Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth

Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth

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by Reza Aslan

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Good Housekeeping • Booklist • Publishers Weekly • Bookish

From the internationally bestselling author of No god but God comes a fascinating, provocative, and meticulously researched biography that challenges long-held…  See more details below



Good Housekeeping • Booklist • Publishers Weekly • Bookish

From the internationally bestselling author of No god but God comes a fascinating, provocative, and meticulously researched biography that challenges long-held assumptions about the man we know as Jesus of Nazareth.
Two thousand years ago, an itinerant Jewish preacher and miracle worker walked across the Galilee, gathering followers to establish what he called the “Kingdom of God.” The revolutionary movement he launched was so threatening to the established order that he was captured, tortured, and executed as a state criminal.
Within decades after his shameful death, his followers would call him God.
Sifting through centuries of mythmaking, Reza Aslan sheds new light on one of history’s most influential and enigmatic characters by examining Jesus through the lens of the tumultuous era in which he lived: first-century Palestine, an age awash in apocalyptic fervor. Scores of Jewish prophets, preachers, and would-be messiahs wandered through the Holy Land, bearing messages from God. This was the age of zealotry—a fervent nationalism that made resistance to the Roman occupation a sacred duty incumbent on all Jews. And few figures better exemplified this principle than the charismatic Galilean who defied both the imperial authorities and their allies in the Jewish religious hierarchy.
Balancing the Jesus of the Gospels against the historical sources, Aslan describes a man full of conviction and passion, yet rife with contradiction; a man of peace who exhorted his followers to arm themselves with swords; an exorcist and faith healer who urged his disciples to keep his identity a secret; and ultimately the seditious “King of the Jews” whose promise of liberation from Rome went unfulfilled in his brief lifetime. Aslan explores the reasons why the early Christian church preferred to promulgate an image of Jesus as a peaceful spiritual teacher rather than a politically conscious revolutionary. And he grapples with the riddle of how Jesus understood himself, the mystery that is at the heart of all subsequent claims about his divinity.
Zealot yields a fresh perspective on one of the greatest stories ever told even as it affirms the radical and transformative nature of Jesus of Nazareth’s life and mission. The result is a thought-provoking, elegantly written biography with the pulse of a fast-paced novel: a singularly brilliant portrait of a man, a time, and the birth of a religion.

Praise for Zealot
“Riveting . . . Aslan synthesizes Scripture and scholarship to create an original account.”The New Yorker

“A lucid, intelligent page-turner.”—Los Angeles Times
“Fascinatingly and convincingly drawn . . . Aslan may come as close as one can to respecting those who revere Jesus as the peace-loving, turn-the-other-cheek, true son of God depicted in modern Christianity, even as he knocks down that image.”The Seattle Times
“[Aslan’s] literary talent is as essential to the effect of Zealot as are his scholarly and journalistic chops. . . . A vivid, persuasive portrait.”Salon
“This tough-minded, deeply political book does full justice to the real Jesus, and honors him in the process.”San Francisco Chronicle

From the Hardcover edition.

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Editorial Reviews

Soon after Reza Aslan's The Zealot first appeared, it landed near the top of our bestseller lists and squarely in the center of controversy. Some of the critiques focused on its author's personal religious beliefs, causing some readers and reviewers to invite others to redirect their attention to the book itself. That said, Aslan's view of Jesus as a Jewish preacher who threatened the power structure provides a fresh perspective on the Nazarene's teachings and trials. Now in trade paperback and NOOK Book.

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Chapter One

A Hole in the Corner

Who killed Jonathan son of Ananus as he strode across the Temple Mount in the year 56 c.e.? No doubt there were many in Jerusalem who longed to slay the rapacious high priest, and more than a few who would have liked to wipe out the bloated Temple priesthood in its entirety. For what must never be forgotten when speaking of first-century Palestine is that this land—this hallowed land from which the spirit of God flowed to the rest of the world—was occupied territory. Legions of Roman troops were stationed throughout Judea. Some six hundred Roman soldiers resided atop the Temple Mount itself, within the high stone walls of the Antonia Fortress, which buttressed the northwest corner of the Temple wall. The unclean centurion in his red cape and polished cuirass who paraded through the Court of Gentiles, his hand hovering over the hilt of his sword, was a not so subtle reminder, if any were needed, of who really ruled this sacred place.

