Gitta's Literary Escapades

Just another reader taking on (modern) classics, best-sellers, award-winners, non-fiction, and (guilty pleasure) chicklit armed with common sense, a brain and feminism.

Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth by Reza Aslan

Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth - Reza Aslan

The Fox Interview and the Critique Thereof

I am not afraid to admit that I only found out about this book through the appallingly unprofessional interview on Fox News with Reza Aslan. The video quickly went viral -- which is how I came across it. Slowly and steadily news papers and websites picked up on it. A part of me feels proud for having been more up-to-date than they were this time. The controversy is this: Lauren Green thought the most important question to ask Aslan was why he, as a Muslim, would write a book on Jesus, the 'founder of Christianity'. I wonder; why do the personal life and religious choices of the author matter?


Nonetheless, it became painfully evident that the interviewer had not read the book -- nor had anyone read it for her --, and she needs to amend her perspective, because, from the one she currently has, atheists academics would not be allowed to write on anything pertaining to religion. Or rather, no human on Earth would be allowed to write about things outside his/her own culture, society, ideology, religious beliefs and/or lifestyle choices. Needless to say, anyone with a small understanding of the world would know that would be impossible, not to mention slightly totalitarian and indoctrinating.


Reza Aslan's Qualifications and the Originality of Zealot

After the interview, journalists began researching Aslan's qualifications and calling into question his representation thereof during the interview. Though he represents himself as an excellently qualified individual who studies a wide variety of religions (plural), this article challenges Aslan's qualifications.1 Here, Joe Carter states that Aslan's Ph.D. is not in history, but in sociology. Moreover, it is questionable whether Aslan has a degree in the New Testament. Misrepresentation of qualifications is very serious in the academic world. However, the Humanities are notoriously interdisciplinary. Therefore, a degree in sociology could offer him the scope to write a historical study. It does, however, put a damper on the authority of his book. Luckily we need not worry for as William Lane Crag, a philosopher of religion and a Christian apologist points out:


"Aslan has offered nothing new under the sun when it comes to offering a critique of the historical Jesus [...] In fact, he is attempting to revert scholarship back to the early 1900s by echoing Albert Schweitzer's book, The Quest for the Historical Jesus. Like Schweitzer, Aslan claims that Jesus is historically unknowable and we can never get back to the real Jesus."


Jesus: A Revolutionary BiographyIt has also been pointed out that Aslan's research closely follows that of John Dominic Crossan and his book called Jesus: A Revolutionary Biography. Alan Jacobs, American Conservative writer and professor at Baylor University argued in his online article that 'Aslan makes no new discoveries, and makes no arguments that haven't already been made — in some cases very long ago'. Jacobs suggests this might have something to do with the fact that 'Reza Aslan is not a New Testament scholar.' Moreover, he writes that,


"In Zealot, he is writing well outside his own academic training. This does not mean that his book is a bad one, or that he shouldn't have written it, only that it is primarily a sifting and re-presenting of the work of actual NT scholars. [...] Reza Aslan's book is an educated amateur's summary and synthesis of a particularly skeptical but quite long-established line of New Testament scholarship, presented to us as simple fact. If you like that kind of thing, Zealot will be the kind of thing you like."


So far, however, it appears Aslan never claimed his research would be original. Rather, it is a synthesis of previous scholarship meant to be read by a popular audience unfamiliar with the scholarly tradition. The existence of such books is great, because it introduces and familiarises large numbers of people to history. As a student, I often come across similar books, which do not offer anything new (and I discard them because they do not suit my academic needs). However, these books are easily distinguishable from original academic research. The popular syntheses often lack any foot- or endnotes and only offer a bibliography. It is not marketed for an academic audience and is, accordingly, not structured like one. Moreover, the sensationalised and more subjective writing is an immediate sign that academics should not have these expectations.


"John the Baptist came out of the desert like an apparition--a wild man clothed in camel hair, a leather belt tied around hist waist, feeding on locust and wild honey. He travel the length of the Jordan River [...] preaching a simple and dire message: The end was near."



That surely does not sound like a scholar writing for his peers to me. It reads like fiction at times. The author, editor and publisher do not expect the book to become an established feature in the world of academia. It clearly is not written for that purpose. It is not written by a scholar for other scholars. It is not meant to further the discussion, to contribute to the academic field. Knowing I'm reading a popular book, I still have doubts which Joe Carter perfectly sums up.


"Aslan’s book should not be dismissed because it was written by a Muslim. But in making untrue claims about his credentials he raises questions about his credibility. It also raises the question of how often so-called experts and authorities with no real expertise or authority on a subject are presented by New Media outlets as representative "scholars"."



Now, enough about the circumstances that brought about this book being written or how it has gone viral. From the beginning, Aslan sets out to draw a clear distinction between Jesus the Christ, the biblical figure, and Jesus of Nazareth, the historical figure. (This distinction is an old and well-established one.) As such, this book does not set out to attack Christianity, criticise its beliefs or its Scriptures. It is an attempt to reconstruct an image of the historical Jesus, which was posthumously transformed to into the Jesus we find in the Bible. Jesus of Nazareth, according to Aslan, was a revolutionary Jew, an activist, a zealot, who the Romans executed for trying to establish the "Kingdom of God". This would have been seen as a blatant revolt against the Rome Empire's rule over Judea and striving for kingly rule was an act of treason.


