Book Review: Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth by Reza Aslan

Reza Aslan is from a moderate Islamic family who fled Iran after the overthrow of the Shaw. He converted to Christianity at the age of fifteen. Is he still a Christian? He says “The bedrock of evangelical Christianity, at least as it was taught to me, is the unconditional belief that every word of the Bible is God-breathed and true, literal and inerrant. The sudden realization that this belief is patently and irrefutably false, that the Bible is replete with the most blatant and obvious errors and contradictions-just as one would expect from a document written by hundreds of hands across thousands of years-left me confused and spiritually unmoored.” He also says: “You can be a follower of Jesus Christ without being a Christian, and you can be a Christian without being a follower of Jesus Christ.” I think that this statement may have some bearing on the purpose of this book.
In Zealot, Aslan seeks to discover the “historical Jesus,” the man himself, leader of a social and religious movement and martyred revolutionary. Unfortunately, hard facts about Jesus are hard to come by, and, according to Aslan, much of what is written in the gospels was fabricated to suit the purposes of the writer.
There is, for example, the notion that Pontius Pilate was a well-meaning bureaucrat who felt that Jesus was innocent and condemned him only with the greatest reluctance, yielding to pressure from the Jewish established religious interests. According to Aslan: “That is pure fiction. What Pilate was best known for was his extreme depravity, his total disregard for Jewish law and tradition, and his barely concealed aversion to the Jewish nation as a whole. During his tenure in Jerusalem he so eagerly, and without trial, sent thousands upon thousands of Jews to the cross that the people of Jerusalem felt obliged to lodge a formal complaint with the Roman emperor.”
Why would the writers of the gospels choose to portray Pilate in this fashion? Aslan posits that by then, late in the first century C.E. and after the destruction of Jerusalem, the target for proselytization was the elite of Rome and it would not do to be too critical of Roman rule.
Judea, during the lifetime of Jesus was a land in total chaos. While some parts of the Roman Empire benefited from Roman rule, the mindsets of the Romans and the Jews were not compatible. There was the incompatibility of religion, for which no understanding or compromise could be reached, and there was also the fact that the governors Rome sent to govern the province were uniformly incompetent, rapacious and brutal. The province was also heavily taxed. Roman policy was to co-opt the wealthy and this tended to promote distribution of wealth in favor of the wealthy, leaving most inhabitants to struggle economically. There was a great gap between the fortunes of the city dwellers and the peasants on the land. Jesus was from Galilee. The Galileans were rough-hewn and war-like peasants. It was from Galilee that a number of men came forth proclaiming themselves to be the messiah, and organizing large bands of followers. Any of these men who came to the attention of the Romans met a swift end either on the cross, or by beheading. Rebellion was constantly in the air.
So what is known about Jesus, the historical person? Very little. He was most likely born in Nazareth. Aslan shows the story that he was born in Bethlehem due to Joseph’s summons to answer a Roman census to be a fiction. The Romans didn’t do their censuses that way. He probably had a number of brothers and sisters. Was he married? Nothing is known about a wife, but young Jewish men were not encouraged to remain single. It is likely that he met and was baptized by John the Baptist. It is likely that, after the death of John the Baptist, Jesus sought to continue his work and went about Galilee preaching, making followers and performing miracles. Aslan does not bring these miracles into question. It is likely that Jesus detested the wealthy priest class in Jerusalem and wanted to destroy it. He appears to have favored the notion of redistribution of wealth in favor of the poor. He was, in effect, a revolutionary. After several years of itinerant preaching, Jesus took his followers to Jerusalem and confronted the wealthy priests of the temple by overturning the tables of the moneychangers and releasing the sacrificial animals. It seems a bold and foolhardy thing to do. In those days lots of people were executed for far less.
Aslan does not dispute the resurrection except to state that it was not Roman practice to allow the body of a person dying on the cross to be taken down and buried. They were generally left there for the buzzards in order to make an example for the populace.
What was Jesus’s crime? In the view of the Romans it was sedition. The crime of anyone who was crucified by the state was posted on a placard above their head. In Jesus’s case the placard read “King of the Jews.” In Aslan’s view this was not mockery on the part of the Romans, but an actual crime. It meant that Jesus advocated the overthrow of the Roman emperor.
Aslan states that : . “The story of the zealous Galilean peasant and Jewish nationalist who donned the mantle of Messiah and launched a foolhardy rebellion against the corrupt Temple priesthood and the vicious Roman occupation comes to an abrupt end, not with his death on the cross, nor with the empty tomb, but at the first moment one of his followers dares suggest he is a God.”
After Jesus’s death his twelve apostles continued his work under the leadership of Jesus’s brother James, known as James the Just. According to Aslan: “The movement’s principal leaders-the apostles Peter and John, and Jesus’s brother James-maintained their fealty to Jewish customs and Mosaic law to the end. Under their leadership, the Jerusalem church became known as the ‘mother assembly.’ No matter how far and wide the movement spread, no matter how many other ‘assemblies’ were established, no matter how many new converts-Jew or gentile-the movement attracted, every assembly, every convert, and every missionary would fall under the authority of the ‘mother assembly’ in Jerusalem until the day it was burned to the ground.”
Even while James and the other apostles maintained control of the movement, a radical rebellion was brewing. Saul of Tarsus, once the persecutor of Jesus’s followers encounters Jesus on the road to Damascus. Unlike the apostles he had never met Jesus in the flesh and his take on Jesus’s meaning and his message was very different. A power struggle between James and Paul apparently took place and James prevailed, until James was executed by stoning at the order of the Temple hierarchy around 61 C.E., and most of his followers perished in the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 C.E.
After the destruction of Jerusalem, both Jewish and Christian religious leaders sought to distance themselves from any connection with anti-Roman revolutionaries. By the time the gospels were written, the Christian leadership was in the hands of a Hellenized Jewish elite who sought to make converts among Greek and Roman gentiles. They willingly abandoned the strictures of Judaism and largely adopted the rather deviant beliefs of Paul. According to Aslan: “The task of defining Jesus’s message fell instead to a new crop of educated, urbanized, Greek-speaking Diaspora Jews who would become the primary vehicles for the expansion of the new faith. As these extraordinary men and women, many of them immersed in Greek philosophy and Hellenistic thought, began to reinterpret Jesus’s message so as to make it more palatable to their fellow Greek-speaking Jews and to their gentile neighbors in the Diaspora, they gradually transformed Jesus from a revolutionary zealot to a Romanized demigod, from a man who tried and failed to free the Jews from Roman oppression, to a celestial being wholly uninterested in any earthly matter.”
In the end it is Paul whose teachings become the heart and soul of Christianity. According to Aslan: “Paul’s portrayal of Jesus as Christ may sound familiar to contemporary Christians-it has since become the standard doctrine of the church-but it would have been downright bizarre to Jesus’s Jewish followers. The transformation of the Nazarean into a divine, pre-existent, literal son of God whose death and resurrection launch a new genus of eternal beings responsible for judging the world has no basis in any writings about Jesus that are even remotely contemporary with Paul’s.
Reza Aslan’s book is groundbreaking work based on twenty years of biblical and historical scholarship. It explains a great deal about the history of the time and about what transformed Christianity from a Jewish sub cult into the religion it ultimately became.


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