Was Jesus a Zealot?

The turning point of Jesus’s fateful week in Jerusalem was his protest at the Temple, which the Jewish priests saw as a challenge to their authority and which led to his trial and execution. But was this disruption violent or non-violent, a question posed by Reza Aslan in Zealot, a book reviewed by Rev. Howard Bess.

By the Rev. Howard Bess

Reza Aslan’s Zealot: the Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth is of special interest to me because our experiences are similar. Aslan was a devout Evangelical Christian, as was I. Aslan decided that he wanted to know more about the Jesus of history. So did I. The pursuit took us both over the last 200 years of scholarly research on the historical Jesus and the intense search for the historical Jesus over the past 40 years or so. But Aslan no longer identifies himself as an Evangelical Christian. I do.

To understand Jesus and what he was about, Aslan believes that we must begin with the story of the so-called Cleansing of the Temple in Jerusalem sometime in the last week of Jesus’s life. It is the event that makes his issues clear and explains, from a human point-of-view, why he was violently put to death. I agree completely. So also do all the New Testament scholars of which I am aware.

The ruckus in the Temple Court Yard took place and was the direct cause of the crucifixion of Jesus. But a huge disagreement exists over the nature of the ruckus that Jesus caused. Were the actions that Jesus took violent? Aslan answers that question with an emphatic “yes.”

His narrative about the cleansing is graphic and fascinating. It is great reading. Yet, here I must take exception with Aslan. The acts of Jesus were aggressive and action filled. However, I see the event as street theatre. The action was to get attention and to make a point.

Aslan sees the Temple episode, not as a cleansing of the Temple, but the beginning of the overthrow of the entire Temple system. I agree. Aslan sees Jesus angrily coming to the task with weapons of destruction. I disagree. I see Jesus coming in non-violent action much as Martin Luther King Jr. brought non-violent action to overthrow racism in America.

In Aslan’s argument for Jesus being a man of violence, he takes us back to the area known as Galilee, some 70 miles north of Jerusalem. Aslan, I believe, accurately describes the terrible economic plight of Galileans. Poverty had been brought on by an ugly alliance between the priests, Pharisees and Sadducees of Judaism and Roman rulers.

Extreme wealth had gone to the few and poverty had gone to the many. Land ownership had moved to the absentee super-rich, and economic slavery was the heritage of rural folk. Jesus lived among the poorest of the poor. He became the pedagogue of the oppressed. Jesus lived and taught among people of poverty who were angry over their plight.

Galilee became the seedbed of zealots. Eventually Galileans became a driving force behind a formal political movement called the Zealots, but that was not until some 25 to 30 years later. The Zealots in their roots and in their later organized form were advocates of violence. All men carried knives.

Aslan sees Jesus as a knife-carrying zealot. I disagree. He was a zealot in that he advocated the overthrow of the economic and religious powers that dominated Palestine. He called for justice. He believed there was a better way.

Aslan has written a very readable book, a 216-page epistle that reads like a novel. The book is very inviting to the lay person who has no particular background in critical Bible or history research. Aslan readily admits that what we know about Jesus is limited and sketchy at best.

In recent decades, our knowledge of the politics, economics, social structures and religions of the Holy Land has expanded rapidly. In putting together our image of Jesus, we know only a bit about Jesus. We know a lot more about the context in which he lived. It is only natural that devout pursuers of the historical Jesus tend to fill in the blank spots with both probability and a healthy imagination. Aslan does exactly that. He fills in the blank spots to fill out his image of Jesus from Nazareth.

As a conscientious student of both Bible and the search for the historical Jesus, I was very aware of the places in the book where I knew he lapsed from fact to his own opinions and perspectives. But Dr. Aslan writes his biography of Jesus without footnotes. In the body of the book, he never attempts to separate what scholars consider facts and the opinions of Reza Aslan. At the end of the book, Aslan adds 50 pages of End Notes in fine print, but few readers will bother turning to the End Notes.

Aslan’s book was published early in 2013. The book was not selling particularly well. Then he was interviewed on Fox Television. Many thought the Fox interviewer was very unfair to Aslan. Zealot zoomed to the top of the best-seller list and is still there. It is a great read and will be read by millions of people. The book cannot be ignored.

