The Book Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth by Reza Aslan argues that Jesus was actually a Zealot, a Jewish revolutionary attempting to challenge Roman rule. Christians will overwhelmingly reject this hypothesis, but I think the book may help us in some ways to understand the human side of Jesus and is very well argued. I would like to see answers about what readers learned from the book. Those who only saw reviews and excerpts are welcome to answer too, but please provide evidence, not just opinions.
Aslan sees Jesus as attempting to fulfill the Zealots' hope for the Jewish messiah, who would re-establish his people's independence from Rome and become the literal king of the Jews. In other words, Jesus actually attempted to do what the Roman government executed him for.
[Aslan claims that] ...like other messianic figures of his day [Jesus] called for the violent expulsion of Rome from Israel. Driven by religious zeal, Jesus believed that God would empower him to become the king of Israel and overturn the hierarchical social order. Jesus believed that God would honor the zeal of his lightly armed disciples and give them victory. Instead, Jesus was crucified as a revolutionary. Early Christians changed the story of Jesus to make him into a peaceful shepherd. They did this for two reasons: because Jesus’ actual prediction had failed, and because the Roman destruction of rebellious Jerusalem in AD 70 made Jesus’ real teachings both dangerous and unpopular. Paul radically changed the identity of Jesus from human rebel to divine Son of God, against the wishes of other leaders like Peter and James.
This summary is basically accurate. However, I found important food for thought in the book:
- Why does the angel tell Mary the "Lord God will give to him the throne of his father David, and he will reign over the house of Jacob for ever; and of his kingdom there will be no end.
- Why does Zechariah prophesy of that: "[God] has raised up a horn of salvation for us in the house of his servant David, that we should be saved from our enemies, and from the hand of all who hate us... (Luke 1)
- Why did Jesus begin his ministry in Nazareth by quoting Isaiah to the effect he had been sent to "set at liberty those who are oppressed"? (Luke 40)
- Why did he say "I came not for peace but the sword?" (Matthew 10:34)
- What was Simon the Zealot doing with Jesus if he was still a Zealot?
- Why did Jesus use violence against the moneychangers at the same time that there was an insurrection going on led by Barabbas
- Was it just a coincidence that Jesus was imprisoned with these revolutionaries?
- Why did he tell his disciples to bring swords to the Garden of Gethsemane? (Luke 22:38)
I found myself thinking deeply about the human side of Jesus while reading this book. Particularly, it gave me a possible insight into Jesus' agony in the Garden of Gethsemane and on the Cross. Did part of him pray so desperately that God would "let this cup pass" because he hoped to fulfill the prophecies of a Davidic messiah who would literally restore David's throne? Did Jesus tell his disciples to brig swords to the Garden to protect him from those who would come to arrest him? Did the disciples commit a providential error when they fell asleep? When he cried out "why have you forsaken me?" was he still, even at that moment, hoping that God would rescue him so that he could fight on?
Personally I do not think that Jesus was a Zealot, but I do think that he might have had hopes to be the Jewish messiah in some sense. Those hopes, of course, could not be fulfilled if Jesus were to realize God's will that he act as the Suffering Servant. But they might have figured into to the human aspirations he had to leave behind at Gethsemane, and even on the Cross.
What other questions does Aslan's book raise for us, and what insights can we gain from reading his book, whether we agree with it or not?