in Palestine at the beginning of the first century C.E.: the second is that Rome crucified him for doing so.

Another thing this biography does excellently is to put Jesus into the context of his time. It was fascinating to read about the social and political situation of Palestine under Roman occupation.

When Jesus was born, Galilee was aflame. His first decade of life coincided with the plunder and destruction of the Galilean countryside, his second with its refashioning at the hands of Antipas.

Reza Aslan takes us through the life of a Jewish peasant to explain certain aspects of Jesus’s life and also looks at the bigger picture of the political situation. He describes the other messiahs that appeared during that time and the increasing zeal that led to the Jewish revolt, which in turn led to the Romans burning down Jerusalem and the effect it had on the development of the Christian religion.
In fact, Reza Aslan explains how the historical Jesus was, over time, changed into the Christian Jesus and how one has to read the gospels with a critical eye in that context if one looks for the historical aspects behind the religious ones.

Regardless, the gospels are not, nor were they ever meant to be, a historical documentation of Jesus’s life. These are not eyewitness accounts of Jesus’s words and deeds recorded by people who knew him. They are testimonies of faith composed by communities of faith and written many years after the events they describe. Simply put, the gospels tell us about Jesus the Christ, not Jesus the man.

Besides the obvious mythologization that occurred to Jesus after his death, he also explains how the Jewis revolt influenced Christianity, an aspect I found very fascinating.

With the Temple in ruins and the Jewish religion made pariah, the Jews who followed Jesus as messiah had an easy decision to make: They could either maintain their cultic connection to their parent religion and thus share in Rome’s enmity (Rome’s enmity toward Christians would peak much later), or they could divorce themselves from Judaism and transform their messiah from a fierce Jewish nationalist into a pacifistic preacher of good works whose kingdom was not of this world.

The Bad
I actually found the book a bit too short. I would have liked him to go into more details in places, though it is understandable that getting details is incredibly difficult, if not impossible to do when it comes to a figure like Jesus of Nazareth.

The Conclusion
A fascinating, well-written and interesting biography of an interesting man living in a turbulent time. I found it especially fascinating to get the historical context for the things described in the New Testament and the movement that would become a world religion.


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