ZEALOT Book Review

BOOK REVIEW: How often is there a media brouhaha over a book about fairy tales? RWNJs are offended by Reza Aslan’s ‘Zealot’ but they should be pleased that it will be one of the least-read bestsellers ever.

Getting through Reza Aslan’s “Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth” is a slog despite its relative brevity (about 75,000 words) and the author’s enthusiastic and mildly friendly writing style. The problem is that the topic is so ridiculous and the approach so academic that few people are going to get very far into the book without experiencing the same affect as taking two Melatonin tablets.

Aslan’s attempt to discuss Jesus the regular guy as opposed to Jesus the anointed one (Jesus “of Nazareth” vs. Jesus “the Christ”) has produced a significant amount of outrage from members of the American Taliban on the Fake News channel and some RWNJ sites. That ensures lots of publicity but the ruckus will die down quickly and then the cretins can get back to their prevarications about Obama’s vast Negro army of gun-grabbing free condom distributors or whatever. (“Benghazi!” “Birth Certificate!” “Women are sluts!” “No one needs healthcare!” “Kill the poor!” “The earth is flat and not an oblate spheroid!” etc.)

If Only

Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of NazarethIt must be admitted that the premise of the book sounded promising: debunk some of the myths around Jesus.

…the gospels are not about a man known as Jesus of Nazareth who lived two thousand years ago; they are about a messiah whom the gospel writers viewed as an eternal being sitting at the right hand of God. The first-century Jews who wrote about Jesus had already made up their minds about who he was. They were constructing a theological argument about the nature and function of Jesus as Christ, not composing a historical biography about a human being.

But there’s one big problem: almost everything about Jesus the dude is just as unbelievable as the Biblical fairy tales about Jesus the sensational. Sure, the official legend relates how Mr. Magic was able to feed a few thousand party-goers with a loaf of Wonder Bread and a family-size package of Gorton’s frozen fish sticks, and reasonable adults can smile indulgently at this bit of whimsy. But in other sources, Joe Nazarene was described as performing miracles like healing the sick with a glance or a touch. Obviously, the propaganda about Jesus in The Bible is no more reliable than any of the other scribblings about him.

And boy-oh-boy does Aslan pour over all those other documents. There are copious annotations — 54 pages of them, and there are 218 works in the Bibliography. Also, between the Author’s Note and the Introduction, Aslan cranks out 4,000 words of explanation for his approach. That’s all right Reza, no apology necessary for finding your niche in the world of publishing (something that might be called sword and sandal speculation). And good fortune is obviously on Aslan’s side– an interview with one of the whores on the Fake News channel will alone sell tens of thousands of copies of this thing (video link below).


But let’s start at the beginning. The book opens with Festival season in Jerusalem and we are thrust into: Pageantry! Money-changers! Ritual animal slaughter! Sneaking up on the “high priest Jonathan” and slitting his throat! Fun times. But wait, there’s more. In the first 70 pages of the book, which emphasize the “times of” part of the book rather than the Jesus part, you will find doom, destruction, death, and bloodletting on a large scale. Here’s one example:

The roar of the flames mixed with screams of agony as the Roman swarm swept through the upper and lower city, littering the ground with corpses, sloshing through streams of blood, literally clambering over heaps of dead bodies in pursuit of the rebels, until finally the Temple was in their sights. With the last of the rebel fighters trapped inside the inner courtyard, the Romans set the entire foundation aflame, making it seem as though the Temple Mount was boiling over at its base with blood and fire.

Note to lovers of torture-porn: the descriptions in the book will probably not go far enough to satisfy your blood-lust. To feel sated you’ll have to watch “The Passion of the Christ” again.

Coming to Terms

Aslan spends some time getting us to understand the definitions of “zeal,” “zealot,” and “bandit,” all of which are then applied to Jesus, the poor illiterate peasant who was just one of the “prophets, bandits, zealots, and messiahs of his time,” including “Hezekiah the bandit chief, Judas the Galilean, Menahem, Simon son of Giora, Simon son of Kochba, and the rest.”

For while the disciples would ultimately recognize Jesus as the promised messiah and the heir to the kingdom of David, while the Romans would view him as a false claimant to the office of King of the Jews, and while the scribes and the Temple priests would come to consider him a blasphemous threat to their control of the Jewish cult, for the vast majority of Jews in Palestine — those he claimed to have been sent to free from oppression — Jesus was neither messiah nor king, but just another traveling miracle worker and professional exorcist roaming through Galilee performing tricks.

(I’m going to get some business cards from VistaPrint that read: “John Scott G, former member of the United Church of Christ and now Traveling Miracle Worker and Professional Exorcist — In the time-honored tradition of Jesus.”)

The truly fascinating part of the Jesus tale is why so much attention has been paid to this guy. Why him and not one of the many others? Like his fellow con artists, he only preached against the establishment for a short time, yet he was selected to be the focal point of the hugely profitable international religiosity cult of Christianity. Star status! Literally, as Jesus has been portrayed in movies by Jeffrey Hunter (“King of Kings, ’61), Max von Sydow (“Greatest Story Ever Told,”) Willem Dafoe (“Last Temptation of Christ,”) H.B. Warner (“King of Kings” ’27), and Jim Caviezel (in the aforementioned Mel Gibson-directed slasher flick.)

But hey, let’s not overlook Enrique Irazoqui in “The Gospel According to St. Matthew,” the 1964 film from poet/director Pier Paolo Pasolini, a film that makes some of the same points as in Aslan’s book (but without the arcane “how many angels can dance on the head of a pin” folderol).

