To hear my review of Reza Aslan's Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth (2013), click on the arrow. The review is 58 minutes in length. Listen, or just read through the notes below. The numbers in [brackets] are the page numbers in the paperback edition.
- Jesus was a zealot, advocating violence to overthrow the occupying Romans as well as the corrupt priesthood.
- For Jesus, the Kingdom of God is very much of this world . John 18:36 has been totally misunderstood . The kingdom is political.
- Jesus intended that the twelve tribes be reconstituted for a single purpose: war .
- Jesus was a violent man. The God of violence is “the only God that Jesus knew and the sole God he worshipped” . However, later Aslan seems to backtrack: “Nor can Jesus be labeled a violent revolutionary bent on armed rebellion…” .
- Yet Jesus failed to reestablish nation of Israel .
- The church changed the true Jesus into a more heavenly figure with merely otherworldly interests. They “transformed Jesus from a revolutionary zealot to a Romanized demigod, from a man who tried and failed to free the Jews from Roman oppression to a celestial being wholly uninterested in any
earthly matter” .
- The apostle Paul was the leader of this reinterpretation. “[Paul’s] conception of Jesus as Christ would have been shocking and plainly heretical, which is why, around 57 C.E., James and the apostles demand that Paul come to Jerusalem to answer for his deviant teachings” . The early church followed suit, and replaced the zealot Jesus with a heavenly figure , putting Paul's letters into the N.T. Today we have the wrong N.T., thanks to Paul’s influence .
- Yet the Messiah was to be the Prince of Peace. "He will judge between the nations and will settle disputes for many peoples. They will beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks. Nation will not take up sword against nation, nor will they train for war anymore" (Isa 2:4). (Joel 3:10 – preparation for war.) "He will judge between many peoples and will settle disputes for strong nations far and wide. They will beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks. Nation will not take up sword against nation, nor will they train for war anymore" (Mic 4:3).
- How would the church have survived through 60 years of disillusionment, given they knew Jesus’ mission was a failure?
- In short, Jesus was a revolutionary zealot. Not just a radical man with an amazingly spiritual message, but a violent encourager of murder, rioting, and violent takeover.
II. STRENGTHS & INSIGHTS
- His no-nonsense approach (despite the many erroneous claims) leaves no doubt as to where the author stands. I find this preferable to the ambling, highly qualified language of many religious writers.
- Aslan uses highly florid language, which makes reading him rather enjoyable -- provided the reader recognizes the many rare words he uses.
- Historical background
- Good job describing various sects of the Jews and zealots and pseudo-messiahs.
- Great analysis of the working relationship between Pilate and Caiaphas.
- Nice explanation of the origins and thinking of the Samaritans.
- Historical insight
- Poor farmers of Galilee subjected to indignity of turning over earnings to rapacious priests! 
- Demolishes the Roman Catholic notions of the virginity of Mary and the papacy of Peter .
- Helpful reminder that the Temple served as a bank .
- Unlike other itinerant wonder-workers in the ancient world, Jesus healed gratis .
- The Romans' victory over Israel in the First Jewish War (66-70 AD) wasn’t merely over the Jews, but over their god.
- John the Baptist's popularity perhaps increased through his not relying on his priestly privileges . (John was a Levite, born to Levite parents -- see Luke 1.)
- Aslan admits that it is more likely the Gnostics borrowed from Christianity when they constructed their esoteric doctrine and myths, rather than the other way around .
- The belief in a dying and rising messiah did not exist in Judaism . (Right--but that doesn’t mean the Messiah couldn’t die or rise! What about Isa 53?)
- Things you may want to know
- Interesting parallels between Jesus' Transfiguration and Moses' ascent on the mountain with his three companions .
- Cicero: “barbarian superstitions” of monotheism. Tacitus: “while they permit all that we abhor.”
- Josephus notes 24 sects in and around Jerusalem. And he calls Annas (Ananus) “the great hoarder of money” [198-199].
