Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth by Reza Aslan

Book Summary

In Zealot, Reza Aslan removes the religious lens through which we often view Jesus’s life. Instead, Aslan invites readers to learn about Jesus through a purely historical context. Aslan sets the scene of the tumultuous time during which Jesus lived, and he explains how this period influenced Jesus’s mission. Aslan also offers insights into the formation of the early Christian church. Among many things, readers learn about the tension between the church’s first leaders.

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Notes and Quotes

Zealot Book Summary
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The four Gospels in the New Testament were written in this chronological order:

  • Mark
  • Matthew
  • Luke
  • John

Aslan wonders why the evangelists softened their interpretations of Jesus.

  • He notes that they wrote their stories many years after Jesus died. They didn’t live with Jesus.
  • Every story written about Jesus came after the Jewish rebellion against Rome in 66 CE (Common Era). Jewish rebels took back the Holy Land from Rome, until the Romans returned in 70 CE.

During Jesus’s time, the temple was central to Jewish life.

  •  “The Temple serves as a calendar and clock for Jews; its rituals mark the cycle of the year and shape the day-to-day activities of every inhabitant of Jerusalem. It is the center of commerce for all Judea, its chief financial institution and largest bank.”
  • Along with religion, or the temple is the “main repository for the legal documents, historical notes, and genealogical records of the Jewish nation.”

How did the Romans view Jerusalem?

  • It was nothing but “an inconsequential speck on the imperial map.”
  • Cicero called it “a hole in the corner.”

Understanding the politics of Jesus’s lifetime

  • To become a high priest in Jerusalem meant coming from a noble, high-class background.
  • The priest class collected taxes and tribute. They kept the Jewish population in order on behalf of the Roman Empire, “tasks for which they were richly compensated.”
  • Wide gap between rich and poor in the Roman Empire.
    • As a result, the poor often rebelled by having insurrections.
    • Some poor Jews thought they were doing God’s work by uprising against the Roman elite. They saw themselves as freedom fighters while the Romans considered them bandits.
  • To call yourself a messiah during the time of Roman occupation was like declaring war against Rome.
    • During this time period, there were many guys who claimed this title before Jesus.
    • “In first-century Palestine, simply saying the words ‘This is the messiah,’ aloud and in public, can be a criminal offense, punishable by crucifixion.”
  • Social order in Judea crumbled as a result of revolts led by those claiming to be messiahs. The following factors contributed to the rebellious atmosphere in Palestine:
    • Over-taxation by the Romans
    • Corruption by the Jewish aristocracy, who bribed the Romans for more power and influence.
    • Temple leadership wasn’t fair and just. Instead, it fostered widespread injustice and crushing poverty.
    • Private seizure of lands
    • High unemployment
    • Displacement of the poor
    • Drought and famine in the Judean and Galilean countryside

Religious Dynamics during Jesus’s Lifetime

  • The Jews, unlike most of Rome’s subjects, were allowed to worship and conduct themselves as they pleased without much interference. They didn’t even have to worship the emperor.
    • All the Romans asked was a twice-daily sacrifice of a bull and two lambs on behalf of the emperor and his health. That plus the taxes and tribute, following of the provincial laws was enough for Rome to leave the Jews pretty much alone.
  • The Jews puzzled the Romans with their belief in one superior God.
    • “How dare they consider their god to be the sole god in the universe? How dare they keep themselves separate from all other nations? Who do these backwards and superstitious tribesmen think they are?”
  • The belief in one God encouraged the notion of Jewish exceptionalism.
    • It was “a direct commandment from a jealous God who tolerated no foreign presence in the land he had set aside for his chosen people.”
      • Therefore, rebellion and uprising seemed like a natural response from the Jews against the Roman Empire…because God had told them early on to dispel of those who worshipped any other God besides him.

About Jesus’s hometown of Nazareth.

  • No more than 300 families lived there at the time of his birth.
  • There were no roads, no public buildings, no synagogue there.
  • It had one water well for everyone.
  • “It is a village of mostly illiterate peasants, farmers, and day laborers; a place that does not exist on any map.”

