Zealot by Reza Aslan: A Review

There are a lot of narratives around this book.  Reza Aslan says mean things about atheists, Reza Aslan doesn’t have the credentials he says he has, Reza Aslan was mistreated abominably by Fox News, Reza Aslan is Muslim and that taints his ability to see clearly on the history of Jesus.  The thing is, none of these are about the book itself.  So I decided that I would read it.


There are a couple things you should know about my background here.  I am trained in historical methods, I have read most of the popularly available books about the history of Jesus and the New Testament written in the last decade, and I love the history of religions.  I am also an atheist.  My particular brand of atheism, as Christopher Hitchens would say, is very much a Protestant one, an Episcopal one at that.  There was no sturm und drang and little in the way of imposing dogma in my upbringing, I had possibly the least contentious relationship one can have with their religion while also not believing in it or understanding the point of it.

Unlike some, my particular atheism has no investment in the idea that a Jesus of some sort did or did not exist, and so no suspension of disbelief is necessary for me to accept the premise of the book.  Aslan doesn’t really address the question of Jesus’ existence, partially because it’s not really much of a controversy among historians.  Even if you don’t believe in a historical Jesus, however, it’s possible to read the book as a thought exercise.  Liberal Christians will also be able to reconcile the figure presented with their faith, to some extent.  Fundamentalists and Catholics, however, wouldn’t be able to do so, especially believers in the perpetual virginity of Mary.

The story is basically as follows:

Jesus was a poor man from the tiny town of Nazareth who witnessed his homeland of Galilee impoverished, enslaved, and mistreated by Roman occupiers.  Around the age of 30, he became a disciple of John the Baptist, by far the more famous of the two at the time.  When John the Baptist was executed, Jesus struck out on his own with a message primarily aimed at overthrowing the Temple and the Roman Occupiers — he was attempting to radically reform Judaism and free the state of Israel.  He was killed for sedition against Rome.

He was one of dozens of miracle workers with remarkably similar stories, distinguishable mostly by the fact that, after his execution, his message was carried on by his surviving family and followers, particularly his brother James and, later, Paul. The reason Christianity lasted was because Paul changed it drastically from being a critique of Judaism to being a totally new religion, one that Jesus’ brother James did not approve of.  James was killed, as were his followers with the destruction of Jerusalem, meaning that the head of the church changed from being someone who knew the Nazarene and lived in his culture to being foreigners who’d only heard secondhand tales.  Christianity is Paul’s reimagining of historical Jesus, a sort of fanfiction version — the Fifty Shades of Grey to Jesus’ Twilight.

The book is not really new in terms of the history it offers, but it is the most readable history of first century Jerusalem that I’ve come across.  If you are only mildly interested in the subject or the subject is totally new to you, I cannot emphasize enough how fun it was to read.

Aslan goes to great lengths to reassure readers that the possibility of a divine Jesus still exists within this story, sometimes to the point of annoying this reader, but he also makes a good point about the difference between what modern people accept as history and what ancient people did and the difference between facts and truth.  Since the scientific revolution, facts and truth have become more or less synonymous to many people, but the stories told of Jesus were meant to reveal truth about him rather than be facts.  In the same way that parables are understood to be lessons about the real world, even if they didn’t happen.

Read an excerpt here.

Zealot by Reza Aslan: A Review

46 thoughts on “Zealot by Reza Aslan: A Review

  1. 1

    After I saw Reza Aslan on the daily show, I was wondering if any of the atheist crowd would review the book so I’m happy that I found this post. I’m really surprised that it’s actually a good book (i.e., worth reading) because he’s not very readable when it comes to Islam. I guess it’s easier to be objective when it comes to someone else’s religion, specially since according to Islam Jesus was an ordinary person (so his biases might actually help him be more objective in this case).

