Review of Zealot – Second Installment


This is the second installment of my review of Zealot, by Reza Aslan.  You can find the first installment here:

I previously covered the general premise of the book as well as the Author’s Note and Introduction, so I’ll now begin again at the prologue to “Part I” of the book.

Aslan’s prologue is focused on the role of the Temple and of the priests at the time of Christ.  He provides a good summary of the Jewish festivals and describes the Temple and its sacrifices.  However, he states, “The cycle of life and death that the Lord in his omnificence has decreed is wholly dependent upon your sacrifice” (Aslan 5).  This is actually a pagan view of sacrifice.  That is, the pagan religions believed that by making a sacrifice you could bend your god to your will and achieve some benefit from him.  It is certainly true that by the time of Christ, many Jews held to this (incorrect) sort of belief system.  However, the Old Testament sacrifices can be seen through the lens of God’s means of grace; He instituted the sacrifices as a means of delivering His grace to His people.  They were responding to what He had first done for them and receiving His grace through the means He had instituted.  The Lord is not like some sort of vending machine where we put in the right sacrifice or offering and get Him to respond as we desire.

Indeed, Aslan later gets to the true purpose of the Temple, albeit obliquely.  It was the place where God placed His name and where He promised to dwell in the midst of His people on the earth (Aslan 6-7).  Aslan also states that it was the place “where a Jew can commune with the living God” (Aslan 7).  He also correctly describes the Holy of Holies and the function of the Day of Atonement (Yom Kippur), although he places the emphasis on the worthiness of the High Priest to receive God’s blessings.  This, perhaps, is not a bad emphasis, since as Christians we believe Jesus Christ to be the perfect High Priest who entered into the presence of his Father with his own blood as the sacrifice (check out the book of Hebrews, especially beginning at chapter 7).  However, I always have a visceral reaction against placing any sort of emphasis on a person’s own inherit worthiness before God.  We are sinful people who are unworthy on our own to stand before the Holy Lord God.  In His grace and mercy, though, He makes us worthy by atoning for our sins (i.e. Jesus Christ as the High Priest sacrificing himself on the true Day of Atonement – his crucifixion) and clothing us with the righteousness of Christ.  So, it is all His doing.

That really is what the prologue is missing, an emphasis on how the Temple was pointing towards Christ and what he would do on the cross and through his Church.  Christ, as our great High Priest, atoned for our sins on the cross and is with us now in the Church through his means of grace (i.e. Baptism, Lord’s Supper, confession/absolution, preaching of the Gospel).  He has fulfilled the Temple, because he is the true Temple; he is “Immanuel” – “God with us.”  It’s understandable that Aslan would not make these points, since he is not a Christian, but it illustrates what is lost when reading a book about Jesus written by a non-Christian.

Chapter One focuses on the history of the area of Judea (Aslan calls the area Palestine), focusing on Roman interaction with the Jews.  There is nothing too remarkable in this chapter, and the history is generally good and accurate.  The end of the chapter contains some melodrama that makes for good reading, but is somewhat speculative.

Chapter Two talks about the expectation of the Jews for the coming of the Messiah.  Aslan states, “The principal task of the messiah, who was popularly believed to be the descendant of King David, was to rebuild David’s kingdom and reestablish the nation of Israel” (Aslan 19).  This was indeed the popular belief of what the Messiah would do when he arrived, although in the Gospels we see Jesus redefining what Israel is and what the kingdom of God means.  The kingdom of God is His reign through Christ, and Israel is the Church of all believers (Old and New Testament) gathered by God around Christ.  Aslan, though, focuses on the belief of the Jews in a Messiah who would come to restore political independence to the Jews.

