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Zealot

The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth
Written by: Reza Aslan
Narrated by: Reza Aslan
Length: 8 hrs and 8 mins
4.5 out of 5 stars (34 ratings)

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Publisher's Summary

From the internationally best-selling author of No god but God comes a fascinating, provocative, and meticulously researched biography that challenges long-held assumptions about the man we know as Jesus of Nazareth.

Two-thousand years ago, an itinerant Jewish preacher and miracle worker walked across the Galilee, gathering followers to establish what he called the "Kingdom of God". The revolutionary movement he launched was so threatening to the established order that he was captured, tortured, and executed as a state criminal.

Within decades after his shameful death, his followers would call him God.

Sifting through centuries of mythmaking, Reza Aslan sheds new light on one of history's most influential and enigmatic characters by examining Jesus through the lens of the tumultuous era in which he lived: first-century Palestine, an age awash in apocalyptic fervor. Scores of Jewish prophets, preachers, and would-be messiahs wandered through the Holy Land, bearing messages from God. This was the age of zealotry - a fervent nationalism that made resistance to the Roman occupation a sacred duty incumbent on all Jews. And few figures better exemplified this principle than the charismatic Galilean who defied both the imperial authorities and their allies in the Jewish religious hierarchy.

Balancing the Jesus of the Gospels against the historical sources, Aslan describes a man full of conviction and passion, yet rife with contradiction; a man of peace who exhorted his followers to arm themselves with swords; an exorcist and faith healer who urged his disciples to keep his identity a secret; and ultimately the seditious "King of the Jews" whose promise of liberation from Rome went unfulfilled in his brief lifetime.

©2013 Reza Aslan (P)2013 Random House

What the critics say

"In Zealot, Reza Aslan doesn't just synthesize research and reimagine a lost world, though he does those things very well. He does for religious history what Bertolt Brecht did for playwriting. Aslan rips Jesus out of all the contexts we thought he belonged in and holds him forth as someone entirely new. This is Jesus as a passionate Jew, a violent revolutionary, a fanatical ideologue, an odd and scary and extraordinarily interesting man." (Judith Shulevitz, author of The Sabbath World)
"A bold, powerfully argued revisioning of the most consequential life ever lived." (Lawrence Wright, Pulitzer Prize-winning author of Going Clear: Scientology, Hollywood, and the Prison of Belief)
"The story of Jesus of Nazareth is arguably the most influential narrative in human history. Here Reza Aslan writes vividly and insightfully about the life and meaning of the figure who has come to be seen by billions as the Christ of faith. This is a special and revealing work, one that believer and skeptic alike will find surprising, engaging, and original." (Jon Meacham, Pulitzer Prize-winning author of Thomas Jefferson: The Art of Power)

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Key Insight into the Historical Jesus