    1. 1.1

      I haven’t read his work on Islam, but I was somewhat tempted to based on this book. However, I find it difficult to trust someone to write accurate history of their own faith, so I was on the fence about it. What makes it so unreadable? Style? Or religiosity?

      1. I found “No God but God” a fun read, a brief and breezy introduction to Islam, but then I don’t know much about the subject, and have nothing to compare it to. The section on Sufism was odd, but perhaps deliberately so, an attempt to convey the flavor of its mysticism.

      2. What do you mean by “objective about their own faith?” I mean, anyone raised in Europe or the US, religious or not, is steeped pretty deeply in Christianity, just as anyone from Japan or China would be in various shades of Buddhism and (in Japan anyway) a Shinto-animist religion. Even relatively non-religious Japanese people will drop off an offering at a shrine sometimes.

        That is, there are some pretty basic assumptions about the world that even you have, given that you were raised in a Western culture. (Example: presumably in your everyday life treat your mind and body as separate entities, even though in a scientific sense they aren’t. Yet there are a number of cultures I can think of that don’t operate with that premise).

        Not trying to nitpick or anything, but I am just curious how you are approaching this.

        1. jesse in making that assumption you would be incorrect. I do not believe in the self as it’s commonly viewed in western culture. Honestly that seems like kinda a weird thing to even claim, that somehow culture would determine our view of a scientific matter. I agree that happens in cultures all the time, but it’s not something you should assume about someone who is an atheist or skeptic. A skeptic tries to see any assumptions they have made and figure out if that assumption was actually correct, from the self to God to is it ok to lie?

    2. 1.2

      Okay, maybe I was a bit harsh on “No God but God”. It’s not a terrible book and it can be a good introduction to Islam specially because many aspects of Islam do not get coverage in the Western world. The sections about Jihad are probably going to be specially good because of this reason. To summarize the book in one sentence, it is of Islam from the point of view a moderate muslim.

      The big problems are that he completely whitewashes a lot of the disturbing possiblities about Islam and Muhammad (not surprising as it comes from moderate muslim). Sometimes it is very close to the stuff I was taught at school when growing up in Iran. Sure, there are some differences, e.g., Aslan does not refer to the obviously mythical stories such as the “Year of the Elephant” as facts (the short version is that an army of invading elephants were destroyed by a fleet of birds, each carrying a pebble at command of Allah). He simply repeats them and calls them “traditions”. I really don’t understand what these stories add to the overall picture. He does not mention other possible explanations for actions of Muhmmad (and thus big parts of Islam). For example the possibility that Muhmmad could have been a midly epileptic individual who while honest at the beginning, later became corrupted by the absolute power that he was essentially making it up as he was going along to manipulate all around him.

      There are of course a lot of other problems as well but these might not bother you too much. For example, he simply repeats what Muslim biographers of Muhammad have written about him. These stories are clearly unreliable, although he admits to that at some point if I remember correctly. But for me these were very annoying. Muhammad’s migration story to Medina is clearly an exaggerated account of an event with dubious historical origins. Same is true for a lot of the stories from the biographies of Muhmmad specially and these things really bothered me a lot.

      1. I recently read Why I am not a Muslim by Ibn Warraq. He notes that the life of Muhammad and the existence/content of the Koran were not documented for almost two centuries. Some scholars have taken a strong skeptical stance that accounts of these are fabricated. Furthermore, if we do accept the stories of Muhammad’s life, which are from Muslim sources, they are not especially flattering. He comes across as a bloodthirsty, double-crossing robber baron.

        1. True. He also comes off incompetent (e.g., he cannot perform miracles when challenged and comes up with silly excuses) and pathetic (e.g., he has sex with his slave in a wife’s room, the wife arrives, gets furious, and Muhammad in a moment of panic swears not to have sex with that slave again, but later he regrets and to “fix” the issue he makes up a “revelation” from Allah basically telling him he can do whatever he wants). Even within his time some of his stories are flattering: He married an older and wealthier woman and continued to work for her for many years. In a society as sexist as pre-Islamic Saudi Arabia that’s not flattering at all. Because of these, while I’m really not an expert on history, I’m having a hard time accepting that the whole story of Muhammad is fabricated.

