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The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth

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On Sale: July 16, 2013
Pages: 336 | ISBN: 978-0-679-60353-5
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Synopsis|Excerpt

Synopsis

#1 NEW YORK TIMES BESTSELLER

NAMED ONE OF THE BEST BOOKS OF THE YEAR BY
Good Housekeeping • Booklist • Publishers Weekly • Bookish

From the internationally bestselling author of No god but God comes a fascinating, provocative, and meticulously researched biography that challenges long-held assumptions about the man we know as Jesus of Nazareth.
 
Two thousand years ago, an itinerant Jewish preacher and miracle worker walked across the Galilee, gathering followers to establish what he called the “Kingdom of God.” The revolutionary movement he launched was so threatening to the established order that he was captured, tortured, and executed as a state criminal.
 
Within decades after his shameful death, his followers would call him God.
 
Sifting through centuries of mythmaking, Reza Aslan sheds new light on one of history’s most influential and enigmatic characters by examining Jesus through the lens of the tumultuous era in which he lived: first-century Palestine, an age awash in apocalyptic fervor. Scores of Jewish prophets, preachers, and would-be messiahs wandered through the Holy Land, bearing messages from God. This was the age of zealotry—a fervent nationalism that made resistance to the Roman occupation a sacred duty incumbent on all Jews. And few figures better exemplified this principle than the charismatic Galilean who defied both the imperial authorities and their allies in the Jewish religious hierarchy.
 
Balancing the Jesus of the Gospels against the historical sources, Aslan describes a man full of conviction and passion, yet rife with contradiction; a man of peace who exhorted his followers to arm themselves with swords; an exorcist and faith healer who urged his disciples to keep his identity a secret; and ultimately the seditious “King of the Jews” whose promise of liberation from Rome went unfulfilled in his brief lifetime. Aslan explores the reasons why the early Christian church preferred to promulgate an image of Jesus as a peaceful spiritual teacher rather than a politically conscious revolutionary. And he grapples with the riddle of how Jesus understood himself, the mystery that is at the heart of all subsequent claims about his divinity.
 
Zealot yields a fresh perspective on one of the greatest stories ever told even as it affirms the radical and transformative nature of Jesus of Nazareth’s life and mission. The result is a thought-provoking, elegantly written biography with the pulse of a fast-paced novel: a singularly brilliant portrait of a man, a time, and the birth of a religion.

Praise for Zealot
 
“Riveting . . . Aslan synthesizes Scripture and scholarship to create an original account.”The New Yorker

“A lucid, intelligent page-turner.”—Los Angeles Times
 
“Fascinatingly and convincingly drawn . . . Aslan may come as close as one can to respecting those who revere Jesus as the peace-loving, turn-the-other-cheek, true son of God depicted in modern Christianity, even as he knocks down that image.”The Seattle Times
 
“[Aslan’s] literary talent is as essential to the effect of Zealot as are his scholarly and journalistic chops. . . . A vivid, persuasive portrait.”Salon
 
“This tough-minded, deeply political book does full justice to the real Jesus, and honors him in the process.”San Francisco Chronicle


From the Hardcover edition.

Excerpt

Chapter One

A Hole in the Corner

Who killed Jonathan son of Ananus as he strode across the Temple Mount in the year 56 c.e.? No doubt there were many in Jerusalem who longed to slay the rapacious high priest, and more than a few who would have liked to wipe out the bloated Temple priesthood in its entirety. For what must never be forgotten when speaking of first-century Palestine is that this land—this hallowed land from which the spirit of God flowed to the rest of the world—was occupied territory. Legions of Roman troops were stationed throughout Judea. Some six hundred Roman soldiers resided atop the Temple Mount itself, within the high stone walls of the Antonia Fortress, which buttressed the northwest corner of the Temple wall. The unclean centurion in his red cape and polished cuirass who paraded through the Court of Gentiles, his hand hovering over the hilt of his sword, was a not so subtle reminder, if any were needed, of who really ruled this sacred place.

