Wednesday, November 5, 2014

Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth (a book report)

I first heard about the book Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth from a video that "went viral."  The author, Reza Aslan, did an interview on Fox News.  The interviewer couldn't understand how/why Aslan, a Muslim, could write a book about Jesus.  Aslan's answer was basically, "Because it's my job."  He is a scholar of religion with a Ph.D whose job it is to research and write about the history of religions, including Christianity.  The video hi-lighted the Fox News anchor's hilarious ignorance and block-headedness.  As soon as I saw that, I thought, "I have to read this book."

I was also interested in the book because I've been doing a Bible study with my parents, in which I'm trying to approach the Bible academically, rather than simply devotionally.  I've been using my New Interpreter's Study Bible, which is full of current scholarly commentary.  I also read the book Who Wrote the Bible by the Jewish scholar Richard Elliot Friedman, which gives amazing insights into the world of ancient Judaism that produced the Torah, otherwise known as the first five books of the Old Testament.  Aslan's book takes this academic approach and gives a fascinating picture of Jesus the man and the world that he lived in.  So, without further ado, I present some of the things I learned form this insightful book.

Who is Reza Aslan (or, What business does a Muslim have writing about Jesus)?

Aslan begins his book with some of his own biography, and explains how/why he (a Muslim) came to write about Jesus.  He was raised in "a motley family of lukewarm Muslims and exuberant atheists."  When he was 15, he "found Jesus" at an evangelical youth camp in Northern California.  He was so moved by the story of Jesus that he asked Jesus into his heart.  Evangelical Christianity provided a way for Aslan to find meaning and identity:

"In the America of the 1980s, being Muslim was like being from Mars.  My faith was a bruise, the most obvious symbol of my otherness; it needed to be concealed.  Jesus, on the other hand, was America.  He was the central figure in America's national drama.  Accepting him into my heart was as close as I could get to feeling truly American.  I do not mean to say that mine was a conversion of convenience.  On the contrary, I burned with absolute devotion to my newfound faith.  I was presented with a Jesus who was less 'Lord and Savior' than he was a best friend, someone with whom I cold have a deep and personal relationship.  As a teenager trying to make sense of an indeterminate world I had only just become aware of, this was an invitation I could not refuse."  

In college, as Aslan began studying the Bible and the history of religions, doubts began to creep in:

"The more I probed the Bible to arm myself against the doubts of unbelievers, the more distance I discovered between the Jesus of the gospels and the Jesus of history--between Jesus the Christ and Jesus of Nazareth.  In college, where I began my formal study of the history of religions, that initial discomfort soon ballooned into full-blown doubts of my own.  The bedrock of evangelical Christianity, at least as it was taught to me, is the unconditional belief that every word of the Bible is God-breathed and true, literal and inerrant.  The sudden realization that this belief is patently and irrefutably false, that the Bible is replete with with the most blatant and obvious errors and contradictions--just as one would expect from a document written by hundreds of hands across thousands of years--left me confused and spiritually unmoored."

I completely relate to Aslan's journey, for this was in many ways my own journey.  

He continued his studies and went on to become the scholar he is today, precisely because of this journey of doubt and discovery: "I continued my academic work in religious studies, delving back into the Bible not as an unquestioning believer but as an inquisitive scholar.  No longer chained to the assumption that the stories I read were literally true, I became aware of a more meaningful truth in the text, a truth intentionally detached from the exigencies of history.  Ironically, the more I learned about the life of this historical Jesus, the turbulent world in which he lived, and the brutality of the Roman occupation that he defied, the more I was drawn to him.  Indeed, the Jewish peasant and revolutionary who challenged the rule of the most powerful empire the world had ever known and lost became so much more real to me than the detached, unearthly being I had been introduced to in church."

This, also, has been my journey back to Jesus.  While I'm an agnostic regarding the "truth" of Christianity, I have an endless interest in, fascination with, and respect for Jesus the man, the rebel, the champion of the poor, the failed messiah who changed the world.

Aslan's goal with the book is the present the findings of 20 years of research into the New Testament and early Christianity--to present, as best he can, the Jesus of history, as opposed to the Christ of faith.  He acknowledges, as any serious scholar must, that "for every well-attested, heavily-researched, and eminently authoritative argument made about the historical Jesus, there is an equally well-attested, equally researched, and equally authoritative argument opposing it."  He constructs his narrative upon what he believes to be "the most accurate and reasonable argument, based on two decades of scholarly research into the New Testament and early Christian history."  For those interested in this ongoing conversation, he provides about a hundred pages of references for further reading at the end of the book.

Ultimately, I think, Aslan succeeds in presenting, in compelling detail, the context of first century Palestine, and offers sometimes startling clues about what the real Jesus of Nazareth might have been like.