The Jesus of history needs a lot more attention, but I am not certain that Aslan’s version is entirely helpful.

The Rev. Howard Bess is a retired American Baptist minister, who lives in Palmer, Alaska.  His email address is [email protected].         

11 comments for “Was Jesus a Zealot?

  1. Frances in California
    October 1, 2013 at 19:59

    What really matters is a recording I heard on the Chieftains’ “Bells of Dublin” Holiday album, Jackson Browne singing “The Rebel Jesus”; the verse that goes something like “We give to our relations, And perhaps we give a little to the poor,
    If the generosity should seize us, But if any one of us should interfere, In the business of why they are poor . . . They get the same as the rebel jesus”

  2. phreeman
    September 30, 2013 at 11:48

    A perfect example of the articles that keep me coming back to this site. I found Rezlan’s book fascinating and thought provoking.

    I do agree with the comment regarding endnotes, even though I did read MOST of them. Is there any reason at all in the day and age of computerized word processing not to have footnotes in a supposedly scholarly (albeit for lay people) work? No, absolutely none. Drives me crazy.

  3. Kent Smith
    September 29, 2013 at 05:28

    I think a far more interesting issue than the nature of the historical Jesus is why did Consortiumnews publish this absurd rejoinder by a Baptist preacher? He offered no facts nor added information of any sort to the Jesus question, just related a few unexceptional points-of-view he has. He didn’t even defend most of them. Not to be rude, but who cares?

    Reza Aslan gave us a well-researched and intelligently presented argument about Jesus as a political figure. There’s nothing terribly revolutionary in it, at least within current (academic) views of 1st century Judean politics; but as an introduction it’s excellent, and one surely appreciates how clearly Aslan writes. One can hardly say the same about Reverent Bess.

    There are many far more interesting questions to pursue about the genesis of Christianity. One that’s batting around for a while now is, where, in fact, was Jesus invented, Judea or Rome? That’s something to get some blood boiling.

    • Andrew
      September 30, 2013 at 08:44

      Kent, shouldn’t you ask where Christ was invented? Jesus was a real historical personal. Christ on the other hand, many would argue was invented by Paul.

  4. John
    September 28, 2013 at 19:57

    I think HISTORICVS has it right, but I’d go further. He was amongst the poor Jews and was driven against the corruption of the Jewish elites in the temple and the Romans. I don’t think he was a killer as some suggest but perhaps deluded into thinking he was the son of God. The early writings have the Romans as his killers, and as Romans became more enamoured with life after death and adopting the Christian ideas, the more the Jews became documented as his killers to satisfy growing numbers of Roman Christians.

  5. Leland F. Mellott
    September 28, 2013 at 18:00

    In October 1981, we entered Humanity’s Next Cycle. This is not another 2,000 year out-breath of Divine Will Intelligence (which is what the Second Coming would have been); it is a Turn To Source.
    When we pass through from this life, we are going to be taken up the time/history of this universe all … the … way … back … to … The Beginning. I saw this beginning, while awake. In such enormity there is no enormity. In a dream, I am given to know that “we’ll see things we never knew existed.”
    Never before, ever after.
    In a dream, I am being interrogated by a man about Jesus of Nazareth. I say, “He killed no one.”
    We were never created, but always have been and always will be; we are immortal beings. In the sense that we never die, we are angels.
    I am brought to this knowledge by way of a powerful River Of Light in my mind during the month of October 1981.
    We have entered the Age Of Woman. Who am I? I am Son Of My Mother, nothing is higher than this.
    There will be peace in this world. That which is written is already written, and from The Beginning. Love is the power and infinitely so. Love is the way. There is no other way.
    All are priceless, unto the least and beginning there.

    Kind Regards,
    Leland Mellott
    Mount Vernon,

  6. Gretchen Robinson
    September 28, 2013 at 17:45

    If you throw out the Doctrine of Atonement, then you can easily see Jesus as telling Peter to put up his sword because they were surrounded and out-numbered. I don’t see Jesus as having ‘come’ to save humankind from some ‘sin.’ Even as a young child in Sunday School that made zero sense to me. It was (and still is) too fantastical, all that cosmic skull-duggery whereby a father/god allows or has men kill the son/god. At age 6 or 8 that folderol made a skeptic of me.