Jesus’s social class, upbringing, and background

  • Jesus’s occupation as a carpenter is mentioned only once in the New Testament.
    • Aslan says this work would have made Jesus belong to the “lowest class of peasants in first century Palestine, just above the indigent, the beggar, and the slave.”
    • Jesus likely learned this trade by working in Sepphoris. This cosmopolitan city was undergoing a massive restoration project after a failed uprising by another zealot named Judas the Galilean.
      • Working in Sepphoris exposed him the wealth gap between rich and poor people like himself. Also would have exposed him to the ideas that Judas fought for: freedom for the Jews from the Romans.
  • Coming from Nazareth, chances were that Jesus was illiterate and uneducated.
    • 97 percent of all Jewish peasants couldn’t read or write during Jesus’s lifetime.
  • Despite Catholic doctrine of his mother’s perpetual virginity, Jesus had brothers. Aslan says this fact is indisputable.
    • It’s confirmed by both the gospels and letters of Paul.
    • Had at least four brothers – James, Joseph, Simon, and Judas – plus an unknown number of sisters who weren’t named.
      • His brother James was the most important leader of the early Christian church.
  • Aslan speculates that the story about his birth to a virgin is cover for the possibility that Jesus was born out of wedlock.
    • The fact that Jesus was referred to as the son of his mother, not his father, can be considered a “deliberate slur”.
  • Was Jesus married?
    • “Although there is no evidence to indicate whether Jesus was married, it would have been almost unthinkable for a thirty-year next or Jewish male in Jesus’s time not to have a wife.”
      • At the same time, can’t ignore that everything about him in the Bible plus what was said by the Jewish and pagan polemics offered no details about him having a wife or kids.
  • The life of historical Jesus begins when he was baptized by John the Baptist.
    • Despite the idea that Jesus was superior to John, Jesus was likely one of John’s disciples. Before his encounter with John, Jesus was another unknown peasant and day laborer in Galilee.

Jesus’s Ministry

  • Jesus began his ministry after John the Baptist died. He returned to Galilee, basing himself in Capernaum, a seaside town in the area.
    • By the time he came back, Galilee became “urbanized” and “strictly stratified between” the haves and have nots. Stark contrast to the small-town feel it had before.
  • His teachings spoke to those on the fringe of society. He reached people who felt like outcasts from society.
  • What astonished people about Jesus was not what he said. In fact, a lot of the things he talked about were the same as everyone else.
    • What was different was his personality. He spoke with “charismatic authority.”
    • “The comparison to the scribes, emphasized in all three synoptic gospels, is conspicuous and telling.”
    • He spoke like a peasant because that’s who he was.
      • This likely made him relatable.
  • Exorcism was commonplace during Jesus’ time period. The occupation of miracle-worker was common place during his lifetime.
    • The difference between Jesus and other wonder workers was that he offered his services for free.
    • “The reason exorcisms were so commonplace in Jesus’s time is that the Jews viewed illness as a manifestation either of divine judgment or of demonic activity.”
    • When Jesus stood trail, he wasn’t accused of being a magician. Everyone seemed to agree that he was a miracle worker.

On Jesus’s Death and Resurrection

  • Punishment by crucifixion was common during Jesus’s lifetime. Why?
    • It was cheap. All you needed was a tree.
    • They were always carried out in public, where people would have to see the grossness of it.
    • The criminal was always left hanging long after he had died; he wasn’t buried.
      • “Because the entire point of the crucifixion was to humiliate the victim and frighten the witnesses, the corpse would be left where it hung to be eaten by dogs and picked clean by the birds of prey.”
      • Bones would be thrown into a heap of trash, which is how Golgotha got its name.
      • Reserved for the most extreme offenses: treason, rebellion, sedition, banditry.
  • Every person who claimed to have witnessed the risen Jesus died refusing to recant their testimony.
    • Not unusual as many zealous Jews died refusing to deny their beliefs.
    • But at the same time, “It was precisely the fervor with which the followers of Jesus believed in his resurrection that transformed this tiny Jewish sect into the largest religion in the world.”

The leadership of Judea during Jesus’s life

  • Pontius Pilate
    • Fifth governor that Rome sent to oversee Judea.
      • Before him, Judea was governed by a Jewish King. The Romans no longer wanted this arrangement and preferred to have their own person in charge.
    • It’s fiction to believe that Pilate tried to do his best to spare Jesus’s life.
      • “What Pilate was best known for was his extreme depravity, his total disregard for Jewish law and tradition, and his barely concealed aversion to the Jewish nation as a whole.”
        • Sent so many people to be crucified that the people of Jerusalem “felt obliged to lodge a formal complaint with the Roman Emperor.”
      • This was likely a detail created to soften the Romans’ involvement in Jesus’s death. Members of the early Christian church wanted to convert Romans into believers of Jesus and needed to create a narrative that they weren’t at fault.
        • “By the end of the first century, when the bulk of the gospels were being written, Rome – in particular the Roman intellectual elite – had become the primary target of Christian evangelism.”
  • Joseph Caiaphas
    • The high priest who served for 18 years, an unprecedented amount of time in this role.
  • Pilate and Caiphas had trouble extinguish the zeal of the Messiahnic uprisings.
    • “Not long after Pilate arrived in Jerusalem, a new crop of preachers, prophets, bandits, and messiahs began traipsing through the Holy Land, gathering disciples, preaching liberation from Rome, and promising the coming of the Kingdom of God.”

