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ZEALOT: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth Hardcover – July 16, 2013

4.1 out of 5 stars 4,665 customer reviews

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Q&A with Reza Aslan

Q. Why did you title your biography of Jesus of Nazareth Zealot?

A. In Jesus' world, zealot referred to those Jews who adhered to a widely accepted biblical doctrine called zeal. These “zealous” Jews were strict nationalists who preached the sole sovereignty of God. They wanted to throw off the yoke of Roman occupation and cleanse the Promised Land of all foreign elements. Some zealots resorted to extreme acts of violence against both the Roman authorities and the Jewish ‘collaborators,” by which they meant the wealthy Temple priests and the Jewish aristocracy. Others refrained from violence but were no less adamant about establishing the reign of God on earth. There is no evidence that Jesus of Nazareth was himself a violent revolutionary (though his views on the use of violence were more complex than it is often assumed). However, Jesus’ actions and his teachings about the Kingdom of God clearly indicate that he was a follower of the zealot doctrine, which is why he, like so many zealots before and after him, was ultimately executed by Rome for the crime of sedition.

Q. Yours is one of the few popular biographies of Jesus of Nazareth that does not rely on the gospels as your primary source of information for uncovering Jesus’ life. Why is that? What are your primary sources?

A. I certainly rely on the gospels to provide a narrative outline to my biography of Jesus of Nazareth, but my primary source in recreating Jesus’ life are historical writings about first century Palestine, like the Jewish historian Flavius Josephus, as well as Roman documents of the time. The gospels are incredible texts that provide Christians with a profound framework for living a life in imitation of Christ. The problem, however, is that the gospels are not, nor were they ever meant to be, historical documentations of Jesus’ life. These are not eyewitness accounts of Jesus’ words and deeds. They are testimonies of faith composed by communities of faith written many years after the events they describe. In other words, the gospels tell us about Jesus the Christ, not Jesus the man. The gospels are of course extremely useful in revealing how the early Christians viewed Jesus. But they do not tell us much about how Jesus viewed himself. To get to the bottom of that mystery, which is what I try to do in the book, one must sift through the gospel stories to analyze their claims about Jesus in light of the historical facts we know about the time and world in which Jesus lived. Indeed, I believe that if we place Jesus firmly within the social, religious, and political context of the era in which he lived, then, in some ways, his biography writes itself.

Q. You write in the book that you became an evangelical Christian in High School, but that after a few years, you abandoned Christianity and returned to the faith of your forefathers: Islam. Why did you decide to make this change and how did it affect how you understood the life and work of Jesus of Nazareth.

A. When I was fifteen years old I heard the gospel story for the first time and immediately accepted Jesus into my heart. I had what Christians refer to as “an encounter with Christ.” I spent the next five years as an evangelical Christian, and even spent some time traveling around the United States spreading the gospel message. But the more I read the Bible – especially in college, where I began my formal study of the New Testament – the more I uncovered a wide chasm between the Jesus of history and the Jesus I learned about in church. At that same time, through the encouragement of one of my professors, I began to reexamine the faith and traditions of my forefathers and returned to Islam. But the irony is that once I detached my academic study of Jesus from my faith in Christ, I became an even more fervent follower of Jesus of Nazareth. What I mean to say is that I live my life according to the social teachings preached by Jesus two thousand years ago. I take his actions against the powers of his time and his defense of the poor and the weak as a model of behavior for myself. I pray, as a Muslim, alongside my Christian wife, and together we teach our children the values I believe Jesus represents. The man who defied the will of the most powerful empire the world had ever known – and lost – is so much more real to me than the Jesus I knew as a Christian. So in a way, this book is my attempt to spread the good news of Jesus the man with the same passion that I once applied to spreading the good news of Jesus the Christ.

Q. What do you hope readers, especially religious readers, take away from your book?

A. My hope is that this book provides readers with a more complete sense of the world in which Jesus lived. We cannot truly understand Jesus’ words and deeds if we separate them from the religious and political context of his time. Regardless of whether you think of Jesus as a prophet, a teacher, or God incarnate, it is important to remember that he did not live in a vacuum. Whatever else Jesus was, he was, without question, a man of his time. This is true for all of us. The key to understanding who Jesus was and what Jesus meant lies in understanding the times in which he lived. That’s what this book does. It drops you in the middle of Jesus’ world and helps you understand the context out of which he arose and in which preached.

From Publishers Weekly

Starred Review. The person and work of Jesus of Nazareth has been a topic of constant interest since he lived and died some 2,000 years ago. Much speculation about who he was and what he taught has led to confusion and doubt. Aslan, who authored the much acclaimed No god but God: The Origins, Evolution, and Future of Islam, offers a compelling argument for a fresh look at the Nazarene, focusing on how Jesus the man evolved into Jesus the Christ. Approaching the subject from a purely academic perspective, the author parts an important curtain that has long hidden from view the man Jesus, who is every bit as compelling, charismatic, and praiseworthy as Jesus the Christ. Carefully comparing extra-biblical historical records with the New Testament accounts, Aslan develops a convincing and coherent story of how the Christian church, and in particular Paul, reshaped Christianity's essence, obscuring the very real man who was Jesus of Nazareth. Compulsively readable and written at a popular level, this superb work is highly recommended. Agent: Elyse Cheney, Elyse Cheney Literary Associates (July)

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 296 pages
  • Publisher: Random House; 8th edition (July 16, 2013)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 140006922X
  • ISBN-13: 978-1400069224
  • Product Dimensions: 6.4 x 1.1 x 9.6 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.4 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.1 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (4,665 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #10,009 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

Format: Kindle Edition Verified Purchase
I've read the book (unlike so many of the "reviewers" who gave it one star) and here are some points.

