Imagine yourself as a Jew in first century Palestine. You’re probably wearing some badass, strappy leather sandals, weaving a basket, and gossiping about the one thirteen year old girl who is still not married. Someone get this girl the Coffee Meets Bagel app; or rather, in that time period, the Barely-Alcoholic-Wine Meets Flat Bread app. *Young love*. Anyway, historically speaking, you’re also pretty pissed off about the Roman occupation beginning in 63 B.C.E. Sure, they let you retain your Temple rituals with supervision; but this is the Promised Land reserved solely for God’s chosen people, not some pagan Romans. You all got the sweet taste of sovereignty for about a hundred years, and then the Holy City was flooded with heathens who stripped you of your property and put you to work.
Clearly, the situation was not on fleek, but mama didn’t raise no bitch. Embittered Jews broadcasted apocalyptic claims emphasizing Roman downfall and hundreds of insurrectionists known as “bandits” began to fight back with sharp words and even sharper swords. Several bandits went so far as to call themselves messiah, which was “tantamount to declaring war on Rome” (Aslan, 19). Biblically, the messiah was tasked to finish what King David had started, purging Israel of foreigners in order to reestablish divine dominion. So, it’s actually quite remarkable that Jesus of Nazareth is so remarkable. He was preaching zealotry—a fanatic adherence to Jewish law—and making messianic declarations that were very commonplace in an era of Jewish persecution. Similarly, he was practicing magic healings and exorcisms in a world overrun with “wonder worker” vocations.
Like his rebellious predecessors, Jesus was enraged with both the Roman rulers and the high priest Caiaphas. Roman Prefect Pontius Pilate appointed Caiaphas, who tainted the coveted priestly position by serving foreign interests over the one, true God. When word got around that Jesus held kingly ambitions, he was squashed for sedition just like all of the other hundreds of rabble-rousers—by crucifixion. People got crucified on the regular, as Rome was determined to stop any sort of uprising in its tracks.
Then comes the resurrection. We aptly celebrate it now by coloring Easter eggs and taking uncomfortable pictures with enormous rabbits. Whereas beforehand, Jesus was just another zealot opposing the current order, he now emerged unique and unprecedented. Aslan explains that Jesus’s death completely undermines the Jewish conception of “messiah” as one who liberates Israel (Aslan, 164). Jesus died a shameful death without restoring God’s kingdom… by definition, he did not fulfill messianic exigencies. Fortunately for Jesus—if he’s into that whole being famous thousands of years later thing—his teachings posthumously fell into the hands of a Hellenistic Jew named Stephen. Stephen spoke Greek, did not live in Jerusalem, never met Jesus, and had no official scholarly knowledge of the Torah. “As such, he was the perfect audience for this new, innovative, and thoroughly unorthodox interpretation of the messiah being peddled by a group of illiterate ecstatics” (Aslan, 167). Jesus’s disciples excitedly claimed that he had risen from the dead and there was a group of people eager to receive this new messiah-type—one who would save the Israelites on a more permanent, metaphysical plane. And voila! Now we have a new religion popping off from the fervent Judaism Jesus himself espoused. Jesus’s followers during his lifetime were uneducated peasants with limited resources; thus, “the task of defining Jesus’s message fell instead to a new crop of educated, urbanized, Greek-speaking Diaspora Jews who would become the primary vehicles of the expansion of the new faith. As these extraordinary men and women, many of them immersed in Greek philosophy and Hellenistic thought, began to reinterpret Jesus’s message so as to make it more palatable both to their fellow Greek-speaking Jews and to their gentile neighbors in the Diaspora, they gradually transformed Jesus from a revolutionary zealot to a Romanized demigod, from a man who tried and failed to free the Jews from Roman oppression to a celestial being wholly uninterested in any earthly matter” (Aslan, 171).
Overall, Aslan reveals how the true message of Jesus was transmuted over time, driven by historical impetuses. As the political climate shifted after Jesus’s death, his teachings were adapted to meet new needs in order to survive and wield influence. Jesus died in 30 C.E. Almost every gospel story was composed after the Jewish insurrection in 66 C.E. The Jews had reached a tipping point in tolerating tyranny when they successfully revolted. Two years later, in 68 C.E., the Romans regained control and they were not having it any longer. Radical nationalist sentiments like that of Jesus started to die out. If the Christians wanted to hold on to Jesus as their messiah, they had to temper his message and reinterpret his revolutionary zeal, or else Roman reprisal would have been swift and totalizing.
