Thoughts on Reza Aslan’s Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth

zealot cover image

When I teach and tutor students in history, I often start each unit by advising students to “follow the money.” I didn’t coin that phrase, I know, but it’s a surprisingly simple and effective way to get one’s bearings in a time and place that one is trying to understand. Money leads to power, and power leads to attempts to subvert power, often by individuals who don’t have much power or, nearly always, much money.

In Judea during the early years of the Roman Empire, the money trail led directly to the Temple in Jerusalem. The first chapter of Reza Aslan’s Zealot immerses the reader in the sights, sounds, and smells of that temple, which was destroyed by the Romans in 70 C.E. Written in present tense and with great immediacy, this chapter leads the reader from the Court of the Gentiles, the part of the Temple that was open to anyone and also the part of the temple where Jesus famously overturned the tables of the money-changers shortly before he was arrested. Aslan devotes a few paragraphs to these money-changers, whose job it was to “exchange your foul foreign coins for the Hebrew shekel, the only currency permitted by the Temple authorities” (4). This transaction was important because everyone who visited the Temple was expected to pay a tax to help sustain the Temple. Another important expense incurred during a Temple visit was the cost of a sacrifice. According to Aslan, the sacrificing of animals – oxen, bulls, rams, sheep, chickens – was “the very reason for the Temple’s being” (4). The “blood libation” associated with sacrifice was believed to wipe away a person’s sins and also to cleanse and renew the earth – and, of course, people were taught that God preferred large (i.e. expensive) animals over small (i.e. cheap) ones.

Aslan’s narrative proceeds through from the Court of the Gentiles to the Court of Women, which was the last court in the Temple in which Jewish women were allowed. Jewish men could proceed further, to the Court of the Israelites, provided they were not a leper or a paralytic and had been purified by a ritual bath and paid their Temple tax. Only priests could proceed farther, but properly purified Jewish men could stand in the Court of the Israelites and watch the animal they had purchased be sacrificed on the altar. Past the Court of Priests lay the Holy of Holies, a small compartment protected by curtains that had once contained the Ark of the Covenant until it was lost. The Holy of Holies reminds me of another curtained compartment you might recall – the one from which the Wizard of Oz created the mighty persona he used to govern Oz. In Jerusalem, only one person was allowed to enter the Holy of Holies: the high priest. Like many other offices in the Roman Empire (and in its petulant child, the medieval Catholic Church), the office of high priest was something that one purchased, and the high priest was believed to be the only person alive who had direct access to God. Like a soothsayer, he rolled “sacred dice” (8) that he used to tell fortunes, and once a year, on Yom Kippur, the high priest tied a rope around his waist and stepped inside the Holy of Holies to atone for the sins of all Jews. If God decided to forgive these sins, the high priest walked out of the Holy of Holies alive. If not, other priests were able to use the rope to pull his dead body out of the Holy of Holies so that no one else would have to defile the sanctuary by stepping inside to remove the corpse. There was totally an episode of Lost about this, by the way – the one where Ben goes into a little cabin and gets beaten up by Invisible Jacob. We have archetypes for a reason, people.

Aslan’s book is about the historical Jesus; his focus is on the world in which Jesus lived and not on the notion that he was actually divine – an idea that didn’t exist until after Jesus’ death, when Paul and John and some others began retelling the story in their own way. Using his detailed understanding of the world Jesus was born into, Aslan describes ancient Galilee as a messiah-saturated world, in which various characters were always wandering around proclaiming the end of the world, talking of rebellion against Rome, and performing miracles. Nothing Jesus did was new. But all of the other messiah figures of the age – and everything that had been taught by Jewish scholars and by the Torah – were fundamentally earthly in nature. Jews believed that the messiah would be a great leader, enabling the Jews to defeat their enemies and establish a peaceful paradise right here on earth. When Jesus was executed, most Jews assumed that his mission was over, that he was yet another false messiah. Aslan’s book discusses both the historical Jesus and the divine creation of his later followers, but Aslan is rigorous in keeping these figures separate.

For one thing, Aslan writes, it is absolutely inconceivable that a thirty year-old man in early-first-century Galilee would not have a wife. He also reviews the two Biblical birth narratives, making clear that Jesus was not born in a manger, nor was there a census requiring everyone to return to his/her place of birth, nor did Joseph and Mary flee to Egypt to escape Herod’s decree that all male babies be killed (Aslan makes a good and very obvious point: surely if Herod, whose reign is well documented in non-Biblical sources, had actually set out to murder all baby boys in his kingdom, surely this act of terror would have been recorded somewhere other than in two theological documents written in Greek a hundred years later by a couple of guys named Matthew and Luke!). What almost certainly impacted Jesus’ early life, writes Aslan, is a clear sense of the gap between rich and poor. Nazareth was a village made entirely of mud huts, so Joseph and his sons, including Jesus, would likely have made a daily walk to the nearby city of Sepphoris, a city built by Herod the Great (the father of the non-infanticidal Herod Antipas, who was king when Jesus was born) and known for its opulence. As far as I can recall, I have never heard of Sepphoris (Seriously, Jesuits? You had me for four years and never managed to mention this apparently-very-important city? You couldn’t have fit it in somewhere between satyagraha and Fried Green Tomatoes, which for some reason we watched in religion class, twice? Or maybe we could have taken a day off that two-week unit on whether it’s murder if you think you’re shooting a moose but it turns out to be a person?), and what’s even more telling, Microsoft Word’s spell-check seems not to recognize it either. Maybe Word’s spell-check went to a Jesuit school too – that would sure explain a lot about that obnoxious little paper-clip man who thankfully no longer exists.