- Bible difficulties
- Critics keep us on our toes!
- Two examples: Philip’s wife is Salome, not Herodias. A solution? Also, the well-known difficulties surrounding Luke’s census of Quirinius .
- Arguments from silence
- John the Baptist doesn’t realize who Jesus is in Mark 1. This means that the story has been jazzed up in the other gospel accounts .
- There is no cliff in Nazareth over which to push Jesus. Aslan is saying that since he does not think there is such a cliff in Nazareth, it didn’t exist. But topography can change. Besides, I have seen such a precipice in Nazareth.
- The nighttime trial of the Sanhedrin was illegal -- therefore it didn't take place. . Yet the Sanhedrin felt urgency in dealing with this situation before Passover.
- Barabbas couldn’t have been released because the custom is “nonsensical” . Yet Pilate negotiates with the crowd over Jesus' possible release. Why would such a custom contradict what we know of Pilate?
- “So when Stephen saw the gaggle of hirsute men and ragged women huddled beneath a portico in the Temple’s outer court—simple provincials who had sold their possessions and given the proceeds to the poor….—he probably did not pay much attention at first” .
- Paul wasn’t asked by the high priest to hunt down Christians…  Yet by Paul's own admission (Acts 22:4-5), “I persecuted the followers of this Way to their death, arresting both men and women and throwing them into prison, as the high priest and all the Council can themselves testify. I even obtained letters from them to their associates in Damascus, and went there to bring these people as prisoners to Jerusalem to be punished.”
- Fondness for quoting liberals at far end of theological spectrum.
- Calling into question uncontroversial points, e.g. that Acts is part 2 of Luke .
- Leading statements: Jesus’ brothers named after great heroes of Judaism (implying a radical revolutionary tendency ran in the family) .
- Shock statements that aren’t quite true… but are later clarified, once the shock has been felt -- usually a few paragraphs later.
- E.g. the Romans walking up cliff side of Masada, “shields up, swords drawn” – as Aslan makes clear, he well knows it took many weeks for the Romans to advance up that side of the mountain .
- Or that the meeting between Pilate and Jesus is ludicrous…. A reasonable argument can be made for it having happened. Aslan claims the “trial” before Pilate “beggars the imagination” and is “pure legend” . There was no “trial” before Pilate . Yet the gospels never say there was a trial. Further, while at first Aslan mocks the idea, later on he states that for a potential political prisoner, Pilate might well have made time to see him -- and John Meier makes a compelling case for the position !
- Assertions without proof
- Jesus Christ
- Jesus could not have understood the "Son of Man" as a divine figure (as in 4 Ezra) . But what about Daniel 7?
- Mark 9 tells us that Jesus’ transfiguration affected only his clothes  (which it doesn't) -- therefore his body (unlike Moses' -- Exod 34) wasn't glowing.
- There are no OT messianic prophecies that say the Messiah will do miracles . Really?! How about Isaiah 42, 60, etc?
- More than a few biblical scholars have openly labeled Jesus a magician [108-109]. I know of only one (Morton Smith).
- All the miracle stories of Jesus have been embellished .
- Daniel’s Anointed One isn’t killed (Dan 9:26), but only cut off . Yet it's not clear whether "cut off" implies death, so there's no room for dogmatism here.
- Jesus didn't stay in the desert for a time of testing, but in order to spend time learning from John the Baptist .
- Apostles and other leaders
- Matthew isn’t Levi . Yet two names were common (e.g. Simon Peter, John Mark).
- Jesus recruited from among “the fishing village’s disaffected youth” . But why can't Simon and Andrew be the same age as Jesus? (Rob Bell wants them to be teenagers, but he goes too far.)
- Few if any of the apostles agreed that Paul was a disciple [184-185].
- Paul never recounts his Damascus Road experience, which is a fabrication of Luke . Yet see Acts 22. The fact that the three accounts (Acts 9, 22, 26) have minor differences suggests Luke wasn't making up the story, nor was he concerned to rewrite it to make it less problematic.