This is pretty much the best book I have ever read (or listened to, in this case). Aslan has spent a lifetime thinking deeply about Jesus, first as a follower of Jesus as a zealous convert to the faith, and after that as an admirer of Jesus the man, as he stepped back to consider who Jesus really was in history and what he taught. The resulting portrait in this book shows Jesus as very much a man of his time, a poor day laborer in a dusty provincial town where loyal Jews were horrified at the spiritual and moral corruption Rome had brought into the national and spiritual capital, Jerusalem. People were living in a perpetual state of outrage and near revolt, and into this milieu came John the Baptist teaching repentance and faithfulness to God and a coming new kingdom when Rome would be banished and Jewish wholeness restored. Jesus was a follower of John and imbibed and amplified his teaching.Jesus came to see himself as the fulfillment of John's prophecies and decided that he was to be that new king of Israel. He was therefore a "Zealot" who lived in the midst of this revolutionary fever, and he taught faithfulness to the best of Jewish teaching about the people of God joining together in love and consideration of others as they would forge God's Way upon the earth, with all people living right with God. Of course, when Jesus finally went to Jerusalem, after teaching his message in the provinces for a year or two, he was immediately killed for claiming to be the King of the Jews. The Romans, as was their custom, put his crime upon his cross: "King of the Jews". After his death, James his brother continued his teaching and became known in Jerusalem as "James the Just" and was respected by all as a man who lived the fullness of the commandments of God. He therefore built the church and they ministered to the poor and loved one another and eagerly waited for the return of Jesus. This was the true community of Jesus and was fullfilling his teachings. Meanwhile, Paul had a very different idea of Jesus as a savior for the Jews outside Jerusalem who were scattered to the Greek and Roman provinces, and also a savior to the gentiles (non-Jews). Paul fought hard against James' narrowly Jewish interpretation and eventually his views won out when James was murdered and soon after Jerusalem was sacked by the Romans and therefore the Jesus church in Jerusalem was destroyed. With no remaining competition from James, Paul's teaching became prevalent and later on the gospels were written and the Christian church as we know it began to form. Unfortunately, the Jesus of history was pretty much lost to history, but Aslan once again helps modern readers see the historical context in which he operated and how he saw himself as the political and spiritual leader sent from God to restore the Jewish homeland.

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loved it

Well researched and sources provided. Reza Alsan always does a great job and keeps me engaged throughout his books

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The story I been waiting for

As a lapsed/non-practicing/deeply disappointed Catholic this is the story I've been waiting for. For the better part of half a century a constant question/issue for me interns of modern Christian dogma has always been "what is the historical context in which Jesus lived?" Raza Aslan brought everything into focus and not just with a profound theological understanding of the evolution of Christianity but historical proof to back it up. A book I throughly enjoyed, have recommended and will re-listen.

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  • jam
  • 2018-10-02

A refreshing & valuable resource.

it's so nice that Reza Aslan read his book himself. He's a fantastic speaker and his delivery did not need someone else's interpretation.

it was always hard for me to believe that a religion as old and large as Christianity was not manipulated along its evolutionary path by different people for different purposes. to find a well written resource that proves my suspicions and such a thorough and compelling manner really fills my mental coffers.

I hope this man writes more books because he is honest, and delivers things in an unflinching yet respectful and sober manner. it would be nice to hear his take on the connections between the New Testament, the Old Testament, the Quran and the Torah so as to get an idea of how the abrahamic religions evolved, differ and are similar. So many other authors seem to have an agenda. Reza Aslan might as well, but, he seemed trustworthy and it did not hinder my experience.

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informative, captivating, easy to follow

learned quite a bit from listening, great to listen to while driving, with or without Bible knowledge, the story presented in an easy to consume 'way'

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  • Charles
  • 2013-07-22

Palastinian Politics 4 B.C.E. - 70 C.E.

The title of this book is provocative and in your face, and just it was supposed to do - it drew my attention. I did not feel, however, that the book itself was all that confrontational. Whatever your persuasion, the author's overview of the apocalyptic fervor in Palastine, particularly Galilee, is helpful for understanding the time period. His account of the life of Jesus is well written, but familiar to most secularists I imagine, but the history of Christianity after the death of Christ and before the destruction of Jerusalem was not something I had heard before and I enjoyed it immensely. This book is probably best described as an overview of the politics of Palastine before, during, and after the life of Christ, and how those interactions influenced Christianity.

I always prefer to have authors read their own work. I'm not sure what it adds, but I like it better. Good narration.

65 of 71 people found this review helpful

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  • Tad Davis
  • 2013-07-21

Vivid and well-researched

Reza Aslan has tackled a big project in this book: not just a biography of Jesus, but also a recreation of life in first-century Palestine, combining anecdotal evidence from the New Testament and other writings with the latest evidence from archaeological and sociological investigations. For the most part he succeeds brilliantly. It's one of the most vivid books on this subject I've read in nearly 40 years of study.