Accordingly, Aslan concludes that the New Testament we have now does not accurately historically reflect Jesus’s actual message. He says, “Paul’s portrayal of Jesus as Christ may sound familiar to contemporary Christians—it has since become the standard doctrine of the church—but it would have been downright bizarre to Jesus” (Aslan, 189). In a nutshell: what Paul propagated is a dissociation from the Jewish Cult that Jesus was apart of; what he propagated is not what Jesus himself propagated.
So, we have two bold claims made by Aslan. Claim 1: The historic Jesus is not the same guy as the Christian Jesus. Claim 2: Jesus himself would scorn the doctrine that filtered down from Paul’s interpretation. These are not wholly new claims. We’ve heard various versions of these notions before; however, it is arguably the first time that this assertion of New Testament deviation has weaseled its way into mainstream discourse. This book got a lot of attention, thanks to the help of a ridiculously misguided Fox News interview, and became a #1 New York Times bestseller. Though it is a book about a religious figure, it is known outside of religiously minded circles, which is impressive in its own right.
Reza Aslan, whose name cannot be uttered without immediately thinking of the giant lion from The Chronicles of Narnia, spent two decades researching for Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth*.
Yes, I made that myself. Yes, I actually tried hard. No, I don’t understand my new Mac at all. Yes, I should probably stop calling it my new Mac considering I’ve had it for 7 months. Regardless of lion-likeness, the fact that Aslan is well versed in the texts and fully qualified to speak on the historicity of Jesus is incontrovertible. But that does not mean that his interpretation is infallible. Just as scholars approach the Christian cannon skeptically, so should we approach Aslan’s book in a critical manner. For example, while he has over fifty pages in notes listed in the back to accompany his assertions, we must remember that there is not a whole lot of historical material from this time period that references Jesus in the first place. Of course, he tries his best with what he has, but there is always room for doubt. It is also difficult in some cases to glean whether or not he is relying on a widely held scholarly opinion. Lastly, though he was incredibly thorough in removing the theological overlay from each milestone in Jesus’s life (virgin birth, his desecration of the temple, his following of John the Baptist, his relationship with women, etc.), I was disappointed that so little was said about Judas Iscariot’s betrayal.
On to a buzzing question—can both believers and nonbelievers appreciate this book? I feel that regardless of religious background, this book can appeal to you as long as you are A) vaguely interested in religion, whether or not you adhere to a particular one or B) interested in the tumultuous history of a land that is a hotbed of religious fervor and political turmoil. His book is not an all out attack on Christianity; it simply says that the common claims about Jesus in the church today are ahistorical. He’s not trying to proselytize atheism by destroying Christianity; rather, he strives to embolden a historical perspective. Of course, there are glaring historical inaccuracies and outright cultural absurdities in the Bible that are acknowledged by both scholars and believers. But Aslan is not here to address faith itself. He lays all the facts on the table as he sees him, articulating who he understands Jesus to have been, and lets us do what we want with that information. If you want to add faith to the mix, add it. If you don’t want to, don’t. As I was reading, I thought about how Aslan’s claims of incompatibility between Jesus as a person and Jesus as the Christian Jesus don’t entirely alienate believers. Some might say that God intended and divinely guided this transformation; again, he leaves some wiggle room for faith. In fact, Aslan’s wife is a Christian and Aslan concludes at the end of the book 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” (Aslan, 216).
At the very least, this book serves as a reminder that we receive all religious doctrine through a highly selective filter that is shaped by the political/emotional/social context of the time period it was created in, as well as the subsequent generations it was passed down through. The canonized versions we experience and interact with now are the painstaking products of retrospective transpositions, redactions, etc. In order to truly examine the historicity of Jesus of Nazareth, we cannot take the gospels at their face value now, through the lens of a 21st century millennial. We have to go back to the root of his existence; we have to understand how his words/claims/actions would have been perceived by his fellow Jews and the Romans who occupied Jerusalem. We have to make educated guesses about why he presented himself in certain ways. Context is crucial. What might contemporarily read as a plea for peace could very well be a call to violent revolution in the age in which it was spoken.
Taking into account Aslan’s careful ability to both question and respect a religion that rules the lives of billions, as well as my personal interest in the subject matter, I give the book 4 out of 5 camel humps. The mark of good nonfiction is that it not only piques my interest and drives me to continue reading, but it also inspires me to dive even deeper and ask questions that require further study. Of course, my review has only given a general summary of Aslan’s thesis, and the specific texts that he meticulously picks apart are fascinating and worthy of a read.
*Aslan, Reza. Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth. New York: Random House, 2013. Print.
*martysoffice. “Fox Anchor Attacks Reza Aslan: Muslim Writing Book About Jesus Like ‘Democrat Writing About Reagan’”. Online video clip. Youtube. Youtube, 28 July 2013. Web. 6 May 2015.