  2. 2

    ” Christianity is Paul’s reimagining of historical Jesus, a sort of fanfiction version — the Fifty Shades of Grey to Jesus’ Twilight.” This phrase will forever be in my head now. And since I more or less managed to make it through Fifty Shades I guess I’ll check this book out. If nothing else he deserves a few bucks for the amusement of him vs Fox News the last few days,

    1. 3.1

      I have. I think it’s reasonable to come to the conclusion that it is a myth, and even if there was a real figure, much of the story owes itself to myth making. However I find it slightly more plausible that there was a real figure. Based primarily on the historical moment and large number of miracle workers and Messiah claimants in first century Palestine, the conflict between Paul and James, the reference in Josephus, and the inconvenient details of Jesus’ life that have to be accounted for to make him seem Messiah-worthy.

      1. The mention in Josephus is highly questionable, particularly given that a) Josephus wasn’t born until 4 years after the supposed execution of Jesus, and wrote the work in question 60 years after that, and b)he didn’t mention any such person in his earlier work on the same topic, written 20 years closer to the alleged events. The large number of recorded miracle workers and messiahs actually argues against the historical Jesus, in that we have loads of mentions of them from the time when they were active, but none at all for Jesus, despite his allegedly having been as or more popular and influential than any of them.

        1. James was still alive during Josephus’ life, however, and Josephus talks about him. Do we really have “loads” of mentions of other messiahs, aside from John the Baptist? I think it argues against the overwhelming popularity of Jesus in particular, but not that he didn’t exist. He didn’t really do anything worth mention except cause a disruption at the Temple, it was really James and Paul who made him a thing, and there’s decent evidence for James and Paul.

          1. James was still alive during Josephus’ life, however, and Josephus talks about him.

            Or not.
            Jesus in Josephus

            by Richard Carrier.
            Analysis of the evidence from the works of Origen, Eusebius, and Hegesippus concludes that the reference to “Christ” in Josephus, Jewish Antiquities 20.200 is probably an accidental interpolation or scribal emendation and that the passage was never originally about Christ or Christians. It referred not to James the brother of Jesus Christ, but probably to James the brother of the Jewish high priest Jesus ben Damneus.

          2. While that is possible, the vast majority of scholarship disagrees with the conclusion of that article, and I think the structure of the writing doesn’t actually make sense if the two Jesuses in it are the same person.

            “Festus was now dead, and Albinus was but upon the road; so he assembled the sanhedrim of judges, and brought before them the brother of Jesus, who was called Christ, whose name was James, and some others, [or, some of his companions]; and when he had formed an accusation against them as breakers of the law, he delivered them to be stoned: but as for those who seemed the most equitable of the citizens, and such as were the most uneasy at the breach of the laws, they disliked what was done; they also sent to the king [Agrippa], desiring him to send to Ananus that he should act so no more, for that what he had already done was not to be justified; nay, some of them went also to meet Albinus, as he was upon his journey from Alexandria, and informed him that it was not lawful for Ananus to assemble a sanhedrim without his consent.[24] Whereupon Albinus complied with what they said, and wrote in anger to Ananus, and threatened that he would bring him to punishment for what he had done; on which king Agrippa took the high priesthood from him, when he had ruled but three months, and made Jesus, the son of Damneus, high priest.”

          3. … and there’s decent evidence for James and Paul.

            Sure, there’s evidence for Paul. Someone wrote those books. Well, the non-forged ones anyway. But it is pretty clear that Paul never actually met Jesus H. Christ in a physical sense, and his writing lacks any clear details about any historical Jesus.

  3. 4

    I’m in the “no such guy existed” camp. Primarily because there were a lot of those guys around at the time. And whenever they did something naughty or noteworthy, someone noticed. There’s plenty of historical evidence for the “other” Messiahs. None about this particular guy.