- None of the apostles spoke Greek . Jesus and his disciples were illiterate peasants [203, 226]. Aslan should read Alan Millard's Reading and Writing in the Time of Jesus.
- The Jerusalem Christians didn’t evangelize – they just blended in . Yet Acts 4, 5, 12!
- James took no baths .
- The church in Rome fell under authority of the Jerusalem church .
- Some assertions have weak proof, e.g. that Stephen led the independent Hellenistic community , and that the Hellenists held that Jesus came not to fulfill the law, but to abolish it (!). Or that the Church of Jerusalem was demolished in 70 AD [150, 212]. James and the Jerusalem Christians stayed in Jerusalem, awaiting coming of the Lord, and so were killed by Titus’ army. But that would mean that they ignored Jesus' prophecy [Luke 21:20].
- Jesus Christ
- Mocking, Sarcastic
- Stephen’s “long and rambling diatribe” .
- Luke is Paul’s sycophant [184-185].
- On 500 soldiers accompanying the prisoner Paul: “This is absurd and can be flatly ignored” . But there's a plot afoot involving 40 men determined to kill Paul. The conspirators are armed, armed disturbances were somewhat common in Palestine, and the Romans know it. What number of soldiers does Aslan think the officer should have dispatched: 40? 100? 150? Might not the number of conspirators have been snowballing? Is this not a case of better safe than sorry?
- Reactionary comments -- which are frequently overstatements
- “With the help of his disciples he blocks the entrance to the courtyard, forbidding anyone carrying goods for sale or trade from entering the Temple. Then, as the crowd of vendors, worshippers, priests, and curious onlookers scramble over the scattered detritus, as a stampede of frightened animals, chased by their panicked owners, rushes headlong out of the Temple gates and into the choked streets of Jerusalem, as a corps of Roman guards and heavily armed Temple police blitz through the courtyard looking to arrest whoever is responsible for this mayhem, there stands Jesus, according to the gospels, aloof, seemingly unperturbed, crying out over the din: ‘It is written, “My house shall be called a house of prayer for all nations, but you have made it a den of thieves.”’” [74-75]
- Cleansing of temple caused a “riot” in the Court of the Gentiles .
- Jesus’ apostolic band was “armed with swords” . But there were only 2, and Jesus discouraged their use – hence the unanimous pacifism of the early church.
- The “brief but bloody tussle” although two swords weren’t enough .
- “Thus, on a bald hill covered in crosses, beset by moans of agony from hundreds of dying criminals, as a murder of crows circled eagerly over his head waiting for him to breathe his last…” 
- Disunity and strife suppressed
- The early Christians were fearful of John the Baptist’s continuing influence: “frantic attempt to reduce John’s significance” – and the truth that “Jesus very likely began his ministry as just another of his disciples” .
- In Acts Luke “paints a picture of perfect harmony between Paul and the council’s members…” 
- Gal 2:11 = “fierce public feud” – yet no evidence Peter lashed out in return, or rejected Paul’s correction.
- Superior attitude
- Even in the vocabulary: 98 lucubration; 108 Lugdunum (ancient Lyon)
- As though this were his own insight: “To the Jews, a crucified Messiah was nothing less than a contradiction in terms. The very fact of his crucifixion annulled his messianic claims” . Credit belongs to Paul more than to Aslan. Or the observation that wisdom is personified in Wisdom of Solomon as a woman (Sophia), in order to better connect with those with a Greek philosophical background . But this is in Proverbs, and is well known to those who read the Bible.
- “Two decades of scholarly research” [xx] – perhaps absorbed from the ultraliberal institutions where he did his study? (Harvard University, U Cal Santa Barbara, Santa Clara University -- Jesuit)
- Negative feeling
- Palpable hostility towards biblical Christians. Aslan admits his anger – “I angrily discarded my faith as if it were a costly forgery….” [xix].
