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In The Shadow Of The Cross: Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth by Reza Aslan

Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of NazarethZealot: 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

The Question:

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 thesynoptics’ (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 End.

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 repentanceMatthew’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 NazarethLuke 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.

Another Exception:

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.


Posted by on December 22, 2013 in Book Reviews, Books


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The Rise of The Nazis: A Concise History

The Coming of the Third ReichThe Coming of the Third Reich by Richard J. Evans

My Rating: ★★★★☆

Many questions perplex us about the Nazis, about the atrocities they committed and about the beginnings of the Second World War. How could one of the most advanced, highly cultured, industrialized and modern nation states in Europe allow such horrors to come to pass? How could democracy be replaced so easily? How did an extremist party lurking at the fringes of political life take over the entire government in such a shot time without ever raising the wrath of the bigger parties or of the people? How did they establish a one party state without ever commanding a majority in any single election?

To answer these perplexing questions, Richard Evans takes us to the time of the Second Reich established by Bismarck and builds the story of the german nation and the foreign influences that moulded its thoughts and political structure in a well paced and minutely detailed history.

It was not a single person by the name of Hitler or a single freak party called the Nazis that precipitated this wild descent into madness that led Germany into the most devastating war in history. A wide variety of political, economic and ideological factors contributed to developing these events. Evans tries to track the growth of ideas such as antisemitism, radical nationalism, conspiracy theories and the cult of violence from the time of Bismarck. He starts the book withe the question “Why start with Bismarck?” and never really answers it. In my view, the origins of antisemitism and the wild support nazis enjoyed among protestant electorates could have been explored if one chapter had been dedicated to the history of germany before Bismarck and focussing on martin Luther and the protestant movement. But, as it is, Evans chose to not make it a study of the entire germanic history so as not to give us the impression that there was a historic inevitability to the whole process and because of this he never fully manages to convey the real reason for antisemitism and protestant support anywhere in the book, both of which are such prime candidates for investigation.

Even though this is a review of the book, because my real purpose of reading the book was to understand the course of events and the causal connections that led to the world war, I will try to trace out the history from a while earlier than Evans and then join his narrative as we get to Bismarck.

Antisemitism was a cultural phenomenon in Europe much before the Nazis and extreme violence against the Jews can be traced back to the First Crusade when they started being branded as ‘Christ-killers‘ and were put in the same bracket as Muslims, progressed through the Inquisitions and Expulsions in various countries and culminated in the Final Solution in Nazi Germany.

There are two types of Antisemitism – Cultural and Religious. Cultural antisemitism is defined as “that species of anti-Semitism that charges the Jews with corrupting a given culture and attempting to supplant or succeeding in supplanting the preferred culture with a uniform, crude, “Jewish” culture.” Religious Antisemitism is the “christ-killer” version mentioned earlier. Cultural antisemitism was what was adopted by the Nazis (broadly allowing this category to allow for racial Antisemitism too which discriminates based on race).

Tracing back to the roots of antisemitism in Europe will take us to its deeply religious beginnings and this is probably why Evans chose to not cover it in detail. In any case, this religious hatred soon transformed into cultural and economic hated against their affluence and culminated in racial hatred once the budding ideas of Eugenics provided fuel to the fire.

In the context of the Industrial Revolution, Jews rapidly urbanized and experienced a period of greater social mobility. With the decreasing role of religion in public life tempering religious antisemitism, a combination of growing nationalism, the rise of eugenics, and resentment at the socio-economic success of the Jews led to the newer, and more virulent, racist antisemitism.

While these were pan-European trends, a dangerous precedent was set in Germany during the Protestant Reformation when Martin Luther described Jews as a “base, whoring people, that is, no people of God, and their boast of lineage, circumcision, and law must be accounted as filth.” Luther wrote that they are “full of the devil’s feces … which they wallow in like swine,” and the synagogue is an “incorrigible whore and an evil slut“. This treatise is supposed to have had a major influence on the Nazi movement.

Lutheranism was also ideologically very close to the kind of radical nationalism that motivated first Bismarck, then the far Right in Germany. The origins of the beginning of a sense of German identity began with the Protestant Reformation begun by Martin Luther that resulted in the spread of a standardized common German language and literature.

The Three Reichs

The whole of modern German history has been a nostalgic and mad attempt at regaining the old glories of the Holy Roman Reich which was also called theHoly Roman Empire of the German Nation’. This was soon ended by the Napoleonic Wars that threw Germany into confusion and made it a faction of warring states. Advocacy of a German nation began to become an important political force in response to the invasion of German territories by France under Napoleon. And the more distant Germany grew from that state, the more they remembered the First Reich as the ideal state when Germany was superior and dreamed of returning to these glory days.