Aslan also points out the painful fact that Jesus was an abject failure:

Jesus spoke about the end of days, but it did not come to pass, not even after the Romans destroyed Jerusalem and defiled God’s Temple. He promised that God would liberate the Jews from bondage, but God did no such thing. He vowed that the twelve tribes of Israel would be reconstituted and the nation restored; instead, the Romans expropriated the Promised Land, slaughtered its inhabitants, and exiled the survivors. The Kingdom of God that Jesus predicted never arrived; the new world order he described never took shape. According to the standards of the Jewish cult and the Hebrew Scriptures, Jesus was as successful in his messianic aspirations as any of the other would-be messiahs.

For unknown reasons, Aslan believes in the religiosity nonsense anyway. He repeatedly quotes the folktales and ravings as evidence for considering the divinity of Jesus, as in this from both Matthew and Luke: “If by the finger of God I cast out demons, then surely the Kingdom of God has come upon you.”

Jesus’s miracles are thus the manifestation of God’s kingdom on earth. It is the finger of God that heals the blind, the deaf, the mute — the finger of God that exorcises the demons. Jesus’s task is simply to wield that finger as God’s agent on earth.

As someone who was sexually assaulted by a so-called devout member of one of the Christianity cults, I can attest that this giving of the finger is insulting and alarming.

There are nine pages (!) of the book devoted to a discussion of the Son of God/Son of Man. Nine pages. I would much rather read a quick bio of Andre Ward ( ) who all boxing fans know as S.O.G.

Time and Place

Some passages of “Zealot” leap up off the page and put those early times into perspective, such as Aslan’s depiction of young woodworker Jesus employed in the cosmopolitan city of Sepphoris:

Six days a week, from sunup to sundown, Jesus would have toiled in the royal city, building palatial homes for the Jewish aristocracy during the day, returning to his crumbling mud-brick home at night. He would have witnessed for himself the rapidly expanding divide between the absurdly rich and the indebted poor.

Interesting to see that class warfare has historical precedent.

Meanwhile, there are structural issues with “Zealot.” As mentioned, Jesus isn’t in much of the first third of the book, yet pages 57-61 deal with the Roman attack on Masada, which took place four decades after Jesus’s death. Then, on pages 73-74, Jesus is making his triumphant donkey-ride entrance into Jerusalem and he’s crucified by page 79. Next, you’ll find a lot on John the Baptist on pages 80-89, all of which took place C.E. 26, before Jesus was doing his messiah routine.

On the plus side, throughout the book Aslan uses B.C.E. and C.E. instead of B.C. and A.D. and that is helpful because Before Common Era and Common Era are more accurate than Before Christ and Anno Domini.

Jumping to Conclusions

Aslan makes some leaps of faith that are annoying but at least he has the good grace to use the word “if,” which, as some people have pointed out is the biggest conceptual word in the English language.

“If the Kingdom of God is neither purely celestial nor wholly eschatological…” he writes, and then goes on for another couple of pages of speculation. If this is the kind of thing you enjoy then you’ll enjoy this kind of thing.

Still, Aslan does succeed in pointing out how heretical and seditious Jesus would have seemed to the powers-that-be.

The Kingdom of God is about to be established on earth… It means God is going to replace Caesar as ruler of the land. The Temple priests, the wealthy Jewish aristocracy, the Herodian elite, and the heathen usurper in distant Rome — all of these were about to feel the wrath of God.

Frightening stuff to those in positions of power, all of whom must have felt like today’s republicans studying the demographic projections for the United States. (OMG OMG OMG we can’t let people vote or we’re doomed!)

‘Fessing Up

You gotta love a scholar who admits the silliness of his subject matter, which Aslan kinda-sorta does here:

Jesus’s resurrection is an exceedingly difficult topic for the historian to discuss, not least because it falls beyond the scope of any examination of the historical Jesus. Obviously, the notion of a man dying a gruesome death and returning to life three days later defies all logic, reason, and sense.

He then goes on to justify faith in it. Which calls to mind the statement, “For those who believe, no explanation is necessary; for those who do not believe, no explanation is possible.” Which not only sums up the attitude of legions of gullible people but was also the advertising tag line for a really terrible Shirley MacLaine movie called “The Possession of Joel Delaney.”

At one point, Aslan claims that “one sure way of uncovering what Jesus may have believed is to determine what his brother James believed.” Wrong. As seen in Chris Mooney’s excellent “The Republican Brain” ( ), two decent parents can raise a couple of kids, one of whom develops into a decent human being but the other devolves to become a republican. And besides, the jottings of proselytizers of the past reveal no more profundity or truth than does the Congressional Record.


Much of the book reads fairly smoothly except where Aslan decides to get quote-happy, which occurs from time to time and especially towards the end — page 205 devotes 20 of its 34 lines to Biblical quotes; page 206 has 15 lines of quotes; page 207 has 12 lines of quotes. Perhaps Aslan was approaching the publication deadline.

Worse is when Aslan-the-academic overpowers Aslan-the-writer and the manuscript turns into what might be called thesis-speak, which can be experienced in this meandering sentence:

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.

Don’t know about you but I was really hoping for an additional period or two in there somewhere. Or maybe, y’know, the extraneous stuff being thrown out. But if superfluous details were tossed, the already slender book would be cut by half. That would mean a few more people would finish it (someone will be selling “I survived Zealot” tee-shirts soon) but the subject matter is so goofy that it doesn’t really matter.


Book Summary:
“Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth” by Reza Aslan; Random House; ISBN: 978-1-4000-6922-4, 336 pages, $27.00

VIDEO: Reza Aslan enduring “the most embarrassing interview ever” —


This original review is Copr. © 2013 by John Scott G and originally published on – all commercial and reprint rights reserved. No fee or other consideration was paid to the reviewer, this site or its publisher by any third party for this unbiased article.