Zealot THE LIFE AND TIMES OF JESUS OF NAZARETH by Rena Aslan

Two thousand plus years and Jesus the man (revolutionary, rebel, bandit) and Jesus “The Son of Man” (The Jesus Christ of Christian believers, the son of God, sent to save mankind from eternal damnation, died on the cross for our sins than and now) live in a historical reality much as we do today.  Aslan delves into the historical Jesus Christ and the context of how and by whom the New Testament came to be.  Regardless of how you define Jesus Christ, both the man and the Jesus Christ our savior, challenged government and priestly authorities to stop abusing privilege and care for the poor, reform and create a just society that is reflected in the Sermon on the Mount. Do we believe in that message today?

The destruction of Jerasulem in 70 C.E. is marked by Aslan as the true birth of Christianity separating from Judaism and fully accepting Paul’s theological framework that sees the Torah and the rules of Judaism as a “ministry of death, chiseled in letters on a stone tablet” that must be superseded by a “ministry of the spirit come in glory.” (2 Cor 3: 7-8) Very strong words.  Indeed Christianity did rid itself of many rituals – but not of its theological roots and scripture of the Torah.

A key critism of this book is Aslam attributes authorship of Gospels to be penned after 70 A.D. whereas many scholars date Gospels “no later than 59 AD” which is only 29 years after Jesus’s death.  This is a major blow to Aslan’s carefully built assertion that Jesus was more a political rebel or revolutionary than Prophet and Divine son of God.  It is not affirmative who is right on timelines.  Here is another source:  http://catholic-resources.org/Bible/Four_Gospel_Chart.htm

The oral and written traditions that superseded the New Testament we have today, the influence Jewish Authorities, competing Messianic movements, and divisions within the Christian community had a profound impact on the narratives and literary devices used to capture the life of Jesus Christ.  Aslan takes a look at contrast between the earliest written gospel (Mark) versus gospels written later (Matthew, Mark, John, and Q sources) and other historical references that bring to light the distinctions between the historical Jesus and the theological Jesus that evolved over time by his apostles preaching the word and the word enventualky taking form under Emperor Constantine in 325 C.E.

Imagine if Christians did not blame the Jews for the Crucifiction, but the Romans? Perhaps two thousand years of antisemitism could have been avoided. The early Christians though, may have chosen to avoid that fight with the Romans.  Look where it got the Jews of Jerusalem in 70 C.E.

The relationships amongst the 3 original apostles (James, Peter, and John) and Paul (Saul, convert self-proclaimed apostle who had an a vision of Jesus Christ while encounter to persecute Christians) who never met Jesus Christ and outreached to gentiles and Jews a message quite different than the apostles (casting off Jewish law).  This is somewhat contentious as Aslan is basically saying Christianity represents Paul’s vision – not the thinking and vision of Jesus Christ the man.  He has a kernel of truth here.  Paul championed Christianity for gentiles and liberal Jews.  He was not preaching in the land of Jerusalem, the heart of Orthodox Judaism.

A major theme in Aslams book is how commonplace healers, magicians, and messiahs were in Jesus time.  He does note that Jesus was remarkably different in several ways – but his intent is a revisionist attempt to make Jesus more human.  I did find his information on other rebels and bandits fascinating:  

The Fourth Philosophy led by Judah’s the Galilian and later chef Hazekiah were famous bandits that espoused freeing Israel from foreign rule and serving no one but one God.  A legendary group named the Sicarri by the Romans (or daggerman) had a “penchant for small, easy to conceal daggers, called sicae, with which they assassinated the enemies of God (Romans or more likely wealthy priestly aristocracy who did Romes bidding).  In 56 C.E the Sicarri managed to kill the Jewish high priest in the temple, in broad day light, slit his throat with a dagger and slipped back into the crowd. Some depict the group as equivalent to modern day terrorist.  Murder justified under religious edict and fervor….or Zeal. There were many Jewish messiahs before and after Jesus Christ prophesying.  Other claimants of messiah included Simon of Perea, Athronges the Shepard, Menahem (also a Sicarri), Simon son of Giorgio,  and Theodas the wonder worker.  John the Baptist himself proclaimed a messianic message but did not claim himself a messiah.  Jesus refrained from calling himself messiah, he befuddled the Romans and Jews by using the term “the son of Man.”

Getting back to Jesus Christ, he did not accept money or titles.  He had a message and a direction that differed from previous messiahs.  The Beatitudes (Luke 6: 20 to 24) capture the messianic message of the day, a vision that promotes both an internal transformation of Judaism but also a promise of deliverance from sub-servience and foreign rule.  The evaluation of Jesus Christ on previous expected messiahs failed by measures of re-establishing Kingship or Kingship line, liberating the Jews from Roman rule, or bringing the end of days.  These three themes of messianic beliefs and preachers who espoused them were commonplace as were their deaths for threatening sedition from Rome as well as attacking the power of the priestly elite.

Jesus understood the risk of preaching any of the above and avoided naming himself the messiah.  He let others do that until the end.  The author refers this to the messianic secret, a strategy employed most likely by Jesus, to use  parables and ambiguity until the very end.  However, Jesus also knew, as countless messiahs and others who challenged Rome, were crucified at Golgotha.

In the end, I have to agree with the critics that Aslan has created a biography that leans towards historical imagination (some would say fiction) and personal beliefs.  Nonetheless the book was very enjoyable and the politics of the time bought to life.

The messy evolution of Christianity as a theology and its massive break from Jewish tradition in a time of great political turmoil invites believers, atheist, and skeptics to explore and express intriguing questions.  As Christianity today forwarns, beware of assertions made in this book.  

In fact, I say beware of anyone asserting their interpretation of the logos (or the eternal being, the Godhead, and all the other nomenclature we use as humans to capture the unknowable, unimaginable, existence of a supreme being) is right and yours is (fill in adjective).  If they have to sell or attack they are probably not in line with divinity.  A divine soul need not pretend to be divine or to sell – they just do.  They do not have to assure themselves or others nor deminish others beliefs.  Pure divine souls humbly attract believers to them by their actions and words of love, compassion, and mercy.

Christianity Today criticism of book captures a few errors and potential exaggerations.  Little provided on the substance of the historical and theological mix of the times:

http://www.christianitytoday.com/ct/2013/august-web-only/zealot-reza-aslan-tells-same-old-story-about-jesus.html?share=

The National Catholic Register also hammered it’s oversimplification, errors, and timelines.  It is a good idea to read what others write outside the bubble of your own political or religious perspective. It not only challenges and refines the “kool aid” you drink, but enables you to grasp why others may find your beliefs incredulous to the rationale eye!  

Rating:  9 of 10 for religious imagination and exploration.  6 if treated as historically or theologically accurate.

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