Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth by Reza Aslan
My Rating: ★★★★☆
First, a passage on one of the greatest works devoted to the study of the historical Jesus in modern times, the justly famous Quest of the Historical Jesus, written by New Testament scholar, theologian, philosopher, and Nobel Peace Prize–winning Albert Schweitzer:
The problem with the historical Jesus for Schweitzer was that he was in fact all too historical. That is, Jesus was so firmly rooted in his own time and place as a first-century Palestinian Jew—with an ancient Jewish understanding of the world, God, and human existence—that he does not translate easily into a modern idiom. The Jesus proclaimed by preachers and theologians today had no existence. That particular Jesus is (or those particular Jesuses are) a myth. But there was a historical Jesus, who was very much a man of his time. And we can know what he was like.
In The Shadow Of The Cross: Jesus, before The Christ
Once Upon a Time, there was a great Empire. At its very edges, hardly noticed, was a small region. The Empire was not too concerned about them, but they knew in their hearts that they were the Chosen People. Their religious books and prophesies told them as much. They believed fervently that one day a savior will come and return the kingdom of god and overthrow the alien rule. All they needed was zeal – complete abandonment to belief in god’s words and in the millenarian prophesies.
They might be small and backward but their zeal was great and wave upon wave of revolutions started to crash and break on the great shield of the Empire as the Millennium drew near. Their conditions were bad and oppression was great. But, all this only contributed to their zeal. The corrupt priests, who were supposed to preserve god’s rule in the Holy Land, was also hand-in-glove with the oppressive alien rule. The zealots (filled with zeal) targeted them as much as the alien rule – both were inseparably mixed by now. It was a proletariat uprising of sorts against all oppression and oppressive regimes. All they wanted was their Messiah to come, for the prophesied Davidic descendant to reclaim their throne and restore His rule, The Kingdom Of Heaven.
Unfortunately, the Empire was too strong and crushed every uprising with almost uncaring ease. Zealots were hung up on the cross to die, one after the other. A full procession of them. [Add names from book here].
One among them was a Jesus, of Nazareth. Born in an oppressed class, believing in the same zeal and crusading with a few followers, against The Temple and The Empire. There was noting much to differentiate him from the rest of the self-professed Messiahs. His story didn’t even fit any known prophesies well enough. To top everything, he himself was just a disciple to the famous John The Baptist. This carried on for a few years, probably in parallel with other zealots and messiahs. He had a decent following and was important enough to be noticed, but not enough to be given much notice on written records. Hardly any written records survive even though many of his predecessors and contemporaries have more detailed histories.
In time, Jesus grew bold and mounted a direct attack on the Temple. Heresy of heresies, he was reported to the Empire. The Empire summarily did what it always does to people like Jesus. It was an act of treason to proclaim oneself Messiah/King as it implies an overthrowing of the current rulers and to be punished in the standard way – death crucification. Jesus might have been important enough to be given a trial by one of the most notoriously cruel of the rulers, Pontius Pilate, but was judged guilty and sentenced to death.
Jesus was then crucified along with dozens of other ‘bandits’ or revolutionaries in a mound filed with such crosses. He died and was probably picked clean by the vultures.
That is how, on a bald hill covered in crosses, beset by the cries and moans of agony from hundreds of dying criminals, as a murder of crows circled eagerly over his head waiting for him to breathe his last, the messiah known as Jesus of Nazareth would have met the same ignominious end as every other messiah who came before or after him.
Another failed revolutionary dead. With none of his promises even remotely fulfilled. Another Messiah would probably take his place soon, first on the streets and then on the cross. This would continue until the Millenarian zeal passes away and the eternal Empire carries on, as ever, hardly concerned about this small region. The story should have ended there and thus.
It did not.
The Historical Jesus, Or, Jesus as Himself
How did Jesus became God. How is it that a scarcely known, itinerant preacher from the rural backwaters of a remote part of the empire, a Jewish prophet who predicted that the end of the world as we know it was soon to come, who angered the powerful religious and civic leaders of Judea and as a result was crucified for sedition against the state—how is it that within a century of his death, people were calling this little-known Jewish peasant God? Saying in fact that he was a divine being who existed before the world began, that he had created the universe, and that he was equal with God Almighty himself? How did Jesus come to be deified, worshipped as the Lord and Creator of all?
