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Donald SeniorMarch 12, 2014
Zealotby Reza Aslan

Random House. 336p $27

Reza Aslan’s study of the historical Jesus has been hovering near the top of The New York Times best-seller list for several weeks. It is written in an engaging style and reads like a historical novel. But the author does not want it to be taken as “fiction” but as a serious work of historical inquiry. The notes that accompany his work are copious, and he cites much of the pertinent literature for such an undertaking.

But, sad to say, the end result could easily be assigned to fiction. Here is a summary of Aslan’s basic thesis. The portrayal of Jesus in the four Gospels and the writings of Paul completely mask the true historical Jesus, a Galilean peasant consumed with zeal for God’s kingdom who advocated the overthrow of the ruling powers (this included the high priests in Jerusalem as well as their Roman overlords) and who saw himself as the God-appointed king of this new realm.

The Jesus of the New Testament, on the other hand, is a divine figure, the “literal” Son of God, totally devoid of any earthly interest, and is a creation of Paul the Apostle and other compliant church leaders on behalf of an urban and Hellenistic branch of the early church that was in tension with the Jerusalem-based church led by James. It is the divine Jesus created by the needs of the Roman church that was ultimately triumphant over the authentic portrait of the historical Jesus. This is the one that has endured in orthodox Christianity to this day.

How does Aslan reach such a sensational conclusion? The starting point and one of the few reliable historical facts about Jesus in the Gospel literature, in his view, is the account of Jesus’ purification of the Jerusalem temple—a provocative action that alarmed the Jewish Temple establishment and alerted the vigilant Roman authorities to bring Jesus to his death through crucifixion, a form of capital punishment reserved primarily for crimes of sedition.

From this basis, Aslan develops his theory about Jesus’ true identity. Jesus was a Jewish peasant from Nazareth of Galilee, a hotbed of pre-revolutionary fever, whose zeal was triggered by the reformist preaching of John the Baptist, who was also Jesus’ mentor. Upon his return to Galilee, whose poor farmers were by now reeling under oppressive taxation, Jesus set out on his mission from God. A charismatic healer and magician, at least in the perception of his contemporaries, Jesus advocated overthrow and destruction—violent if need be—of the ruling powers and their replacement by a kingdom that favored the poor and oppressed. Jesus saw himself as the “Messiah,” God’s anointed one who would rule this new kingdom, but masked his intentions by avoiding the title Messiah and using the enigmatic title “Son of Man,” which was drawn from the Book of Daniel and referred to one who would restore Israel to its land and purify its devotion to the Torah. Jesus’ healings and his charismatic preaching began to draw crowds, and the closer he and his disciples came to Jerusalem, the seat of both priestly and Roman power, the more dangerous did Jesus’ campaign become until the fatal days of his arrest and crucifixion.

Although Jesus’ mission, like that of the many messianic pretenders of his age, would end in abject failure, the conviction of his early followers that Jesus was risen from the dead spearheaded a new movement in Jesus’ name, keeping alive his teaching and the memory of his person.

The Jesus of Nazareth who walked the roads of Galilee and Judea in the first century had virtually nothing in common with the divine Jesus who would be portrayed in the Gospels, a portrayal that Aslan amazingly characterizes as completely “spiritual” and “other-worldly,” a Jesus who has no interest whatsoever in earthly matters, one who is “the image of a gentle shepherd cultivated by the early Christian community,” a “man of unconditional peace almost wholly insulated from the political upheavals of his time.”

How did such a distortion happen? Aslan’s explanation of the process is mind-boggling, to say the least. The first step was that the earliest followers of Jesus were ignorant, illiterate peasants who made the mistake of erroneously applying Old Testament Scriptures to Jesus, beginning the process of idealizing him. Then came the need to get along with Roman authorities, particularly on the part of Greek-speaking Jewish Christians spread throughout the Roman Empire. The revolutionary intentions of the real Jesus had to be muted and his mission made spiritual and harmless.

Even Jesus’ teaching including love of enemies—universally recognized by scholars as a unique element of the historical Jesus’ teaching and seemingly an obstacle to the portrayal of Jesus as a zealous revolutionary intent on destroying his enemies—is bent by Aslan to his own thesis. The “enemies” Jesus meant were internal Jewish enemies, not the Romans or foreign oppressors. Even the parable of the good Samaritan, which the Gospel of Luke presents as an illustration of Jesus’ teaching on love of neighbor across the boundaries of culture, is explained by Aslan as a veiled attack on Jesus’ enemies in the priestly class rather than as an ethical teaching.