Roman dominion over Jerusalem began in 63 b.c.e., when Rome’s master tactician, Pompey Magnus, entered the city with his conquering legions and laid siege to the Temple. By then, Jerusalem had long since passed its economic and cultural zenith. The Canaanite settlement that King David had recast into the seat of his kingdom, the city he had passed to his wayward son, Solomon, who built the first Temple to God—sacked and destroyed by the Babylonians in 586 b.c.e.—the city that had served as the religious, economic, and political capital of the Jewish nation for a thousand years, was, by the time Pompey strode through its gates, recognized less for its beauty and grandeur than for the religious fervor of its troublesome population.

Situated on the southern plateau of the shaggy Judean mountains, between the twin peaks of Mount Scopus and the Mount of Olives, and flanked by the Kidron Valley in the east and the steep, forebidding Valley of Gehenna in the south, Jerusalem, at the time of the Roman invasion, was home to a settled population of about a hundred thousand people. To the Romans, it was an inconsequential speck on the imperial map, a city the wordy statesman Cicero dismissed as “a hole in the corner.” But to the Jews this was the navel of the world, the axis of the universe. There was no city more unique, more holy, more venerable in all the world than Jerusalem. The purple vineyards whose vines twisted and crawled across the level plains, the well-tilled fields and viridescent orchards bursting with almond and fig and olive trees, the green beds of papyrus floating lazily along the Jordan River—the Jews not only knew and deeply loved every feature of this consecrated land, they laid claim to all of it. Everything from the farmsteads of the Galilee to the low-lying hills of Samaria and the far outskirts of Idumea, where the Bible says the accursed cities of Sodom and Gomorrah once stood, was given by God to the Jews, though in fact the Jews ruled none of it, not even Jerusalem, where the true God was worshipped. The city that the Lord had clothed in splendor and glory and placed, as the prophet Ezekiel declared, “in the center of all nations”—the eternal seat of God’s kingdom on earth—was, at the dawn of the first century c.e., just a minor province, and a vexing one at that, at the far corner of the mighty Roman Empire.

It is not that Jerusalem was unaccustomed to invasion and ­occupation. Despite its exalted status in the hearts of the Jews, the truth is that Jerusalem was little more than a trifle to be passed among a succession of kings and emperors who took turns ­plundering and despoiling the sacred city on their way to far grander ambitions. In 586 b.c.e. the Babylonians—masters of Mesopotamia—rampaged through Judea, razing both Jerusalem and its Temple to the ground. The Babylonians were conquered by the Persians, who allowed the Jews to return to their beloved city and rebuild their temple, not because they admired the Jews or took their cult seriously, but because they considered Jerusalem an irrelevant backwater of little interest or concern to an empire that stretched the length of Central Asia (though the prophet Isaiah would thank the Persian king Cyrus by anointing him messiah). The Persian Empire, and Jerusalem with it, fell to the armies of Alexander the Great, whose descendants imbued the city and its inhabitants with Greek culture and ideas. Upon Alexander’s untimely death in 323 b.c.e., Jerusalem was passed as spoils to the Ptolemaic dynasty and ruled from distant Egypt, though only briefly. In 198 b.c.e., the city was wrested from Ptolemaic control by the Seleucid king Antiochus the Great, whose son Antiochus Epiphanes fancied himself god incarnate and strove to put an end once and for all to the worship of the Jewish deity in Jerusalem. But the Jews responded to this blasphemy with a relentless ­guerrilla war led by the stouthearted sons of Mattathias the Hasmonaean—the Maccabees—who reclaimed the holy city from Seleucid control in 164 b.c.e. and, for the first time in four centuries, restored Jewish hegemony over Judea.