That is the real story. Much more interesting and much more adventurous. History was written, modified and made in the construction of this story.
The Burial & The Resurrection: The Anti-Historical Twins
Instead began the centuries long resurrection of Christ and the burial of Jesus. This is the real exploration. The search for the ‘Historical’ Jesus – conveying by the very naming convention that the known Jesus is not historical, but mythical, constructed.
The Aftermath: A Summary
Well, technically there was none. But, still:
To the revolutionaries, filled with Zeal, Jesus was what he was. A failed Messiah, not to be wasted time on. They continued their zeal and their insurrections, their half-crazed fight against the greatest Empire on Earth, armed only with their complete faith, their Zeal.
Jesus was succeeded by other Messiahs, some more successful, some less but all more and more loud. Then finally culminating in the famous Zealot movement. There was no turning back now. The Jews had just declared war on the greatest empire the world had ever known. Thus, eventually the lumbering Empire turned its head, and decided to swat of the irksome fly. Caught in its own worries, the Empire chose Judaea as a good place to make an example of. Just as they had been exceptionally lenient until now, now they were exceptionally cruel. Somehow, for an Empire that had lost its one enemy, Carthage, long ago, for an Empire that loved to define themselves in opposition to its enemies, The Jew provided a pervasive and hateful figure. Across the Empire the Hate spread, just as the Jews themselves were scattered across, homeland destroyed, banished forever.
Such was the come-down on the Jews that the Jews themselves realized that the only way to survive was to distance themselves from their on violent recent-past. They settled down into their religion, their Torah and became a different species altogether, No longer the millenarian fantasists but just a minority, getting by. The eternally prosecuted, the eternal victims. The image was not just cultivated, it was embraced. But the hatred was too deep-rooted, it never seeped away but collected in rivulets and drains, to explode sporadically in the rest of the violent history of this small ‘promontory’ of Asia.
Meanwhile, the Jews who followed the cult of Jesus, soon to be called Christians, had begun separating themselves entirely from Judaism, and in very creative ways. Survival is the mother of creativity.
The Early Days – The Early Christians (& Jews)
It is not easy to figure out when which distortions began and ended but the direction was already there from the very early days. This is partly reflected in the progression of the gospels – radically departing from the ‘synoptics’ (the first 3 gospels – gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke) and becoming rapidly spiritualised in each subsequent installment.
As described, the first century was an era of apocalyptic expectation among the Jews of Palestine, the Roman designation for the vast tract of land encompassing modern-day Israel/Palestine as well as large parts of Jordan, Syria, and Lebanon.
Countless prophets, preachers, and messiahs tramped through the Holy Land delivering messages of God’s imminent judgment. Many of these so-called false messiahs we know by name. A few are even mentioned in the New Testament.
In the midst of all this, a small cult tried to stay true to the fallen Messiah. The very act of staying true to Jesus meant that the long history of reinterpretation of Jesus’s life had to begin right there – to make sense of the irreconcilable fact that Kingdom of God was NOT upon them. To follow and to gain followers to a failed Messiah, when there was an over-abundance of ‘false’ Messiahs was no easy task.
The earliest manifestation of this tendency must have been the Resurrection. By this single act, Jesus Messianic ambitions are transformed and transposed – from the earthly sphere to a heavenly one.
This was an essential cog in the wheels and absolutely necessary for getting new converts, for who would follow a dead Messiah (read future King). The need for conversions meant that the process of reinterpretation had to be speeded up to build a whole new mythology around Jesus and his message. His life and purpose had to be made part of the ‘prophesy tradition’ and the scriptures. This was not easy Jews happened to be especially well read in the scriptures, especially the city-dwellers. This meant that the first conversions had to be from the rural areas, the ones who were ignorant enough of the traditions, prophesies and scriptures to not question the contradictions in the adapted Jesus story. Stephens is the perfect example for this sort of convert. He accepted Jesus quickly as the Right Hand of God and accepted the reinterpreted version of Kingdom of Heaven as a spiritual kingdom to be established by a Messiah who will ‘return’.
The problem was that this was a big stumbling block for the educated, tradition-immersed city Jews and they cracked down hard on this small cult. Sparking the mutual hatred that was to continue for centuries. Stephen was again the prime example. Stoned to death for his assertions of Jesus as God made flesh, for blaspheming.
