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Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth

A Review

C. Gourgey, Ph.D.

Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth
(New York: Random House, 2013)

Reza Aslan is an excellent writer and at least a competent historian. Much public criticism of his book, notably the Fox News interview, has been unfair, coming from people who clearly did not read it and whose minds are not open. Aslan deserves a hearing. He has thoroughly researched the period and he knows the sources far better than some of his most vocal critics do. Aslan’s book is also written for the general public, which does not sit well with some scholars who wish his presentation were more professional and more nuanced. But a work that detailed every ambiguity and difference of opinion - and such works already do exist - would not appeal to the general reader whom Aslan wishes to reach. There is nothing wrong with attempting to distill the essentials to make this complex and controversial history accessible to those who do not have formal training.

Aslan fills in many historical details concerning the period before, during, and after Jesus lived that may not be common knowledge. He tells the stories well, and it’s a fascinating read. Of course people know the Roman occupation was harsh, but may not have an appreciation of just how inhumane and brutal it actually was; this Aslan gives us in harrowing detail. And, as other Bible scholars have pointed out, a study of history shows that Pilate was anything but the passive, almost benign figure portrayed in the Gospels, which for understandable political reasons needed to avoid offending the Roman authorities.

Aslan’s presentation of the historical data is basically sound (even though professionals in the field might differ on a number of points), and his bringing to attention the anomalies that arise when we take the Gospels as straight history is pertinent. However, he gets into trouble when making inferences from his data to draw his two main conclusions:

  1. Jesus was a “zealot” (with a small “z”, not a member of the Zealot Party that formed later), a revolutionary whose goal was to overthrow the Roman occupation and substitute God’s kingdom on earth.

  2. Paul was primarily, almost single-handedly responsible for transforming the Jesus movement from its original revolutionary focus to the Christian religion as we know it today, turning the Jesus of history into an object of worship.

As others have pointed out, neither of these contentions is new. And neither is supported by historical data.

As Aslan puts it: “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.”

Aslan reminds us that Jesus was not the only candidate for Messiah at the time. He was one of many, including Theudas, the “Egyptian,” Bar Giora, and Bar Kochba, as well as many others. And he was executed by Rome for the same reason: the Romans saw him as an insurrectionist. From this and similar observations Aslan concludes that Jesus’s aims were the same as the other messianic pretenders. Jesus was, in essence, a “revolutionary zealot who walked across Galilee gathering an army of disciples with the goal of establishing the Kingdom of God on earth.”

This is way too big a jump. To support this jump, Aslan quotes scripture selectively. He cites Luke 22:36 (“And the one who has no sword must sell his cloak and buy one,” possibly for self-protection) but does not mention Matthew 26:52 (“Put your sword back into its place; for all who take the sword will perish by the sword”). Clearly the preponderance of the evidence in the Gospels does not support a violent Jesus.

One of Aslan’s weakest scriptural interpretations has to do with the famous “render unto Caesar” passage. It is worth quoting:

Then the Pharisees went and plotted to entrap him in what he said. So they sent their disciples to him, along with the Herodians, saying, “Teacher, we know that you are sincere, and teach the way of God in accordance with truth, and show deference to no one; for you do not regard people with partiality. Tell us, then, what you think. Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor, or not?” But Jesus, aware of their malice, said, “Why are you putting me to the test, you hypocrites? Show me the coin used for the tax.” And they brought him a denarius. Then he said to them, “Whose head is this, and whose title?” They answered, “The emperor’s.” Then he said to them, “Give therefore to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” When they heard this, they were amazed; and they left him and went away. (Matthew 22:15-22)
Here Jesus’s opponents try to put him in a bind: if Jesus approves of tribute to the emperor, he will be seen by his own people as a collaborator, but if he denounces the tribute, he will be seen by Rome as an insurrectionist. In this way they hoped to trap him. Jesus escapes the trap, by answering the question with a better question. Jesus neither endorses nor condemns the paying of the Roman tax. Rather, he concedes that in this world human power may exercise temporary dominance, but there is a Higher Power to whom we owe our primary allegiance and to whom all temporal power must eventually answer.

Aslan turns this passage on its head. He calls the question that the Pharisees asked of Jesus “an essential test of zealotry” and continues:

The truth is that Jesus’s answer is as clear a statement as one can find in the gospels on where exactly he fell in the debate between the priests and the zealots.... according to Jesus, Caesar is entitled to be “given back” the denarius coin, not because he deserves tribute, but because it is his coin: his name and picture are stamped on it. God has nothing to do with it. By extension, God is entitled to be “given back” the land the Romans have seized for themselves because it is God’s land: “The Land is mine,” says the Lord (Leviticus 25: 23). Caesar has nothing to do with it. So then, give back to Caesar what is his, and give back to God what belongs to God. That is the zealot argument in its simplest, most concise form.

It is also reading a lot into that passage that simply is not there. One can more plausibly interpret Jesus as saying that overt rebellion will not accomplish the people’s aims (so do not expect your Messiah to be a military leader), but neither do the imperial powers have the last word.