    Take out the miracle stories, and you have a preacher of such power and fame that thousands of people flocked to hear him preach on a routine basis. He was FAMOUS. Whenever he went out of the house, people followed him. Every single town he visited, he gathered crowds.

    He then rode into Jerusalem in a way specifically designed to declare himself the new King of Israel, an event again witnessed by multitudes. Then a show trial, and a very public execution.

    Except there’s no record of any of that happening. Not one sliver of evidence. Not a fragment of the merest shred of a parchment from a contemporaneous eyewitness. Even though we have plenty of that for the other guys.

    He’s an invention. Either spun wholly from mythical cloth, or a concatenation of several of the Messianic preachers of the time. The more I read Carrier, the more I think the former.

    But the evidence shows there was no Nazarene, and his name wasn’t Jesus.

    1. 4.1

      Yeah, Carrier’s work has recently convinced me as well. In addition to what you say, there’s the fact that 1.) prolific contemporary writer Philo, wrote about the region/time with a chapter devoted to Pontius Pilate, and yet there was no mention of Jesus, 2.) as Carrier explains well in a YT lecture video, the practice of Euhemerizing celestial deities to take them from myths and place them on physical Earth was a common trend with other myths (Romulus, Osiris, Dionysius etc.) and 3.) even the gospels don’t make any claim to being witness accounts. Paul says he received the following story by way of revelation from a celestial Jesus, after the fact. Of course there’s many more arguments, which will no doubt be extensively laid out in Carrier’s upcoming book. But for me it’s not that any one of these is a silver bullet, by itself. But taken as a whole I just can’t see why so many people still feel like Occam’s Razor would suggest that there was an actual person at the center of the myth.

      Anyways, thanks for the review AM. I too was itching to read a rundown from a more skeptical perspective. Looks like an interesting theory on what a historical Jesus would have been like, if one existed.

  4. 5

    Since the scientific revolution, facts and truth have become more or less synonymous to many people, but the stories told of Jesus were meant to reveal truth about him rather than be facts. In the same way that parables are understood to be lessons about the real world, even if they didn’t happen.

    So…maybe it’s because I was kicked in the head last night…I’m a little slow following you. You’re saying that the stories about Jesus are perhaps intentionally fictionalized stories to inform us of his character/personality?

  5. 7

    I think it is hilarious, or appalling, or both, that Aslan takes the historical existence of Jesus, and His ressurection as unquestioned facts, but is willing to fictionalize pretty much everything else about Him.

    the difference between facts and truth. Since the scientific revolution, facts and truth have become more or less synonymous to many people, but the stories told of Jesus were meant to reveal truth about him rather than be facts. In the same way that parables are understood to be lessons about the real world, even if they didn’t happen.

    I’m sorry, I cannot agree with you about this. I am one of those “facts = truth” people. And I don’t think you have anything to go on here but an argument from an impoverished vocabulary. You could say that made-up stories about someone give you meaning, or value, or essence, or that they are metaphorical or allegorical; but I think it would be wrong to say that they could be “true.” Otherwise you end up with truth = untruth, and disappear in a vortex down your own navel. Postmodernism bites.

  6. 8

    @Reginald — while most of the time I would agree with you, a lot of philosophy people would not.

    Let me give a concrete example: The facts: Reginald Selkirk bought a ham sandwich yesterday. Well, ok, but that doesn’t tell anyone very much about you, right?

    Now, if I wrote, “Reginald Selkirk goes to the bodega at the corner of 69th and Broadway, because the Ansonia Hotel looms over the corner in a particular way that catches the sunlight — and he enjoyed the taste of the ham pn rye that much more if he could sit on the bench.”