One can say that it was not only Stephen who died that day outside the gates of Jerusalem. Buried with him under the rubble of stones is the last trace of the historical person known as Jesus of Nazareth. 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 God.
The process was accelerated by the Diaspora Jews who spread out and started preaching the Gospel (good news) of Jesus far and wide, far also from the Temple. The repression only fueled the more fanatic believers in the new religion to fan out further and further.
The Temple persecution continued, the preaching continued, but most importantly the insurrection by New Messiah’s continued – Hezekiah the bandit chief, Simon of Peraea, Judas the Galilean, his grandson Menahem, Simon son of Giora, and Simon son of Kochba—all of whom declared messianic ambitions and all of whom were executed by Rome for doing so.
Finally came the first-century Jewish revolutionary party (of the Essene sect) known as the Zealots, who helped launched a bloody war against Rome; and the fearsome bandit-assassins whom the Romans dubbed the Sicarii – who together brought embarrassment on the Roman Empire. And the Grand Retaliation that blew the Holy City off the face of the planet.
Now we can finally come to the question – Why would the gospel writers go to such lengths to temper the revolutionary nature of Jesus’s message and movement?
To answer this question we must first recognize that almost every gospel story written about the life and mission of Jesus of Nazareth was composed after this Jewish rebellion against Rome of 66 C.E. In that year, the band of Jewish rebels, spurred by their zeal for God, roused their fellow Jews in revolt. Miraculously, the rebels managed to liberate the Holy Land from the Roman occupation. For four glorious years, the city of God was once again under Jewish control. Then, in 70 C.E., the Romans returned. After a brief siege of Jerusalem, the soldiers breached the city walls and unleashed an orgy of violence upon its residents. They butchered everyone in their path, heaping corpses on the Temple Mount. A river of blood flowed down the cobblestone streets. When the massacre was complete, the soldiers set fire to the Temple of God. The fires spread beyond the Temple Mount, engulfing Jerusalem’s meadows, the farms, the olive trees. Everything burned. So complete was the devastation wrought upon the holy city that Josephus writes there was nothing left to prove Jerusalem had ever been inhabited. Tens of thousands of Jews were slaughtered. The rest were marched out of the city in chains.
The spiritual trauma faced by the Jews in the wake of that catastrophic event is hard to imagine. Exiled from the land promised them by God, forced to live as outcasts among the pagans of the Roman Empire, the rabbis of the second century gradually and deliberately divorced Judaism from the radical messianic nationalism that had launched the ill-fated war with Rome. The Torah replaced the Temple in the center of Jewish life, and rabbinic Judaism emerged.
The Christians, too, felt the need to distance themselves from the revolutionary zeal that had led to the sacking of Jerusalem, not only because it allowed the early church to ward off the wrath of a deeply vengeful Rome, but also because, with the Jewish religion having become pariah, the Romans had become the primary target of the church’s evangelism. Thus began the long process of transforming Jesus from a revolutionary Jewish nationalist into a peaceful spiritual leader with no interest in any earthly matter. That was a Jesus the Romans could accept, and in fact did accept three centuries later when the Roman emperor Flavius Theodosius (d. 395) made the itinerant Jewish preacher’s movement the official religion of the state, and what we now recognize as orthodox Christianity was born.
The last link in the chain was The James Vs Paul showdown.
James, Jesus’s brother was the last link to the original movement. He stayed true, as much as possible and despite the necessary modifications, to Jesus’s message and intent. But Saul (later Paul) represented a new breed – an entirely new Christian.
[ Meanwhile, in triumphant Rome, a short while after the Temple of the Lord had been desecrated, the Jewish nation scattered to the winds, and the religion made a pariah, tradition says a Jew named John Mark took up his quill and composed the first words to the first gospel written about the messiah known as Jesus of Nazareth—not in Hebrew, the language of God, nor in Aramaic, the language of Jesus, but in Greek, the language of the heathens. The language of the impure. The language of the victors. ]
With the Temple in ruins and the Jewish religion made pariah, the Jews who followed Jesus as messiah had an easy decision to make: they could either maintain their cultic connections to their parent religion and thus share in Rome’s enmity (Rome’s enmity toward Christians would peak much later), or they could divorce themselves from Judaism and transform their messiah from a fierce Jewish nationalist into a pacifistic preacher of good works whose kingdom was not of this world.
