Friday, 26 January 2018

A Review of Reza Azlan's "Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth"

The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth is  split into three parts:

Part One deals with the Jewish revolt against the government of Rome in Israel, which was initially successful but came to a horrific conclusion with the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 AD.

Part Two deals with Jesus of Nazareth: the man, his world and his mission.

Part Three deals with the legacy that Jesus left behind after his death upon the cross.

In a way, the book begins by telling the end of the story, which is an account of the legacy that Hebrew zealots, including Jesus left in the minds of their followers and countrymen. It was this legacy that inspired the Jews to rise up against their Roman occupiers and cast them out of Jerusalem in 66 AD. For 4 subsequent years Jerusalem knew "independence", before a vengeful Rome launched a brutal assault on its besieged and now starving population: massacring men, women and children and burning the Temple on the Mount to the ground.

Those that survived the rout were driven into exile. And in this the survivors of the destruction of Jerusalem shared the fate of Jews throughout Palestine, as Rome enacted collective punishment. And so the diaspora was born.

But not everyone left: a small population remained around the cities of Jerusalem, Hebron, Jaffa and other major cities, and peasants continued to till the land in the countryside. It was from these peoples that today's Palestinians are descended.

And thus the seeds were planted that are still bearing their bitter fruit in the Holy Land.

So Who Was Jesus?

Finding the historical Jesus was no small challenge: all the historical references the author had to go on was a brusque contemporary reference in the chronicles of Flavius - wherein Jesus is mentioned as "the brother of James, called the Messiah". This is indeed brief, but it is also significant: it confirms that, as a claimant to the title of "messiah", Jesus would almost certainly have been crucified for sedition, as this was the standard Roman punishment for this crime during the era of the Empire.

The other document is what the author refers to as the "Q", and was a collection of the sayings and accounts of Jesus and his ministry. Each Gospel author would have used Q as a basis for what he wrote. Some points in the life of Jesus then (such as his baptism by John and his arrival in glory in Jerusalem) can be taken as more likely to have happened (because all four gospels feature these events, based upon information given in Q) than others (like the full account of Jesus's birth in Bethlehem and any tales of his youth, that only appear in the book of Luke).

Azlan does not have much time for any of the details of the wondrous virgin birth in the City of David. And he pours scorn on the claim that a Roman census could have lead Mary and Joseph to seek out this place. Which beggars the question why concoct accounts such as these if they are so obviously false?

Fake News

Well, in the 1st and 2nd century AD, we are told,  "historicity" did not mean the same thing as it does today, and chroniclers of these histories would willfully change events and insert convenient new ones, especially when it came to fulfilling prophecies. This was not only not objected to at the time, it was actually expected by contemporary readers. The mindset of the 1st few centuries of what we call Anno Domini was that exact historical details were not important: what was important was the essential truth of what your story propounded (it feels strange to recount this given what goes on with the "fake facts" of today. Perhaps when analyzing the present's view of news and events it is something to take into consideration).

The conclusion is that it is very likely that the historical Jesus was both born and raised with his brothers and sisters in the tiny hamlet of Nazareth, and that nothing remarkable happened to him before he was inducted into the life of a prophet by his mentor, John the Baptist, by the banks of the River Jordan.

You Wait Ages for a Messiah and then Ten Turn Up at Once

It should be mentioned that Jesus (called "the Nazarene" by his contemporaries, and "Son of Mary" by his detractors) was far from the first claimant to the title of Messiah in Roman Palestine - nor was he the last. For in those tumultuous times the hills were alive, not only with would be Messiahs, self proclaimed kings and insurrectionists - who invariably met a brutal end at the hands of Rome or their Judaic collaborators - it was also bustling with faith healers and magicians who claimed to make the lame walk, the blind see and to cast out demons. That Jesus took the role both of Messiah and magician was something of an oddity.