    The second paragraph might describe the same thing but there isn’t as much there that is provably factual. The light reflecting off the Ansonia has nothing to do with the chemicals in the sandwich and should not affect the taste, but the kind of writing in the second paragraph is more like what you get in a novel. And it tells the reader a lot more about Reginald Selkirk. The second might be “true” even if all the facts can’t be verified.

    That’s what people did before the Scientific Revolution quite a lot.

    Anyhow, I was just using your name as an example here, for all I know you hate ham sandwiches. 🙂 But I hope you’re getting the idea.

    1. 8.1

      but the kind of writing in the second paragraph is more like what you get in a novel.

      Agreed, but I understand that novels are a form of fiction, i.e. not true. I hope you understand that as well.

      1. But *you* understand, I hope, that it’s never as cut-and-dried as all that, unless you’re writing a peer-reviewed paper in a physical science journal.

        Is it true that Napoleon was a despot? A liberator? A military genius? An insane man? Had daddy issues? Any of these can be true, but they aren’t facts in the way that we usually think of them — you can’t definitively prove any of those things the way you can prove Pythagoran theorem or that quarks exist. But they can all be true, and none of them, sometimes both at the same time. Have you never read any history that you disagreed with or agreed with? Was it always based on the facts? Unless you are completely literal minded I would say odds are no.

        The distinction we (as modern readers) make between fact and fiction was a lot less so for people writing in the 1st century.

  7. 9

    Anyhow, the original reason I dropped by was to ask Ashley if she was familiar with Hugh Schonfield? “Those Incredible Christians” is a pretty darn good book, though you have to take into account 50 or so years of new archeological data he didn’t have. But he has a good description of what made Paul, in his words, “a religious genius” and one heck of a political operator. His analysis is a Marxist one, I guess, but even if you don’t buy that part of it it’s still really great (IMO).

  8. 10

    I heard the interview with Aslan on NPR’s Fresh Air, and his continued efforts to distinguish between “facts” and “truth” made me nuts. As with other people I’ve heard who seemed rational and intelligent yet clung to, or returned to, belief, the interview had me thinking “You were SO CLOSE…”

  9. 11

    The OP says:

    Unlike some, my particular atheism has no investment in the idea that a Jesus of some sort did or did not exist, and so no suspension of disbelief is necessary for me to accept the premise of the book. Aslan doesn’t really address the question of Jesus’ existence…

    And so, IMHO, much of the commentary is way off topic.

    The fact is, that Christianity originated, and that believers ascribe its origin to something like Aslan’s ‘zealot.’

    One doesn’t need to believe in an actual talking fox to appreciate the point of Aesop’s “sour grapes” fable. Nor does an actual talking FOX do much to support the fable of a Kenyan, non-citizen, islamist in the White-House.


  10. 15

    I’m an atheist and enjoyed the book as well. Like you, I had read other books on the historical Jesus, and there wasn’t too much more to it than what I had read before. It’s definitely a good introduction to the subject.

  11. 16

    Hey Ashley, thanks for the review!

    There are many not-implausible, contradictory theories about Jesus of Nazareth which are hard to evaluate due to the lack of hard data.

    But I believe this kind of scenarios can be ruled out as being unlikely.

    If Jesus was only one apocalyptic prophet among many others, then why don’t we find texts from their followers who claim they rose from the dead?

    We know this was the case of Jesus former disciples one or two decades after his death.

    To my mind, the best naturalist hypothesis is that:

    1) the body disappeared from his grave in one way or the other, it was maybe stolen by robbers (or mischievous space aliens for that matter)
    2) the disciples were puzzled by an empty tomb
    3) afterwards, they experienced powerful hallucinations

    This would be one good explanation how Christianity could have started.

    Aslan seems to be a liberal Muslim, conservative ones would always insist that Jesus was someone very special.
    A friend of mine is also a liberal Muslim from Palestine, I’m going to ask him what his take on this is.