Aslan then turns his attention to Herod the Great, who he calls a “clever young Jewish nobleman from Idumea.”  Herod, though, was not Jewish; he was Idumean.  In fact, he married a Jewish woman in order to boost his credentials as “King of the Jews.”  Later, Aslan makes mention of Herod’s Idumean lineage and says  that Herod was a convert to Judaism, but this seems to me to give a false impression.  Herod was not a religious, observant Jew; he was a politician who did whatever it took to get and keep power (including murdering members of his own family).

Aslan also talks about Herod’s rebuilding of the Temple on top of Mount Moriah, but fails to mention the fact that this is where Solomon’s Temple also once stood, until its destruction by the Babylonians in 586 BC.  It’s a curious omission and may betray the fact that Aslan doesn’t believe that Solomon’s Temple really existed, a common belief by Muslims in an effort to support their claims to the Temple mount.

At the end of Chapter Two, Aslan says that Jesus was born sometime between Herod the Great’s death in 4 BC and 6 AD.  This doesn’t square with the accounts in Matthew and Luke of Jesus’ birth, because they clearly state that Jesus was born while Herod the Great was still alive.  However, Aslan discounts these birth accounts as fiction.  In Chapter Three, Aslan says that Jesus was born in Nazareth, rather than Bethlehem, and that Matthew and Luke made up their accounts.

Aslan discusses the census recorded by Luke in Luke 2:1-3.  He connects this with a census which occurred in 6 AD, which is much too late for Jesus’ birth.  There are various issues (explainable, I think) associated with Luke’s account, which Aslan correctly notes.  A fuller technical discussion of these issues can be found at

Suffice it to say, the governor of Syria that Luke names, Quirinius, was not the governor of Syria during Herod the Great’s reign.  He was governor in 6 AD and did institute a census, which led to uprisings in the area.  On the surface, then, it appears that Luke is incorrect.  However, it is possible that Quirinius held some other official capacity in the region prior to Herod’s death in 4 BC and that the word translated “governor” is a general term referring to his position.  Another possibility is that the word translated “first” in our English Bibles should rather be translated “before.”  Verse 2:2 of Luke’s Gospel would then read, “This was the registration before Quirinius was governor of Syria.”  To me, this makes the most sense.  The census in 6 AD caused revolts in Judea, so Luke, writing much later, would have felt the need to clarify that the census he was referring to was one that was before this better-known and infamous census of 6 AD.

Aslan then makes what I consider to be a very incorrect statement.  He says, “… Luke never meant for his story about Jesus’s birth at Bethlehem to be understood as historical fact… The notion of history as a critical analysis of observable and verifiable events in the past is a product of the modern age…” (Aslan 30).  The fact that Aslan says this just astounds me.  It is refuted by Luke’s prologue, where he expressly sets forth his purpose in providing an “orderly account.”  Luke is writing history.  Aslan’s contention is also refuted by ancient historians such as Thucydides, Livy, Tacitus, Suetonius, and others, all of whom wrote “history as a critical analysis of observable and verifiable events in the past.”  They wrote about the past, because they considered the events of the past as lessons for the future.  Aslan makes a distinction between facts and truth, but these ancient historians considered the uncovering of facts to be the uncovering of truth; we learn what others did before us in order to arrive at a greater truth that will help us in our own time.  Luke, writing about Jesus, sought to give an orderly account, an historical account, to show that what Christians believe as true is founded in historical fact.

Chapter Three has additional problems.  One is Aslan’s claim that Old Testament prophecies concerning the Messiah conflict and that some of them are not even prophecies.  Another is Aslan’s connection of the prophecy of Hosea 11:1 with Moses: “Out of Egypt I have called my son.”  Aslan believes the “son” referred to is Moses, and that Matthew quotes from this verse to show how Jesus is the “new Moses.”  This is an incorrect understanding of this verse and of Jesus’ role.  The “son” is not Moses, it is Israel.  The connection with Jesus is that he is Israel in one person; he is the fulfillment of Israel, carrying out its mission to reveal the one true God to humanity.  As the New Testament Church we are “in Christ,” we are part of Israel, his body.