For the next hundred years, the Hasmonaeans ruled God’s land with an iron fist. They were priest-kings, each sovereign serving as both King of the Jews and high priest of the Temple. But when civil war broke out between the brothers Hyrcanus and Aristobulus over control of the throne, each brother foolishly reached out to Rome for support. Pompey took the brothers’ entreaties as an invitation to seize Jerusalem for himself, thus putting an end to the brief period of direct Jewish rule over the city of God. In 63 b.c.e., Judea became a Roman protectorate, and the Jews were made once again a subject people.

Roman rule, coming as it did after a century of independence, was not warmly received by the Jews. The Hasmonaean dynasty was abolished, but Pompey allowed Hyrcanus to maintain the position of high priest. That did not sit well with the supporters of Aristobulus, who launched a series of revolts to which the Romans responded with characteristic savagery—burning towns, massacring rebels, enslaving populations. Meanwhile, the chasm between the starving and indebted poor toiling in the countryside and the wealthy provincial class ruling in Jerusalem grew even wider. It was standard Roman policy to forge alliances with the landed aristocracy in every captured city, making them dependent on the Roman overlords for their power and wealth. By aligning their interests with those of the ruling class, Rome assured that local leaders remained wholly vested in maintaining the imperial system. Of course, in Jerusalem, “landed aristocracy” more or less meant the priestly class, and specifically, that handful of wealthy priestly families who maintained the Temple cult and who, as a result, were charged by Rome with collecting the taxes and tribute and keeping order among the increasingly restive population—tasks for which they were richly compensated.

The fluidity that existed in Jerusalem between the religious and political powers made it necessary for Rome to maintain close supervision over the Jewish cult and, in particular, over the high priest. As head of the Sanhedrin and “leader of the nation,” the high priest was a figure of both religious and political renown with the power to decide all religious matters, to enforce God’s law, and even to make arrests, though only in the vicinity of the Temple. If the Romans wanted to control the Jews, they had to control the Temple. And if they wanted to control the Temple, they had to control the high priest, which is why, soon after taking control over Judea, Rome took upon itself the responsibility of appointing and deposing (either directly or indirectly) the high priest, essentially transforming him into a Roman employee. Rome even kept custody of the high priest’s sacred garments, handing them out only on the sacred festivals and feast days and confiscating them immediately after the ceremonies were complete.

Still, the Jews were better off than some other Roman subjects. For the most part, the Romans humored the Jewish cult, allowing the rituals and sacrifices to be conducted without interference. The Jews were even excused from the direct worship of the emperor, which Rome imposed upon nearly every other religious community under its dominion. All that Rome asked of Jerusalem was a twice-daily sacrifice of one bull and two lambs on behalf of the emperor and for his good health. Continue making the sacrifice, keep up with the taxes and tribute, follow the provincial laws, and Rome was happy to leave you, your god, and your temple alone.

The Romans were, after all, fairly proficient in the religious beliefs and practices of subject peoples. Most of the lands they conquered were allowed to maintain their temples unmolested. Rival gods, far from being vanquished or destroyed, were often assimilated into the Roman cult (that is how, for example, the Canaanite god Baal became associated with the Roman god Saturn). In some cases, under a practice called evocatio, the Romans would take possession of an enemy’s temple—and therefore its god, for the two were inextricable in the ancient world—and transfer it to Rome, where it would be showered with riches and lavish sacrifices. Such displays were meant to send a clear signal that the hostilities were directed not toward the enemy’s god but toward its fighters; the god would continue to be honored and worshipped in Rome if only his devotees would lay down their arms and allow themselves to be absorbed into the empire.

As generally tolerant as the Romans may have been when it came to foreign cults, they were even more lenient toward the Jews and their fealty to their One God—what Cicero decried as the “barbarian superstitions” of Jewish monotheism. The Romans may not have understood the Jewish cult, with its strange observances and its overwhelming obsession with ritual purity—“The Jews regard as profane all that we hold sacred,” Tacitus wrote, “while they permit all that we abhor”—but they nevertheless tolerated it.

