On Jesus as zealot.
Reza Aslan’s Zealot is the best book on the historical Jesus I’ve ever read. Part of what makes it so interesting is Aslan’s ambivalence. Had Jesus not been transformed from a zealot whose only interest was the liberation of the Jews from Rome into a universal man-God, Christianity would not have survived. It would never have been created in the first place. But the survival and prosperity of Christianity came at a cost: the loss not only of its Jewish roots, but its political program of equality and justice. Or so Aslan argues.
Too many messiahs
Had Christianity not transformed Judaism into an apolitical religion, Jesus would have just been another of dozens of messiahs running around during an apocalyptic era, as obscure today as a Jewish sorcerer called “the Egyptian,” who declared himself King of the Jews and gathered thousands of followers on the Mount of Olives, where they were massacred by Roman troops (p 53). This was the fate of at least a dozen messiahs prophesying within a hundred years of Jesus’ lifetime, including a poor shepherd who in 4 BCE put a wreath on his head and crowned himself “King of the Jews.” He and his followers were cut down by a legion of Roman soldiers. (loc 174) Another messiah called Jesus son of Ananias, who also prophesied the destruction of Jerusalem and the imminent return of the messiah, suffered the same fate. Declare yourself the messiah, gather some followers, become known to the Roman authorities, and be massacred. This was the formula, repeated again and again (p 79).
The seizure and destruction of the temple
Jews seized control of the temple in Jerusalem in 66 CE. By 70 CE almost every man, woman, and child in Jerusalem was slain by Roman troops, over a million according to Josephus. Jesus’ prediction of the destruction of the temple (Mark 13: 1-4) is not quite so remarkable when we recall that the gospels were all written after the temple was razed. Jesus did not predict anything; the authors of the gospels were recounting recent history.
How to survive Rome?
The problem faced by Jews and Christians alike was how to survive under Roman rule. For Jews, acts of piety and the study of the law took the place of Temple sacrifices. The Torah replaced the temple (p 69).
For Christians, the gospels rewrote the history of Jesus of Nazareth, so that instead of being a man who fought in the name of the poor and cast down, he became for all but Mark an eternal being who was with God from the beginning of time, the primal force through whom all creation sprang and without whom nothing exists (p 28). This view is codified in the Nicene Creed; the Gospel of John tells the same story in narrative form. Christians, as they came to be called, no longer posed a threat to the authority of Rome because theirs was not a kingdom of this world. Within a couple of hundred years Christianity became the official religion of Rome.
Aslan is disappointed; I’m not
Aslan seems to assume that Christians sold out Jesus of Nazareth, the social reformer, in order to buy peace with Rome. He writes that Roman Christians, influenced by the Greeks, transformed Jesus into a Greek philosopher, a man of abstract ideas. The conclusion is not without foundation. Nevertheless, the transformation of Jesus of Nazareth into Jesus Christ was not simply a move to save a religion under attack, but an achievement that made possible a world religion for a universal man or woman–that is, every man or woman at every time and place.
Palestinian peasants were a miserable exploited people, whose agricultural surplus was confiscated by Rome to feed its growing population.* Peasants who owned their own land quickly ended up owing so much money in unpaid taxes that their land was confiscated, and they ended up working for Roman landlords. Many of Jesus’ teachings, particularly the parables, were cryptic critiques of this system of domination. Jesus of Nazareth was a social revolutionary.
Jesus of Nazareth would have remained relevant, if he had even remained alive, for only a few years. The religion founded by Paul and John is eternally relevant as long as men and women live on this earth. For it addresses the question faced by every human: what is the meaning of my life in the face of death? This is not the same as the question “what is heaven for?” The Christian answer to the meaning of life is not restricted to the afterlife.
Jesus Christ tells us how to internalize the law, so that living according to the law means living a consequential life. This is what the Beatitudes mean. When Jesus says that adultery is not just a matter of what you do, but what you think and feel (Matthew 5:27-28), he exemplifies a whole new way of approaching the meaning of life. A meaningful life is inward, measured by our success in living up to internalized standards. The meaning of life is about following the way of life laid down by Jesus. No longer must we submit to external prohibitions whose personal meaning is obscure. Rather, we ourselves make the meaning of these prohibitions by enacting them.
Aslan sharply distinguishes Jesus of Nazareth from Jesus Christ. The former is the zealous leader of a band of revolutionaries. The latter is the son of God, an aspect of God himself. The historical Jesus is an interesting character. It may be that the Gospels lost touch with Jesus of Nazareth. But this was no mere historical lapse. Only Jesus Christ could have founded a new religion, one that spoke to human needs long after the particular circumstances that gave rise to Jesus the zealot had receded into history.
* With the term Palestine I refer to the land encompassing contemporary Israel and Palestine, as well as parts of Jordan, Syria, and Lebanon. This follows Aslan’s usage (location 168).
The image is Titus Destroys Jerusalem 70 CE.
Reza Aslan, Zealot. Random House, 2014. All page references are to this book.