I might not feel so positively toward it if his take on Jesus was too far removed from my own. But it isn't. Aslan leans toward the Bart Ehrmann school of thought rather than the NT Wright or Jesus Seminar approach. His Jesus is an apocalyptic prophet who goes to Jerusalem with every expectation that God will intervene in history in a spectacular and visible way; but the Kingdom of God that he's spent a couple of years preaching and predicting (and possibly much of his life preparing for) fails to materialize.

This is not to say his take on Jesus is one of complete skepticism. More rationalist / humanist readers may be surprised at the weight he gives to the miracles of Jesus. Here he seems to most closely reflect the views of John P Meier, who points out that the standard historical criteria for New Testament research - the criteria of multiple sources, dissimilarity, and the like - when applied to the question of Jesus' miracles, lead to the conclusion that he was, in fact, a "doer of mighty deeds" - or at least that the people who knew him, friends and enemies alike, never questioned that he was a healer, exorcist, and wonder-worker.

The same is true of Aslan's discussion of the resurrection. There are no eyewitness accounts and no physical or archaeological evidence for the resurrection, and so it can't be evaluated by historical methods; but it's clear that "something happened." Of all the people who proclaimed themselves Messiah during this period - and Aslan gives a great deal of attention to the other messianic figures - Jesus is the only one whose followers remained devoted to him, who continued to proclaim his messiahship (and later his divinity) long after the crucifixion.

Aslan describes three types of messiahs that appear in Jewish literature leading up the the time of Jesus. The most obvious one is the kingly messiah, the descendant of David who would restore the twelve tribes of Israel; but there were also messiahs-as-liberators like Moses, and messiahs-as-prophets like Elijah. He evaluates the evidence for and against and suggests that, even though he was reluctant to proclaim it openly, Jesus thought of himself as the kingly Messiah. His choice of twelve disciples to "rule the twelve tribes of Israel" is only one piece of evidence to that end. There is also his many references to himself as "the Son of Man," which Aslan connects to the kingly figure depicted in the book of Daniel.

Aslan also gives remarkably full coverage of the early church, up to the time of the writing of the Gospels. Peter is here, as is James, the brother of Jesus, and Paul: and in the controversy that plagued the relationship of James and Paul, it probably comes as no surprise that Aslan believes James was closer to what Jesus actually proclaimed. One of the big problems of the early church, as Aslan describes it, is explaining how, if Jesus was crucified, he could have been the kingly Messiah he thought of himself as being. Aslan's conclusion, like that of many mainstream scholars, is that the disciples resolved the problem by redefining the Messiah as a suffering servant who would one day return in glory to judge the living and the dead. It can be defended with reference to different parts of scripture, but it doesn't reflect any concept of the Messiah that preceded the crucifixion of Jesus.

Aslan narrates the book himself. I'm not a great fan of self-narrated audio books, and there are times when I think he emphasizes the wrong word in his own sentence; but he is an enthusiastic reader who carries the narrative momentum forward with clarity.

I recommend the book highly. I've already listened to it twice (the second time, granted, at double-speed for the sake of review), and I plan to listen to it many timesa in the future.

131 of 150 people found this review helpful

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  • Jason Comely
  • 2013-07-22

Stunned...

I should mention I'm a devout Latter-Day Saint. I've read the King James Bible cover to cover and study it daily. Jesus Christ is my Saviour.

I found listening to Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth to be an exhilarating experience. I had the audiobook playing as I worked and I ended working extra hours to listen to more.

Reza narrates with energy and conviction in his voice. His storytelling is fantastic. I felt a chill down my spine through most of the listening. There were lots of insights and surprises.

I don't agree with everything Reza said, but that's not the point. I was looking for fresh glimpses at who Jesus was and now I have a whole new perspective.

With Zealot, if you're looking for reasons to believe in Christ, you'll find them here. If you're looking for reasons not to believe in Christ, you'll find them here too.

Personally, my love and reverence for Jesus of Nazareth has only increased since listening to this book. I'm grateful to Reza for that.