In the time and place in which Jesus lived, Roman-occupied first century Palestine, there were lots of so-called messiahs, who traveled around preaching apocalyptic messages.  It was a relatively common thing.  There was growing unrest among the Jewish population, who lived under the oppressive regime of the Roman Empire.  These messiahs often preached against Rome, advocating for a new and independent Jewish kingdom.  For this reason, messiahs were often crucified for sedition (as Jesus was).

While Jesus was definitely one of these messiahs, it is difficult to get much information about the real historical Jesus.  The gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John) were written decades after Jesus, and it is likely that none of the gospel writers had ever actually seen Jesus.  They were writing in a different time.  Aside from their historical distance from the events they describe, the gospels were written after the failed Jewish rebellion of 66 C.E. and the subsequent massacre in Jerusalem and the utter destruction of the Jewish Temple by Roman legions in 70 C.E.  The gospel writers had a reason NOT to present Jesus as the failed political revolutionary he probably was, and instead detach him from political controversy and make him a more spiritual leader.  In short, to make him "a Jesus the Romans could accept."  

Aslan describes his goal in this way: "This book is an attempt to reclaim, as much as possible, the Jesus of history, the Jesus before Christianity: the politically conscious Jewish revolutionary who, two thousand years ago, walked across the Galilean countryside, gathering followers for a messianic movement with the goal of establishing the Kingdom of God but whose mission failed when, after a provocative entry into Jerusalem and a brazen attack on the Temple, he was arrested and executed by Rome for the crime of sedition.  It is also about how, in the aftermath of Jesus' failure to establish God's reign on earth, his followers reinterpreted not only Jesus's mission and identity, but also the very nature and definition of the Jewish messiah."

"The Jesus that is uncovered in the process," Aslan continues, "may not be the Jesus we expect: he certainly will not be the Jesus that most modern Christians would recognize.  But in the end, he is the only Jesus that we can access by historical means.  Everything else is a matter of faith."

Roman-Occupied Palestine

Beginning in 63 B.C.E, Palestine was part of the Roman empire.  It's succession of kings and governors were little more than Roman puppets.  Aslan paints a rather disturbing picture of the Temple under Roman rule: "Legions of Roman troops were stationed throughout Judea.  Some six hundred Roman soldiers resided atop the Temple Mount itself, within the high stone walls of the Antonia Fortress, which buttressed the northwest corner of the Temple wall.  The unclean centurion in his red cape and polished cuirass who paraded through the Court of Gentiles, his hand hovering above the hilt of his sword, was a not so subtle reminder, if any were needed, of who really ruled this sacred place."

Under Roman occupation, the peasant farmers who lived in the countryside had to pay double taxes to both the Temple priests and to Rome.  This sometimes meant around half their income.  As poverty gripped the Judean farmers, Jewish peasant-farmers began to organize and resist.  Aslan writes, "From their caves and grottoes of the Galilean countryside, these peasant-warriors launched a wave of attacks against the Jewish aristocracy and the agents of the Roman Republic.  They roamed through the provinces, gathering to themselves those in distress, those who were dispossessed and mired in debt.  Like Jewish Robin Hoods, they robbed the rich and gave to the poor."  These peasant-bandits often saw themselves as agents of God's justice, and some, like the chief Hezekiah, "openly declared himself to be the messiah, the promised one who would restore the Jews to glory."

These bandits were, needless to say, quite a nuisance to both Rome and the Jewish aristocracy.  It was a Jewish governor named Herod who launched "a bloody crusade against the bandit gangs," temporarily crushing them, and earning the favor of Rome, who named him "King of the Jews."  Herod was a ruthless and effective Roman puppet.  However, his sons were much less effective in quelling the rising tide of Jewish revolutionary fervor.  These various uprisings and their various messiah leaders were ultimately crushed by none other than Caesar Augustus, who sent his legions into Judea and put an end to the unrest.  Or so he thought.

Herodium, burial place of King Herod the Great

Jesus of Nazareth

The tiny village of Nazareth represented the opposite of the wealthy priests and aristocrats.  Aslan paints a compelling picture:

"Ancient Nazareth rests on the jagged brow of a windy hilltop in lower Galilee.  No more than a hundred Jewish families live in this tiny village.  There are no roads, no public buildings.  There is no synagogue.  The villagers share a single well from which to draw fresh water.  A single bath, fed by a trickle of rainfall captured and stored in underground cisterns, serves the entire population.  It is a village of mostly illiterate peasants, farmers, and day laborers; a place that does not exist on any map."

One of Aslan's more stunning insights is the fact that Jesus was probably illiterate: "As an artisan and laborer, Jesus would have belonged to the lowest class of peasants in first-century Palestine, just above the indigent, the beggar, and the slave.  The Romans used the term tekton as slang for any uneducated or illiterate person, and Jesus was very likely both…There were no schools in Nazareth for peasant children to attend."