When finally Bismarck successfully unified Germany again in 1871, he became the ‘ideal leader’ who was bringing back the old order and a national hero for defeating those hated French who had humiliated Germany earlier. He even called this unified germany The Second Reich.

Bismarck and Germany was obsessed with unification by any means, by “iron and blood”. After his defeats of Denmark and Austria, France declared war on Germany, which ended with a thumping German victory and annexations of parts of France. Soon the new German Empire was established as a federation of 25 states with the King of Prussia as the Emperor. Ironically enough, this royal coronation and proclamation as the emperor of Germany was conducted at Versailles. Bismarck himself was elevated to the position of Imperial Chancellor.

After his initial military campaign, Bismarck spent the est of his life trying to achieve political stability in Europe and forging alliances. He was also instrumental in Germany not participating in the wild colonial acquisitions that the rest of Europe obsessed about. But with the death of the old king, the new Kaiser Wilhelm II came into power, and his careful foreign policies fell into disfavor, the new Emperor seeking rapid expansion and colonization. He was forced to resign from the Reichstag and died soon after. Under Wilhelm II, Germany was to pursue belligerent policies that polarized the major European powers who were soon to unite with France against Germany in time for the First World War.

Bismarck’s most important legacy was the unification of Germany. Following this unification, Germany became one of the most powerful nations in Europe. However, this was not the complete re-unification that the people wanted and many felt that something was yet left to be done by another Leader or Führer. The figure of Bismarck became legend and the romantic ideal of a leader for the german people became someone who was a militaristic dictator who would do anything for the nation. Bismarck, a devout Protestant also left a legacy of anti-Catholicism in Germany which led to the vast protestant electorates that fueled Nazi ascension later on. He also left a legacy of anti-socialism and suppression.

The First World War

After having dismissed Bismarck, William II was to launch a foreign policy that culminated in the fatal decision to support Austria-Hungary in 1914 that precipitate the World War. His policies led to the gradual weakening of the bonds Bismarck had formed with Russia an with Austria-Hungary. Meanwhile France had recovered from its last defeat and was itching for revenge. French soon formed treaties with Britain and then Britain with Russia, thus forming the Triple Entente. An increasingly insecure Germany started an arms race which escalated very fast throughout Europe. Austria-Hungary in its own expansion drive started a conflict with Serbia which ended in a declaration of war with them. Russia decided to support the Serbs and once Germany announced support for Austria-Hungary, France too joined the fray, with UK joining them soon.

Germany was the biggest power in Europe at this time and entered the war expecting huge gains and certain victory. They annexed huge portions of Russia and laid down draconian laws under the military legend Hindenburg. They incurred huge debts expecting to repay them with the spoils of war. But once their strategic mistakes led to America entering the war, it all went quickly downhill for them culminating in the Treaty of Versailles. The period before this had also seen the German Revolution that led to the establishment of a republic called the Weimar Republic and the Kaiser Wilhelm II fled the country. It was this Weimar Republic that had negotiated and signed the Treaty of Versailles.

Hindenburg and other senior German leaders tried to soften the defeat by spreading the story that their armies had not really been defeated. This resulted in the stab-in-the-back legend, which attributed Germany’s defeat to intentional sabotage of the war effort by insiders, particularly by Jews, Socialists, and Bolsheviks. This led to the denouncement of the Weimar Republic government leaders who signed the Armistice on November 11, 1918, as the “November Criminals“. Conservatives, nationalists, ex-military leaders and political theorists began to speak critically about the peace. Weimar politicians, socialists, communists, Jews, and sometimes even Catholics were viewed with suspicion due to presumed extra-national loyalties. It was claimed that they had not supported the war and had played a role in selling out Germany to its enemies.

The Treaty of Versailles was particularly harsh in its terms but Richard Evans draws our attention to the fact that the terms that Germany had envisaged on successful defeat of its enemies were far worse and even the treaty force on Russia was comparable. The Treaty asked Germany to take full responsibility for the war and to make heavy annual reparation payments to the victorious allies. The total cost of these reparations was assessed at 132 billion Marks in 1921 which is roughly equivalent to US $442 billion in 2012. The final payments were made on 4 October 2010. It also forced rapid disarmament and restrictions on weapons manufacture and limitation on military troops to 100,000.