It was not only fear of Roman reprisal that drove these early Christians. With Jerusalem despoiled, Christianity was no longer a tiny Jewish sect centered in a predominantly Jewish land surrounded by hundreds of thousands of Jews. After 70 C.E., the center of the Christian movement shifted from Jewish Jerusalem to the Graeco-Roman cities of the Mediterranean: Alexandria, Corinth, Ephesus, Damascus, Antioch, Rome. A generation after Jesus’s crucifixion, his non-Jewish followers outnumbered and overshadowed the Jewish ones. By the end of the first century, when the bulk of the gospels were being written, Rome—in particular the Roman intellectual elite—had become the primary target of Christian evangelism.
Reaching out to this particular audience required a bit of creativity on the part of the evangelists. Paul was the man to do it. In open revolt against James, Saul went in the face of almost all of Jesus’s teachings and invented his own new religion – Christianity.
Paul’s breezy dismissal of the very foundation of Judaism was as shocking to the leaders of the Jesus movement in Jerusalem as it would have been to Jesus himself.
Preaching almost exclusively to the Diaspora Jews and soon to the Roman citizens plus the Gentiles, Paul had an audience who had no idea about the traditions he was supposed to be talking about. He could basically make up the story on the fly. And, he did.
Paul’s lack of concern with the historical Jesus is not due, as some have argued, to his emphasis on Christological rather than historical concerns. It is due to the simple fact that Paul had no idea who the living Jesus was, nor did he care.
But Paul knew that he had a dilemma to solve:
The problem for the early church was that Jesus did not fit any of the messianic paradigms offered in the Hebrew Bible, nor did he fulfill a single requirement expected of the messiah. Jesus spoke about the end of days, but it did not come to pass, not even after the Romans destroyed Jerusalem and defiled God’s Temple. He promised that God would liberate the Jews from bondage, but God did no such thing. He vowed that the twelve tribes of Israel would be reconstituted and the nation restored; instead, the Romans expropriated the Promised Land, slaughtered its inhabitants, and exiled the survivors. The Kingdom of God that Jesus predicted never arrived; the new world order he described never took shape. According to the standards of the Jewish cult and the Hebrew Scriptures, Jesus was as successful in his messianic aspirations as any of the other would-be messiahs.
Thus, it was Paul who finally solved the great dilemma of reconciling Jesus’s shameful death on the cross with the messianic expectations of the Jews – by simply discarding those expectations and transforming Jesus into a completely new creature, one that seems almost wholly of his own making: Christ.
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, preexistent, 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. But, nearly half a decade after the destruction of Jerusalem, Christianity was already a thoroughly Romanized religion, and Paul’s Christ had long obliterated any last trace of the Jewish messiah in Jesus.
With the destruction of Jerusalem, the connection between the assemblies scattered across the Diaspora and the mother assembly rooted in the city of God was permanently severed, and with it the last physical link between the Christian community and Jesus the Jew. Jesus the zealot. Jesus of Nazareth.
Also, in accordance with the doctrine of Virgin Birth, James, the now prohibited Brother, too fades away after his death.
Two thousand years later, the Christ of Paul’s creation has utterly subsumed the Jesus of history. The memory of the revolutionary zealot who walked across Galilee gathering an army of disciples with the goal of establishing the Kingdom of God on earth, the magnetic preacher who defied the authority of the Temple priesthood in Jerusalem, the radical Jewish nationalist who challenged the Roman occupation and lost, has been almost completely lost to history. That is a shame.
From then on, the rest was history. Divorced from history, but yet history.
The Reinterpretations: A Brief Listing
1. Reinterpreting The Birth Stories (- Place, Virgin Birth, Brothers):
a. Inventing The Virgin Birth – Too complicated a matter to be tackled here. Arises from the whole tangle they got into of converting a man into a God and hence the problem of having a parent to God, etc. It is too confusing to think about. In any case, it led to Jesus’s many brothers, especially his chosen successor James pretty much being left out of Christianity.
b. Inventing Bethlehem: The Messiah had to be descended from David, as per the prophesies. Hence, Joseph too must be. Hence, he must be from Bethlehem, again as per prophesies. But, he was not. Solution: For Luke, the answer lies in a census. “In those days,” he writes, “there came a decree from Caesar Augustus that the entire Roman world should be registered. This was the first registration to take place while Quirinius was governor of Syria. Everyone went to his own town to be registered. Joseph also went up from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to Bethlehem, the city of David.” Then, in case his readers may have missed the point, Luke adds, “because Joseph belonged to the house and the lineage of David” (Luke 2:1–4).