Roman dominion over Jerusalem began in 63 b.c.e., when Rome’s master tactician, Pompey Magnus, entered the city with his conquering legions and laid siege to the Temple. By then, Jerusalem had long since passed its economic and cultural zenith. The Canaanite settlement that King David had recast into the seat of his kingdom, the city he had passed to his wayward son, Solomon, who built the first Temple to God—sacked and destroyed by the Babylonians in 586 b.c.e.—the city that had served as the religious, economic, and political capital of the Jewish nation for a thousand years, was, by the time Pompey strode through its gates, recognized less for its beauty and grandeur than for the religious fervor of its troublesome population.

Situated on the southern plateau of the shaggy Judean mountains, between the twin peaks of Mount Scopus and the Mount of Olives, and flanked by the Kidron Valley in the east and the steep, forebidding Valley of Gehenna in the south, Jerusalem, at the time of the Roman invasion, was home to a settled population of about a hundred thousand people. To the Romans, it was an inconsequential speck on the imperial map, a city the wordy statesman Cicero dismissed as “a hole in the corner.” But to the Jews this was the navel of the world, the axis of the universe. There was no city more unique, more holy, more venerable in all the world than Jerusalem. The purple vineyards whose vines twisted and crawled across the level plains, the well-tilled fields and viridescent orchards bursting with almond and fig and olive trees, the green beds of papyrus floating lazily along the Jordan River—the Jews not only knew and deeply loved every feature of this consecrated land, they laid claim to all of it. Everything from the farmsteads of the Galilee to the low-lying hills of Samaria and the far outskirts of Idumea, where the Bible says the accursed cities of Sodom and Gomorrah once stood, was given by God to the Jews, though in fact the Jews ruled none of it, not even Jerusalem, where the true God was worshipped. The city that the Lord had clothed in splendor and glory and placed, as the prophet Ezekiel declared, “in the center of all nations”—the eternal seat of God’s kingdom on earth—was, at the dawn of the first century c.e., just a minor province, and a vexing one at that, at the far corner of the mighty Roman Empire.

It is not that Jerusalem was unaccustomed to invasion and ­occupation. Despite its exalted status in the hearts of the Jews, the truth is that Jerusalem was little more than a trifle to be passed among a succession of kings and emperors who took turns ­plundering and despoiling the sacred city on their way to far grander ambitions. In 586 b.c.e. the Babylonians—masters of Mesopotamia—rampaged through Judea, razing both Jerusalem and its Temple to the ground. The Babylonians were conquered by the Persians, who allowed the Jews to return to their beloved city and rebuild their temple, not because they admired the Jews or took their cult seriously, but because they considered Jerusalem an irrelevant backwater of little interest or concern to an empire that stretched the length of Central Asia (though the prophet Isaiah would thank the Persian king Cyrus by anointing him messiah). The Persian Empire, and Jerusalem with it, fell to the armies of Alexander the Great, whose descendants imbued the city and its inhabitants with Greek culture and ideas. Upon Alexander’s untimely death in 323 b.c.e., Jerusalem was passed as spoils to the Ptolemaic dynasty and ruled from distant Egypt, though only briefly. In 198 b.c.e., the city was wrested from Ptolemaic control by the Seleucid king Antiochus the Great, whose son Antiochus Epiphanes fancied himself god incarnate and strove to put an end once and for all to the worship of the Jewish deity in Jerusalem. But the Jews responded to this blasphemy with a relentless ­guerrilla war led by the stouthearted sons of Mattathias the Hasmonaean—the Maccabees—who reclaimed the holy city from Seleucid control in 164 b.c.e. and, for the first time in four centuries, restored Jewish hegemony over Judea.

For the next hundred years, the Hasmonaeans ruled God’s land with an iron fist. They were priest-kings, each sovereign serving as both King of the Jews and high priest of the Temple. But when civil war broke out between the brothers Hyrcanus and Aristobulus over control of the throne, each brother foolishly reached out to Rome for support. Pompey took the brothers’ entreaties as an invitation to seize Jerusalem for himself, thus putting an end to the brief period of direct Jewish rule over the city of God. In 63 b.c.e., Judea became a Roman protectorate, and the Jews were made once again a subject people.