The conditions of the Treaty was to be decisive in many ways as the reparation payments pushed german economy over the brink and the military restrictions left german military mostly a spectator to internal changes and led to rapid gain in the importance of the paramilitary and the police. At the same time it led to a repressed rage among the german people that cascaded a series of political events that led to the radicalization of the entire political atmosphere.

Adolf Hitler

Hitler was not German. He was born in Austria and his family emigrated to and from Germany in his early years. His father was serving in the Austrian Government and his conflicts with his father was among the reasons postulated as having caused Hitler to develop a strong affinity for Germany and a hatred for Austria. He started considering Germany his spiritual homeland. Hitler dreamed of becoming an artist but his strict and architectural paintings were rejected as unfit by the Academy of Fine Art in Vienna. This led him to cultivate a deep anti-establishment mentality.

This was also the time when the Weimar Republic was experiencing strong political difficulties and the theories of Social Darwinism, Nationalism and Eugenics were gaining in popularity. Hitler grew up reading some of the early propagandists of these theories and they deeply influenced him. Driven by these impulses Hitler joined the Bavarian army to fight for Germany in the First World War. During the war he was injured and taken to a remote hospital to recuperate. Hitler too like the rest of Germany had gone into the war with assured victory and future glories of his nation in mind.

When news finally reached him of Germany’s loss and of the Treaty, he was deeply shocked, humiliated and scarred for life. He was soon to pick up on the concepts of the stab-in-the-back legend and of the November Criminalsto explain this to himself and to fuel his hatred and his ascension.

He returned and continued working for the army and drifted though various movements before finding a mentor who recognized that Hitler was a good orator. Soon Hitler was using is speaking skills to motivate various factions under the direction of his superiors. He became a leading speaker at the National Socialist German Workers Party and soon became their leader and tendered his resignation to the army. His vitriolic speeches and charisma transformed the party and soon their numbers began to swell and his speeches started to attract huge attendance.

As the Nazi party grew, Hitler fueled by his hatred for the government and inspired by Mussolini, organized a coup or a “Putsch” to seize power and was completely thwarted and thrown into jail. This convinced him and the party that they have to keep up appearances of legality and come to power through the democratic system itself.

A gradual rebuilding of the Nazi party and a building up of it paramilitary wing was pursued after this even as the Hitler Personality Cult grew and grew and grew. They were waiting for an opportunity to make the first push towards power. Until this time only the radical right wingers and the nationalists were joining the party. Then came the Great Depression. Nazis used the fear and the confusion to drive home their ideology and became more popular party. In the 1932 election, two years into the depression, Hitler came second to Hindenburg but was already a force to be reckoned with, with over 35% votes, mostly from protestant electorates and Prussia.

The inability to form a majority government lead to Hindenburg inviting Hitler to be the Chancellor of Germany in 1933. The party still had no political majority and Hitler was intended to be only a rubber stamp. But then came the famous Reichstag Fire Decree, which was the response to the parliament being set on fire by an alleged communist party member. this gave Hitler an excuse to allege a Communist Plot against Germany and suspend basic rights and undertake a violent suppression of the Communist party, which was a much bigger party than the nazis in terms of parliamentary representatives. He then called for a re-election. With the Communist Party effectively suppressed, Nazis were able to gain a majority vote but was still short of the 51% required for an absolute majority.

Even though Hitler did not command a full majority, he was able to pressurize the parliament to vote for an Enabling Act. THis was achieved by banning Communist and Nation Socialist party members from attending the vote, which effectively made the Act illegal by all standards. Nevertheless, the vote was passed and the Act gave the Nazis complete legislative control for the next four years.

The Act was soon used to give an appearance of legality to what turned out to be a systematic and grotesquely violent suppression of all other political parties. All political opposition was wiped away with street violence, killings and finally formal dissolution of the parties. The Nazi paramilitary wing was given the right of the Police and was free to commit any atrocities and the military were soon reconciled and made an ally. Soon Nazis were organizing a campaign to make all social groups such as sports organizations and social clubs to be centralized under the Nazi banner in a process they called “Synchronization”.

With the political parties suppressed and all chances of any discordant voices eliminated, the Nazis finally let loose their racial campaigns and massacres and systematic eradication of Jews, Socialists and Communists from all social, political and economic positions in the entire country.

Thus with Hitler as the Supreme Commander in charge of what he called The Third Reich, with his minions wrecking havoc and with the German people perplexed at how all this came to pass, Richard Evans takes leave of us, daring us if we have the heart to continue the journey in the next book.

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Posted by on March 5, 2012 in Book Reviews, Books, Thoughts


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