If one is to have an understanding of the life of a historical figure, one needs to be aware of the times in which he or she lived. In keeping with this, Aslan has successfully tried to outline the cultural and political history of Judea, its struggles for independence from Rome, the internal political disunity and turmoil. Though we are handed a lot of factual information about the period, Aslan has tried to capture the emotion too through often overly sensationalised language and provocative statements presented as facts. Of course it would have been shocking to find that after a century of Judaean independence, the Romans have subordinated and annexed your world. This incorporation was felt throughout Judea from the metropoleis to small agricultural villages, Aslan claims. However, a sense of community of nationhood did not really exist until the early modern period so I am doubtful of the peasant's awareness of the political situation of their country given that most villages were self-sufficient and geographical mobility was limited.


Under Roman rule, Judea went through a case of rapid urbanisation which impoverished the peasants and forced them to migrate to the already overpopulated cities. Nonetheless, there is, naturally, never enough work to support this fast inflow of peasants. This new found poverty led to some peasant gangs who would rob from the rich and, sometimes, in a Robin Hoodesque manner (his metaphor), give to the poor. The Jews called them heroes, the Romans called them bandits (lestai) and some of these bandits called themselves the messiah ("annointed one"), a term which alludes to titles such as king, priest or prophet. Oh semantics! Moreover, the messiah was 'to rebuild David's kingdom and reestablish the nation of Israel.' (p. 28) These two combined means that referring to yourself as messiah was dangerously similar to declaring war on Rome. Who would have guest that the Roman would not take kindly to those who accumulate large groups of followers and tell them to obey only God?


So what of Jesus of Nazareth? Part I includes a small section on the man: the differences between the biblical and historical Jesus. What is interesting is that the various authors of the gospels changed facts about the early life of Jesus to suit the criteria needed for him to be a successful candidate for "massiahdom".


Think of it as a political campaign. The messiah needed to be from a descendent of King David, not some kid from some godforsaken slum. As a Nazarean, Jesus could not have been the messiah. Something had to give. So Luke came up with the clever idea of a census which took Joseph and Mary to Bethlehem, the city of David. Jesus is now an eligible messiah. Problem solved. In reality, though, such a census never took place at the time of Jesus's birth. Did we need to be told that the virgin birth is a fiction? Probably not. Anyone who has heard The Tale of the Birds and the Bees knows. The episode where Jesus enters Jerusalem on a donkey just happens to fulfil another prophecy -- surprise! -- (Zech 9:9). Jesus of Nazareth truly had some great people on his campaign.


However, the way Aslan is revealing the true nature of Jesus of Nazareth is by invalidating information given about Jesus in the Bible. Or to put it in another way, Aslan is being critical of the validity of Jesus Christ. The figure that remains, stripped of its legends and posthumous political makeover, is what we are to believe was Jesus of Nazareth. From an academic perspective, this is unconventional to say the least. A (Jesus of Nazareth) and B (political makeover) might equal C (Jesus Christ), but that does not necessary mean that C (Jesus Christ) minus B (political makeover) equals A (Jesus of Nazareth). Was this method of historical analysis the best one available? I know too little about the topic to answer that question.


Nonetheless, Zealot is an entertaining read for non fiction. Aslan has surely tried to make it as much of a narrative as possible, adding sentiment and asking questions to keep the reader intrigued. I would, however, recommend those new to this subject to pick up one of Crossan's books instead (which is what I wish I had done). As such, 2.5 stars.



Details & Buy


First published:


Original title:

Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth


Reza Aslan


Ebook (Random House, 2013)




31 July - 14 August 2013


0679603530, 9780679603535



Official website


Amazon USA

Amazon UK

Book Depository USA

Book Depository UK

Abebooks USA

Abebooks UK



1 The qualifications are: 1) a 1995 BA in religion from Santa Clara University, where he wrote his dissertation/thesis on "The Messianic Secret in the Gospel of Mark"; 2) a 1999 Master of Theological Studies from Harvard; 3) a 2002 Master of Fine Arts in Fiction from the University of Iowa; 4) and a 2009 Ph.D. in sociology from the University of California, Santa Barbara.


Currently reading

Leaves of Grass
Walt Whitman, Jerome Loving
Progress: 12/478 pages
The Luminaries
Eleanor Catton
Progress: 31 %
The Lord of the Rings
J.R.R. Tolkien
Progress: 506/1082 pages
Edward W. Said
Progress: 34/396 pages
Coffee at Luke's: An Unauthorized Gilmore Girls Gabfest
Leah Wilson, Jennifer Crusie
Progress: 17/197 pages
The Complete Poems
Catullus, Guy Lee, Titian
Progress: 105/244 pages
Renaissance Art
Geraldine A. Johnson
Progress: 23/176 pages
The Horologicon: A Day's Jaunt Through the Lost Words of the English Language
Mark Forsyth