Roman rule, coming as it did after a century of independence, was not warmly received by the Jews. The Hasmonaean dynasty was abolished, but Pompey allowed Hyrcanus to maintain the position of high priest. That did not sit well with the supporters of Aristobulus, who launched a series of revolts to which the Romans responded with characteristic savagery—burning towns, massacring rebels, enslaving populations. Meanwhile, the chasm between the starving and indebted poor toiling in the countryside and the wealthy provincial class ruling in Jerusalem grew even wider. It was standard Roman policy to forge alliances with the landed aristocracy in every captured city, making them dependent on the Roman overlords for their power and wealth. By aligning their interests with those of the ruling class, Rome assured that local leaders remained wholly vested in maintaining the imperial system. Of course, in Jerusalem, “landed aristocracy” more or less meant the priestly class, and specifically, that handful of wealthy priestly families who maintained the Temple cult and who, as a result, were charged by Rome with collecting the taxes and tribute and keeping order among the increasingly restive population—tasks for which they were richly compensated.

The fluidity that existed in Jerusalem between the religious and political powers made it necessary for Rome to maintain close supervision over the Jewish cult and, in particular, over the high priest. As head of the Sanhedrin and “leader of the nation,” the high priest was a figure of both religious and political renown with the power to decide all religious matters, to enforce God’s law, and even to make arrests, though only in the vicinity of the Temple. If the Romans wanted to control the Jews, they had to control the Temple. And if they wanted to control the Temple, they had to control the high priest, which is why, soon after taking control over Judea, Rome took upon itself the responsibility of appointing and deposing (either directly or indirectly) the high priest, essentially transforming him into a Roman employee. Rome even kept custody of the high priest’s sacred garments, handing them out only on the sacred festivals and feast days and confiscating them immediately after the ceremonies were complete.

Still, the Jews were better off than some other Roman subjects. For the most part, the Romans humored the Jewish cult, allowing the rituals and sacrifices to be conducted without interference. The Jews were even excused from the direct worship of the emperor, which Rome imposed upon nearly every other religious community under its dominion. All that Rome asked of Jerusalem was a twice-daily sacrifice of one bull and two lambs on behalf of the emperor and for his good health. Continue making the sacrifice, keep up with the taxes and tribute, follow the provincial laws, and Rome was happy to leave you, your god, and your temple alone.

The Romans were, after all, fairly proficient in the religious beliefs and practices of subject peoples. Most of the lands they conquered were allowed to maintain their temples unmolested. Rival gods, far from being vanquished or destroyed, were often assimilated into the Roman cult (that is how, for example, the Canaanite god Baal became associated with the Roman god Saturn). In some cases, under a practice called evocatio, the Romans would take possession of an enemy’s temple—and therefore its god, for the two were inextricable in the ancient world—and transfer it to Rome, where it would be showered with riches and lavish sacrifices. Such displays were meant to send a clear signal that the hostilities were directed not toward the enemy’s god but toward its fighters; the god would continue to be honored and worshipped in Rome if only his devotees would lay down their arms and allow themselves to be absorbed into the empire.

As generally tolerant as the Romans may have been when it came to foreign cults, they were even more lenient toward the Jews and their fealty to their One God—what Cicero decried as the “barbarian superstitions” of Jewish monotheism. The Romans may not have understood the Jewish cult, with its strange observances and its overwhelming obsession with ritual purity—“The Jews regard as profane all that we hold sacred,” Tacitus wrote, “while they permit all that we abhor”—but they nevertheless tolerated it.

