Review of “Zealot” by Aslan

My Thoughts on Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth


When will the movie come out? “Zealot” by Aslan has provoked a tangled web of media attention and conversation. Unfortunately, much of this has been focused on the now famous – or infamous – Fox News interview and on Aslan as a person, a Muslim, an academic. This is not surprising given both the theatrical style of much of the book – we can see the movie scenes already – controversies surrounding Fox News. The real problem is that evidence seems clear that Jesus was not a Zealot.

But what about the context and credibility of the book itself?  My own blog will focus on Jesus and Jesus and 1st century Palestine. Therefore I want to comment therefore on what Aslan actually says about Jesus of Nazareth, how he arrives at his conclusions and what I think about them. Bottom line? My position is:

  • A Muslim can write a book about Jesus of course, and Aslan claims a strong interest in Jesus dating back to a childhood experience. Enough said.
  • Placing Jesus within the context of the world in which he lived is very valuable. I myself have been studying and writing about 1st c. Palestine for years.
  • Coming to a conclusion about the “historical Jesus” has been attempted by many and cannot be done. Aslan says this himself, although he then proceeds to do just that.
  • I do not believe Jesus was a Zealot and shall explain why – very briefly.

We all come from somewhere and Jesus was a Jew living in 1st century Palestine – where the land and the temple were ruled by the Roman Empire and most of the people were trapped in poverty. Those who saw and heard him and those later responsible for the Gospels were also from this world. Understanding the political, religious, socio-economic realities adds enormously to our reading and understanding of the New Testament. Village scenes, parables, the Sermon on the Mount all come alive in new ways.

And it is very important to know that Jesus was crucified for crimes against the Roman Empire. Romans reserved crucifixion for those convicted of sedition. It is also true that he spoke about a very different kingdom where the first would be last and the last would be first. And Jesus definitely had a pivotal confrontation with both the Roman Empire and the priests they appointed when he entered the temple, drove out the money changers and called it a den of thieves. From that moment his fate was sealed. All of these things and many more make it clear that he opposed oppression, arrogance, greed and lording it over others.

But none of this means he was a revolutionary bent on violent overthrow of the Empire. Aslan’s claim is that the church made a peaceful, soft Jesus for political expediency.  His argument that the church had reason to avoid a portrayal that would get them in big trouble is interesting. It bears thinking about. I can agree that the Christian church as generally preached a “nice” Jesus, avoiding Gospel passages that disturb this image. But still it seems clear that Jesus was not a Zealot.

But it seems Aslan greatly overreaches with his claims that Jesus was a revolutionary bent on ousting the Roman Empire and becoming king through “zeal” and the sword.  In fact that would make him king of another empire founded, once again, on power and violence.

Jesus is complex and so are the gospels. We try to know him and about him; we ought to beware of claiming to contain him in a particular image, because that is sure to be our own image.

My blog will place Jesus within 1st century Palestine where Rome ruled, Jews were often bitterly divided about how to survive under Rome, and most of the people were poor and oppressed. I will invite readers to ponder Jesus’ very complexity. Indeed, he seems to love everyone and to take “pot shots” at everyone: priests, pharisees, essenes, zealots, villagers, the disciples themselves. This blog is written for all who are interested in wrestling with Jesus’ question: “Who do you say that I am?”

6 thoughts on “Review of “Zealot” by Aslan

  1. Jeff Straka says:

    Hi, Ann! Good post! I am about half way through Aslan’s book, and I think I’m in agreement with you at this point. While he makes some interesting observations, I think he is overreaching with the zealot and the Messiah thing. What is odd to me, is that Aslan admits that the gospels are late writings with a purposeful slant, and they are not to be read as a largely literal account. John Shelby Spong has some important things to say in this regard, and if you’ve not read his latest book, “The Fourth Gospel: Tales of a Jewish Mystic”, you really must! Anyway, for Aslan to agree that much in the gospels is myth (pointing to a truth beyond the literal), how, then can he use the words the gospel writers put into Jesus’ mouth as fact? And how can he exclude (at least to the midpoint of his book, where I’ve read thus far) the Gospel of Thomas, which many scholars are pushing to be one of the (if not THE) earliest accounts we have? This fall, I will be attending John Dominic Crossan’s talks at the Mountain Top Lecture series. I look forward to hearing HIS take on this book.

    • Ann Temkin says:

      Yes, I absolutely agree that Aslan cherry picks more than abundantly and makes huge inferences while pointing out that the gospels are not historical works. He does a lot of creative imagining and writing – which is ok except that he presents it as “truth”. And also I think some of his information is or highly questionable wrong, for example his repeated insistence on Jesus as an unsophisticated peasant. The plus side is that he has drawn the attention of many to the importance of knowing something about 1st c Palestine. And I hope that interest in this persists.

  2. Well written, Ann, with clarity and strong voice while inviting further discussion.

  3. David Rensberger says:

    Well said, Ann. I haven’t read Aslan’s book, but what I’ve seen and heard about it (including an interview on NPR) suggests that he is rehashing a position that has been raised and disproved repeatedly for the last couple of hundred years, aiming at readers who know nothing about that history. He also seems to aim at readers who no longer have the ability or the inclination to distinguish between demonstrable fact and plausible fiction.

    What you say about Jesus’ complexity is really important. So often we try to box him up as ONLY savior, OR revolutionary, OR mystic, etc., without considering that he could be all of these and more. He continually resists our desire to focus on our own preferences and interests, and challenges us to imagine that God wants more from us than what we wish to believe.

    • Ann Temkin says:

      Yes David, the complexity of Jesus is fascinating. I hope to hold in tension at least some of his different ways of being and to resist as much as possible the temptation to box him in. Let’s see how I do… I hope you keep reading and call me on it when I “box”.

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