What most puzzled Rome about the Jews was not their unfamiliar rites or their strict devotion to their laws, but rather what the Romans considered to be their unfathomable superiority complex. The notion that an insignificant Semitic tribe residing in a distant corner of the mighty Roman Empire demanded, and indeed received, special treatment from the emperor was, for many Romans, simply incomprehensible. How dare they consider their god to be the sole god in the universe? How dare they keep themselves separate from all other nations? Who do these backward and superstitious tribesmen think they are? The Stoic philosopher Seneca was not alone among the Roman elite in wondering how it had possibly come to pass in Jerusalem that “the vanquished have given laws to the victors.”

For the Jews, however, this sense of exceptionalism was not a matter of arrogance or pride. It was a direct commandment from a jealous God who tolerated no foreign presence in the land he had set aside for his chosen people. That is why, when the Jews first came to this land a thousand years earlier, God had decreed that they massacre every man, woman, and child they encountered, that they slaughter every ox, goat, and sheep they came across, that they burn every farm, every field, every crop, every living thing without exception so as to ensure that the land would belong solely to those who worshipped this one God and no other.

“As for the towns of these people that the Lord your God is giving you as an inheritance,” God told the Israelites, “you must not let anything that breathes remain alive. You shall annihilate them all—the Hittites and the Amorites, the Canaanites and the Perizzites, the Hivites and the Jebusites—just as the Lord your God has commanded” (Deuteronomy 20:17–­18).

It was, the Bible claims, only after the Jewish armies had “utterly destroyed all that breathed” in the cities of Libnah and Lachish and Eglon and Hebron and Debir, in the hill country and in the Negeb, in the lowlands and in the slopes—only after every single previous inhabitant of this land was eradicated, “as the Lord God of Israel had commanded” (Joshua 10: 28–­42)—that the Jews were allowed to settle here.