What most puzzled Rome about the Jews was not their unfamiliar rites or their strict devotion to their laws, but rather what the Romans considered to be their unfathomable superiority complex. The notion that an insignificant Semitic tribe residing in a distant corner of the mighty Roman Empire demanded, and indeed received, special treatment from the emperor was, for many Romans, simply incomprehensible. How dare they consider their god to be the sole god in the universe? How dare they keep themselves separate from all other nations? Who do these backward and superstitious tribesmen think they are? The Stoic philosopher Seneca was not alone among the Roman elite in wondering how it had possibly come to pass in Jerusalem that “the vanquished have given laws to the victors.”

For the Jews, however, this sense of exceptionalism was not a matter of arrogance or pride. It was a direct commandment from a jealous God who tolerated no foreign presence in the land he had set aside for his chosen people. That is why, when the Jews first came to this land a thousand years earlier, God had decreed that they massacre every man, woman, and child they encountered, that they slaughter every ox, goat, and sheep they came across, that they burn every farm, every field, every crop, every living thing without exception so as to ensure that the land would belong solely to those who worshipped this one God and no other.

“As for the towns of these people that the Lord your God is giving you as an inheritance,” God told the Israelites, “you must not let anything that breathes remain alive. You shall annihilate them all—the Hittites and the Amorites, the Canaanites and the Perizzites, the Hivites and the Jebusites—just as the Lord your God has commanded” (Deuteronomy 20:17–­18).

It was, the Bible claims, only after the Jewish armies had “utterly destroyed all that breathed” in the cities of Libnah and Lachish and Eglon and Hebron and Debir, in the hill country and in the Negeb, in the lowlands and in the slopes—only after every single previous inhabitant of this land was eradicated, “as the Lord God of Israel had commanded” (Joshua 10: 28–­42)—that the Jews were allowed to settle here.
Reza Aslan

About Reza Aslan

Reza Aslan - Zealot

Photo © Hilary Jones

Dr. Reza Aslan’s bachelor’s degree is in religious studies, with an emphasis on scripture and traditions (which at Santa Clara University means the New Testament). His minor was in biblical Greek. He has a master of theological studies degree from Harvard University, in world religions, and a Ph.D. from the University of California, Santa Barbara, in the sociology of religions. UCSB’s doctoral program is an interdisciplinary one that draws from religion, history, philosophy, and sociology, among other fields. Aslan’s doctorate in the sociology of religions encompasses expertise in the history of religion. Reza also has a master of fine arts degree from the University of Iowa.
 
Dr. Aslan is currently a professor of creative writing at the University of California, Riverside, and a cooperative faculty member in the department of religion, and he teaches in both disciplines. He was previously Wallerstein Distinguished Visiting Professor of religion at Drew University, where he taught from 2012 to 2013, and assistant visiting professor of religion at the University of Iowa, where he taught from 2000 to 2003. He has written three books on religion.
Praise

Praise

“Riveting . . . Aslan synthesizes Scripture and scholarship to create an original account.”The New Yorker

“A lucid, intelligent page-turner.”—Los Angeles Times
 
“Aslan’s insistence on human and historical actuality turns out to be far more interesting than dogmatic theology. . . . This tough-minded, deeply political book does full justice to the real Jesus, and honors him in the process.”San Francisco Chronicle

“Aslan brings a fine popular style, shorn of all jargon, to bear on the presentation of Jesus of Nazareth. . . . He isn’t interested in attacking religion or even the church, much less in comparing Christianity unfavorably to another religion. He would have us admire Jesus as one of the many would-be messiahs who sprang up during Rome’s occupation of Palestine, animated by zeal for ‘strict adherence to the Torah and the Law,’ refusal to serve a human master, and devotion to God, and therefore dedicated to throwing off Rome and repudiating Roman religion. . . . You don’t have to lose your religion to learn much that’s vitally germane to its history from Aslan’s absorbing, reader-friendly book.”Booklist (starred review)
 