Chapter Four focuses on the first century Jewish group called the “zealots” and attempts to tie Jesus to this group.  In this chapter Aslan claims that Jesus was illiterate and that there was no synagogue in Nazareth.  He notes that the city of Sepphoris was “just a day’s walk” from Nazareth and that the tradesmen from Nazareth would have traveled to Sepphoris to work in the construction boom of the time.  Sepphoris was actually much closer, about an hour’s walk from Nazareth, but it has been speculated by reputable sources that Jesus might have worked in Sepphoris as a carpenter in his younger years.  Aslan also states that there is no evidence that Jesus was ever married (which is correct).  Coming from his non-Christian perspective, though, he speaks of Jesus being “declared messiah.”

Aslan also tries to pit the apostle John against the apostle Paul, attempting to make the point that they viewed Jesus’ origins differently.  Aslan says that John “presents Jesus as an otherworldly spirit without earthly origins” while Paul “thinks of Jesus as literally God incarnate” (Aslan 36).  I don’t know how anyone who has read the beginning of John’s Gospel could think that John doesn’t view Jesus as “literally God incarnate” as well.  Indeed, John says, “the Word became flesh and dwelt among us” (John 1:14).

Chapter Five talks about Pontius Pilate and Roman rule in the region.  Thankfully, Aslan correctly calls Pilate the fifth prefect of Judea, although he also equates this with the position of governor.  Equating a prefect and a governor is not technically correct, but I understand that Aslan is trying to explain to his readers the role of a prefect; he governed the region for which he was responsible.  I said “thankfully” above, because many people incorrectly call Pilate a procurator, rather than a prefect.  The Romans sent procurators to provinces which were nominally under the control of the Roman Senate; these senatorial provinces were considered “stable” and had procurators assigned to them to handle the province’s financial affairs.  The provinces under the direct control of the Emperor were called imperial provinces and were looked after by prefects who had military control in the area.  These imperial provinces were considered less stable or of strategic importance.  Thus, it tells us something that Judea was looked after by a prefect, rather than a procurator.  For one, it speaks to the instability of the region.  For another, it speaks to its importance to the Romans.  It may have been a backwater of the empire, but it formed an important buffer to the Parthian Empire to the East.

Aslan says that the Gospels try to paint Pilate as “a righteous yet weak-willed man” (Aslan 47).  The truth is that the Gospels do not speak much about Pilate; indeed, with few exceptions they only speak of him in connection with Jesus’ trial and execution.  The exceptions are that Luke mentions Pilate as a dating reference for the beginning of John the Baptist’s ministry and Luke again mentions Pilate in Luke 13.  In fact, Luke 13 hints at the cruelty of Pilate when Luke records, “There were some present at that very time who told [Jesus] about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mingled with their sacrifices” (Luke 13:1).

Chapter Six covers the period of the revolt of the Jews from Roman rule, from 66 AD to 73 AD.  This is an interesting chapter and largely historically accurate.  The main problem I have with it, though, is that it mixes in consequences from the later Bar Kokhba revolt (132 to 136 AD).  That is, Aslan speaks of the Romans, in the earlier revolt, of attempting to wipe the Jews from the face of the earth (pg. 62), expelling them from the land (pg. 68), and of renaming Jerusalem “Aelia Capitolina” (pg. 68).  These events did not happen until the end of the Bar Kokhba revolt in 136AD; they did not happen at the conclusion of the first revolt in 73AD.  The revolt that largely ended with the destruction of Jerusalem and its Temple in 70AD had a number of serious consequences, but the expulsion of the Jews and the renaming of the city did not occur until after the Romans put down the Bar Kokhba revolt.  The general tenor of this chapter is melodramatic, which is why I think Aslan confutes the two revolts; he is doing it for dramatic effect.

This is the end of this installment of my review.  The next installment will begin with “Part II” of Aslan’s book and his prologue within Part II.