1) This is a popularization of recent (late 20th-early 21st century) reputable scholarship regarding Jesus. There's nothing in this book that would surprise a person (like myself) who has read pretty much all of the accessible scholarship on Jesus published in the last 30 or so years. Just going through the (extensive!) notes and bibliography at the end indicates to me that Aslan has done his homework.

2) Aslan takes the position that Jesus was a zealot for God and God's Temple, but (and this is repeated several times in the book) he was not a member of the Zealot Party, which wouldn't arise until over 30 years after Jesus' death. In this, Jesus was just one of a number of people who arose in the period from the reign of Herod the Great to the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 CE and his fate was like those others. In short, Jesus was killed for his zealotry, which was perceived as a threat to the Roman authorities and particularly to the Jewish sycophants who ran the Temple (and profited nicely from it). This is not a position shared by many members of the religious scholarship fraternity, who have attempted to carve out a position for Jesus where he's a religious figure who did not delve at all into politics. It's an interesting argument that I can't do justice in a few short sentences. If you're interested, you'll have to read the book yourself and decide if Aslan makes his case.

3) Aslan doesn't stop with the death of Jesus, and, as someone writing history, not hagiography, he carefully notes that he can't pass judgment on whether Jesus' resurrection occurred, because it is not a historical event but an event of faith.
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Format: Kindle Edition Verified Purchase
I read this book primarily because some of the negative reviews were so hysterical in their fear that I was curious what the big deal is. I still am.

I am an ordained pastor with 15 years experience and five advanced degrees in theology. Aslan writes like what he is, a religious historian. His job as an academic is to present a thesis, develop it based on both evidence and his theories of meaning and then let the reading community judge it. He does this well. This is a good and thoughtful book. I disagree with some of Aslan's conclusions. His thesis makes sense but it is not without problems. And at times his writing became tedious.

Nonetheless, I give it four stars because it is an honest book from a gifted scholar that engaged me in a new way of thinking about the topic.

That the author is a Muslim matters to me about as much as the fact that I as a reader am a Preabyterian matters to him. He is a scholar. That is what matters here.
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Format: Hardcover
A disclaimer: I'm an atheist, I majored in classics and I paid full price for this book at a brick & mortar. Let that say what it will about my judgment.

Now, if you seek confirmation that Jesus was/is the one, true Son of God, the savior of humanity, through which all can attain an everlasting life...that's not in this book. If you want a book by a Christian and for Christians, which will echo and confirm your Christian beliefs, then this is not the book for you. Don't buy it, don't waste your time and money. There are plenty of other books out there that are just what you're searching for. I can't give you any recommendations (my apologies) but I'm sure a quick search on google or a trip to your local Christian book seller will get you started. Good luck, have a nice day.

On the other hand, if you have an open mind and an interest in history, you probably will enjoy this book. Christian, Atheist or whatever, there is no denying the impact Jesus has had on history. There is so much we will never know - can never know - about the life and times of Jesus of Nazareth - not the Jesus you learn about at Sunday school or vacation bible study. This book is about the Nazarean, whom every Christian will tell you walked as a man among men. Reza Aslan investigates this man and the world that he was born into, his short life and his agonizing death, and tries to fill in the blanks where he can with conjecture based on scholarship.

To the Kind Reader of this Review: If you are honestly researching this book, I would consider extremely suspect any one or two-star reviews. I don't feel one or two stars is a fair rating of what you can expect. Yet I do have my reservations about this book, though I admit I'm no biblical scholar.
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Format: Hardcover
In total, a decent book for those unfamiliar with research on recovering the historical Jesus, a horrible book for those who cover their ears and sing loudly when reason speaks, and an uneven recap for those with more than two graduate courses under their belts.
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It's true that Aslan does not bring new research to the table, which would be extremely ambitious considering the extent of historical scholarly research already existing. There were many additional points of controversy not included, but I realize that they are outside the scope of Aslan's thesis. He does a remarkable job bringing many of the various historical claims and conclusions into a well-written and accessible narrative.

Note the word accessible- many who've devoted years to biblical study may be annoyed (as I was) that each reference and claim didn't have an endnote to the bibliography. There are extensive notes, however, and all scriptural references are included. That said, this is the first nonfiction book that I can confidently give someone to read and know that they can get through and enjoy it. That means a lot to me, since most of my reading is too dry to discuss outside of graduate seminars. I'm excited to give this book to friends who wouldn't usually read scholarly history.

I'd encourage skeptics to give it a try- approach it as history, not scripture, and appreciate what the book has to offer. I personally found the account of Jesus in Zealot much more identifiable than the way he's portrayed in any traditional Christian texts.
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