Book Review: “Zealot: The Life & Times of Jesus of Nazareth” by Reza Aslan

Review written on Jan. 24, 2018 in my personal journal; now posting for reading challenge When Have You Read 2018.

Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth by Reza Aslan
Rating: 4 stars
Finished Reading: January 24, 2018

Zealot, by Reza Aslan, is the author’s quest to find the historical Jesus (as opposed to the divine). Who was Jesus really? What was his life like? What were his beliefs? What did he actually say and do? Who were the people that influenced him and that he influenced? These are questions explored in the book.

Aslan was born in Iran into a secular Muslim family, but attended an evangelical Christian camp as an impressionable adolescent, where he embraced Jesus as his savior wholeheartedly. With age, he became less zealous and more circumspect about religion in general. The author’s note on the back flap of the book says that he is “an internationally acclaimed writer and scholar of religions.” He has written about Islam and about God in the modern world.

I would attend Bible Study if a book like this was used. In fact, I went to many passages in my Bible that he quoted in Zealot, in order to see the wording and context.
Jesus of Nazareth in fact did exist. Was he born through immaculate conception? No. (But then, I’ve never believed this anyway.) Did he literally rise from the dead? Probably not. (I don’t believe this either.) So why is he the center of one of the largest faiths in the world?

It’s important to understand that, with our modern obsession about history and facts, “history” as we see it today was an unknown concept in Biblical times. History wasn’t about facts, but rather about revealing truths. People were less interested in what actually happened than in what it meant. This is why it is folly to take the Bible literally, word for word, as the “Word of God.”

Israel at that time was ruled by despotic and often cruel leaders of the Roman empire. Jerusalem was the holy city of the Jews, centered around the holy Temple. The Temple had several courtyards, into which were admitted increasingly select groups of people. Only the high priests could enter the very heart of the Temple. The priests were often allies of the Roman emperors under whom they served, and they also were exclusive, rich, powerful, and not particularly interested in the poor, except the taxes they could get from them. Under these conditions, it was no wonder that the Jewish people were fervently hoping and waiting for the true Messiah.

In the Old Testament, there are several criteria laid out which would point to the real messiah. Jesus of Nazareth did not meet any of these criteria – in the end, instead of becoming the ruler “on the throne of David,” he was executed through crucifixion without having achieved any change in the power structure of Jerusalem. Moreover, Jesus was only one of many such “messiahs” that preached throughout the countryside.

Jesus came from the small village of Nazareth, an insignificant hamlet of poor farmers unworthy of even a dot on the maps of the day. He was a peasant, most likely illiterate like most people then. The idea that he was born in Bethlehem is most likely untrue, which is explained in the narrative. Historical records indicate that he had several brothers and probably some sisters (although females were unworthy of mention and not counted in the census). One of his younger brothers was James, who becomes his principle disciple and after Jesus’ death takes leadership of his movement.james bro of Jesus.jpgA close examination of the gospels by religious scholars have led to discussions and disputes as to which passages are more likely true and which are more likely made up. The gospel of Luke seems to be the most fantastical of the four gospels. John was written quite a bit later and takes bits from the other gospels and from the teachings of Paul. We are thus left with Mark and Matthew to decipher the truth.
matthew mark luke john
John the Baptist led his own movement, and Jesus most likely was a member of that movement. The Bible says that he was baptized by John the Baptist. When he died, various of his disciples went out to preach on their own. In fact, there were many men who claimed themselves to be the messiah. Most were executed and forgotten. Jesus was not.

The “miracles” he performed were probably his most famous and convincing acts. Most of the men who could perform miracles (such as healing the sick) charged for their services; only Jesus did this for free. That attracted many to approach him. The author does not say whether Jesus performed actual “miracles.” I was interested in knowing what exactly he did to heal people, but there are no historical records other than what is written in the gospels and by other religious writers of that time.jesus-healing-the-sick
The prophecies of the Old Testament (i.e. those that were written down) and oral prophecies were scattered and caused confusion, which is why the New Testament gospel writers invented a narrative that fit with the messiah prophecies that were known to them. It was sort of like a couple of old Jews studying the Talmud, arguing about this point or that – they can go on for hours. They find it a worthy exercise. Perhaps the faithful of those times did something similar.