Luke is right about one thing and one thing only. Ten years after the death of Herod the Great, in the year 6 C.E., when Judea officially became a Roman province, the Syrian governor, Quirinius, did call for a census to be taken of all the people, property, and slaves in Judea, Samaria, and Idumea—not “the entire Roman world,” as Luke claims, and definitely not Galilee, where Jesus’s family lived (Luke is also wrong to associate Quirinius’s census in 6 C.E. with the birth of Jesus, which most scholars place closer to 4 B.C.E., the year given in the gospel of Matthew). However, because the sole purpose of a census was taxation, Roman law assessed an individual’s property in the place of residence, not in the place of one’s birth. There is nothing written in any Roman document of the time (and the Romans were quite adept at documentation, particularly when it came to taxation) to indicate otherwise. Luke’s suggestion that the entire Roman economy would periodically be placed on hold as every Roman subject was forced to uproot himself and his entire family in order to travel great distances to the place of his father’s birth, and then wait there patiently, perhaps for months, for an official to take stock of his family and his possessions, which, in any case, he would have left behind in his place of residence, is, in a word, preposterous.
2. Reinterpreting John, The Baptist:
The problem for the early Christians was that any acceptance of the basic facts of John’s interaction with Jesus would have been a tacit admission that John was, at least at first, a superior figure. If John’s baptism was for the forgiveness of sins, as Mark claims, then Jesus’s acceptance of it indicated a need to be cleansed of his sins by John. If John’s baptism was an initiation rite, as Josephus suggests, then clearly Jesus was being admitted into John’s movement as just another one of his disciples. This was precisely the claim made by John’s followers, who, long after both men had been executed, refused to be absorbed into the Jesus movement because they argued that their master, John, was greater than Jesus. After all, who baptized whom?
Hence starting from Mathew, the Gospels successively relegate John to a corner. In Mark, John the Baptist as a wholly independent figure who baptizes Jesus as one among many who come to him seeking repentance… Matthew’s John refuses to baptize Jesus, suggesting that it is he who should be baptized by Jesus. Only after Jesus gives him permission does John presume to baptize the peasant from Nazareth… Luke goes one step further, repeating the same story presented in Mark and Matthew but choosing to gloss over Jesus’s actual baptism itself.
3. Reinterpreting The Trial:
After his blatant threat on the Temple, Jesus stands accused by the whole of the Sanhedrin. He is found guilty and is then to appear before Pontius Pilate – Pilate, as the histories reveal, was not one for trials. In his ten years as governor of Jerusalem, he had sent thousands upon thousands to the cross with a simple scratch of his reed pen on a slip of papyrus. The notion that he would even be in the same room as Jesus, let alone deign to grant him a “trial,” beggars the imagination.
There is reason to suspect the latter. The scene does have an unmistakable air of theater to it. This is the final moment in Jesus’s ministry, the end of a journey that began three years earlier on the banks of the Jordan River.
Yet in Mark’s telling of the story, something happens between Jesus’s trial before Pilate and his death on a cross that is so incredible, so obviously contrived, that it casts suspicion over the entire episode leading up to Jesus’s crucifixion. Pilate, having interviewed Jesus and found him innocent of all charges, presents him to the Jews along with a bandit (lestes) named bar Abbas who has been accused of murdering Roman guards during an insurrection at the Temple. According to Mark, it was a custom of the Roman governor during the feast of Passover to release one prisoner to the Jews, anyone for whom they asked. When Pilate asks the crowd which prisoner they would like to have released—Jesus, the preacher and traitor to Rome, or bar Abbas, the insurrectionist and murderer—the crowd demands the release of the insurrectionist and the crucifixion of the preacher.
“Why?” Pilate asks, pained at the thought of having to put an innocent Jewish peasant to death. “What evil has he done?”
But the crowd shouts all the louder for Jesus’s death. “Crucify him! Crucify him!” (Mark 15:1–20).
