Zealot: The life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth

Reza Aslan, Random House, 2013

Reviewed by Vern Ratzlaff


        First-century Palestine was an age awash in political and religious zealotry, of scores of prophets, preachers and would be messiahs bearing messages from G-d.  An age of zealotry, a fervent nationalism that made resistance to the Roman occupation a sacred duty for all Jews.  Zealot talks about a Jewish revolutionary who gathered followers for a messianic movement with the goal of establishing the kingdom of G-d.  And of how his followers reinterpreted Jesus’ mission and identity.

        His followers saw him primarily as a religious reformer; Aslan places Jesus within the social, religious and political context, an era marked by the slow burn of a revolt against Rome.

        (We need to remember that the Roman execution of this Galilean by crucifixion saw him not as a cute harmless story teller, but as a seditious threat to the empire.)

        Aslan spells out the role of the temple in Jewish life; it is the centre of commerce for all Judea; it not only houses the sacred writings and scrolls of law but it is the main repository for the legal documents and genealogical records of the Jewish nation.  The Jewish community has only one cultic centre, for all Jews wherever they live in the empire:  the temple.  The temple is a kind of feudal state and its priests a ‘band of lovers of luxury’ (Josephus).

        Aslan sketches the role of temple and of Roman occupation as the continuing pressure on Jewish identity.  His section on Galilee as the home of nationalism (zealotism) gives careful data on Galilean dynamics:  cultural dynamics, the anti Judean and anti Temple that permeated the Galilee, and was part of Jesus’ agenda, an agenda that the writers of the New Testament documents softened or negated.  Jesus was less concerned with the pagan empire occupying Palestine than he was with the Jewish imposters occupying G-d’s temple.

Vern Ratzlaff is a pastor and professor of historical theology at Lutheran Theological Seminary in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, Canada.