Jesus as a Zealot

  • Aslan notes that there’s one event of Jesus’s life that’s consistent across all the gospels.
    • The entrance into Jerusalem on a donkey (Palm Sunday) followed by his tirade at the temple.
  • The attack at the temple was punishable by crucifixion. And considering, the temple’s close relationship with Rome as a tax collector, the act could have been considered an attack on the empire itself.
  • Why Jesus was crucified: “his messianic aspirations threatened the occupation of Palestine, and his zealotry endangered the Temple authorities.”

The End of the Jewish Revolt

  • The Jews stopped revolting after a battle in Masada, a fortress city built high above the Dead Sea. Conflicts between the priests and zealot rebels caused the revolt’s downfall.
  • Also, the Romans wanted to beat the Jews into oblivion to destroy the Jews’ zeal for freedom.
    • The failure to defeat the Roman Empire left the Jews feeling so dejected that they no longer wanted to associate with the messiahnic revolutionaries and prophets who said that their freedom was near.
      • “In the years to come the Jews would begin to distance themselves as much as possible from the revolutionary idealism that had led to the war with Rome.”

The Transformation of Jesus’s Message

  • “After the Jewish Revolt and the destruction of Jerusalem, the early Christian church tried desperately to distance Jesus from the zealous nationalism that had led to that awful war.
    •  “As a result, statements such as ‘love your enemies’ and ‘turn the other cheek’ were deliberately cleansed of their Jewish context and transformed into abstract ethical principles that all people could abide regardless of their ethnic, cultural, or religious persuasions.”
  • Jesus was trying to reach Jews, not Gentiles, with his message.
  • How does Jesus go from another failed messiah who died a shameful death as a state criminal into the God incarnate?
    • Aslan notes that everything written about Jesus was written by people who never knew him when he was alive.
      • “Those who did know Jesus…played a surprisingly small role in defining the movement Jesus left behind.”
        • These people were common folks after all.
    • “The task of defining Jesus’s message fell instead to a new crop of educated, urbanized, Greek-speaking Diaspora Jews who would become the primary vehicles for the expansion of the new faith.”
      • There was a clash though between them and the Aramaic speaking followers.
        •  Resulted in two competing camps of Christian interpretation: Paul vs James, Jesus’s brother.

Who is Paul?

  • One of the leaders of the early church who was a convert to Christianity. 
    • He changed his name from Saul to Paul.
    • Following his conversion, he preached to gentiles rather than Jews.
  • The evangelist Luke also wrote the Acts of the Apostles. This book was written as more of a reverential biography about Paul.
    • In fact, the original apostles disappear from the book early on, serving more as a bridge between Jesus and Paul. Acts characterizes Paul as the true successor to Jesus’s mission.
  • Paul didn’t get along with James, Peter, and John, the Jerusalem-based leaders of the early church.
    • “Those leaders contributed nothing to me…” (Galatians 2:6).
  • Paul advances new doctrine that is wholly different from Jewish spirituality.
    • “Paul’s breezy dismissal of the very foundation of Judaism was as shocking to the leaders of the Jesus movement in Jerusalem as it would have been to Jesus himself. After all, Jesus claimed to have come to fulfill the Law of Moses, not to abolish it. Far from rejecting the law, Jesus continually strove to expand and intensify it.”

Who is James?

  • James “was, as the historical evidence attests, the undisputed leader of the movement Jesus had left behind.”
    • Why has James been forgotten in Christian tradition?
      • His identity as Jesus’s brother is one reason.
        • The idea that Jesus was born from a Virgin mother would have less credibility if you knew he also had biological siblings. So there’s been arguments that James and other siblings were relatives from Joseph’s previous marriage.
    • Political reasons: Peter being located in Rome helped his cause as Christianity spread imperially beyond Jews.
      • There’s only one passage in the Bible where Jesus bestows right-hand status to Peter whereas there are a dozen for James.
      • James = Bishop of Bishops while Peter = Bishop of Rome
  • James and the other original Apostles were open to letting gentiles join their movement. They were willing to be lax on some rules of the law like circumcision for these new converts.
    • But they wanted them to follow the law of Judaism overall. Otherwise, it would be a completely different religion…which it became.

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