Joking aside, this book is great. Bible literalists won’t like it, of course, but anyone interested in the secular history of first-century Judea should find it very interesting. For me, one of the ideas I enjoyed most was Aslan’s explanation of how the destruction of the Temple by the Romans in 70 C.E. impacted Christianity, which was still embryonic at that time. Before, during, and after Jesus’ life, Judea was full not only of people claiming to be messiahs but also of a band of home-grown terrorists known as sicarii. After the death of Herod the Great – a great administrator, builder, and job creator who managed to be true to his Roman superiors and to the common people as well – the Romans never found a Jewish king they trusted to rule Judea. Each person they sent to do the job was crueler than the next, and the sicarii were ordinary Jews who took on the mission of executing as many powerful people as they could. They usually conducted their murders in broad daylight, stabbing their victims in the back with daggers in crowded public streets and then using the mayhem that followed to run away. These killings, and other acts of insurgency against the Romans, did not stop in the decades after Jesus was crucified, and in 70 C.E. the Romans besieged Jerusalem, starving much of the population, and then sacked the city and destroyed the temple. The Romans did not usually do these sorts of things; they usually expected conquered nations to pay taxes and to worship the emperor as a god – an expectation that most ancient polytheists shrugged off. It was no big deal to add a god to one’s pantheon if one is already a polytheist – what’s one more god? But the Jews laid special claim to the land they believed had been given to them by God after their exodus from Egypt (hence the Romans’ determination to sack the city) and refused to worship the emperor because the existence of only one God was a central tenet of their faith (hence the Romans’ decision to destroy the temple). After the destruction of the Temple, Aslan writes, the few remaining Jews turned inward and made a decision to “distance themselves from the revolutionary idealism that had led to the war with Rome” (69). Instead of a religion centered around the Temple, they chose “to develop an interpretation of Judaism that eschewed nationalism. They would come to view the Holy Land in more transcendental terms, fostering a messianic theology that rejected overt political ambitions, as acts of piety and the study of the law took the place of Temple sacrifices in the life of the observant Jew” (69).

The destruction of the Temple gives context to the split that took place between Judaism and Christianity. Aslan makes clear that Jesus was born a Jew and died a Jew – never once did he declare or even hint that he meant to found a new religion. But he was part of the revolutionary tradition in Judaism – along with the other messianic figures, along with the sicarii, and along with the countless other political groups that fomented rebellion against Rome in the first century C.E. – and in 70 C.E. the surviving followers of Jesus made the decision to distance themselves from revolutionary behavior. This is when, in a very deliberate, human-driven way, they started portraying Jesus as a pacifist. It was in these early years after 70 C.E., when the Jews were chastened and engaged in a profound questioning of their cultural and spiritual identity, that the first gospels were written. I’ll admit to a few chills down my spine when I read, “Meanwhile, in triumphant Rome, a short while after the Temple of the Lord had been desecrated, the Jewish nation scattered to the winds and the religion made a pariah, tradition says a Jew named John Mark took up his quill and composed the first words to the first gospel written about the messiah known as Jesus of Nazareth – not in Hebrew, the language of God, nor in Aramaic, the language of Jesus, but in Greek, the language of the heathens. The language of the impure. The language of the victors. This is the beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ” (69-70). In other words, the Jews who followed Jesus made the deliberate choice to distance themselves from Judaism – and in order to do that, they had to make some posthumous changes to their messiah.

I want to go on – and I really want to tell you how this book made me hate Paul (as in “of Tarsus,” not McCartney) even more than I already do – but I think I’ll leave it here. Not everyone loves ancient history as much as I do. Some would dislike this book for the way it challenges their religious beliefs, and a legion of others would see the word Jesus on the cover and run like hell. If, like me, you fall in none of the above categories, I think you will enjoy this book a great deal. I was reading this book on vacation, and I did make sure to keep the cover hidden when I was reading in in the airport and in other public places. Four years in the Bible Belt during my impressionable young-adult years has made me forever fearful of conversations with strangers about religion. One waitress did notice the title and say, “Zee-lot? Is that what it’s called – Zee-lot?” I felt bad lying, but I said yes. Then she asked me what it was about, and I said “history.”

This entry was posted in Authors, Non-fiction - History, Nonfiction - General, Nonfiction - Religion, Reviews by Bethany, Reza Aslan, Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink.

6 Responses to Thoughts on Reza Aslan’s Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth

  1. Maria Caswell says:

    This looks really good. We went for a while to a Methodist church, where the wonderful pastor would explain away biblical stories by explaining the history and politics behind them, much to the discomfort of the congregation. Also, when Philip read the Egyptian Book of the Dead and saw how much of Christianity was taken from it, it really helped me slip the bonds of my Catholic upbringing brainwashing. I enjoy reading about how things may have really been, and how they got to where they are today.

    • lfpbe says:

      I had a teacher at SI who explained away all the miracles in the Old Testament through some aspect of science (my favorite was when she said the manna from heaven was bird shit), but to me there’s a difference between “explaining away” and studying the history behind the mythology. This book enriched my knowledge of this era rather than trivializing it.

  2. Maria Caswell says:

    Oh, and every time you referred to the author as Aslan I got an interesting picture in my brain. Rather furry. 😉

  3. Maria Caswell says:

    Oh, my! I had not read till now the baby named Aslan. I am nearing the end of the book, and amidst all my other amazement at the actual history, I am especially amazed at Paul, who is reminding me of Donald Trump in so many ways. I thought of putting that on Facebook, but I am pretty sure it would have rather offended several people, and I did not think it apt enough to do so. As an ignorant Catholic growing up I never even thought much about Paul. As an adult I have been somewhat amazed at the authority he has in the church. Now I understand it!

    • lfpbe says:

      Paul is an unspeakable asshole. I’ve felt that way ever since I read Charles Freeman’s book The Closing of the Western Mind. Unspeakable asshole. Augustine too.

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