- Paul’s anger at James and the original apostles “seeps like poison through the pages of his later epistles” .
- One wonders if Aslan has projected his own negative emotions onto Paul!
- Well over 100, not even counting all the mistakes highlighted in other sections of this podcast!
- Life of Jesus
- Phil 2:7 doesn’t support the incarnation – because Jesus is one of God’s first creations, the "firstborn" . But what about Ps 89:27? "And I will appoint him to be my firstborn, the most exalted of the kings of the earth."
- The incarnation is rejected , as well as the divinity of Christ. But what about Mal 3, Ezek 34, Ps 110, and many other passages?
- Jesus was a tekton (builder, carpenter, mason...) only in Mark 6:3 . Aslan has forgotten Matt 13:55.
- “He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire” suggests arson .
- Aslan assumes "the Kingdom of God is at hand" means that the end of world is near  –a common mistake among those unfamiliar with the already/not yet of Christian theology.
- The Parable of the Sower is mainly anticlerical . Yet the parable is about loving one's neighbor.
- The Temple in Jesus' time was 500m x 300m – this was the complex, not the temple proper. (To be fair, in John's gospel, however, sometimes the entire Temple Mount complex is referred to as the temple.)
- Jesus was joking when he told the leper to go show himself to the priest, since the leprosy was gone. Aslan seems to have misunderstood Lev 14 .
- There would have been no need for a large band of soldiers to snatch Jesus -- yet later Aslan admits a sizeable crowd went to Gethsemane to arrest Jesus ! He seems to be changing his mind, or rethinking, even as he is writing his book.
- After confessing he's the Messiah, Jesus then muddies everything by identifying himself with the Son of Man in Daniel (Mark 14:62) . Aslan seems unable to grasp the two sides of the Messiah, Lion and Lamb (Rev 5) -- the same mistake so many of Jesus’ Jewish contemporaries made.
- When the crowd (manipulated by Annas and Caiaphas) is manipulating Pilate – “We have no king but Caesar!” -- Aslan claims they couldn't have said that .
- Pilate is portrayed as a righteous but weak-willed man in the gospels ! He is increasingly exonerated in the gospels . He tries to save Jesus because he thinks he may be the Son of God (!) 
- The crucifixion required three iron spikes . Actually, the skeletal evidence of crucified persons indicates the Romans used four nails.
- Crucified people would hang on the cross for hours . Actually, days were a more common.
- Mark wasn’t interested in Jesus’ resurrection . Really? What about Jesus' predictions of his resurrection, several of which Mark records?
- Our author claims the series: Last Supper—Betrayal—Arrest—Sanhedrin—Herod & Pilate—Cross—Burial—Resurrection is what it is for liturgical reasons [153-154]. But what else could it be if Jesus was betrayed?
- Re: Luke 24:44-46 – there isn’t a single line of scripture on the suffering, death, and resurrection on the third day of the Messiah . But the resurrection is prefigured in Dan 6; Gen 22; Ps 16; Ezek 37 and more clearly identified in Dan 12 and the DSS 4Q521.
- The apostles
- Paul was uninterested in the words of Jesus . Common claim. What about Acts 20:35? 1 Cor 11? Quite a few allusions to Jesus’ words?
- James forces Paul to (hypocritically) back down from his anti-Torah position, taking an oath and joining others in this vow (Acts 21:23)….[195-197, 208-209]. But what about 1 Cor 9:20? "To the Jews I became like a Jew, to win the Jews. To those under the law I became like one under the law (though I myself am not under the law), so as to win those under the law." Besides, Paul has a positive view of the law (read Romans). He argues that the gospel is for the Jew first, then the Gentile (Rom 1:16) – and this is in one of the letters Aslan agrees Paul actually wrote. Further, Paul’s custom was to share the gospel with the Jews, through speaking invitations at synagogues… When he wore out his welcome, then he turned to the Gentiles. If he were as anti-Torah as Aslan insinuates, it is doubtful he would ever be invited back for a second lesson!