So Aslan’s Jesus is very this-world oriented. How then did he become the Christ of worship? It was allegedly Paul who transformed the narrative, who virtually invented Christ as pre-existent, spiritual being from the story of the earthly Jesus. Paul never references Jesus’s teachings; far more significant for Paul is Jesus’s crucifixion and resurrection. (In fact Paul quotes Jesus only once, in 1 Corinthians 11:24-25, referring to commemoration of the Last Supper). It was Paul, then, who brought forth Christianity as a religion of Jesus worship. As Aslan puts it, “Christianity after the destruction of Jerusalem was almost exclusively a gentile religion; it needed a gentile theology. And that is precisely what Paul provided.... Two thousand years later, the Christ of Paul’s creation has utterly subsumed the Jesus of history.”

Aslan gives Paul too much credit. He sees Paul’s influence in all the Gospels and particularly in the high Christology of the Gospel of John: “the gospel of John is little more than Pauline theology in narrative form.” There is no evidence to back up this assertion. There are no clear references to John’s pre-existent, pre-cosmic Christ in Paul’s letters. The closest reference to a pre-existent Christ in writings attributed to Paul occurs in Colossians 1; however Aslan, following most modern scholars, denies Pauline authorship of that letter. Aslan does make much of Philippians 2:6-7, which is the only place where Paul directly compares Jesus to God. But scholars generally agree that these verses do not originate with Paul but come from an earlier hymn that Paul was quoting. Referring to these verses from Philippians, the great scholar and noted authority on John, Raymond Brown, states that “many scholars today doubt that ‘being in the form of God’ and ‘accepting the form of a servant’ refers to incarnation. It may mean that, unlike Adam who was also in the image of God, Jesus did not rebel at being a servant - in which case the whole hymn would refer to the earthly life of Jesus” (Raymond Brown, The Community of the Beloved Disciple [Paulist Press, 1979], p. 46). There is nothing left to support Aslan’s contention that Paul invented the Johannine high Christology.

It is ironic that after reducing Jesus to one of many failed revolutionary zealots who preceded and followed him, Aslan concludes that “the one thing any comprehensive study of the historical Jesus should hopefully reveal is that Jesus of Nazareth - Jesus the man - is every bit as compelling, charismatic, and praiseworthy as Jesus the Christ. He is, in short, someone worth believing in.” Why? There is really very little extraordinary about Aslan’s Jesus. He was not the only “radical Jewish nationalist who challenged the Roman occupation and lost.” There were many others, and they all met the same fate. If Aslan cannot see a difference in stature between his zealot Jesus and the Christ of the Gospels, then he fails to grasp the significance of the latter.

For Jesus truly was a revolutionary, more so than any would-be military leader and renegade of his time. And he was so because of his radical teaching: that the path to peace on earth consists of a different kind of love, one that takes one beyond one’s primary group of identification, and that even makes no distinction between insider and outsider:

For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? And if you greet only your brothers and sisters, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same? Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect. (Matthew 5:46-48)

These words are an extension of the injunction in the Hebrew Bible to “love the stranger” (Deuteronomy 10:19), but never before was this full implication so clearly articulated. For this teaching alone Jesus deserves the designation of Messiah, for he understood that the only way to overcome tension and violence between groups is to transcend group identification through non-self-interested love. There are still many in our day, as there were many in Jesus’s day, who expect that when the Messiah arrives he will do all the heavy lifting, and that with hardly any effort on our part there will magically be peace on earth. That will never happen, nor will lasting peace ever be achieved through any zealot military action. Jesus gave us the plan; he showed us the way, understanding both that the root of war is group identification and that the way to overcome it is through transcendent love. More than this no other Messiah can give.

Either one grasps the awesome significance of this or one does not. If one does not, then like Aslan, and also like the highly respectable scholar Bart Ehrman, one ends up with a Jesus who was little more than a failed revolutionary and unfulfilled apocalyptic prophet. But such a Jesus could not have inspired the music of Bach and Handel, the many great works of art depicting his ministry, and the countless acts of intercommunal love performed in his memory.

Aslan has been much criticized, but often for the wrong reasons, some bearing very close to bigotry: his work does not corroborate the accepted faith; he is a Muslim and has no business writing about Jesus. More knowledgeable critics have pointed out details that Aslan may not have gotten right. Far more significant is that Aslan’s understanding of Jesus has skewed his reading of the Gospels towards underplaying how against violence Jesus actually was, and so has influenced his conclusions about Jesus’s identity. (Jesus may or may not have been a pacifist, but the Jesus who ordered his followers not to use the sword against his enemies, and who even preached love of the enemy, was no violent rebel.)

If one fails to appreciate how innovative and challenging Jesus’s message really was, then one might well be tempted to think of him as just another zealot, no different from any other spiritual teacher or messianic pretender. There are many who profess faith in Jesus who also do not grasp the same essence of Jesus’s message that Aslan missed, and this too will influence the conclusions they draw about Jesus. So this book is well worth reading, to bring the uninitiated a sense of Jesus’s life and times, and above all to challenge those who think they know Jesus to reexamine their beliefs and come to a deeper understanding of Jesus’s place in history and ultimately his redemptive message.

August 2013