“Be advised, dear reader, Sunday school this isn’t. Yet Aslan may come as close as one can to respecting those who revere Jesus as the peace-loving, turn-the-other-cheek, true son of God depicted in modern Christianity, even as he knocks down that image. . . . Aslan is steeped in the history, languages and scriptural foundation of the biblical scholar and is a very clear writer with an authoritative, but not pedantic, voice. Those of us who wade into this genre often know how rare that is. . . . Fascinatingly and convincingly drawn.”The Seattle Times
 
“[Aslan’s] literary talent is as essential to the effect of Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth as are his scholarly and journalistic chops. . . . A vivid, persuasive portrait of the world and societies in which Jesus lived and the role he most likely played in both. . . . Fascinating.”—Salon
 
“Accessibly and strongly presented . . . Readable and with scholarly endnotes, Aslan’s book offers a historical perspective that is sure to generate spirited conversation.”Library Journal
 
“A well-researched, readable biography of Jesus of Nazareth. Jesus of Nazareth is not the same as Jesus Christ. The Gospels are not historical documents. . . . Why has Christianity taken hold and flourished? This book will give you the answers.”Kirkus Reviews (starred review)
 
“[Aslan] parts an important curtain that has long hidden from view the man Jesus. . . . Aslan develops a convincing and coherent story of how the Christian church, and in particular Paul, reshaped Christianity’s essence, obscuring the very real man who was Jesus of Nazareth. Compulsively readable and written at a popular level, this superb work is highly recommended.”Publishers Weekly (starred review)

“A bold, powerfully argued revisioning of the most consequential life ever lived.”—Lawrence Wright, Pulitzer Prize–winning author of Going Clear: Scientology, Hollywood, and the Prison of Belief
 
“The story of Jesus of Nazareth is arguably the most influential narrative in human history. Here Reza Aslan writes vividly and insightfully about the life and meaning of the figure who has come to be seen by billions as the Christ of faith. This is a special and revealing work, one that believer and skeptic alike will find surprising, engaging, and original.”—Jon Meacham, Pulitzer Prize–winning author of Thomas Jefferson: The Art of Power
 
“In Zealot, Reza Aslan doesn't just synthesize research and reimagine a lost world, though he does those things very well. He does for religious history what Bertolt Brecht did for playwriting. Aslan rips Jesus out of all the contexts we thought he belonged in and holds him forth as someone entirely new. This is Jesus as a passionate Jew, a violent revolutionary, a fanatical ideologue, an odd and scary and extraordinarily interesting man.”—Judith Shulevitz, author of The Sabbath World


From the Hardcover edition.
Teachers Guide

Teacher's Guide



NOTE TO TEACHERS

Please click on the link below to download a PDF version of this discussion guide.

Zealot yields a fresh perspective on one of the greatest stories ever told even as it affirms the radical and transformative nature of Jesus of Nazareth’s life and mission.
 
In Zealot, Reza sifts through centuries of mythmaking and sheds new light on one of history’s most enigmatic characters by examining Jesus through the lens of the tumultuous era in which he lived: first-century Palestine, an age awash in apocalyptic fervor. Scores of Jewish prophets, preachers, and would-be messiahs wandered through the Holy land, bearing messages from God. This was the age of zealotry—a fervent nationalism that made resistance to the Roman occupation a religious duty.
 
This study guide will lead your group through the basics of an historical examination of Jesus of Nazareth that will open the minds of many . . . enjoy.
 
What others have said:
 
“This tough-minded, deeply political book does full justice to the real Jesus, and honors him in the process.” —San Francisco Chronicle
 
“Aslan is steeped in the history, languages and scriptural foundation of the
biblical scholar….Fascinatingly and convincingly drawn.” —The Seattle Times
 
“The realness of the man (Jesus) becomes eminently appealing… I personally hope to have a much more deeper personal relationship with Jesus through this book. . . . You can have personal relationship with this man.” —John Oliver, Host of Last Week Tonight With John Oliver
 
If one knew nothing else about Jesus of Nazareth save that he was crucified by Rome, one would know practically all that was needed to uncover who he was, what he was, and why he ended up nailed to a cross. His offense, in the eyes of Rome, is self-evident. It was etched upon a plaque and placed above his head for all to see: Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews. His crime was daring to assume kingly ambitions.
 