The scene makes no sense at all. Never mind that outside the gospels there exists not a shred of historical evidence for any such Passover custom on the part of any Roman governor. What is truly beyond belief is the portrayal of Pontius Pilate—a man renowned for his loathing of the Jews, his total disregard for Jewish rituals and customs, and his penchant for absentmindedly signing so many execution orders that a formal complaint was lodged against him in Rome—spending even a moment of his time pondering the fate of yet another Jewish rabble-rouser.
Why would Mark have concocted such a patently fictitious scene, one that his Jewish audience would immediately have recognized as false? The answer is simple: Mark was not writing for a Jewish audience. Mark’s audience was in Rome, where he himself resided. His account of the life and death of Jesus of Nazareth was written mere months after the Jewish Revolt had been crushed and Jerusalem destroyed.
4. Reinterpreting The Romans:
A generation after Jesus’s crucifixion, his non-Jewish followers outnumbered and overshadowed the Jewish ones. By the end of the first century, when the bulk of the gospels were being written, Rome—in particular the Roman intellectual elite—had become the primary target of Christian evangelism.
Reaching out to this particular audience required a bit of creativity on the part of the evangelists. Not only did all traces of revolutionary zeal have to be removed from the life of Jesus, the Romans had to be completely absolved of any responsibility for Jesus’s death. It was the Jews who killed the messiah. The Romans were unwitting pawns of the high priest Caiaphas, who desperately wanted to murder Jesus but who did not have the legal means to do so. The high priest duped the Roman governor Pontius Pilate into carrying out a tragic miscarriage of justice. Poor Pilate tried everything he could to save Jesus. But the Jews cried out for blood, leaving Pilate no choice but to give in to them, to hand Jesus over to be crucified. Indeed, the farther each gospel gets from 70 C.E. and the destruction of Jerusalem, the more detached and outlandish Pilate’s role in Jesus’s death becomes.
5. Reinterpreting The Jews:
To the Jews, a crucified messiah was nothing less than a contradiction in terms. The very fact of Jesus’s crucifixion annulled his messianic claims. This led to first the Jews prosecuting the Christians and then the Christians convincing Rome about how Jews were the real villains of the story, enhancing the empires hatred towards them and thus launching millennia of hatred and persecution that continues to this day.
The Vilification Of Jews (An Excerpt):
As Pilate hands him over to be crucified, Jesus himself removes all doubt as to who is truly responsible for his death: “The one who handed me over to you is guilty of a greater sin,” Jesus tells Pilate, personally absolving him of all guilt by laying the blame squarely on the Jewish religious authorities. John then adds one final, unforgivable insult to a Jewish nation that, at the time, was on the verge of a full-scale insurrection, by attributing to them the most foul, the most blasphemous piece of pure heresy that any Jew in first-century Palestine could conceivably utter. When asked by Pilate what he should do with “their king,” the Jews reply, “We have no king but Caesar!” (John 19:1–16).
Thus, a story concocted by Mark strictly for evangelistic purposes to shift the blame for Jesus’s death away from Rome is stretched with the passage of time to the point of absurdity, becoming in the process the basis for two thousand years of Christian anti-Semitism.
6. Reinterpreting Death (or, Inventing The Resurrection):
Precisely because the resurrection claim was so preposterous and unique, an entirely new edifice needed to be constructed to replace the one that had crumbled in the shadow of the cross. The resurrection stories in the gospels were created to do just that: to put flesh and bones upon an already accepted creed; to create narrative out of established belief; and, most of all, to counter the charges of critics who denied the claim, who argued that Jesus’s followers saw nothing more than a ghost or a spirit, who thought it was the disciples themselves who stole Jesus’s body to make it appear as though he rose again. By the time these stories were written, six decades had passed since the crucifixion. In that time, the evangelists had heard just about every conceivable objection to the resurrection, and they were able to create narratives to counter each and every one of them.
7. Reinterpreting The Teachings (On The Poor inheriting, Love thy Neighbor, etc):
Most of these teachings were exhortations to solidarity, to band together against a common enemy, to overcome the many internal differences in their Zeal. Neighbor was a tightly circumscribed term. The Good Samaritan was a story to show the corrupt nature of temple priests and to show how every Jew is to be treated. Only exhortations towards solidarity, not universal laws of man – as they were, luckily, later made out to be.
Jesus’s messages, of the poor inheriting the Kingdom, was designed to be a direct challenge to the wealthy and the powerful, to the established order of things. This soon became a spiritual message of the meek inheriting the kingdom to come.
