The central argument in Reza Aslan’s book, Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth (Random House, 2013), is that Jesus, like other messianic figures of his day, called for the overthrow and expulsion of Rome from Israel. Jesus, according to Aslan, believed that God would empower Him to become the king of Israel and overturn the social order. Instead, Jesus’ revolt was quelled and He was arrested and crucified as a revolutionary.
Aslan goes on to assert that early Christians invented the story of Jesus to make him into a peaceful and loving teacher. The reasons for this were two fold: (1) Jesus’ prediction had failed and (2) the Roman destruction of Jerusalem made Jesus’ real teachings dangerous.
Aslan does a magnificent job describing the multifaceted economic, political and religious setting of first-century Palestine (with some exceptions).
The central claim in Zealot is that of a conspiracy theory, essentially that Jesus was was a proponent of a violent revolution and that the Gospels and Paul were a cover-up. The typical approach by Aslan (as in so many conspiracies) is that any time the Gospels present evidence against the theory, it is fictional; any time the gospels present evidence in favor, it is fact. I’ll list a few examples:
Aslan asserts that Jesus never said “My kingdom is not of this world” (John 18:36), as that would be contradictory to Aslan’s theory. The idea that Jesus was “an inveterate peacemaker” is a “complete fabrication” by the evangelists. According to Aslan, Jesus never said “If anyone compels you to go one mile, go with him two” (Matt 5:41, talking about submission to soldiers who demand labor) or “Do not resist the one who is evil” (Matt 5:39). Aslan does not deny the historicity of Jesus’ parables, but dismisses them as uniteligeble – a claim contrary to most modern New Testament scholars. The Kingdom of God described in the parables is incompatible with violent revolution and therefore dismissed by Aslan.
Aslan, though, is willing to accept the gospels’ testimony when it concurs with his theory. He accepts the historicity of sayings from Jesus such as “I have not come to bring peace, but a sword” (Matt 10:34) and “the kingdom of God suffers violence, and the violent take it by force” (Matt 11:12). However, the context of those sayings, which has nothing to do with violent revolution, is completely ignored. Jesus’ arrest is dismissed as entirely fictional because Jesus stopped Peter from using a sword: “Put back your sword… For all who take up the sword will die by the sword” (Matt 26:51-52). But Aslan is quite willing to accept that Luke is correct when he records Jesus saying, earlier that evening, “Let the one who has no sword sell his cloak and buy one” (Luke 22:36). This biase is a pattern that is repeated over and over in Zealot. In reality, Aslan ignores most of the evidence against his theory and asserts that he has knowledge that allows him to identify when the Gospels were fabrication and when they were factual.
Zealot also claims that the peaceful, divine Jesus was made up primarily by Paul. According to Aslan, Peter and James opposed Paul’s claim that Jesus was divine. This is utterly ridiculous given the famous passage of Matthew 16:13-19: “When Jesus came to the region of Caesarea Philippi, he asked his disciples,“Who do people say the Son of Man is?” They replied, “Some say John the Baptist; others say Elijah; and still others, Jeremiah or one of the prophets.” “But what about you?” he asked. “Who do you say I am?” Simon Peter answered, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.” Jesus replied, “Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah, for this was not revealed to you by flesh and blood, but by my Father in heaven. And I tell you that you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not overcome it. I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven; whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.” (emphasis added)
Though the New Testament, on several occasions, does describe conflict between Paul and Barnabas, between Paul and Peter, and between Paul and James, Aslan asserts that all these arguments were about the identity of Jesus, and that Barnabas, Peter and James believed in Jesus as a human messiah against Paul’s view of a divine Christ. The disagreement between Paul and Barnabas is clearly over the inclusion of Mark in their mission team, and Paul’s disagreement with James and Peter is over whether Gentiles need to keep Jewish laws such as circumcision and food laws. Also, remember that James was not initially a follower of Jesus. It wasn’t until after the resurrected Jesus appeared to James that became a disciple.
Again, Aslan is unfairly selective in his use of evidence. He accepts the letter of James as being authorized by James, as it assists him in emphasizing or exaggerating differences between James and Pau but he never mentions the epistles of Peter, which is conspicuous as they show that Peter is in agreement with Paul about who Jesus is. Aslan also neglects to mention that James developed an equally high view of Jesus: he is “our glorious Lord Jesus Christ” (James 2:1) “who will return to judge” (James 5:7).
Aslan admits that his goal is to “purge the scriptures of their literary and theological flourishes and forge a far more accurate picture of the Jesus of history… Everything else is a matter of faith.” In other words, the parts of the Gospels that Aslan agrees with are historical; the parts that he doesn’t agree with are “literary and theological flourishes.” though it is impossible to ignore how arbitrary his selections are.
Despite his understanding of the field, Aslan makes a number of errors evident to even my untrained eye: (1) He seems unaware of literary analysis and textual criticism techniques in evaluating the Gospels. (2) He claims that Pilate crucified “thousands upon thousands” without trial. (3) He claims very late, unlikely dates for the writing of the four gospels. (4) He claims that ancient people did not understand the concept of history (5) He claims that Luke was knowingly writing fiction, not history (6) He claims that Mark does not describe Jesus’ resurrection.  These finding are contrary to mainstream New Testament scholarship.
In summation, the conspiracy theory of Zealot flies in the face of commonly held Biblical exegesis and current Biblical and New Testament scholarship. Aslan repeatedly presents highly unlikely interpretations of passages in the New Testament and ignores passages that refute his theory. As it has been said: “there is something a little bizarre about using our only historical documents about Jesus (the New Testament) to come to conclusions quite in opposition to those documents. There is a good reason to believe that Jesus claimed to be a divine king and savior who would die and rise again, and would one day return to judge the world: all four gospels, and indeed the entire New Testament make this claim. You can deny that this claim is true, but it is scholarly folly to deny that the earliest Christians believed it.” 
 Kindle edition, no page numbers included.
 The earliest manuscripts and some other ancient witnesses do not have verses 9–20
 Author unknown