- Paul disagrees with James over salvation . They use the same passages to prove opposite things (James 2; Romans 4). But works and faith are two sides of a coin. Aslan's position is based on an old and tired argument. Paul required nothing for salvation but faith in Christ . Aslan claims Rom 10:13 contradicts Matt 7:21 .
- Aslan misses Paul’s point in 2 Cor – which he calls "Corinthians" (proofreader lapse?) – when he makes Paul call the Jerusalem apostles "servants of Satan…" . But Paul's opponents valued prestige, comfort, honor; they did not suffer. The "super-apostles" Paul excoriates cannot be the Jerusalem apostles, who it seems were nearly as poor as Paul!
- Re: Paul’s arrest in Jerusalem: He is mistaken for the Egyptian – and this is the only reason he was taken into custody by the Romans [194-195]. But Paul denied being this person, and the text makes it clear that once corrected the commander still decides to refer the case up the ladder of command (Acts 21:39).
- After his meeting with the Jewish leaders in Acts 28, "Paul vowed from that moment on to preach to none but the gentiles, ‘for they will listen’ (Acts 28:26-29)” . Yet the text indicates a mixed reaction -- some Jews were persuaded by Paul. True, in Acts 28:28 Paul says he will focus on the Gentiles, but not only the Gentiles. In fact, this isn't a change of missionary strategy for Paul, since that has been his method all along: first the Jew, then the Gentile...
- James (presumably unlike Paul, who cared little about earthly matters) truly cares for the poor . What? Gal 2:10! 2 Cor 8-9!
- Simon Peter “swore he witnessed the resurrection with his own eyes, as did many others among them…" . This is false. There were no eyewitnesses of the resurrection, unless the Roman soldiers were able to see what was happening (which seems unlikely). Many witnessed Jesus after the resurrection, however.
- Later Christianity
- Aslan confuses the Circumcision Party (as in Titus 1 and Acts 15) and Jewish Christianity .
- James loses credibility to Paul because of the nascent doctrine of the virginity of Mary (James being Jesus’ brother) . An interesting possibility, and there may be some truth in it, but biblical Christians accord equal respect -- and obedience -- to the teaching of both James and Paul.
- The Ebionite movement continuing to teach the theology of James . Yet biblical scholars note that this movement wasn't really a Christian movement, since they rejected Christ's divinity. In Zealot Aslan seems to believe that James believed in the Second Coming of his brother -- in contradiction to the Ebionites.
- Judaean Christians shared with none but their fellow Jews. Love thy neighbor means one's fellow Jew . But what about Luke 23:34, Luke 10:25-37? Matthew 5:38-48?
- Ancient languages
- Greek errors: Matt 11:12 – the kingdom “operates by force” . In Acts 15, Aslan has krino mean “I decree” rather than "It is my judgment" . Overstated! He spells basileus (king) as "Baselius" .
- Hebrew: He denies that in Isa 7:14 'almah is virgin. Yet the point is that that was how the ancient Jews understood it, as evidenced in the LXX, where 'almah is rendered parthenos. Aslan writes Xristos and Yesus ha Xristos – confusing the two languages!
- Latin: dinarii should be denarii. Aslan claims Pilatus means “skilled with the javelin”  -- yet at most this means "armed with a javelin."
- Other: the kingdom of Medea  should be Media.
- Dating & Chronology
- Paul’s conversion 37 AD  (more like 32 or 33 – which Aslan admits, citing Martin Hengel).
- Phil about 49 AD [170 AD]. But Paul hadn't even visited Corinth that early. Philippi wasn't a city visited on the First Missionary Journey!
- 1 Cor written 50 AD . This is too early -- See the Gallio Inscription.
- Peter and Paul were executed 66 AD . He should have given a range of acceptable dates, since the persecution began in 64, and Nero died in 68.
- All four the gospels were written after 70 AD . But most scholars put Mark c.65 AD. (E.g., the fire and other details of 70 AD are missing in the prophecy of Mark 13.)
