(To see Cal Grondahl’s cartoon that goes with this post, click here.) “Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth,” by Reza Aslan, is a fascinating read, a strictly secular overview of Jesus Christ’s life and the decades before and after his existence. Aslan’s deliberately disinterested take on the “Son of Man” yields moments of both exhilaration and frustration for believers and skeptics. No one’s personal beliefs are vindicated, or spared criticism, in this book.
Despite its value, it is pop history, written for a mass audience, and eschews the excessive detail and minutia of a university-press publication. “Zealot” begins long before Christ’s life, setting up the history of the Jews in the Holy Land, their short-lived independence and eventual subjection to the Roman empire. Aslan’s overview conveys to readers the importance of a “messiah,” who it was hoped, would relieve the Jews of their captivity by Rome. Aslan also sets up the situation in Jerusalem, in which wealthy Jewish priests, friends by necessity to Roman leaders, such as Herod and Antipas, usually had control of the temple. Regions outside of Jerusalem tended to be poorer and often contained more austere, more conservative ecclesiastical leaders. From time to time, these priests would increase their influence, even in Jerusalem.
It was a violent time; there were many instances in which Rome would crack down, wiping out cities and towns. As Aslan explains, crucifixions were ubiquitous in the Holy Land. It was a punishment designed not only to torture and kill the condemned, but humiliate him as well. There were no shortage of would-be “messiahs” preaching deliverance from Rome and reform at the temple that were executed in Christ’s time, either by crucifixion, or stoning, the Jewish punishment for “blasphemy.” These conservative theologians would at times slaughter moderate priests more accessible to Rome. There were murders in the Jerusalem temple. Frankly, all the religious violence of Christ’s era is very similar to the theological violence today from Islamic extremists.
What some have regarded as the “provocative” section of Aslan’s book is perhaps the least interesting and laziest portion. Aslan describes Jesus Christ as essentially an illiterate, wandering, perhaps slightly delusional rabble-rouser who preaches an offbeat yet decidedly conservative theology that calls for an overthrow of Rome and the establishment of an earthly kingdom. In Aslan’s opinion, the Beatitudes is not a celebration of humility but a promise that the humble will bring down the strong. And the famous quote by Jesus to render unto Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God what is God’s is actually a defiant statement that Rome must leave Jerusalem.
Jesus, according to Aslan, also made it very clear that his “kingdom” he was establishing was an earthly one. This is in contrast to the traditional Christian belief that Christ’s kingdom is not of this world, or a heavenly one. Aslan, drawing on Jewish theology, rejects that. (This part interests me as a member of the LDS faith, which claims that Christ established a church while on earth, separate from Judaism. This, of course, is in contrast to Aslan’s interpretation.)
Turning Christ into a quasi-orthodox Jewish preacher, rather than a pacifist, is provocative, but it’s not new. Much of what Aslan treads over has been around a long, long time. Similar theories were published 48 years ago, in “The Passover Plot,” or 31 years ago, in “Holy Blood, Holy Grail.” There are many imitations of both those books. Even fiction writer Dan Brown dabbles in these ideas in his popular action page-turners.
A more interesting section of “Zealot” deals with the intrigue between Christ’s adherents after his death, and the theological battles between followers outside Jerusalem, Diaspora Jews, represented by Paul, the former Pharisee turned convert, and the more conservative followers of Jesus in Jerusalem, led by Peter, James (the brother of Jesus), and former disciples and apostles who knew Christ. As Aslan explains, Paul was unsuccessful in most of these debates, and was in fact forced into a humiliating Temple purification ritual by James in Jerusalem. It’s interesting that in the years before Jerusalem was destroyed, most of Christ’s major advocates, including Peter, James and Paul, were executed.
After the destruction of Jerusalem, its temple, and the laying waste to surrounding areas, Aslan explains that Paul’s epistles, which stressed missionary work to the gentiles and less emphasis on Jewish religious customs, gradually gained in popularity. When the earthly powers selected books for the New Testament, there was a lot more of Paul included than James, the brother of Jesus. As a result, Aslan posits, a mere few hundred years after Jesus — born into a very humble existence in Nazareth — preached and died, he became the founder of a religion with doctrines rather distinct from what Aslan believes he once preached.
Aslan’s Jesus is not a particularly important preacher, who made a deadly decision to enter Jerusalem and trash areas of the Temple. Aslan doubts that Pontius Pilate actually interrogated him prior to his execution. He was charismatic enough, though, to keep a healthy number of followers after his death.
From perhaps thousands of wandering preachers, many claiming messiah status, Christ managed to gain billions of believers. Whether such popularity is solely the result of the Council of Nicea and later political and military power, or attributed to a divine power is a question that Aslan appropriately hedges on.