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Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth 3.8 out of 5 based on 2 ratings. 321 reviews.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Just to set matters straight here folks; Aslan was raised Christian and converted to the Muslim faith. More importantly, he has a PHD in spiritual studies. So essentially, he studies religions of ALL TYPES and writes about them. So his personal choice of religion is irrelevant to this book. If you want to discredit the man, read the book and present credible evidence that he's wrong. "But, he's Muslim" doesn't tell us anything about the quality of the information in his book.
Luke90210 More than 1 year ago
No matter your beliefs, Zealot is a captivating book. It takes a new look at the life of Jesus, his mission, and the impact he had. It is a very good book, excellently researched and well written.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Zealot is a remarkable book. It is a very well researched account of the life of Jesus, put in the context of the times that he lived. The writing is easy to follow and the story is fascinating.
FrancescaFB More than 1 year ago
As Mr. Aslan has stated in many interviews, this is an academic work about the historical Jesus of Nazareth, not the Lord Jesus Christ of the Catholic Church, as well as many other faiths. This is about the rebel, the seditionist, the zealot. The descriptions of the Jerusalem during Jesus’ lifetime, the politics, laws, economy, and hierarchy of the Sanhedrin and the Roman rule are both educational as well as insightful. It is amazing at what a provocative and powerful, how bold a figure He must have been amidst that era, as He challenged all the powers-that-be as He fought for a different “Kingdom” for His people. Aslan shows us how extraordinarily passionate the historical Jesus was as he reveals to us the compelling story of a radical who defied the Sanhedrin and the Roman empire, as both were enslaving His people. We now ponder and question the Gospel writers (as we will never know who they really were), what their agenda was, and how true to the actual events they were permitted to write. This was evidenced by the information given regarding the conflict between Paul and the Twelve Apostles, particularly with James in Jerusalem and Peter in Rome, as the New Testament clearly shows a Pauline influence. Thank you Mr. Aslan for enlightening us to the historical Jesus of Nazareth. Even though this book may have brought to light many challenges to what Christians have been taught to be true for centuries, one thing that will never be challenged is our faith in Jesus the Christ.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I give 4 stars because there are some limitations to this book, which I'm glad that Mr. Aslan clearly and tries to account for. If you're interested in the historical Jesus rather than the biblical Jesus, then this book may be for you. Mr. Aslan provides a good background and cultural insight into the region around the time that Jesus has lived. He then tries to extrapolate these findings into understanding who this historical Jesus might be. You will find out that Mr. Aslan obviously uses a lot of would-be's and would-have-been's in his writing, so Mr. Aslan does know that that people will critique his findings which he is open to. Personally, I don't get the 1-2 star critiques on this review board, because Mr. Aslan tries to use anthropology, sociology, and history to study this historical Jesus, rather than rely only on the Bible
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Zealot is a very well researched and very informative look at the life of Christ in the context of the times he lived. I thoroughly enjoyed this book and feel like I learned a lot.
LCamara More than 1 year ago
I love how the author is being attacked because of his religious beliefs. I wonder how you would feel if you discovered the religious, political, or sexual orientation of all your favorite authors? Aslan is a scholar, he is not just some crazed Muslim who is attempting to change your opinion of Jesus. It's not like they give away PhDs. Why don't you read the book, then criticize. With that out of the way, I found it to be interesting. I loved the insight I gained about Jesus as a man, not just the Son of God.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Amazing read. Ignore the ignorant racists. A muslim writting on the new testament is no different than a christian looking at the torah. Get over yourself. I highly recommend this for people of all faiths.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
The ones who claim this book is biased blasphemy motivated me to read it. Because fundamentalist Christians were right about other scientific matters - the earth is the center of the universe, and the fossil record is completely fabricated. Mr. Aslan reveals nothing new to scientists - basic college courses teach what he says - but he writes in a down to earth style I wish I had. Easily approachable and quickly put in context. He is a gifted writer.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
There has emerged archaeological evidence that the Ascedics, and their apocolptic teaching, may have had a signifcant influence on a young Jesus during the lost 20 years of his life. This book enforces those findings and the speculations of many biblical scholars.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Unless you've actually READ THE BOOK, please do not comment with a review. Because those of us who are intelligent, educated, literate individuals are interested in reading valid comments about how the book is written. We do NOT want to read your ignorant and bigoted rants about Islam. Go share your bigotry on the Fox News blogs. Or better yet, keep it to yourselves.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I have not read the book yet but I will buy it and read it if only because there are a lot of clearly stupid people on here telling me not to. It must be good!
SueB43 More than 1 year ago
Fascinating description of the historical Jesus.  Excellent ability of author to relate scholarly research findings  to a lay readership. As a Christian by faith I did not find this a threat to my faith but an absorbing description of  Jesus the man.   I want to read more by this author.                     at all.
osamawazan More than 1 year ago
