Book Review: “Zealot” by Reza Aslan

Subtitled The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth, Aslan’s New York Times #1 Bestseller takes a purely secular look at the historical Jesus to draw the apparently uncontroversial conclusion that he was primarily a Jewish political agitator. Complete with exhaustive endnotes and a seemingly endless bibliography, Aslan shows he has studied the available literature in many languages — original source material in Greek and Aramaic as well as scholarly works in English and German. Because of its sometimes overly drawn out and mellifluous language, I don’t necessarily recommend reading Zealot unless the motivations of the historical Jesus in the context of his times and the evolution of his following is of particular interest to the reader. While not a novelization, the prose is both flowery and verbose, with chapters often repeating key facts probably with an eye to making them more independently consumable. Even so, the book is undeniably engaging and offers several profoundly interesting secular takeaways that help us to better understand how Jesus became the influential spiritual and religious figure he is seen as today. I offer a summary, or even a reorganization to taste, of the highlights.

The Politics of Ancient Palestine

Aslan spends much time at first explaining the political landscape of Palestine in the first century. He’s right to call it among the most politically volatile times of the ancient middle east. Jews had reigned autonomously in Judea for about 100 years before the Romans conquered it in 63 BCE, and even then, Rome allowed some measure of independence by appointing semi-autonomous High Priests and Procurators to administer local affairs. But things changed after the death of a particularly popular “client king”, Herod the Great, in 4 BCE, leading to a political reorganization that was deeply unpopular for many reasons. After that, violent resistance to Roman rule existed to varying degree largely without interruption until Jerusalem was completely destroyed in 70 CE following a months-long siege.

This is the environment that Jesus grew up in, and he was by far not the only person to claim the messianic mantle of Jewish liberator in those turbulent times. Many other so-called “failed messiahs” did obtain in those days: Simon of Peraea, Theudas, Vespasian, even a fellow known only as “the Egyptian.” Aslan asserts that more than anything else, Jesus had “zealous” tendencies and was interested in driving out the Roman occupation to establish the Kingdom of Heaven, a phrase borrowed from the prophet Daniel. Whether Jesus himself intended to bring this to pass is unclear from the historical record.

Render Unto Caesar? Caesar Will Render You

Aslan believes that one probably historical event should be the lens through which we interpret everything else we know or believe about Jesus: the time he drove the money changers from the Temple. Given the uneasy relationship between the Roman government and the semi-autonomous High Priests administering locally under that authority, such an assault on the Temple would very likely have been interpreted only one way by both the Jewish and Roman authorities: as a direct challenge not only to the priests, but to the primacy of Roman rule itself.

That claim is corroborated by what religious scholars have curiously relegated as a non-answer dodge in response to that Temple assault. Jesus is asked soon after the incident whether it is lawful to pay tribute to Rome, which Aslan identifies as clearly asking a political question about whether Jesus has zealous ambitions with regard to the Roman occupation. Aslan says that after Jesus asks whose image is on a Roman coin, he answers in the original Greek to “Give back to Caesar what is Caesar’s, and give back what is God’s to God.” This passage is often mistranslated as “render” in place of “give back” which avoids the obviously seditious flavour of the response: Jesus is saying that Caesar can keep his coin, but the holy land of Judea belongs to God and should be under the stewardship of His chosen people.

It is this event alone which explains why Jesus was crucified by Pilate. Jesus was otherwise just one enigmatic magician among many and who was religiously at odds with the Temple priests that he and others viewed as impure and avaricious. Crucifixion was done almost exclusively as a public deterrent against acts of sedition or other high crimes against the Roman government. While Roman citizens were generally spared crucifixion except in the most egregious cases, non-citizens were routinely executed in this way as examples to keep order. In fact, says Aslan, Pilate was particularly vicious, signing hundreds if not thousands of such orders in his ten years as Governor of Judea.

All this impacts some of the more celebrated details of the passion narratives. Almost certainly there was no hand-washing by a nervous Pilate wary of murdering the Son of God. Instead, if there was any trial at all, the only question would have been “Are you the King of the Jews?” to establish his seditious, anti-Roman sensibilities, and he would have been sent to hang without a second thought. Similarly, the famous “King of the Jews” titulus that was placed on Jesus’s cross was no sarcastic joke from the Jews ironically rejecting their messiah, but rather an aspect of the deterrent effect these public crucifixions were after. Rome itself was giving its conquered nations a clear message: if you claim yourself higher than Caesar, just look what we’ll do to you.

The Philosophy of Paul

Following Jesus’s death, his followers were left to pick up the pieces. In typical Jewish style respecting family ties, Jesus’s brother James became of the head of the movement in Jerusalem. James was nicknamed “the Just” in part because of his staunch adherence to the Law of Moses and in part due to his fierce advocacy for the poor, and he remained the head of the “mother assembly” in Jerusalem, which had authority over all diaspora congregations, for thirty more years.

