The Zealots were one of the parties identified by Josephus during the turbulent times of the Jewish-Roman war of 66-70 C.E. Jesus was not strictly a member of this party (most likely, the party arose after Jesus’ death), but Aslan identifies him as a zealot, in the original sense of the word, i.e., someone with tremendous religious fervor, and unwilling to compromise to foreign domination.
Aslan’s biography of Jesus is quite in accord with conventional scholarship, but of course, his aggregate merit is his ability to present hard facts and complex reasoning to a lay audience. In Aslan’s account, Jesus’ life must be understood especially in the context of Roman domination. At around the time of Jesus’ birth, Judas the Galilean’s rebellion took off; this incited a Roman response, and Sephoris (a major city near Nazarteh, Jesus’ hometown) was burned to the ground. Jesus, a Galilean peasant, must have been extremely aware of this, and this is surely reflected in his public ministry.
Aslan is quite emphatic in that Jesus was one among many messianic figures in 1st Century Palestine. Judas, Theudas, the Egyptian, the Samaritan, among others, each started messianic and apocalyptic movements, none of which were successful. Even if diverse, these movements were both politically and religiously motivated: facing brutal Roman domination, they arose with the expectation that God would intervene to vindicate Israel and the oppressed, establish his Kingdom and expel, once and for all the foreign occupants.
Jesus was most likely a disciple of John the Baptist, but once his movement was dissolved by Herod Antipas (Josephus’ account is much more trustworthy than Mark and Matthew’s), Jesus began his own new movement. In Aslan’s account, Jesus’ ministry is imbued with zealotry, in the sense that no compromise is assumed vis-à-vis the Roman occupation. Whatever passages reflect an intention to compromise with Roman authorities (with the possible exception of “Render unto Caesar” saying), are most likely unhistorical, after-the-fact sayings placed by the gospels’ authors who, after the Jewish defeat, sought to accommodate their religion to the definite reality of Roman control.
Aslan does not quite say that Jesus was prepared to call for armed action against the Romans, but he does present him as a figure of combined revolutionary and apocalyptic zeal. In Aslan’s account, Jesus is extremely politically conscious. I agree with the apocalyptic part. Certainly, Jesus thought of himself as the apocalyptic Son of Man, a figure that would rise on the clouds in the mist of God’s wrathful and glorious intervention to expel the oppressors and vindicate the oppressed. But, I doubt Jesus thought he could accelerate such events by taking armed action. His apocalyptic enthusiasm, on the contrary, makes one suspect that Jesus would have thought that God would take care of it all, and that human action would be needless. Jesus’ movement would resemble more passive apocalyptic sects, such as Jehovah’s Witnesses, than active religious fundamentalists, such as Al Qaeda. I would take seriously John Dominic Crossan’s argument that, if Jesus had truly called form armed action, Pilate would have persecuted and executed his followers. The fact that only Jesus was executed at that time, must be a sign that his ministry was considered a threat, but not as dangerous as the previous messianic figures whose followers were all executed.
Be that as it may, Aslan is quite right when he argues the priestly Jewish aristocracy, aptly accommodated to Roman domination, was also uncomfortable with Jesus’ denunciation of corrupt Temple practices. And, most certainly, his feverous cleansing of the Temple in Jerusalem, called the attention of both Roman and priestly authorities. Aslan correctly argues that Jesus was executed by the Romans for sedition (the Temple guards may have collaborated in his apprehension, but the Sanhedrin trial is surely fiction, and the account of Jewish participation in his condemnation is probably a literate fabrication in order to gain Roman favor after the destruction of Jerusalem). Pilate, a brutal administrator, would not have hesitated to immediately put an end to the slightest sign of social perturbation, especially during the preparations for Jewish Passover.
Aslan’s account is thoroughly secular, so he has no patience for miracles and the resurrection. He devotes almost no time to explore what may have been behind the disciples’ claim to encounter a resurrected Jesus. But, he does pay close attention to the way the disciples faced the fact that their master had failed miserably. According to Aslan, the disciples made a fine adjustment: even if he had been crucified, Jesus was after all the Messiah. For, the Hebrew scriptures were far from clear about what the Messiah was supposed to do, and the followers of Jesus soon found enough passages in the Hebrew Bible that described suffering figures. Even if these passages were not messianic prophecies in their original context, Jesus’ followers concluded that, indeed, Jesus’ death as a suffering Meesiah had been predicted all along. Thus, unlike previous messianic movements that were easily dissolved, this adjustment allowed Jesus’ movement to continue.
The most valuable part of the book, in my estimation, is the two final chapters. Aslan describes the role played by Paul and James in the further development of Jesus’ movement. Contrary to the beliefs of Christian piety (especially expounded in the book of Acts), the rivalry between Paul and James (and Peter) was quite bitter. Paul, a Hellenistic intruder who never met Jesus, began to preach an independent message of openness to the gentiles and disregard for the Mosaic Law. James, Jesus’ brother and leader of the Jerusalem Church, was not strictly opposed to reaching out to gentiles (he eventually agreed to waive the circumcision requirement for gentiles at the council of Jerusalem), but he did desire to keep his brother’s movement within the boundaries of Judaism, as Jesus had intended all along. James sent missionaries to counter Paul’s preaching. In the final confrontation in Jerusalem, James required Paul to go through purification in the Temple, and Paul’s willingness to do so suggests a disposition to recant his former views.
As the book of Acts narrates, Paul was apprehended during this incident, and eventually marched off to Rome. Aslan’s point, however, is that the true leader of early Christianity was James, and his stand was most likely the original teaching of Jesus. Paul’s theology was a posterior invention. Nevertheless, historical contingencies gave Paul’s ideas the upper hand. James was executed by the High Priest Ananus (in a purely political maneuver, not due to religious reasons), so Jamesian Christianity suffered a significant blow. More importantly, after the Jewish-Roman war, it was no longer tenable to keep Jesus’ movement within the boundaries of Judaism. Thus, Paul’s ideas, long after his death, became mainstream Christianity.
Aslan’s book is not greatly innovative, and not overly scholarly, either. But, his undisputed prosaic talent makes it a great contribution to the lay reader who desires to introduce herself to the historical Jesus’ studies. It would have been desirable that, given Aslan’s background in writing about Islam and terrorist movements, he would have explored the connection between Jesus’ zealotry and the contemporary revival of religious fundamentalism.