- Paul wrote only 7 letters….. 
- Aslan makes it sounds like Nero sends Vespasian after Masada. (I had to read this section three times to figure out what was going on!) Simple proof-reading would have caught that [60-61].
- Gospel of Thomas in late 1st or early 2nd century. More likely dates to the late 2nd C.
- Eusebius’ church history Aslan puts in the 3rd C – yet it was probably written in the 320s. All scholars consider his Historia Ecclesiae a 4th-century work.
- The Sepphoris synagogue(s) date to the 5th and 6th century. Yet Aslan implies that the Byzantine period synagogue was there in the 1st century . Aslan fails to mention that, as he paints a picture of cosmopolitan and wordly Jews.
- Jesus had a two-year ministry. John's gospel suggests a ministry of 3 or 3.5 years.
- Old Testament / Judaism errors
- Aslan mocks the notion that the law was given through angels, as Stephen claims in Acts 7  Later, however, he but admits the idea does come into Judaism (as we see in Gal 3:19).
- Passover celebration is mainly a political act . While there are political nuances, it was far more than a mere political statement.
- Aslan uncritically accepts the tradition that when serving in the Holy of Holies the high priest was tied to a rope, in case he died while on duty  , without letting the reader know that this is in doubt. The tradition might be true, but it is a mistake to present a possibility as a fact.
- His view of the Conquest is extreme (utter annihilation) . The O.T. depicts a replacement of the Canaanite population through war, flight, conversion, and intermarriage.
- David spoke about himself in Ps 16, not the Messiah [166-167]. Yet that doesn’t mean the application is wrong. In general, the early Christians used texts to prove Jesus was the Christ that were widely accepted in Judaism.
VI. [OUTLANDISH] QUOTES
- Paul insists he is far superior to all the other apostles . “Simply put, Paul does not consider himself the thirteenth apostle. He thinks he is the first" .
- About the Gospels: “Factual accuracy was irrelevant. What mattered was Christology, not history” . Yet Christianity is a historical religion—a faith anchored in history. If God did not visit our world, if Jesus did not take our sins on the Cross and rise from the dead, then our faith is vain.
- “Simon Peter was “displaying the reckless confidence of one uninitiated in the scriptures” . Yet I’m not so sure those lacking training would have been as confident as Simon Peter. After all, he was learned in that he had received three years of training from the best teacher on earth -- far better than the typical course of being a disciple to a rabbi.
- “Paul had no idea who the living Jesus was, nor did he care" .
- “Paul’s breezy dismissal of the very foundations of Judaism was as shocking to the leaders of the Jesus movement in Jerusalem as it would have been to Jesus himself” .
- “The story of the zealous Galilean peasant and Jewish nationalist who donned the mantle of messiah and launched a foolhardy rebellion against the corrupt Temple priesthood and the vicious Roman occupation comes to an abrupt end, not with his death on the cross, nor with the empty tomb, but at the first moment one of his followers [like Paul] dares suggest he is God” . But Paul was thoroughly Jewish. The idea of Christ’s divinity was not easily digestible -- especially to a Jew.
- The thesis – that Jesus was a failed revolutionary – is a failed thesis. It is deeply flawed.
- Aslan makes the same mistake made by those who rejected Jesus as true Messiah in his own day!
- Aslan admits that once he rejected Christianity he was “confused and spiritually unmoored” [xix]. This shows in his book.
- One appropriate adjective for the thesis / book: tendentious.
- Zealot received many accolades—I notice that none are from biblical scholars.
- Should people read this book?
- Although I cannot recommend the book as a source for solid information, there are some interesting parts.
- Further, so much is skewed that many Christians will be put off by Zealot. They will feel belittled.
- However, teachers, preachers, and other church leaders should know their Bibles well enough to be able to refute these claims, to give truth and confidence to those who may be rattled by teachers like Aslan. That means someone needs to wade in and devote some time to untangling the critics' arguments.