Meanwhile, a former persecutor of the Jesus movement, Saul of Tarsus, allegedly saw Jesus appear to him shortly after his crucifixion and thereafter converted, renaming himself Paul. Whatever the motivations, which Aslan doesn’t well explain and appear to be confusing to most serious scholars, Paul’s views about Jesus were bizarre in the extreme. He believed Jesus to be the Son of God, something Jesus probably didn’t believe about himself; he rejected the Law of Moses as being irrelevant now that Jesus had come, something Jesus almost certainly didn’t believe and which caused great friction between the mother assembly and Paul’s so-called Hellenist Christians; he insisted that he was an apostle and spent a lot of time in his letters agonizing over it, though few of his own followers even agreed with him about it. Significantly, he believed that Jesus had been bodily resurrected and sloppily misinterpreted some cherrypicked Greek translations of the Old Testament to convince himself and others that this had been prophesied. But for Jews in Judea, that belief had little to no support in the scriptures and would have been met at best with raised eyebrows.

Frankly, Aslan makes Paul sound crazy and he probably shocked the more Jewish-law-observing Christians; it got so bad that Peter went around in Rome and elsewhere doing damage control with diaspora followers that Paul had infected with his strange views. In fact, some of Paul’s letters are about him writing back to those people urging them to reject Peter’s corrections, self-aggrandizingly begging them to imitate him. Finally he was summoned to meet with the mother assembly at Jerusalem, where at best he was made to submit in a humiliating ritual display to James’s authority, and at worst (according to some gnostic accounts) actually lost a physical fight to him!

Disgraced and later wrongly accused by the Romans of being another zealot, the aforementioned “Egyptian”, Paul went into house arrest in Rome where he wrote yet more letters. After another brief political upset and probably motivated by his advocacy for the poor, James was executed by the procurator Porcius Festus (an outrage over which he lost his position) in 62 CE. Peter and Paul were both executed not long thereafter, between 64 and 66, due to some combination of a general crackdown against Christians and the unique bloodlust of Nero. And then the mother assembly was scattered and Jerusalem utterly destroyed in the aforementioned siege of 70. The diaspora Christians were now largely left to their own devices in a vacuum of leadership, but now with many of James’s followers wiped out and a scattering of different letters all over the Mediterranean.

The Pivot from Judaism

Paul’s views, despite not catching on much with traditional Jews during his lifetime, were much more popular with Romans and other Gentiles. In particular, the pagan ideas of a virgin birth and a man who is literally also (a) God were much more appealing than a messianic embrace of the Law of Moses to audiences who largely viewed Jews as a troublesome pariah whose holy city and its Temple had just been razed by Roman armies. In this environment, claims Aslan, Jesus was slowly transformed from Jewish man to timeless God.

Two interesting facts of the New Testament is that none of the gospels were written before the destruction of Jerusalem and they were all probably written in Greek. There’s some disagreement about this, but Aslan puts the order of the gospels thus: Mark, Matthew and Luke at about the same time (but probably in that relative order), John. In support of this ordering are two compelling observations of the evolution of stories across the gospels which help us to understand the rise of Paul’s take on Jesus.

First, John the Baptist’s role in Jesus’s ministry diminishes with time. John had a major following that rivaled Jesus’s for a while after both their deaths. In all likelihood, Jesus studied with John and became a sort of right-hand man before spinning off his own movement. All the gospels have some notion of John rejecting the mantle of messiah, saying that one will come after him who is greater than he. Mark, the earliest gospel, reports the miraculous appearance of the holy spirit at Jesus’s baptism, though John doesn’t seem to notice or care about it; but Mark spends a long time later explaining John’s demise at the hands of (another) Herod in embellished detail. In Matthew, John pushes back when Jesus seeks a baptism, saying Jesus is the one who ought to be baptizing him, but that’s the last we hear about John from Matthew. Luke also has John pushing back at his own significance to the multitudes, but Luke goes one further and actually removes John as the baptizer; in the passive voice, “Jesus also being baptized” along with the people does have the holy spirit appear to praise him. Luke then rattles off a long and distracting genealogy of Jesus. The last gospel, John’s (obviously not the same John as the baptist), is the only one where the baptist explicitly cites Jesus as the greater one who would come after him. Though the actual baptism isn’t even recorded, John testifying about the holy spirit appearing is — the only gospel in which John mentions it. Later John further diminishes his own significance with relation to Jesus, saying “He must increase, and I must decrease.”

