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on 7 February 2014
This was one of the most interesting books I read last year. Let me be clear, this is a book about a man called Jesus. It is not written as a religious book. It is not a book about faith. It is written objectively as an academic text, with an historical orientation, and little room for obtuse theologian arguments. The author has been very careful in what he has included in the text to -presumably- keep the Bible-belt dwellers and Daily Mail readers of limited breadth of vision from getting upset. To much so, perhaps as I finished the book with my interest stimulated but not fully satisfied. I wanted more.

The first section of the book deals with Jesus' early life and times, including his time with John the Baptist. The second with his surprisingly short ministry and death. The third section looks at the founding of the early church and establishing and altering the pure (Jewish) basis of the faith for a wider gentile audience.

There are huge gaps. Some are understandable - the author doesn't write where there is no evidence to discuss. However, having rationalised so much in his writing, and focussed on Jesus as a man, with human ambitions for a Jewish state governed by God's law in it's purest form, we are still left with question marks. Despite being grounded firmly on Jesus was a human being when it comes to discussing his work, disciples, ambitions and intentions, no discussion is made, for example, of how Jesus earned such a reputation for healing and miracles. It is stated that they were not magic tricks or illusions, as others (named) were doing at the time. It is acknowledged that miracles happened. And that his fame was based on them. So how did Jesus the man achieve this? An unwelcome gap that needed more discussion IMHO.

Similarly, when we get to the third section,with all the Byzantine intriguing of the 1st C apostles and varieties of Christian churches, who do we find in charge at head office in Jerusalem? Jesus' brother, that's who. He turns up out of nowhere and simply takes over the whole shebang. Where had he been for the last 30 years? How had Jesus interacted with key personalities such as this? It's a huge gap, and the book isn't such a long one that a bit more writing in this area couldn't have been added.......

So this book is something of an allegorical Art Gallery. Three walls with different themes on each, and each theme a collection of paintings and sketches on that theme, each beautifully formed in its own right. When viewed as a whole, however the gaps between them sometimes seem to take up a lot more wall than you would like, and this is the main problem I had with the book. I wanted more. It wasn't there.

I was going to rate this 3*, for omission, but I do want to encourage you to read this book, which Btw is very well written as far as it goes.

This book will change your thinking on 1stC Holy Land. It may answer some questions for you, but it will surely also leave you thirsting for more knowledge on the subject.
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on 6 August 2013
When analyzing the life and times of Jesus of Nazareth, if you remove faith from the equation you're left with a few hard facts and a lot of historical context.

This book is as more about the times Jesus lived in than Jesus himself. He lived in an era of brutal Roman occupation, failed rebellions, false messiahs, Jewish nationalism, rampant illiteracy, a corrupt Jewish priesthood, and massive differences between rich and poor.

60 pages of notes and research references document both sides of academic arguments. This is not a haphazard book of opinions. It's a meticulously researched, balanced analysis.

Jesus lived in a time of apocalyptic visions, culture clashes, and competing religious orthodoxies. Judging from the debate and attacks this book has inspired, so do we.

The author is respectful of his subject. His final conclusions is that "Jesus the man is every bit as compelling as Jesus the Christ ... He is, in short, someone worth believing in..."

People of faith as well as `ye of little faith' will find this a fascinating read. Believers have an opportunity to deepen their faith. Skeptics and non-Christians have an opportunity to increase their understanding. Only zealots will find reason to be offended.
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on 27 August 2013
Reza Aslan has performed a public service with this readable review of the life and times of Jesus the Nazarene. As a scholar of religion and a teacher of creative writing, he has managed to hit a high note in a field both swamped with demented polemics from religious cranks and overgrown with pedantic exercises in obfuscation by bookish bores, all of which has fed a forbidding forest of obstacles to writers like Aslan. His new book is about as exciting as a monograph backed by a solid list of academic references can be, and it tells the story with a spin that begs for a Hollywood movie treatment by a team that can do justice to his thoroughly modern vision.

Zealot is the story of a politically engaged Jesus in a world where religion and politics were inextricably entangled. So the tale has a striking resonance in the turmoil currently gripping the Mideast region, and Aslan as a confessed Muslim is coming from the right corner to tell it. The Jewish struggle for freedom from Roman rule two thousand years ago finds a disturbing mirror in the modern Palestinian struggle to break free of Israeli domination, and although the contrast between the two struggles is so great as to make the second seem a wild inversion of the first, the parallel is revealing. Aslan is wise enough to do no more than hint at this side of his story and to focus on the old struggle. He presents the vivid facts surrounding the narrative in order to set in sharp relief the unknown details that have been blurred into mad minefields by endless polemics between various believers. What we see is a profile of Jesus that makes the Christian confabulations surrounding his life look transparent. No reasonable person can fail to see through the threadbare veils of faith to the shadow of the man behind them.

