Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth
is a controversial biography
of the historical and religious figure of Jesus, written by Muslim scholar Reza Aslan. Aslan conducted thorough research not only into the life of Jesus, but also into the political and social situation in the Middle East during his rise to power and fame, in order to determine the factors that lead to his overwhelming popularity for centuries to come.
Despite claims that this portrayal of Jesus is new, Aslan's thesis follows a relatively common interpretation of Jesus's life – he was a Jewish peasant turned preacher and miracle worker who walked across the sea of Galilee with followers in tow, and was subsequently punished by the Roman empire which feared his power, and because he was called the King of the Jews. Because only Roman emperors could take the title of king, being referred to as such was treasonous and punishable by death – in the case of Jesus, this death was a crucifixion, a common method of capital punishment during the Roman era.
The novelty of Aslan's book isn't the claim that Jesus was a peasant or a religious zealot of his time. Most early Christian scholars commonly agree upon this. His new work comes from his thorough research into the social, political, and economic situation that lead to the rise of Jesus in first-century Palestine, and the circumstances leading to his trial as an enemy of the state and subsequent death.
Palestine during the first century was a chaotic and apocalyptic place. People feared coming death, and many cult religions and preachers claiming to be messiahs began to crop up in response to the impending fall of the Roman empire and the wild political and social situation that caused many to fear for their lives. Jesus, a Jewish preacher, was one of these cult preachers, and tales of his miracles followed him across the land. It was common during this time for a sense of nationalism – what Aslan refers to as zealotry – to cause the Jews who were being occupied by the invasive Roman Empire to rise up against their colonizers, seizing power for themselves. Though Jesus preached peace and kindness, he acted with surprising violence against the Roman Empire, encouraging his followers to take up their swords and fight for their freedom.
Jesus quickly became a controversial figure. He gained an extraordinary number of followers who believed in his faith healing, and yet he asked his followers not to call him by his real name, in order to protect him from dangerous Roman officials and possibly other healers, who might find his burgeoning religion a threat to their own livelihood and ideology. He promised that the Jews would be liberated from the Roman Empire – a promise that went unfulfilled after he was captured, tried for treason as a criminal of the state, and put to death.
Aslan is fascinated by the following that persisted after the death of Jesus, and how his role as a political zealot and anti-colonial figure during the Roman occupation may have lead to his followers referring to him as God only decades after his death. He examines both the history and the mythology behind Jesus's life in order to determine the real role he played in the foundation of Christianity and the ideas that lead his followers to believe in his subsequent reincarnation and his martyrdom.
Finally, Aslan looks at representations of Jesus in the church today. Rather than describing him as a political revolutionary, which he appears to have been, Aslan is curious about why Christian teachings focus on Jesus's preachings about peace, depicting him as being separate entirely from the political world of early Palestine, focusing instead on his role as a spiritual leader. He also examines how Jesus viewed himself, in light of his role as the supposed “King of the Jews,” and whether he saw himself as the divine figure that he is now claimed to be.
Reza Aslan is an Iranian-American author and religious scholar, as well as a television producer and host. He lives in Los Angeles, California. He has written three books to date on the subject of religion: No God but God
, Beyond Fundamentalism
, and Zealot
. Aslan's personal experience with religion has shaped his scholarship – he was born a Shia Muslim in Tehran, Iran, converted to Evangelical Christianity at age fifteen, and then converted back to Islam before attending Harvard as a graduate student. He has won many awards for his scholarship.