Discussion Questions:
 
What is the difference in the ancient mind between Fact and Truth?
In this day and age what do cherish most . . . Truth or Fact?
What are some of the Facts that we know about Jesus?
What are some of the Truths we know about Jesus?
In light of this knowledge, how do we now see Jesus?
 
Discuss the Jewish definition of Messiah. Was this a religious or political office, or both?
Did Jesus see his role of Messiah as a religious or political office, or both?
Who attributed this title of Messiah to Jesus?
Is this a title Jesus himself wanted to have or be associated with?
 
Define the roles of the Jewish priestly hierarchy in Judea. How would a typical Galilean family like Jesus’ view this group?
How do the gospels portray the Temple priesthood?
How does Jesus view them?
What role do they play in the life and ministry of Jesus and his role as Messiah?
 
How did Jesus’ upbringing in Nazareth lead him to a deeper understanding of social justice?
Is the justice that Jesus preaches a political or religious reality?
What role does justice play in your life and must you embrace social justice to follow Jesus?
Dd the message of social justice shape the outcome of Christianity after the Resurrection?
 
Discuss the Roman occupation? How did this political context shape Jesus’ outlook and actions?
Did the Disciples of Jesus follow him more as political leader or religious leader, or both?
What was Jesus’ role in the Roman occupation?
 
What role did the Temple of Jerusalem play in the lives of the Jews on Jesus’ time?
Was it a political or religious center?
How much influence did the Romans have over the Temple?
 
With the above questions in mind, how do the words of the Gospels reflect Jesus’ relationship with both the Romans and the Jewish hierarchy and his call of social justice?
Was it the main thrust that formed Jesus’ ministry?
How should this sense of justice play itself in the life of modern day followers of Jesus?
 
After Jesus’ death, his followers formed two separate camps based on tow competing interpretations of his teaching. What are your thoughts on James and Paul?
Which camp do you follow?
Why did these two camps differ?
Why couldn’t they coexist or do they?
 
How did James’ and Paul’s differences from the Christian church we know today? Why do you think Paul’s interpretation flourished?
Where would the church be today if James’ outcome prevailed?
Would there still be a church and would it still call itself Christian?
 
This book is an attempt to reclaim, as much as possible, the Jesus of history, the Jesus before Christianity. There are those who consider such an endeavor to be a waste of time, believing the Jesus of history to be irrevocably los and incapable of recovery. Long gone are the heady days of “the quest for the historical Jesus,” when scholars confidently proclaimed that modern scientific tools and historical research would allow us to uncover Jesus’ true identity. The real Jesus no longer matters, these scholars argue. We should focus instead on the only Jesus that is accessible to us: Jesus the Christ.
 
Granted, writing a biography of Jesus of Nazareth is not like writing a biography of Napoleon Bonaparte. The task is somewhat akin to putting together a massive puzzle with only a few of the pieces in hand; one has no choice but to fill in therest of the puzzle based on the best, most educated guess of what the completed image should look like. The great Christian theologian Rudolf Bultmann liked to say that the quest for the historical Jesus is ultimately an internal quest. Scholars tend to see the Jesus they want to see. Too often they see themselves—their own reflection—in the image of Jesus the have constructed.
 
And yet that best, most educated guess may be enough to, at the very least, questions our most basic assumptions about Jesus of Nazareth. If we expose the claims of the gospels to the heat o historical analysis, we can purge the scriptures of their literary and theological flourishes and forge a far more accurate picture of the Jesus of history. Indeed, if we commit to placing Jesus firmly within the social, religious, and political context of the era in which he lived—an era marked by the slow burn of a revolt against Rome that would forever transform the faith and practice of Judaism—then, in some ways, his biography writes itself.
 
The Jesus that is uncovered in the process may not be the Jesus we expect. But in the end, he is the only Jesus that we can access by historical means.
 
Everything else is matter of faith.
 
Thank You…

 

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