A great merit of the book is its gently ironic distance from the three monotheistic faiths. We see the facts, so far as they have been established by generations of patient scholars, plus an honest assessment of the gaps and the conjectures, all wrapped up in a story that stays lively enough to keep readers going. The ancient clash of Romans and Jews is a drama without equal in Western history, and its uneasy resolution in the Christian tradition is with us still. So Aslan needs skill and courage to stay on top as he surfs the waves of the ongoing controversies. He does so with such aplomb that even simple Christians need not be offended by his portrait.

Any such portrait confronts a historical challenge. A hundred years ago, Albert Schweitzer concluded a magisterial review of all previous lives of Jesus with the dismaying verdict that key facts were lost and all the lives said more about their authors than about their subject. More recent studies, for example on the Dead Sea scrolls and newly discovered gospels, have helped, but they have also raised wider questions. To disclose my own interest, last year I drafted a book on the life of Jesus that I now find largely shared the perspective Aslan adopts in Zealot. I know how hard it is to rise to the challenge posed by Schweitzer and failed to meet it. Aslan does better. His touch is so light as he approaches matters of moment to fundamentalists that he leaves his own opinions out of play, with the pleasing result that the facts, at least so far as we know them, can speak for themselves. Also, his scholarship has been impressive, albeit with gaps that some reviewers have attacked with their own zeal, so readers of Zealot can rest content that the main claims are reasonably solid.

In my opinion, Aslan fails the Schweitzer test on two aspects of the story. First, he drastically undervalues the pacific doctrines of the gospel Jesus, which show that Jesus was influenced by Essene ideas. The love and peace vibe makes Jesus more of a hippy than a zealot, and sets up a resonance between his ideas and Buddhism. Second, Aslan fails to look more closely at the resurrection stories. Odd details in the crucifixion drama suggest that Jesus may have survived the punishment, for a while at least, and perhaps even hoped to do so. Aslan may be forgiven for glossing over the resurrection issue, but losing the love thing behind a call to arms makes for a travesty.

Despite the flaws, Zealot is the best book on Jesus for a long time. Atheists and believers alike will find both cheer and challenges as they come to grips with its drama. All its readers will be better informed in the debates on faith that are likely yet to come. Our global civilization is struggling to integrate the three strands of monotheism in a world where science puts hard bounds on any truth behind their faiths. Zealot helps narrow the scope for believers to make wild assertions about Jesus the Nazarene, and thus helps us all.
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on 30 July 2013
I think that a book should be judged by the quality of its research and argument not on whether the author is a Muslim or a Christian. As a professional academic this is no more relevant than whether the author is left or right handed. I have studied 1st century palestine history and politics and jesus role within it at a postgraduate level and I can say confidently that this author is taking a proper and correct approach based upon current historical and scriptural research and his research is meticulous. I can also write this with authority as a priest who accepts Christ as Saviour. When we love we can see the truth a little clearer. Reading this book will help many Christians to understand scripture more accurately.
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on 13 October 2013
I was not sure how I would react to this book. However, I found it riveting and very well written. The research appears meticulous and the author has strictly divided the book in to two; the narrative without footnotes and a second portion which outlines the sources. The author challenges many of the Christian views held by millions. But like so many others who have written on the subject of Christ or Jesus of Nazareth, there is insufficient evidence that things are as they seem to be be or not to be. You cannot criticize the gospel writers for their presentation of the "story" as "fabricated" to fit a desired scenario, then use the gospels themselves as providing evidence as a primary source.

Nevertheless, the book is well written and generally convincing which will upset pious Christians. So, the author states that Jesus did not restore the Kingdom of God as he envisaged. I believe that whatever or whoever this man was, he has left a legacy. We may not accept the mythology but there is no doubt that in the subsequent development of Rabbinic Judaism, the so called "parting of the ways" between the early christian community and the synagogue, the rise of islam, Jesus of Nazareth is a figure to be reckoned with. He has left a profound legacy which stimulates a certain sprituality and even if the story as propounded by the author is true (ie., that Jesus was just another healer/zealot), does it really matter.

A lot more might be said but the reader must come to his/her own conclusion. There is much to consider here and I really believe that the book is well researched and provocative. Individual piety will determine if it is all a stage too far.
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on 9 November 2013
I'm a self confessed atheist with a curiosity about religion. Did Jesus truly exist and if so what was he like? Who was he? I've read a few books before that takes an historical view of Jesus but Reza Aslan's book is the most compelling and, for me, the most believable. This is an extensively researched document and the result is in no way sensationalist. The fact that Reza Aslan was born a Muslim (much mentioned by his Christian critics) has no bearing on his judgement as an historian.
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on 25 July 2013
Nothing much new in this book, but very enjoyable.