Galilee is Burning

The Galilee in which Jesus was born was a volatile place.  Aslan explains: "The Galilee of Jesus' childhood had undergone a profound psychic trauma, having felt the full force of Rome's retribution for the revolts that erupted throughout the land after the death of Herod the Great in 4 B.C.E.  The Roman response to rebellion, no matter where it arose in the realm, was scripted and predictable: burn the villages, raze the cities, enslave the population.  That was likely the command given to the legions of troops dispatched by Emperor Augustus after Herod's death to teach the rebellious Jews a lesson.  The Romans easily snuffed out the uprisings in Judea and Peraea.  But special attention was given to Galilee, the center of the revolt.  Thousands were killed as the countryside was set ablaze.  The devastation spread to every town and village; few were spared.  The villages of Emmaus and Sampho were laid waste.  Sepphoris which had allowed Judas the Galileean (another failed messiah) to breach the city's armory, was flattened.  The whole of Galilee was consumed in fire and blood.  Even tiny Nazareth would not have escaped the wrath of Rome.  Rome might have been right to focus so brutally on Galilee.  The region had been a hotbed of revolutionary activity for centuries.  Long before the Roman invasion, the term "Galilean" had become synonymous with 'rebel.'"

Thus, "when Jesus was born, Galilee was aflame.  His first decade of life coincided with the plunder and destruction of the Galilean countryside."

It was to a devastated people that Jesus first preached in Galilee, and the message was simple: "The Lord God had seen the suffering of the poor and dispossessed; he had heard their cries of anguish.  And he was finally going to do something about it.  This many not have been a new message--John the Baptist preached much the same thing--but it was a message being delivered to a new Galilee, by…a tried and true Galilean."

Caesar Augustus

Jesus' Message

In first century, Rome-occupied Palestine, crucifixion was a crime reserved for sedition, for crimes against the state.  It is in this context that we must think about Jesus' message.  What was his message, that it would require crucifixion?  According to the gospels, it was that the Kingdom of God was at hand:

"When Jesus said 'the Kingdom of God has drawn near you' or 'the Kingdom of God is in your midst' he was pointing to God's saving action in his present age, at his present time."  He was, according to Aslan, participating in a long tradition of Jewish prophets who predicted a new social order: "Elijah, Elisha, Micah, Amos, Isaiah, Jeremiah--these men vowed that God would deliver the Jews from bondage and liberate Israel from foreign rule if only they refused to serve any earthly master or bow to any king save the one and only king of the universe.  This same belief formed the foundation of nearly every Jewish resistance movement."

"The Kingdon of God," from a Jewish perspective, "is not some utopian fantasy wherein God vindicates the poor and the dispossessed.  It is a chilling new reality in which God's wrath rains down upon the rich, the strong, and the powerful…The Kingdom of God is a call to revolution, plain and simple."

And here's where things get a bit uncomfortable for modern Christians.  What was Jesus' view of violence?  If the new social order involves the overturning of the present one, is violence involved?  It certainly was for the ancient Israelites: "The same God whom the Bible calls 'a man of war' (Exodus 15:3), the God who repeatedly commands the wholesale slaughter of every foreign man, woman, and child who occupies the land of the Jews, the 'blood-spattered God' of Abraham, and Moses, and Jacob, and Joshua, the God who 'shatters the heads of his enemies,' bids his warriors to bathe their feet in their blood and leave their corpses to be eaten by dogs (Psalm 68: 21-23)--that is the ONLY God that Jesus knew and the SOLE God he worshipped."

Aslan makes the argument that Jesus was a Jewish nationalist revolutionary who saw himself as ushering in the Kingdom of God and liberating the Jews from foreign rule.  From the perspective of the Roman authorities, and the priestly aristocrats who were their puppets, a man like that had to die, even if he was only a backwoods, illiterate peasant from Nazareth.  He was still a threat.

Pontius Pilate

Pontius Pilate 

The picture that Aslan presents of the infamous Roman governor Pilate, who ordered Jesus' crucifixion, is very different from the picture the gospels present: "The gospels present Pilate as a righteous yet weak-willed man so overcome with doubt about putting Jesus to death that he does everything in his power to save his life, finally washing his hands of the entire episode when the Jews demand his blood.  That is pure fiction.  What Pilate was best known for was his extreme depravity, his total diregard for Jewish law and tradition, and his barely concealed aversion to the Jewish nation as a whole.  During his tenure in Jerusalem he so eagerly, and without trial, sent thousands upon thousands of Jews to the cross that the people of Jerusalem felt obliged to lodge a formal complaint with the Roman emperor."  His sources for this are the fairly well-documented Roman records and accounts, as well as Josephus's accounts.

"As governor," Aslan explains, "Pilate's chief responsibility in Jerusalem is to maintain order on behalf of the emperor.  The only reason a poor Jewish peasant and day laborer would be brought before him is if he had jeopardized that order."  Jesus, the nationalist revolutionary, the prophet preaching the coming Kingdom of God, had to die.  And, like thousands of other "enemies of the state" at that time, he was crucified.  

In short, "Jesus was executed by the Roman state for the crime of sedition."

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