98 of 118 people found this review helpful

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  • Grace
  • 2013-08-01

Valuable info, but maybe better in print.

I downloaded this before all the drama that began with the silly FOX interview. In my opinion, any controversy about the author's "right" to publish this book is just ridiculous. This is an historical work, not a religious text. Jesus' concern for the un or under-represented factions puts him in the most positive light. He is portrayed as a real human being dealing with injustice and bravely taking action.

On the downside. This might be a book better purchased in print form. As someone basically ignorant of these in depth historical debates, it would have been helpful to reference the extensive notes included in the print version.

The author has a perfectly good voice and delivery, so don't be put off on that account.

20 of 24 people found this review helpful

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  • meg
  • 2013-08-15

Relax, no harm done to JC

What did you love best about Zealot?

I liked that the author, Reza Aslan, did not resort to any kind of sensationalism but only stuck to the history of Jesus Christ and his followers.

Who was your favorite character and why?

This is not a "pleasure" read but a very informative history so there are no "characters", only real people during very, very difficult times.

What does Reza Aslan bring to the story that you wouldn’t experience if you just read the book?

The author has an excellent reading voice. His complete submersion and obvious knowledge of his subject matter held me in a way just reading the book would not have.

Was there a moment in the book that particularly moved you?

There was not just one moment. The whole book moved me deeply. Understanding how life was so long ago helped me to understand the reasons for the events that took place.

Any additional comments?

Many people will not read this book because they may feel this author may be trying to tear down their faith and what they believe the truth to be. I say, don't be afraid. Read it. You will come away with your faith intact and deeper but in a more realistic way. The true path Jesus would want you on is plainly revealed to you in this book. This truth will be clear to the thinking Christian as well as the thinking Muslim. You will not have to rely so much on "hope" and "faith" with so much secret doubt.

28 of 34 people found this review helpful

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  • Margaret
  • 2013-07-18

Meet historical Jesus

I was amazed at the speed with which I listened to this book. Reza Aslan narrates his own work with understanding and a sense of urgency that kept me engaged to the end.

I suspect that experts in the time period may find this work introductory, but there was a lot here that was news to me: for example, the significance of Jesus being from Nazarene, of the Messianic fever sweeping the people under Roman occupation, and why the Romans hung a sign on the cross that read "King of the Jews." (hint: They labeled every cross with the crime committed. Standard operating procedure.)

While I'm interested in textual criticism generally, this gave me a much clearer sense of what it felt like to live in the time of Christ. Recommend.

69 of 86 people found this review helpful

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  • Jacobus
  • 2013-08-08

Do we meet the American moderate Muslim Jesus?

Did the early Christians transform their leader from a ‘revolutionary Jewish nationalist’ into a ‘peaceful Spiritual leader with no interest in any earthly matter’ in order to gain converts from the gentile Roman world? Reza Alsan, ex-Evangelical Christian turned moderate American Muslim and religious scholar, thinks so. His argument begins at the crucifixion. Accordingly Jesus was crucified as an insurrectionist, just like the two political bandits who hanged next to him. For Aslan Jesus was a Zealot - though he makes it clear that he was not from the later Jewish Zealot party - his zeal for his people and his political awareness made him a threat to the Roman Government.

Aslan points out very early in the audiobook that every gospel account about Jesus was written after the Jewish revolt against Rome in 66 C.E. Like most scholars of the New Testament today, he claims that the gospels should be read in light of the destruction of the temple in 70 C.E. For Aslan the consequences of the temple’s destruction lead to a very similar outcome in Second Century Judaism and early Christianity. These two movements sought to divorce themselves from the radical messianic nationalism that lead to the war against Rome and the temple’s destruction. Rabbinic Judaism emerged when Jews centred their life on the Torah rather than the temple. Early Christianity divorced itself from the messianic zeal, not only because of being excluded from Judaism, but also because the Romans were now the people from which this movement had to gain converts to grow. Thus Jesus the Zealot had to be made more presentable. Aslan argues basically that he had an image makeover.