    Lothars Sohn – Lothar’s son


  12. 17

    Thanks for the review! The only book I’ve read about the historicity of Jesus was Fitzgerald’s “Nailed”, which I found interesting, but I wan’t completely convinced by his argument. I’ve been wanting to read books about about the historical Jesus by people who think he existed, to see if I find them more convincing (and just in general, to learn more about history). It’s good to hear that it contains information about the history of Jerusalem in that time period.

    Also, I know someone else already mentioned it, but I love this:

    Christianity is Paul’s reimagining of historical Jesus, a sort of fanfiction version — the Fifty Shades of Grey to Jesus’ Twilight.

    I’ve long thought of the the New Testament as the odd second-book-in-a-trilogy (with the Old Testament being the first), the Qur’an as the unauthorized sequel written by a different author after the original author’s death, and the Book of Mormon as fan fiction.

  13. 18

    Having heard a number of positive comments about Aslan, I recently watched the debate between him and Harris, but was less than impressed.

    How often he simply misses the point and goes on blathering indignantly about how one e.g. can’t reject all of religion because of some ugly episodes: “You don’t reject the book Huckleberry Finn because it uses the word ‘nigger’, why would you reject the Bible because it mentions slavery?” — Hmm… maybe because only one of them claims to be the word of the creator of the universe, a code to live by, and not “just” man-made literature?

    Harris tries to go in that direction, “Of course we don’t reject Huck Finn as literature” – to which Aslan simply replies “oh no, sure, not as literature” and then changes the subject to complain about something else. It’s moments like those when I think he knows his arguments don’t hold water, but then what do I know…

    Otherwise I think he’s a victim of the whole “faith is a virtue” thing, a big fan of the asserted existence of a “something more” that we cannot explore rationally, and instead do so spiritually / religiously. It’s a very comfortable position for an apologist to take, from which to shoot No-true-Scotsmen at all possible challengers.

    By redefining religion into a sort of benign philosophical exercise, an honest-but-not-necessarily-rational grappling with “the great questions”, he gets to weasel out of any challenge to religion as a social force and a dangerous and unnecessary mass delusion.

  14. 19

    Elizabeth Castelli @ The Nation: Reza Aslan—Historian?

    Zealot reflects wide reading in the secondary literature that has emerged in the scholarly study of the historical Jesus. In that sense, as one colleague of mine puts it, Aslan is a reader rather than a researcher. Aslan’s reconstruction of the life of Jesus invests a surprisingly literalist faith in some parts of the gospel narratives. For example…

  15. 20

    It’s 140 pages of warmed-over, rehashed Albert Schweitzer. Not saying that Faux’ interview isn’t a nimcompoop, but I’m sure that Aslan was hoping for a reaction like he got, to juice sales.

  16. 21

    Have just listened to the audiobook as read by the author (he does a good job). I thought he kept to his opening premise of putting a historical figure into the context of the place and time he lived – and as far as that goes it’s a pretty interesting book. You don’t have to accept all he says but if you’re at all interested in the history of Christianity this is a worthwhile perspective to put into the mix of what you’ve read on the subject.

  17. 22

    Reza aslan ‘s book is excellent. It follows very closely the free online book called Devil or delusion ? The danger of Christianity to democracy, freedom and science. The devil or delusion book also gives an explanation of how the resurrection story was made up. See the link.

  18. 23

    For this Sufi Islam Mystic to write a book purporting to tell the truth of Jesus Christ would be akin to my giving pen to the history of the Prophet Mohammed ( may peace be upon him ). Aslan is a Sufi which is considered a strange false religion by all other Muslims. Aslan gives false claim to having been a Christian while admitting to having never understood or accepted the Holy Trinity. The people who wish to deny the Life , Death and Resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ will enjoy this book. Maybe there will be a copy for them to read… in Hell ?

  19. 24

    Respect my Atheism do not send me birthday greetings in the name of your skydaddy!,since then, the numbers of people sending me best wishes in the name of their Skydaddy has.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *