Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth

Posted: August 13, 2013 in Book Reviews, Missional Leadership
Tags: ,

Screen Shot 2013-08-13 at 3.44.22 PMRecently as I was stranded in Nairobi for three(3) days, I woke up at four in the morning to switch on the TV to see if there are any news on the fire that destroyed the International Arrivals Hall of the Nairobi Airport. Browsing between the few channels available I ended up watching an interview on Al Jazeera with Reza Aslan, author of the book Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth. Provoked by his views and findings about Jesus, and the obvious hyped created by the devastating Fox interview he had a few days prior, I downloaded the book on my iPad and started to read.

With limited internet access available I tried to get a better understanding of who Aslan is, where he comes from, and why his obsession with Jesus; after all he claims to be a Muslim. In the opening of his book he explains how he founded Jesus at fifteen years of age and later converted to Islam due to, according to him, the more accurate way in which Islam describes God. Born in Iran and moved to the USA at age seven(7), Aslan holds a Bachelor of Arts degree in Religions, a Masters of Theological Studies, a Masters of Fine Arts degree from the University of Iowa’s Writers Workshop, where he was named the Truman Capote Fellow in Fiction. He received his Doctor of Philosophy in Sociology, focusing in the history of religion, from the University of California, Santa Barbara.

Being a Christian myself, I started to read his book with the purpose to equip myself for further discussions on the numerous thought provoking statements made. Acknowledging that I do not have the theological and historical understanding to argue each statement made, I am enteric to see the global response of the Christian movement in regards to some of his findings and theories.

With the book divided into three parts, and laying a good foundation to the landscape, trends, happenings, culture and continuous struggle for power, Aslan’s findings forces the reader to have a re-look at the Jesus we created in the 21st century; “one of peace with no interest in any earthly matter.” Referring to a regular comment made by the Christian theologian Rudolf Butmann, scholars often creates a Jesus who reflects themselves in him. “Too often they see themselves – their own reflection – in the image of Jesus they have constructed.”

With his main focus to write about the Jesus of Nazareth and not about the Jesus Christ, Aslan puts Jesus back in the first century. In appreciation to the Romans who kept a good record on the happenings during that time, Aslan describes a Jesus who founded himself in a time where there were many who claimed to be the messiah, did miracle works, and gathered followers that challenged the state structures. Aslan give examples of men who gathered many followers, were killed and their movement came to an end. However, the followers of Jesus were different in that they continued with the movement in spite of the various claims and views as to whether it was Jesus or someone else who were crucified in his place.

With part one of the book setting the historical background in the time of Jesus, part two getting into more details as to who Jesus was, the calling of the Twelve and the things he said and did according to the four(4) Gospels, and part three focusing on the happenings and followers taking the movement of Jesus forward, the book certainly left me with some theological and doctrinal questions:

  •  Was there so much tampered to the historical understanding of Jesus and his life that today we have a Bible that is not fully authentic in all it claims?
  •  Was John the Baptist greater than Jesus, after all who baptized whom? Aslan explains that although John was a popular, well-respected priest and prophet, and the baptism of Jesus too well known to conceal, the two men’s roles had to be reversed: Jesus had to be made superior, John inferior.
  • Did Pontius Pilate gave the crowd the option to select which prisoner they would like to have released, since “outside the gospels there exists not a shred of historical evidence for any such Passover custom on the part of any Roman governor”?
  • Is the story of Jesus’s arrest, trial, and execution as written in the gospels a true reflection on how it historically happened, or was the factual accuracy irrelevant and what only mattered was Christology and not history?

Growing up in a Christian home and being surrounded most of my life with people whom all believe the same way, Aslan certainly managed to ruin my sleeping pattern. However, the question remains as to what the response of the global Christian movement will be in regards to some of his findings and theories.

Some additional resources and comments already made about his book:




  1. How significant is it that a publically identified Muslim apologist (read “No God but God”) has published a defense (misguided) for the historicity of Jesus’ execution on the cross? This is quite remarkable, and should be received by Christians with gratitude. What could come next?

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