Second, Pilate’s involvement with Jesus’s crucifixion becomes embellished throughout the gospels. They all have Pilate asking the critical question: are you the king of the Jews? They all have Pilate offering one prisoner by popular choice to the multitude as a gift for Passover: hopefully Jesus because Pilate “knew” the chief priests wanted him dead out of envy; but instead it’s always Barabbas, a murderer. As noted earlier, Aslan says that probably neither of those things actually happened. But in Mark, Pilate doesn’t push back any more than to offer the Passover gift, releasing Barabbas “to content the people.” Matthew has Pilate’s wife asking him to spare Jesus because of a bad dream she had about the whole affair. Pilate asks the multitude what Jesus has done, but seeing that “he could prevail nothing, but rather that a tumult was made” then washed his hands of Jesus’s blood and released Barabbas to the mob. Instead of handwashing, Luke has Pilate emphatically and repeatedly assert before making a decision that Jesus is without fault before finally giving in after the third try. John is the most verbose, at first having Pilate try to return Jesus to the Jews — “judge him according to your law” — and John contrives a long form dialogue between Jesus and Pilate over the question of his status as king. In the other three gospels, Jesus simply answers “You say that I am,” but John’s Jesus has him deflect through parable about how his “kingdom is not of this world.” Pilate scourges Jesus but then still tries to save him, asking the mob “shall I crucify your king?” But “the Jews” answer back: “we have no king but Caesar.”

These evolutions are significant. The early Christians during and after Paul’s ministry, says Aslan, had a problem in John the Baptist. He was too well-known and well-followed to ignore, and the fact that Jesus had been baptized by John wasn’t plausibly deniable. But how could Jesus be the Son of God, the Messiah of Israel, and yet be subordinate at least initially to John? Similarly, it was understood among everyone throughout the Roman empire that crucifixion was the boastful punishment of a slave or traitor, and everyone knew that Jesus had been crucified. What appeal to diaspora Jews or Roman gentiles was there in a messianic peasant executed, like many others, for being an enemy of the state?

The Pauline solution was simple: undermine John; blend Jesus’s zealous Judiasm with Roman mysticism; blame Jesus’s crucifixion not on a Roman governor — who is reimagined to selflessly try to save him — but on the determined insistence of corrupt Jewish high priests and the peasants they manipulated. John even had “the Jews” committing the cardinal sin: claiming “no king but Caesar” violated not only Jesus’s “first and greatest commandment” but Moses’s First Commandment. Especially to hear John tell it, the Jews of Jerusalem clearly deserved what was coming to them in 70 CE. Aslan makes the interesting observation that this simple pivot, designed mainly just to get Gentiles (and some diaspora Jews) on the Jesus bandwagon, was the first major step toward creating an entirely new religion — something Jesus probably never imagined possible — and laid the seeds for two thousand years of anti-Semitism.

A Romanized Religion

Christianity flourished despite — or perhaps because of — continued Roman oppression punctuated by seasons of support. Despite sharp internal divisions among early Christians, Rome could hardly be blamed for having a hard time telling Jamesian Christianity from Pauline Christianity from Judaism. Paul’s flavour proved the winner, perhaps in part due to his own zeal for spreading it; and not only to Jews, unlike Jesus and James. Constantine issued the Edict of Milan in 313 CE which gave legal status to and codified benevolent treatment toward Christians under the law. This made space for the Council of Nicaea in 325 CE, which Aslan says was attended solely by Roman bishops and which prescribed among other things a universal doctrine to settle disagreements over whether Jesus was literally the Son of God. Significantly, Aslan’s final end note is worth reproduction in its entirety:

The community that continued to follow the teachings of James in the centuries after the destruction of Jerusalem referred to itself as Ebionites, or “the Poor,” in honor of James’s focus on the poor. The community may have been called the Ebionites even during James’s lifetime, as the term is found in the second chapter of James’s epistle. The Ebionites insisted on circumcision and sctrict adherence to the law. Well into the fourth century they viewed Jesus as just a man. They were one of the many heterodox communities which were marginalized and persecuted after the Council of Nicaea in 325 CE essentially made Pauline Christianity the orthodox religion of the Roman empire.

Throughout the fourth century, more “ecumenical” (or global) councils were held which eventually codified the New Testament. Only a single letter each was included from James and Jude, another brother of Jesus’s, and two of Peter’s letters were too. But 14 letters written by Paul or attributed to him were chosen, making Paul and his followers (of which Luke was one) by far the most well-represented. Aslan says that this merely reflected the consensus view that had arisen, but from it we can see how profoundly divorced from Judaism, as it was understood in Jesus’s time, the Christian movement had become. Gone were the zealous aspirations of restoring Israel, a distant land of little significance. A fundamentally new religion had been created and endorsed by Rome, and it was Christianity that would fill the vacuum of influence in Europe following the fall of empire.

Published 2013, 336 pages.

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