    Maybe Jesus went away with the Centurions so that they wouldn’t all be killed. It’s just as reasonable, to me, that he had a martyr complex and let it all happen out of political reasons and anger at the so-called Pax Romana.

    In Theology school I studied Walter Wink and am familiar with the notion of Jesus’ Third Way of street theatre, showing that by turning the other cheek you rebuked your abuser. I used to find Wink’s argument reasonable. Now I find it merely thin and unconvincing–as thin as your excusing the violence in the Temple by calling it merely “aggressive”.

    September 28, 2013 at 15:40

    Consider that the “moneychangers’ tables”, stacked high with gold and silver coin as pilgrims from all over the world came to Jerusalem for the festival, were guarded by a 2,000 man Jewish Temple police force, which was backed up by a full cohort of 600 Roman legionaries garrisoned at Fortress Antonia, built into the temple wall. The Gospels mention that Jesus’ followers were armed with swords that fateful Passover, and these were strictly military-grade weapons, far more lethal than the daggers that every man carried for personal protection in the first century.

    In Jesus’ mind his role was to begin a token resistance to Roman occupation and the Almighty would return to smite the enemy as He did in the legends of old. Jesus’ unique message was that these were the prophesied end times, applicable on the “the lost sheep of Israel”, and that nothing else mattered, hence the injunctions not to disobey unjust law or to seek revenge or to sell all your property.

    His shocked, dying words, “father why have you foresaken me” reverberate deeply as a deluded fanatic’s too-late realization of his terrible mistake. The rest is the invention of his heartbroken friends, embellished with pagan archetypes – divine paternity, virgin birth, and the near-universal three day sojourn in the underworld.

    The only mystery is how it was that his followers (if they actually existed as described) were not likewise condemned and executed by the humorless Roman overlords of Judaea.

  8. Sage McVahle
    September 28, 2013 at 13:58

    Jesus was not a pacifist. If you look at Roman law regarding slaves, and subject people, you will see that while subject people, such as the Hebrews, were second hand citizens, there were sever consequences for treating them as slaves.
    If you treated a non-slave as a slave the punishment was to be enslaved yourself. Jesus advocated demanding to be treated the same as citizens, and placing citizens who did demand what was allowed of subject people to choose between withdrawing the demand or risk being enslaved. Here are a few examples;
    “If a man asks for your cloak, give him your shirt also.” Under the Roman law at the time, employers were required to feed day laborers. They were also allowed to take the day workers cloak as security that they would work once fed. However, only slaves worked shirtless. If you demanded a day workers shirt, you were treating him as a slave, and risked being enslaved yourself.
    “If a man asks you to carry his burden for a mile, carry it for two.” A citizen was allowed to demand that any subject person carry his goods for one mile. Only slaves could be forced to carry anything further without payment. Same consequence.
    “If a man strikes you on the left cheek, turn to him your right cheek also.” In that entire region water for cleansing was scarce. Because of this, people handles food only with their right hand, and only wiped after defecating with their left hand. It was permitted to strike a slave with either hand, but another citizen, or even subject peoples, could only be struck with your right. Striking someone with your left hand was an invitation to fight to the death, and even a subject person could, if struck by someone using their left hand could fight and kill a citizen.
    Peter wore a sword, as did some of the other disciples. He even used his sword to cut off the ear of one of the centurions who came to the garden to arrest Jesus. Jesus did not reprimand Peter for using violence in his defense, but rather simply told him to put up his sword because what was happening was necessary.

  9. rosemerry
    September 28, 2013 at 13:42

    How does the former Pope’s history of Jesus compare?

  10. Hillary
    September 28, 2013 at 11:20

    “I see the event as street theatre.”
    The whole story and still believed by so many.

    “Religion is something left over from the infancy of our intelligence, it will fade away as we adopt reason and science as our guidelines.” Bertrand Russell

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