In fact, the author points out, OT prophets such as Micah, Amos and others were in fact making veiled criticisms of their current king and political order in their narratives, such as wishful thinking about what a good leader should be. But on one thing they all agreed: THE MESSIAH WOULD BE A HUMAN BEING, NOT DIVINE.

The transformation of Jesus from a mere man to a divine being, the literal Son of God largely came from Paul, a Diaspora Jew who spoke Greek. He preached to both Jews and gentiles and invented his own narrative to exalt Jesus as the promised messiah. For the people in the Jesus movement in Jerusalem, calling Jesus the “Son of God” was bestowing a regal title; but for Paul, it was a literal description: Jesus was God’s son. This transformation did not come easily or without conflict. The Jerusalem Jews who were Jesus’ followers found out about Paul’s revisionist teachings and they were considered so bizarre that James called him to Jerusalem to perform a ritual in the Temple recanting his false teachings. Paul apparently did undergo this ritual to appease James, but it was already too late.

Photo from the movie Paul, Apostle of Christ

The discord between the two groups [the remnants of the Twelve vs. the Greek-speaking Jews] resulted in the emergence of two distinct and competing camps of Christian interpretation in the decades after the crucifixion: one championed by Jesus’ brother, James; the other promoted by the former Pharisee, Paul. …it would be the contest between these two bitter and openly hostile adversaries, more than anything else, would shape Christianity as the global religion we know today. (p. 171)

When Jesus was crucified, over his head was placed a sign which read “bandit.” All of those crucified had an identifying plaque such as this, to indicate their crime under Roman law as a deterrent to others. “Bandit” didn’t have the connotation it does today. It signified “revolutionary” or “zealot.” Jesus was not the meek and mild personage some portray. Although he was not a believer in violence per se, he realized its necessity in some cases to rid society of despots.


His condemnation and crucifixion apparently happened shortly after he entered the Temple and famously overturned the tables of the money lenders. These people were essentially salesmen, vendors who had been situating themselves and their wares inside the outer courtyard of the Temple for ages. It was not illegal nor violated Jewish law.

Jesus Removing the Moneylenders From the Temple by James Edwin McConnell 

Jesus’ anger and outrageous act in doing this brought him to the attention of Pontius Pilate, the Roman ruler in Jerusalem at that time. Pilate was not conflicted about condemning Jesus as the Bible would have us believe. He had Jesus brought in front of him to answer the question, “Are you the king of the Jews?” but Jesus’ answer didn’t really matter. He was summarily dismissed and sent to be crucified.

To piece together a truly historical narrative of Jesus of Nazareth, scholars today use passages from the Bible, especially those that recur among different writers, and the historical details of society at that time. This is what Zealot attempts to do. I learned a lot from this book but by no means were all my questions answered. Historical facts about Jesus are sketchy and thus we are left with questions. Perhaps the answers to those questions can only be answered through our faith.


All images downloaded from Google Images, except book cover, which was downloaded from

Book Review: “A Gentleman In Moscow” by Amor Towles (Long)

I am including this book review that I wrote last January, for a reading challenge I just found out about: When Are You Reading 2018.

A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles
Rating: 5 stars, BEST BOOK
Finished reading: January 5, 2018
A Gentleman in Moscow

This turned out to be a wildly popular book and last April a friend of mine and I attended an event at which he spoke, answered questions, and autographed books. There were hundreds of people crammed into a small junior high auditorium and many eventually had to be asked to leave, for safety reasons.

Before the event: The people on the stage were asked to leave.
After the event: Amor Towles signs autographs.


A Gentleman in Moscow takes place shortly following the Bolshevik Revolution, in 1920s Russia (then being known as the Soviet Union). A young nobleman (the “Count” as he is mostly referred to in the novel, although his name is Alexander Rostov) is brought in front of the Emergency Committee of the People’s Commissariat for Internal Affairs, accused of writing a subversive (but acclaimed) poem, “Where Is It Now?” For this “crime,” he becomes a “Former Person” and is sentenced to house arrest for the rest of his life.