In this book Aslan attempts to claim the Jesus of history, the Jesus before Christianity. He tries ‘to reclaim the Political conscious Jewish revolutionary who walked the Galilean country side 2000 years ago, gathering followers as part of his messianic movement with the goal of establishing the kingdom of God, but whose mission failed after he entered Jerusalem, attacked the temple and was captured and crucified.’ His method is to clean the ‘literal and theological’ add-ons of the New Testament up. Starting with the verifiable - Jesus’ crucifixion - he claims to forge a more accurate picture of Jesus, notwithstanding many scholars being sceptic that it cannot be done.

The book is divided into three parts. In Part 1 Aslan presents a summary of Josephus’ History of the Jewish War placing Jesus squarely within the political and social background of his time. He focusses on the various false messiahs, who with their eschatological zeal failed to rise to political power and was suppressed by the Roman Empire. Part 2 focus on what we know about Jesus of Nazareth as a person within history. Aslan begins with the crucifixion as historically verifiable and seems to add Jesus triumphal entry into Jerusalem and some basic claims, like his wonderworking ability and exorcisms to his sketch of Jesus. He also debunks Luke and Matthew’s birth narratives, while describing Jesus as a lowly peasant who spoke out against the great divide between rich and poor in his time. Lastly in Part 3, Aslan debunks Paul and the Pauline branch of Christianity as out of synch with the earliest and truest followers of Jesus of Nazareth, those who accepted James as their leader. He makes the dramatic claim that the Jesus of history died with the martyr Stephen when he called to Jesus as God before his death.

Listening to the audiobook I got the impression that Reza Aslan brought Richard Horsley’s political anti-colonial Jesus with something of Jon Dominic Crossan’s fighter for the poor and oppressed and Burton Mack’s historical consciousness together. He seems to have used Gerd Lüdemann’s argument of great turmoil, diversity and divide within earliest Christianity to construct his picture of the Jerusalem church and the role of James, the brother of Jesus, within the movement.

Here are a few questions that came to my mind while listening to the audiobook: How much would this critical Jesus sketch agree with a similar sketch of Muhammad today? Did I hear a very Lukan construction of Jesus’ agenda? By ignoring the aspect that the gospels as literature, I suspect that he might have projected Jesus’ own agenda ‘the coming of the kingdom of God’ onto John the Baptist. How does he know that the above came from John? If Pontius Pilate was sending almost every Tom, Dick and Harry to the cross, doesn’t it undermine Alsan’s historical reconstruction of a very politically active minded Jesus? Isn’t there too much focus of the discontinuity between various New Testament books, thus ignoring the continuity within those same books?

I think that Aslan’s book describes a type Jesus that could only be constructed listening to the most critical of Jesus scholarship. This allows him to strip Jesus down to the bare minimum. While adding a lot of the insights from New Testament scholarship over the last few years, this enables him to conceive a zealous Jewish and very political Jesus, who seems to me might have a modern-day agenda. His style of writing, often using a word as “ludicrous” or “absurd” when dealing with historical improbabilities within the gospels, feels very confrontational at times. This is the type of language that places you within a group or outside it. Thus using insider and outsider language, Aslan effectively wants the listener to see things his way, if not, well then… you are probably an idiot?

The value of Aslan’s book lies within bringing a vast array of research - though be it in my opinion a bit biased - together, thus producing yet another “mostly” American portrait of Jesus. The portrait is valid and for most of the part Aslan seems to stand on sturdy ground. Yet he reduces Jesus to very little and seems to fill it in with those aspects that might fit the founder of Islam. The book is written in short chapters bringing over time and again the point that Jesus was a Roman insurrectionist who was crucified by the Roman authorities. At some point it felt like a mantra. Yet Alsan has placed a book on the table that has popularised minimalistic critical New Testament scholarship, making it accessible to John and Jane Dow.