It should also be said that the historical Jesus, so Azlan tells us, was very much a family man. The unearthly celestial being of much of the new testament as portrayed by the Paulian epistles, and by Catholic traditions is the figure of Christ, that was born of Mary, who is a perpetual virgin. Azlan has so little time for this view he barely bothers mentioning it, and instead gives us a Jesus with several brothers, sisters and cousins - many of who became his followers.

Who Did Jesus Think He Was?

One of the thorniest issues - and the most fascinating, as dealt with by Azlan’s work - is how Jesus might have seen himself. Did he think of himself as the Son of God? As portrayed by this book, probably not. In fact Jesus appears to be far more ready to refer to himself as “The Son of Man”. But what does that epithet even mean? I will let a reading of the book answer that question; it is personally one of my favourite aspects of this work.

But there is no doubt about one thing as far as Azlan is concerned - and that is the Zealous outlook of The Nazarene. Whether he was expelling the money lenders in the Temple, preaching the Beatitudes or analyzing the thorny aspect of who the Jews should be paying their taxes to, Jesus applied his zeal; a fiery spiritual nationalism wherein the nation of Israel would be redeemed through the destruction of the existing order, be cleansed of its occupiers and hallowed through its treatment of the poor and the outcasts - who would be raised up to rule in the imminent Kingdom of God.

Of course it didn't turn out that way, and eventually the Romans and their Jewish collaborators decided they had taken as much provocation as they could bare from this latest self styled Messiah. Jesus was arrested and, with very little ceremony, was sentenced to die upon the cross: the sign above his head, "The King of the Jews" proclaiming to the world why The Nazarene had been sentenced to his fate.

It should have ended there. Jesus's followers, including his brother James, having witnessed the humiliation of their leader and inspiration, should have melted away and returned to their homes, as one obscure rebel cult leader was consigned to a footnote in history. The mystery of why it did not will probably never be explained, save through the application of faith.

A New Religion

So the recounting of the life of Jesus ends, and the story of his legacy begins. And the story of Jesus's legacy starts with a battle. On the one side is his brother James (known to all who knew him as "James the Just" because of his piety and devotion to the Judaic Laws) together with the surviving followers who walked and talked with The Nazarene. On the other hand, the self proclaimed thirteenth apostle, Paul, formerly Saul of Tarsus. Saul was an implacable enemy of the Jesus movement, but after his conversion and adoption of his new identity as Paul, this perhaps original "born again" Christian has a zeal to not only follow Jesus, but to found an entirely new religion in his name.

It is perhaps the depiction of Paul, that is, arguably, the most controversial aspect of this work. The man who opened the way for the gentiles is not portrayed as a sympathetic character, and instead what we are presented with is an ego driven fanatic desperate to stamp his own mark on the nascent Christianity, at the cost of an almost flagrant disregard of what Jesus actually said and wanted. And yet it is Paul's interpretation of this faith that we are mostly left with, despite his conflicts, and at times his humiliations at the behest of his rivals James and Peter, who were Paul's superiors in the early church whether he liked it or not.

Well Researched

I read this book on my kindle app (sorry traditional format fans, however I do also still read printed books!) and was somewhat surprised when the book finished while at a status of 50% complete. This gives you an idea of how extensive the footnotes are. Fortunately these end notes actually add to the experience of the book. Here is where Azlan discusses the various theories that underpin his vision of the historical Jesus, which theories by which historians he agrees with, and which ones he disagrees with and why.

To my mind Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth is a fascinating read and I would recommend it to anyone, no matter what their faith or lack thereof.


  1. Saul was pretty much an early Christian Wahhabi and the first Christians did act as idol-smashing, aggressively proselytising fanatics. Public execution in the arena - like al Qaeda "martyrs" today - merely drew converts to the cause, just like ISIS does from among the poor and disadvantaged, of whom the Ronan Empire had an endless supply. In all this Jesus was irrelevant except as an excuse, much like Muhammad for ISIS. What he says or thought only mattered when convenient.

  2. Jolly good. A.N. Wilson is good too, on this.