8. Reinterpreting The Miracles:
Note that even enemies of the church did not deny that Jesus performed wondrous deeds. However, the early Christians went to great lengths to argue that Jesus was not a magician.
Jesus was not the only miracle worker trolling though Palestine healing the sick and casting out demons. This was a world steeped in magic and Jesus was just one of an untold number of diviners and dream interpreters, magicians and medicine men who wandered Judea and Galilee.
Miracles were almost mundane. The point was to convey a message through them.
The true purpose of the Miracles was to reenforce the prophesies.
“Go tell John what you hear and see,” Jesus tells the messenger. “The blind see, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised up, and the poor are brought good news” (Matthew 11:1–6 | Luke 7:18–23).
Jesus’s words are a deliberate reference to the prophet Isaiah, who long ago foretold a day when Israel would be redeemed and Jerusalem renewed, a day when God’s kingdom would be established on earth. “Then the eyes of the blind shall be opened, and the ears of the deaf shall be unstopped, the lame shall leap like deer, and the tongue of the mute shall sing for joy,” Isaiah promised. “The dead shall live, and the corpses shall rise” (Isaiah 35:5–6, 26:19).
By connecting his miracles with Isaiah’s prophecy, Jesus is stating in no uncertain terms that the year of the Lord’s favor, the day of God’s vengeance, which the prophets predicted, has finally arrived. God’s reign has begun.
9. Reinterpreting The Kingdom of God:
The Kingdom of God is neither purely celestial nor wholly eschatological – what Jesus was proposing must have been a physical and present kingdom: a real kingdom, with an actual king that was about to be established on earth. That is certainly how the Jews would have understood it. Jesus’s particular conception of the Kingdom of God may have been distinctive and somewhat unique, but its connotations would not have been unfamiliar to his audience.
With the reinterpretation, The Kingdom of God becomes something that was to be established in the second coming of the God, the Messiah and the abode of the blessed. The earthly meanings are discarded. Fast.
10. Reinterpreting The Disciples:
The Twelve originally were not just Jesus’s messengers, they had a more symbolic function, one that would manifest itself later in Jesus’s ministry. For they will come to represent the restoration of the twelve tribes of Israel, long since destroyed and scattered.
This was a daring and provocative message. For as the prophet Isaiah warned, God would “gather the scattered people of Israel and the dispersed people of Judah” for a single purpose: war. The new, reconstituted Israel will, in the words of the prophet, “raise a signal-banner to the nations,” it will “swoop down on the backs of the Philistines in the west” and “plunder the people of the east.” It will repossess the land God gave the Jews and wipe from it forever the foul stench of foreign occupation (Isaiah 11:11–16).
The designation of the Twelve is, if not a call to war, an admission of its inevitability, which is why Jesus expressly warned them of what was to come: “If anyone wishes to follow me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me” (Mark 8:34). This is not the statement of self-denial it has so often been interpreted as being. The cross is the punishment for sedition, not a symbol of self-abnegation. Jesus was warning the Twelve that their status as the embodiment of the twelve tribes that will reconstitute the nation of Israel and throw off the yoke of occupation would rightly be understood by Rome as treason and thus inevitably lead to crucifixion. It was an admission that Jesus frequently made for himself.
The Twelve Disciples however become the principal bearers of Jesus’s message—the apostolou, or “ambassadors”—apostles of peace, sent to preach the gospel (good news) of heavenly kingdom that is nigh, as per the reinterpretation of the kingdom itself.
11. Reinterpreting The “Messianic Secret”:
In the Gospels, Jesus repeatedly tries to conceal whatever messianic aspirations he may or may not have had. This is taken to show as proof of how his aspirations were different. But, perhaps the truth is that Jesus might just have been loath to take on the multiple expectations the Jews had of the Messiah.
12. Reinterpreting The Son of God: The Son of Man:
Hence the phrase “the Son of Man” – a wholly original less provocative self-description.
13. Reinterpreting The Dictionary Meaning of “Messiah”:
Messiah means “anointed one.” The title alludes to the practice of pouring or smearing oil on someone charged with divine office: a king, like Saul, or David, or Solomon; a priest, like Aaron and his sons, who were consecrated to do God’s work; a prophet, like Isaiah or Elisha, who bore a special relationship with God, an intimacy that comes with being designated God’s representative on earth. The principal task of the messiah, who was popularly believed to be the descendant of King David, was to rebuild David’s kingdom and reestablish the nation of Israel. Thus, to call oneself the messiah at the time of the Roman occupation was tantamount to declaring war on Rome.