House arrest in this case is the Hotel Metropol, where the Count currently resides. At the age of 33, he is still a young man and such a sentence presumably confines him to a very restricted world. He can no longer walk in the park, enjoy the fresh air or scent of the flowers, or greet passersby with a friendly word. To add insult to injury, he is evicted from his elegant suite of rooms in the hotel and reassigned much smaller quarters on the sixth floor. This means giving up many of his treasured possessions, but he manages to transfer some of his most valuable furniture and other belongings into his crowded room. Since no one else seems to live on that floor, he devises a means to extend his quarters into the next room, which was empty, by carving a door into the back of his armoire. When he has been there for four years – it is now 1926 – he contemplates suicide, but just as he is about to commit the act of throwing himself off the roof, he is interrupted. He then resigns himself to his proscribed life, such that it is, and manages to live a fulfilling life.

You see, the Hotel Metropol turns out to be a more intriguing place than he expected, thanks in part to a young girl in a yellow dress, Nina, whom he meets while having dinner in one of the dining rooms. She explores the entire hotel, enters into salons during meetings by hiding in the balcony, and has managed to obtain a master key that opens every room in the hotel. Fascinated by her intrepidness, the Count follows her on these explorations, getting himself dirty in dusty balconies and testing the energy of his less agile body by squeezing into small spaces on his knees.

Eventually, Nina is sent away to school and he doesn’t see her again for many years. But one day,  Nina reappears as a young woman and asks a very important favor. She and her compatriots are going to the interior to educate peasants (she and her friends having embraced the revolution wholeheartedly) but she has a young daughter and cannot take her with her. It would be dangerous and no proper life for a 6-year-old. She tells the Count it would only be for a short time; that she would come back to get the girl in the space of a month.

Reluctantly, the Count agrees. He has no knowledge of how to care for a child and at the beginning, their relationship is very awkward, with long stretches of silence on the child’s part. A month turns into several months, months into a year – in short, Nina never returns for her daughter and the Count ends up being a father to Sophia, who calls him “Papa.”

But she, too, must have an education. She is enrolled in a local Catholic school, but continues to reside with the Count in his small attic apartment. When she gets older, however, she begins to follow her passion of being a concert pianist, an unexpected turn of events for the Count. A series of circumstances ensue which cause the Count, in his love for his adopted daughter, to make some drastic decisions.

I loved the novel not just for the story but also the humor and INTELLIGENCE throughout the narrative, many interesting characters, and beautifully written scenes.

Some of my reflections and favorite passages:
p. 144, re the process of change: And suddenly, the Count has his own moment of lucidity…and now understood his place in the passage of time. As we age, we are bound to find comfort from the notion that it takes generations for a way of life to fade. We are familiar with the songs our grandparents favored… At festive holidays, the recipes we pull from the drawer are routinely decades old, and in some cases even written in the hand of a relative long since dead. … The oriental coffee tables and well-worn desks that have been handed down from generation to generation [,] despite being “out of fashion,” not only do they add beauty to our daily lives, they lend material credibility to our presumption that the passing of an era will be glacial.

But under certain circumstances, the Count finally acknowledged, this process can occur in the comparative blink of an eye. Popular upheaval, political turmoil, industrial progress – any combination of these can cause the evolution of a society to leapfrog generations, sweeping aside aspects of the past that might otherwise have lingered for decades. And this must be especially so, when those with newfound power are men who distrust any form of hesitation or nuance, and who prize self-assurance above all.

The Count had himself as a bridge between the past and this new society: In his heart of hearts, he had imagined that…these aspects of his life were lingering somewhere on the periphery, waiting to be recalled. But looking at the bottle in his hand, the Count was struck by the realization that, in fact, it was all behind him. Because the Bolsheviks, who were so intent upon recasting the future from a mold of their own making, would not rest until every last vestige of his Russia had been uprooted, shattered, or erased.

It was at this realization, in 1926, when he had been living in the hotel for four years, that he decided to “shed this mortal coil” once and for all. We of course realize he won’t go through with it, as this is only about a third of the way through the book!

p. 164 – re exile, abroad vs. in one’s own country: As long as there have been men on earth, reflected the Count, there have been men in exile. … But perhaps this was to be expected. After all, exile was the punishment that God meted out to Adam in the very first chapter of the human comedy; and that He meted out to Cain a few pages later. Yes, exile was as old as mankind. But the Russians were the first people to master the notion of sending a man into exile at home.

…[I]n another country, a man might immerse himself in his labors, build a house, raise a family. That is, he might begin his life anew.

