Book Review: Zealot

zealot“Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth” by Reza Aslan

2017 Reading Challenge — Book 20: A book from a theological viewpoint you disagree with

First of all, let me comment on how grateful I am that Tim Challies has included this category on his reading challenge list. I know how important it is to read books that I know will challenge my own views, but I’m not always disciplined enough to actually do it. And as usual, I find that I have been sharpened in this pursuit as I read Aslan’s biography of “Jesus of Nazareth” (who is contrasted throughout the book with “Jesus Christ, the Son of God”). Which, by the way, I do indeed disagree with, and strongly so.

But first, let me share what is commendable. The first of three sections in Zealot is devoted to the historical and religious context of the world in which Jesus lived. This section really is rather good, particularly his depiction of temple worship. This is an area of study in which scholars of many stripes—secular, Jewish, and Christian historians of both the theological right and left—are largely in agreement, and while this section reviews ground that’s been thoroughly covered before, Aslan is a very gifted storyteller, and I found the way he “sets the stage” to be quite enjoyable, particularly in the audiobook version, read by the author himself.

Beyond that, however… I found his arguments to be both unoriginal and uncompelling. For the most part, he simply rehashes many of the conclusions of the Jesus Seminar, albeit in a more narrative fashion, sure to appeal far more to lay readers than the more academic writing of many mainstream biblical scholars. And though admittedly I approached the book skeptically from the beginning, I found his depiction of Jesus as a “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” to be based on a mountain of flawed premises and poor scholarship.

Typically, after firing shots like that, I’d back them up with supporting evidence, but sadly, time prohibits my doing that at this time. Perhaps at some later date when life slows down I can write a more thoughtful review, but for now let me point you toward some others who have done the heavy lifting already, and whose conclusions I echo:

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