Summer Reading: Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth

by Ann Marie Bausch

I might never have discovered one of the most important books I’ve ever read if not for an unlikely ally: Fox News.

In 2009, author Reza Aslan did an interview on the network to discuss his latest book, a history titled Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth. The clip circulated widely on social media and other TV programs. The reporter seemed to have been given instructions to scowl as much as possible and to repeatedly accuse Aslan of concealing the fact that he was a Muslim writing about Christianity, and, of course, concealed or not, how dare he.

With cordiality and graciousness, Aslan reminded this reporter of his educational credentials (his degrees include a Master of Theological Studies from Harvard and a PhD in the Sociology of Religions from the University of California) and, of course, that he had chronicled in the introduction to Zealot how he, as a young Muslim boy, became interested in Christianity. As is often the case when a book is disparaged by a so-called authority, the result was predictable: I and millions of others went out and bought the book. Sales soared.

This was all great fun, but I am sincerely grateful to this news clip for bringing the book to my attention.  Raised Catholic, as an adult I felt suffocated by dogma, frustrated by the Church’s judgmental politics, appalled by the scandals, and doubtful of any of the literal ideas about the divine presented by organized religion as certainties not to be questioned. Zealot sought to reveal the Jesus of history—not the deity, the Messiah, the Christ, but the man of flesh and bone who walked the earth, who breathed real air and talked and ate and slept and contemplated violent political revolution during the Roman occupation of 1st century Palestine.

Zealot might not be the kind of book everyone would consider a “summer read”—but really, aren’t we past being limited to breezy love stories with no substance? This is a book that is worth all of the buckling down, you’ll need to apply to reading it.

My copy is now full of dog-eared pages and underlined passages and notes penciled in margins.  Here are some of the ideas I found most intriguing:

“Luke himself, writing a little more than a generation after the events he describes, knew that what he was writing was technically false.  This is an extremely difficult matter for modern readers of the gospels to grasp…most people in the ancient world did not make a sharp distinction between myth and reality; the two were intimately tied together in their spiritual experience.  That is to say, they were less interested in what actually happened than in what it meant.  It would have been perfectly normal—indeed, expected—for a writer in the ancient world to tell tales of gods and heroes whose fundamental facts would have been recognized as false but whose underlying message would be seen as true.”

Gasp! You mean…I now have permission not to take every word of the Bible literally but to glean a story’s general meaning and move on?

On the commonly held view of Jesus as an “inveterate peacemaker who ‘loved his enemies’ and ‘turned the other cheek,’” Aslan presents evidence that the early Christian church largely concocted this idea after Jesus’ death to avoid the wrath of Rome:

“The Jesus of history had a far more complex attitude toward violence…how else could [the Kingdom of God] be established upon a land occupied by a massive imperial presence except through the use of force?…There is no evidence that Jesus himself openly advocated violent actions.  But he was certainly no pacifist. ‘Do not think that I have come to bring peace on earth.  I have not come to bring peace, but the sword.’ (Matthew 10:34 / Luke 12:51).”

Other historical facts:  Jesus had brothers and sisters. He was almost certainly illiterate (“There were no schools in Nazareth for peasant children to attend.) He may even have had a wife.

One of the loveliest qualities of Zealot is that nowhere, not for a moment, does Reza Aslan seek to disparage or disillusion anyone’s Christian faith. What he does is to distinguish faith from history, and to examine how the terrestrial events of the first century became the religion we know today. In our current political climate, could there be anything more important than separating facts from myth?

What all of this amounted to for a reader like me was relief. Relief from the burdens of modern ideology. A dissolving of hostility and suspicion anytime I heard the word “Christian.” An ethereal figure who looked down upon me from a cloudy place in the sky—that had long been inaccessible and alienating. But a real person who struggled, who suffered, who was often misunderstood but strove mightily to do what he believed was right: this I could connect with.

And so it was that a Muslim writer separating history from religion awoke in me a deeper interest in Jesus than any Christian church service ever had. Freedom, surprise, fresh ideas: what more could one want from summer reading?

Ann Marie Bausch is a writer and dog mom from Norfolk, Virginia.  In addition to the Rock & Sling blog, her nonfiction has appeared on The Mighty, and her fiction is forthcoming in Narrative Magazine.  Find her at or on Twitter at @anniebausch.

3 thoughts on “Summer Reading: Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth

  1. It seems many read this book as a way to confirm a loss of faith without having to actually say they are giving it up. Did reading this book actually “awaken a deeper interest in Jesus” in you? Or did it conjure up a way to discount things you find difficult, a way to parse out what you cannot understand. There. All the hard stuff vanishes and you don’t have to deal with it, all on this man’s word. It would seem the point of this book is to reduce Jesus to less than God. That the author chose not to discuss Jesus’ deity is telling. Yet he goes about undermining Jesus’ deity without ever having to defend his point of view on it. Brilliant. The whole point Jesus made was his claim to be God. A rather large hole in the arguments, a gaping chasm in the history he claims to navigate from.

    I find it interesting that the author brings into question things like Jesus not being literate (that in all likelihood Jesus was unable to read). Luke 4:16 states: “And he [Jesus] came to Nazareth, where he had been brought up. And as was his custom, he went to the synagogue on the Sabbath day, and he stood up to read.” But everyone knows if there are no schools, someone cannot read. So this part was just made up. But no problem that is what they did.The ancients change up the story for the greater truth. Using a lie to tell the truth. Hmmmm.

    The author is quite clever to do this because now he can call hundreds of other things into question. In fact it calls into question every single thing said in the Bible. His conclusion that Luke knew what he was writing was false and the greater good of what it meant gave the lie a bye, is laughable in that doing so goes against everything Jesus sought to teach. One then must decide: the book is either just a story book or truth. If someone wanted to undermine Christianity in a subtle yet powerful way, Reza Aslan gave it a masterful shot.

    Yet it is thin as gauze.

    Faith remains. It has not been wiped away over thousands of years by any of its detractors. This alone ought to give pause.

  2. I often think of Luke, the scribe, shaping the words so many of us read today (“Only Luke is with me.” 2 Timothy 4:11). How do the words that I write, lift and carry his message? That’s my challenge.

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