Reza Aslan narrated the audiobook himself. I couldn’t help to think of the fervour of Shane Clayborne while listening to Aslan. He read with zeal. It comes across that this Jesus that he has constructed is really the Jesus he believes in and defines his understanding of how to follow him.

This is one of those books that you might need to take note of. It could shape popular opinion about who Jesus is or was for some time to come. Listen to it with a critical ear.

28 of 36 people found this review helpful

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  • Brett
  • 2013-07-26

Occam's Razor Applied to Jesus

Who was Jesus and what did he preach? Does it match the gopsels message? How did Christianity become so popular? These are amongst the questions that Reza Aslan answers in this book that attempts to find the most plausible history to Jesus and the story of Christianity.

Most of those interested in this book know how it turns out so no spoilers to worry about, and so I will give you the short answers proposed....

Jesus was an itenerant preacher-healer that took over John the Baptist's mission upon John's death. This mission challenged the Jewish leadership and Roman rule. Jesus preached of a new world order that would come in his lifetime. He preached this message to the unsophisticated and poor and found a good following. His mission climaxed when he entered the temple at Jerusalem and kicked over tables and unleashed animals. At this point he became a criminal wanted for sedition, and for his sedition he was ultimately executed.

His message was not of peace and love to everyone rather it was about how the Jewish world was corrupt and needed clensing. It was a message to Jews for Jews. In the years after his death much of what he taught was changed to make it more palitable for new converts and to smooth over relations with the ruling class. Early church leaders like Paul completed hi-jacked Jesus's message and changed it so that he was God not man and so that gentiles were the primary evangelical target.

I have read a lot of religious material both from a faith perspective and from the historical perspecitive. Nothing I have ever read in this subject area has been as gripping as this narrative was to me. I really appreciate the context that was drawn around Jesus's life and the answers given to many of the inconsistencies in the new testament. I realize that there are other answers out there but this book took the simplest approach and most plausible I have ever read to explaining Jesus. The only downside was that the author would often jump around in history by many years which was a little confusing at first. I also wish he had devoted more time to the resurrection. That said I like the pacing and the length which helped this from becoming boring like so many other books on the subject.

50 of 65 people found this review helpful

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  • Chuck
  • 2013-07-21

I love Jesus of Nazareth; however, he frightens me

As Christian clergy person, I was so transfixed to this story that I sat in my car for more time with the book. Finding Jesus Christ is somehow found by faithfully following Jesus of Nazareth. This picture of Jesus and the violence of his time is a carbon copy of our world, especially (ironically) in the land where Jesus laid the groundwork of the faith I've given my life to. Well worth the money. Any thinking Christian will find this work challenging, but God has used Reza Aslan - as one of the prophets of old - to comment on the central figure of so many and provokes us who call him Lord to step up to the plate and follow him - no matter who gets pissed off.

33 of 45 people found this review helpful

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  • John
  • 2013-09-04

Filled with Speculation

In the introduction the author points out how the New Testament was never intended to be a historical book and should not be interpreted as a historical book, and then proceeds to interpret the New Testament as a historical book for the rest of the novel. Of course, if the author did not do this, there wouldn't have been much to say other than provide a sense of the culture at the time Jesus lived. I initially thought the book might be worthwhile since it seemed to provide some historical context to the New Testament, however, given the author's propensity for pure speculation about Jesus, I now question the authenticity of the historic background provided in the novel, and wonder how much of that is also speculation. In addition, the author never seemed to question the accuracy of Josephus' writings, even though Josephus' history often times is at odds with archeological findings. Whenever there seemed to be a discrepancy between Josephus and another source, the author always sided with Josephus. Although many references are provided for the novel, the author's interpretation of the references and tendency toward conjecture lead to the low rating of this book. If this is what passes for biblical scholarship, I feel sorry for the field.

12 of 16 people found this review helpful