Zealot by Reza Aslan is a meticulously researched biography that challenges the belief of one of the most influential and enigmatic spiritual leaders, Jesus. Reza Aslan examines Jesus through the perception of his era: first-century Palestine, an age of unrest and rebellions. Aslan, at the start of the book, reviews the attempts of a number of men who sought to overthrow the established order and free Israel. His belief was that Jesus was an itinerant Jewish preacher who sought followers to establish what he would call the “Kingdom of God,” which was a revolutionary movement to overthrow the established regime, the Roman hegemony over Israel. The campaign Jesus started was so threatening that the Romans arrested and executed as a criminal. After his death, his followers would change his political teachings to that of spiritual teachings thus calling him God.
Using both the Jesus of religion and historical sources, Aslan describes a man of both compassion and violence; as seen when Jesus urged his followers to arm themselves with weapons and when he provided miracle healings to his people. The author juggles the reasoning behind why the early Christians viewed Jesus as an image of a peaceful spiritual leader, rather than a political revolutionary and provides his own theory. In an interview with PBS, Reza Aslan states “zealot ideals and principles are the heart of Jesus’s teachings and actions…” and that Jesus’s crucifixion was proof of Jesus as a revolutionary rebel. Aslan also states that the transition from political teachings to spiritual teachings led to the divorce of Christianity from Judaism.
Reza Aslan is an Iranian-American writer and scholar of religions. He holds many degrees varying from a Bachelor of Arts in Religious Studies to a PhD in Sociology of Religions and he is currently an Associate Professor in Creative Writing. His family background is Muslim, but not devout and Aslan, himself, experienced conversion to Christianity in his teens, but lost his faith later. As a creative writer, he implements the use of a casual narrative style thus making the biography feel sort of like a historical fiction with Aslan allowing the readers to experience what narrator seeing, smelling, and hearing. Even though this does not stop him from citing sources and mounting arguments, it proves to be a problem because it comes off as more of a novel than a historical analysis.
Because of his familial background as a Muslim, Reza Aslan received many criticisms for the biography of Jesus of Nazareth. This book does not provide a Muslim view of Jesus, although he has been accused of doing so by many readers and interviews (Fox News Interview). Muslims typically views Jesus as being born from a virgin, being a Messiah, and was not crucified. Aslan rejects all of these as he casts doubt about Mary’s virginity early in the book, he views Jesus as a revolutionary leader rather than a spiritual or religious one, and he clearly shows us he believes Jesus was crucified. Contrary to many accusations, Reza Aslan did not have any influence of Muslim ideals on his work of Zealot.
According to Reza Aslan, there are only two clear historical facts about Jesus, which is him leading a popular Jewish movement against the Roman Empire and that he was later crucified, and so he offers imaginative reconstruction of the life and times of Jesus. However, biographies typically offer more than just an imaginative reconstruction of a person’s life like Aslan is doing in Zealot. Providing a book-length exercise of imagination is going to categorize that work into historical fiction, no matter how many historical sources you provide. I personally believe Zealot is a work of historical fiction that is written to be a biography.
Aslan uses a wide array of historical sources to find as much ground on his viewpoint of the era of Jesus and finds that crucifixion is exclusively used for the...