The third and final step is attributed to Paul. Here Aslan brings out the tired thesis that Paul was the true founder of Christianity. Paul, steeped in the urban and philosophical culture of the Roman Empire, created a divinized Jesus, a type of Roman demi-god, one who had little in common with the Torah-obedient and zealous Jew who was the real Jesus, but one who would be acceptable to Roman authorities and a much better sell to a Roman audience of Gentiles.

To pull this off, Paul had to reckon with James, the brother of the Lord and the true leader of the church—“the bishop of bishops,” as Aslan characterizes him. James, although a devoted follower of his brother, remained a law-abiding Jew who did not accept the notion of a Jesus who was the incarnate Son of God—a belief completely inimical to Jewish faith. James continued to have the allegiance of the other apostles, including Peter and John, and managed through emissaries to keep Paul in check. Aslan even interprets the visit of Paul to Jerusalem recorded in Acts 21:17–26, which Luke portrays as a benign encounter with James and the other leaders, as a “bitter” confrontation in which James humiliates and embarrasses Paul.

Paul’s eventual appeal to stand trial after his arrest is not, according to Aslan, an exercise of his rights as a Roman citizen but a desperate attempt on Paul’s part to get as far away from James’ “noose of control” as he could. But after the murder of James by the high priest Ananus and the effective dispersal of the Jewish Christian community in the calamity of A.D. 70, Paul’s brand of Christology becomes triumphant. The Gospels themselves are heavily influenced by Paul’s divinized portrait of Jesus, and the Gospel of John is “little more than Pauline theology in narrative form.”

How is one to assess an effort like this? The attempt to drive a wedge between the Jesus of history and the Christ of faith is not a new enterprise, but Aslan’s proposal is particularly stark and radically reductionist. Most scholars who hold this thesis have nuanced their argumentation, noting an evolutionary process in which the resurrection faith of the early community gradually idealized its portrayal of Jesus.

Aslan rolls through any nuances without hesitation: the writings of Paul and the Evangelists are simply contrived. Little is mentioned about the preaching, teaching and worship of the early community as an important conduit for the early church’s traditions about Jesus. And their motives, it should be noted, are base: Aslan repeatedly characterizes the early church’s portrayal as a “flat-out fabrication,” as a “desperate” attempt, as “convoluted,” as a “concoction” (referring to Mark’s passion narrative), as an effort for which “factual accuracy was irrelevant.” The accumulation of such descriptors gives the impression that the early church’s distortion of the real Jesus was something akin to a modern Washington cover-up rather than a serious and sincere theological and religious process rooted in the community’s historical memory of Jesus and his mission.

Similarly, the author’s characterization of Judaism is also disturbing. Aslan rightly contends that the Jewish Scriptures and traditions would have influenced Jesus of Nazareth, but the God he has in mind—one who legitimates Jesus’ revolutionary mission—is summarized as follows: The God of the Hebrew Scriptures is “the same God whom the Bible calls, ‘a man of war’ (Ex 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 (Is 63:3), 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 (Ps 68:21–23). That is the only God Jesus knew and the sole God he worshipped.” To say that this vengeful God is the “only” image of God Jesus could draw from his Jewish heritage is an irresponsible distortion.

In fact, Aslan’s whole book has an exaggerated and tendentious tone. In an age when there were a number of messianic claimants, Aslan describes Judea as “teeming” with them; in an age when healers were recognized, Aslan claims there were “untold numbers” of them, “as well established” as the profession of a “woodworker or mason”—and better paid. There are also strange, out-of-focus and inaccurate observations about the topography of the land in Jesus’ day. Jerusalem is situated “between the twin peaks of Mount Scopus and the Mount of Olives” (these mountains share one ridge and are to the east of Jerusalem); Sepphoris is a “day’s walk” from Nazareth (it is only five miles away, a little over an hour’s walk); Nazareth is built on a “gently sloping hill” (in fact it is situated on very steep bluffs facing the Jezreel valley); the lands near the Sea of Galilee were nurtured by “cool salt breezes” (remarkable for a fresh-water lake).

Some claim that Aslan’s book shot to the bestseller list because of a hostile interview with a Fox News anchor who badgered Aslan for his Muslim identity, seemingly accusing him of writing a Muslim refutation of Jesus. I did not find any evidence of that and presume that Aslan is sincere in his scholarly effort. That said, his work, in my view, presents a very distorted portrayal of both the Jesus of history and of the New Testament.

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