Reza Aslan’s Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth has ridden the top of The New York Times’ nonfiction bestseller list for several weeks. That’s not surprising given the media coverage it has garnered. It is a book that will confound or infuriate many Christians and surprise readers who haven’t before come across books about “the historical Jesus.”
Aslan aims to describe the contexts of both the world in which Jesus lived and the world in which the earliest Christians and their Jewish contemporaries lived. He opens with a reminder that the New Testament is not simply a collection of historical books and letters but a testament of faith, stories and letters written by believers, not biographers. He is also states that Jesus was not a capital-Z zealot (the Jewish Zealot Party arose in the years after Jesus’ death), but a zealot in an older mold, zealous for God and faith in God.
With these caveats in place, Aslan paints a picture of Jesus as a miracle-working disciple of John the Baptist, who after John’s execution became more stridently revolutionary. Like John, Jesus spoke out against superficial piety and the rise of the wealthy at the expense of the peasantry. But Aslan asserts that with his triumphal entry into Jerusalem and his “cleansing” of the Temple, Jesus challenged the power of both the Roman authorities and Jewish hierarchy (who Aslan claims were in the pocket of the Romans). This challenge resulted ultimately in Jesus’ execution for sedition.
However, Aslan sees Jesus as more than a politically revolutionary figure; Jesus is also a religiously revolutionary one. Traditionally, he says, the messiah (“anointed one”) was understood to be an earthly king. But in the wake of the Resurrection, when no new earthly kingdom had been established, Aslan claims, the idea of the messiah had to be rethought and a theology of Jesus as a new kind of messiah to be developed. He points to the crushing of the Jews and early Christians after the destruction of the Temple and a conflict between “Pauline Christianity” and the Christianity of the early Jerusalem church under the leadership of Jesus’ brother James.
Much of Zealot repeats the findings of the “Jesus Seminar,” although Aslan apparently looked further afield, as evidenced by his copious notes and extensive bibliography. Despite that range of resources, he moves little beyond what has come to be known as “the search for the historical Jesus.” (He also cherry-picked quotations from both scriptural and academic sources, giving the book a disjointed feel.) It’s a provocative book, but Zealot breaks little new ground.