By the way, FOX News have today posted an article by an Evangelical Christian Activist, attacking the book and trying to discredit the author.

Claiming the author can't be trusted as he's a muslim (!)

And hinting he supports terrorism in Israel.

This has led to hundreds of rednecks, coming on here and posting 1 star reviews, quoting the religious nut.

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on 28 July 2013
Brilliant book, amazing scholar, eye opening book! Cannot recommend it enough. Reza Aslan has a brilliant mind and is charming and thoughtful in his approach.
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on 27 April 2015
Since studying anthropology, I have had an interest in messianic cults and I knew Jesus’ ministry fitted into this category. What I didn’t appreciate until reading this extremely good, engaging and informative book, which attempts to tease out the historical Jesus, is that in 1st century Palestine numerous self-proclaimed messiahs were continually springing up. The land was absolutely alive with messianic and revolutionary fever in response to Roman occupation, the corruption of the Jewish priestly class and the ever widening gap between rich and poor. There were many charismatic healers as Jesus also was (although the author, Reza Aslan, describes Jesus as being unique in that, unlike the others, he did not charge for his healing services). Aslan analyses the historical context of Jesus’ ministry in light of the Romans’ bloody and exploitative repression of the Jews. We see Jesus as one amongst many driven by revolutionary zeal trying to bring about the Kingdom of God (i.e. for the Romans to be overthrown and for God to take over the kingship of the country and the world). The language and values of this fundamentally political action was religious. Also fascinating is Aslan’s analysis of the 1st century Christian church and how Paul comes to take centre stage in the long term. Paul comes over, in Aslan’s depiction of his words and actions, as a maverick and as being very challenging to the nascent church causing problems, rifts and conflicts by striving to define Christianity as separate from Judaism. Paul, although he had not been an apostle and had not actually known Jesus when he was alive (unlike the other church leaders), appears to be an egotist, convinced of the rightness of his own position. For many years he was locked in a bitter battle with James (Jesus’ brother and head of the first church in Jerusalem). Nevertheless, after his death and the eventual adoption of Christianity in the Roman world in the 4th century, Paul’s version of Jesus is the one most palatable to the Romans and to gentiles in general. When the New Testament was canonised at the end of the 4th century, half of the writings included were Paul’s (or written in his name). Zealot is an enlightening and eye opening book which I very much enjoyed.
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on 5 July 2014
Reza Aslan along with other writers attempting to trace the development of Jesus, the inspiration for Christianity, admits that the only sources of academic research on the man is the Bible along with a brief mention by the Roman biographer Flavius Josephus. Rather than speculate on the veracity of the accepted texts Aslan overlays these with known historical and accepted facts covering the period of his birth and death. We learn that Jesus was born in Nazareth, a small poor working class village in Galilee, Judea. He had a number of brothers and sisters who, apart from his younger brother James, are not featured in his life apart from the fact. He was uneducated and therefore could neither read and had only a basic Aramaic vocabulary. There is nothing about his early development that can be verified in the Bible or elsewhere, however when old enough he works in Sepphoris, a nearby town, as a labourer. He is baptised by John the Baptist and joins his sect and, in one of the few examples in the book of speculation, Aslan surmises that John, with his apostles, grooms Jesus the main tenants of preaching. When John is arrested by the Romans and executed Jesus picks up the mantle and begins a three year journey of healing, performing miracles and preaching before he too is appended by the Romans and executed. The biblical details cannot be supported by reference and therefore the Bible is a work of faith rather than fact. Aslan does however, using his technique of overlaying academic historical research onto the events recorded in the Bible, draws attention to some firm conclusions. Jesus was born in Nazareth, not Bethlehem. Jesus was subservient to John the Baptist and not the converse. Performing ‘miracles’, healing and magic were common at that time in Judea by other itinerant ‘Messiahs’ and were not exclusive to Jesus. His popularity grew in Galilee by ‘healing’ for no fee as opposed to other who did and the fact he was a Galilean local. Jesus was a committed Jew and defender of the Torah. Using allegory his preaching was primarily against the Roman occupiers and the corrupt Jewish Temple hierarchy. He was arrested in Jerusalem by the Romans, tried by the Temple hierarchy, handed over the Roman authorities and crucified. There is no historical or archaeological evidence to support the virgin birth, miracles, apparitions, resurrection or other events described in the Bible. The book therefore leaves it to the reader to decide whether to accept the man known as Jesus of Nazareth or the one that became Jesus Christ.
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