This is no simple declaration. It is, in fact, an act of treason. In first-century Palestine, simply saying the words “This is the messiah,” aloud and in public, can be a criminal offense, punishable by crucifixion.
Of course, once the Kingdom itself was redefined, the term Messiah had a definitely circumscribed spiritual meaning, other meanings conveniently shorn.
Historian Vs Theologian: Settling a Stupid Dispute
How can a Muslim write about Christianity? Sorry, Muslims are allowed to write History too.
Serious historians of the early Christian movement – all of them, no matter what their religion – have to spent many years preparing to be experts in their field. Just to read the ancient sources requires expertise in a range of ancient languages: Greek, Hebrew, Latin, and often Aramaic, Syriac, and Coptic, not to mention the modern languages of scholarship (for example, German and French). And that is just for starters. Expertise requires years of patiently examining ancient texts and a thorough grounding in the history and culture of Greek and Roman antiquity, the religions of the ancient Mediterranean world, both pagan and Jewish, knowledge of the history of the Christian church and the development of its social life and theology, and, well, lots of other things. Scholars who has spent all the years needed to attain these qualifications are the ones who are truly qualified and respected by their peers. Your religion is not a qualification required at the university for conducting historical research. So, shelve that argument. Or should we go about redacting every historical research conducted by any scholar on any historical piece with religious implications that did not meet the exacting requirement of religious qualification. The field would be much poorer for this.
Doubts & Minor Critiques:
Reza Aslan could (and should) have been much more exhaustive in the presentation to really bring in all the facets of his research and reinforce the conclusions. But, there is the need for an accessible yet scholarly work on this and Aslan has stepped up admirably. But in that quest, he leaves a few holes and makes a few sweeping assertions that makes the serious reader slightly uncomfortable in accepting all the assertions, especially when a good deal of them, by necessity, have to be conjectures. Intelligent and well-grounded conjectures, the very basis of historical study, but still conjectures.
For example, consider the following assertions:
Yet if one wants to uncover what Jesus himself truly believed, one must never lose sight of this fundamental fact: Jesus of Nazareth was first and finally a Jew.
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.
Also, consider the following admission:
In the end, there are only two hard historical facts about Jesus of Nazareth upon which we can confidently rely: the first is that Jesus was a Jew who led a popular Jewish movement in Palestine at the beginning of the first century C.E.; the second is that Rome crucified him for doing so. By themselves these two facts cannot provide a complete portrait of the life of a man who lived two thousand years ago. But when combined with all we know about the tumultuous era in which Jesus lived—and thanks to the Romans, we know a great deal—these two facts can help paint a picture of Jesus of Nazareth that may be more historically accurate than the one painted by the gospels. Indeed, the Jesus that emerges from this historical exercise—a zealous revolutionary swept up, as all Jews of the era were, in the religious and political turmoil of first-century Palestine—bears little resemblance to the image of the gentle shepherd cultivated by the early Christian community.
Statements, nay grand assertions, such as these makes one slightly doubtful and want to consult other historians. It hinges on too few concrete facts in the end.
Ultimately, the only point to ponder is the historicity of the narrative. Azlan constructs an almost leakproof argument but there are grey areas – the biggest one being “Why Jesus? – Why of all the zealots that roamed, pick Jesus?
What differentiated Jesus from the rest?
Azlan does not explore this angle fully. To me, the answer could lie in the “messianic secret” that Azlan explains away as pure subterfuge on Jesus’s part, born from a desire to avoid direct confrontation, not entertaining the possibility that Jesus might actually have had different ambitions and hence tried to avoid this expectation. Jesus’s could actually have been a genuinely different teaching – still an outgrowth of the times but something could have marked Jesus out from the ‘zealots’ and hence qualified him for being the symbol of peace and love when required. So the resurrected jesus might not then have been so far off from the historical Jesus after all. I accept most of Aslan’s historiography but I would like to preserve for myself the personality of Jesus that I have always found admirable even when far removed from any theology – and this conclusion to the review is an attempt to salvage that from my reading.
It might be quite vital to entertain this possibility.