But when you exile a man into his own country, there is no beginning anew. For the exile at home…the love for his country will not become vague or shrouded by the mists of time. In fact, because we have evolved as a species to pay the utmost attention to that which is just beyond our reach, these men are likely to dwell on the splendors of Moscow more than any Muscovite who is at liberty to enjoy them.

pp. 297-8 – What price development? What did the USA and the USSR sacrifice to achieve their aims – “brushed the past aside instead of bowing before it.” The Count is in conversation with Osip, a man from the Kremlin that he has befriended, in which the Count expresses concern about “the burning of Moscow, and the toppling of statues, and the silencing of poets, and the slaughter of fourteen million head of cattle.” Osip says:

[D]o you think the achievements of the Americans – envied the world over – came without a cost? Just ask their African brothers. And do you think the engineers who designed their illustrious skyscrapers or built their highways hesitated for one moment to level the lovely little neighborhoods that stood in their way? … we and the Americans will lead the rest of this century because we are the only nations who have learned to brush the past aside instead of bowing before it. But where they have done so in service of their beloved individualism, we are attempting to do so in service of the common good. The Soviets “attempted” to evolve “in service of the common good.”

Russians had a proclivity to destroying what they created. The Count’s friend, Mishka, was right, but Osip said the destruction of monuments and masterpieces was essential to the progress of a nation (p. 301).

Former vs. Latter; Inward-looking vs. outward looking: What are “conveniences” and do they really matter? “…in the end,” the Count says, “it has been the inconveniences that have mattered to me most.” (e.g. keeping appointments, having to make your own breakfast, lack of freedom of movement, raising a child, commitment to a partner.)




Notes on “South Pole Station” by Ashley Shelby

I am blogging my notes on books in order to participate in a reading challenge called When Are You Reading 2018. This is not a book review. My “notes” on books usually are more like rambling thoughts. I wrote this in my journal on May 17, 2018:

South Pole Station by Ashley Shelby
Finished reading: May 16, 2018
South Pole Station
I hate extreme cold weather and therefore am sort of fascinated by the kind of people who would choose to work in Antarctica, when even in the summer, the temperature hovers around -40°F. I wrote some notes, (POSSIBLE SPOILERS) most of which are quotes:

p. 121 “Metaphorically, all research is a long walk.”

p. 122 “The urge to jump affirms the urge to live.” This is called the high-place phenomenon, when we experience a strange urge to jump overboard or off a high place when we look down. It is the brain’s misinterpretation of the instinctual safety signal.

p. 179 Sal gets upset when Cooper asks how the universe started. Sal’s answer concludes with “That may work in art, Cooper, but that doesn’t work in the real world.”
This is an insult; although she didn’t take it as such, I did. It’s this attitude by scientists, politicians and others who see art as outside the real world. Of course, the imagination figures into the creation of art, but what art is IS part of the real world.

p. 298 (Chapter narrated by Frank Pavano) “Democrats…would…dig into my past and reveal the plagiarism charges…It was part of the narrative, and that the mainstream media’s refusal to allow me, a man of faith, to be “born again” would only increase the public’s support. Again and again, the media underestimated the importance of the lost lamb to the churchgoing American.” (Emphasis mine.)

At first, I agreed with the idea that “intelligent design” scientists should have equal opportunity to research funding – why not? If they’re wrong, the research will show it. But in the chapter on Pavano (pp. 282-300), in which manipulation invades the scientific method, part of the “Plan” was to manipulate the data if it didn’t support their hypotheses (and their political agenda). So perhaps the South Pole scientists were right to refuse to cooperate with a researcher supposedly sent in the name of science to the South Pole to do research to support the conclusion that “intelligent design” (i.e. a universe created by God) is correct.

At the end of the book, I was surprised to find out that Sal’s hypothesis about the universe being made up of membranes which occasionally run into each other and create new universes, was proven wrong; he did not believe in the Big Bang theory. Yet ultimately his research supports the “inflationary” theory of most other scientists. He, as a ethical scientist, owned up to this and did not try to manipulate the data. Anyway, I was surprised because his hypothesis sounded plausible to me and I thought perhaps in the last 15 years or so, when I have not kept up with prevailing scientific theories about the origin of the universe, this idea of “branes” might be correct. Isn’t that like string theory?