As the author of The Last Moderate Muslim, and a man who was born and raised in a multi-faith nation, Lebanon, I know countless cultural nuances in applying the Christian and Islamic theologies. Zealot is purely academic and as fact-based as any scholar could produce. Having learned the theology and history of Islam, the biography of Muhammad, the prophet of Islam, and read Zealot, some of my conclusions are reinforced, Jesus and Muhammad shared a holy calling to inject humanity in a region that was and continues to be paralyzed with strife. Incidentally and to a great extent, Zealot corroborates the understanding of Jesus by millions of moderate and rogue Muslims worldwide. I hope that those who read "rogue Muslims" internalize that to mean, 'Perhaps we have a lot in common to bridge the differences' in contrast to, 'If the rogue Muslims see it this way; therefore, we should condem Zealot.' Those whose reviews condemen the book, I trust match the latter for another more profound reason. Maybe they are jaundiced by Aslan saying and writing that Jesus was a man,not Lord, over and over. Drop your hearing weapons and give yourselves the privilege to learn more about Jesus Christ, whose story and actions made the world a better place.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Aslan is a brilliant and well-informed thinker who has written another excellent book For it to matter whether he is a Muslim or a Christian shows ignorance AND prejudice,  as well as simple-minded thinking.  Zealoy is well-worth reading regardless of race, ethnicity, or religion. jaty
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I have an M.A. in Biblical Studies and can attest that the author's scholarship is solid. I'm also a professional author, with a bestseller under his belt, and can attest that this book is very well written. The author himself has said that what he's presenting is nothing new, but he has achieved a great deal in making it accessible to a broad readership. Well done.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
With so much controversy going on with this book, I felt compelled to borrow it from a friend that purchased it. And I have to say with the type of book it is, the wording was very easy to understand. Not an easy task if you have read many other historical piece/book. To be truthful, I am a little confused with how much hatred this book is receiving. The book is clearly talking about Jesus the man, not the religious figure. It seems some people do not understand that he was both and can and should be written as both. I will admit though, sometimes the book did lag a bit. But I think this is true with most historical writings. Overall, for the type of book it was, it was great. Clearly not a read for everyone. And clearly not a read for anyone that went into the book ready to attack it “if they even read it”.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Very interesting reading which gives a fresh or better yet, an alternative view of people and events of the times This is a renown author, and along with other scholars whether they agree or disagree with his writing, nonetheless what he writes is food for thought. One has to be open-minded and not regress to the tunnel vision of some less open-minded people whos mantra is my way or the highway. I have read the book.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Zealot is an excellent and scholarly book. It is about the historical Jesus as a man. If you are threatened by research, no one is forcing you to be here. A bookstore gets to sell all kinds of books to readers who have various thoughts, interests, beliefs, and value systems. A big thank-you to Fox News for the buzz about this book. So yeah, read this book if you are not afraid of your beliefs crumbling because someone who is not a christian dared to write it. Knowing the background behind the mythos makes for a great read. There is no law that prevents a scholar from writing about the subject matter of their choosing. Kudos to the author who does indeed evidence superior writing and research skills.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Provides a rare contextual understanding the story we all think we know. The book gives a clear picture of the socio-economic, religiious, racial, and political reality of the time and makes an easy connection between how the man and the movement fit in to all of this. In many ways it's a story that has been repeated many times over: the gap between rich and poor, the oppressors and theopressed, a massively biased jusrice system, and a fickle populace interested equally in scandal. Highly recommend.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I am not sure if everything Reza Aslan says in this book is true but it is certainly worth thinking about. I am happy this is out there.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Well written but, like most books with a thesis, it gets a bit repetitive after a while. Thanks to Fox News, it's managed to make the author far more widely read and wealthier than one would expect from an academic!
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
A lot of ignorant post on here. The author of this book was born Muslim and converted to Christianity. And he is a historian. It really shouldn't matter.
Concious-I-am More than 1 year ago
As stated previously, I am a Christian. I am not hung up on the fact that a Muslim turned Christan who reverted back to Islam is the author of the book. I look for content and validity. One of the saddest things I notice about Christians is that we generally refuse to take time to study other religions. Not only do we fail to study other religions, we don't know our own religion very well. I am a different kind of Christian that studies other religions as well as Christianity. I understand that you cannot take everything in the bible for face value. STUDYING AND EDUCATING ourselves is important. Reza lays out theories and theology that are worth exploring. Some I have been exposed to, some I have not. I am pleased with this well put-together review of the historical Jesus and I am smarter and more equipped for my Christian walk than before I read it. Great book to read and re-read!
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
If you find that notion impossible to consider, this is unlikely to be a satisfying read. The construction of what is now called Christianity, in all it's various forms, followed the death of Jesus of Nazareth by many years. The early historical context is the centeral focus of this book, piecing together the precious few scraps of the historical Jesus of Nazareth with records of the Roman occupation of the Holy Land to paint a compelling picture of the birth of Christianity.