Saturday, September 14, 2013

Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth, by Reza Aslan

A friend recently posted a link to an Al-Jazeera interview session with Reza Aslan, conducted following what was said to have been a hostile, vitriolic interview with a CNN "journalist" who repeatedly demanded to know how or why a Muslim could possibly write a book about Jesus. Obviously, the simple notion that he is a scholar didn't occur to her. The calibre of the panel on Al-Jazeera, I'm sad to say, wasn't much higher though more civil.  I was very impressed, however, with the author, who calmly explained that he is Muslim simply because the "language" of Islam is the one that happens to work for him -- he sees all religions as roads to the same destination, not as destinations in and of themselves. To which I reply, Hallelujah!

Probably driven by the media furor, Zealot has ascended (sorry, can't help myself) to the top of the New York Times best-seller list.  Having now read it, I'm willing to bet that it's one of the most-bought-and-least-read books since Umberto Eco's Foucault's Pendulum.  Aslan is an academic. Though rich with drama and written for a broader audience, this book is a history text. Readers with faith-fuelled agendas or grudges will come away thwarted. Those who are in search of new information about the historical Jesus will also realise that there is none.  There is very little in the historical record about the man, and the gospels -- whether canonical or otherwise -- are documents of faith, not of fact. (More on that shortly.)  As for me, Zealot drove me to look at both Jesus and the gospels yet again in the context of 1st-century Palestine -- and both looked different in that historic setting.

The young Reza Aslan migrated with his family to the US from Iran. He opens the book with a very personal account of his relationships with religion. Still a boy, he passionately embraced Christianity and then, as so many of us did, angrily rejected it when too many aspects conflicted with reason. Eventually, he chose Islam as his own vehicle of faith, but he never lost his passion for Jesus of Nazareth -- Jesus the Zealot, the rebel, before he became known, posthumously, to his followers as Jesus the Christ.
Like most people born into a religious tradition, my faith was as familiar to me as my skin, and just as disregardable...
I began eagerly to share the good news of Jesus Christ with my friends and family, my neighbors and classmates, with people I'd just met and with strangers on the street: those who heard it gladly, and those who threw it back in my face. Yet something unexpected happened in my quest to save the souls of the world. The more I probed the Bible to arm myself against the doubts of unbelievers, the more distance I discovered between the Jesus of the gospels and the Jesus of history -- between Jesus the Christ and Jesus of Nazareth.
The sudden realization that this belief is patently and irrefutably false, that the Bible is replete with the most blatant and obvious errors and contradictions -- just as one would expect from a document written by hundreds of hands across thousands of years -- left me confused and spiritually unmoored. And so, like many people in my situation, I angrily discarded my faith as if it were a costly forgery I had been duped into buying... 
Ironically, the more I learned about the life of the historical Jesus, the turbulent world in which he lived, and the brutality of the Roman occupation that he defied, the more I was drawn to him. Indeed, the Jewish peasant and revolutionary who challenged the rule of the most powerful empire the world had ever known and lost became so much more real to me than the detached, unearthly being I had been introduced to in church...  Today, I can confidently say that two decades of rigorous academic research into the origins of Christianity has made me a more genuinely committed disciple of Jesus of Nazareth than I ever was of Jesus Christ.
The problem for any scholar of the historical Jesus is, of course, the paucity of documents.  The epistles and gospels, whether canonical or Gnostic, possibly relate a few actual events, but they were never intended as a record of  facts. In fact, Aslan notes, the idea would have struck the writers as foreign.
This is an extremely difficult matter for modern readers of the gospels to grasp, but Luke never meant for his story about Jesus's birth at Bethlehem to be understood as historical fact. Luke would have had no idea what we in the modern world even mean when we say the word "history." The notion of history as a critical analysis of observable and verifiable events in the past is a product of the modern age; it would have been an altogether foreign concept to the gospel writers for whom history was not a matter of uncovering facts, but of revealing truths...
...The first written testimony we have about Jesus of Nazareth comes from the epistles of Paul, an early follower of Jesus who died sometime around 66 C.E. (Paul's first epistle, 1 Thessalonians, can be dated between 48 and 50 C.E., some two decades after Jesus's death.) The trouble with Paul, however, is that he displays an extraordinary lack of interest in the historical Jesus... Paul may be an excellent source for those interested in the early formation of Christianity, but he is a poor guide for uncovering the historical Jesus.
...the gospels are not, nor were they ever meant to be, a historical documentation of Jesus's life. These are not eyewitness accounts of Jesus's words and deeds recorded by people who knew him. They are testimonies of faith composed by communities of faith and written many years after the events they describe. Simply put, the gospels tell us about Jesus the Christ, not Jesus the man.
The earliest of the four canonical gospels, Mark, was written about 40 years after Jesus' crucifixion. It contains the least "supernatural" material, which evidently frustrated the earliest Christians.
Even the earliest Christians were left wanting by Mark's brusque account of Jesus's life and ministry, and so it was left to Mark's successors, Matthew and Luke, to improve upon the original text. Two decades after Mark, between 90 and 100 C.E., the authors of Matthew and Luke, working independently of each other and with Mark's manuscript as a template, updated the gospel story by adding their own unique traditions, including two different and conflicting infancy narratives as well as a series of elaborate resurrection stories to satisfy their Christian readers. Matthew and Luke also relied on what must have been an early and fairly well distributed collection of Jesus' sayings that scholars have termed Q (German Quelle, or "source"). Although we no longer have any physical copies of this document, we can infer its contents by compiling those verses that Matthew and Luke share in common but that do not appear in Mark.
 ...In the end, there are only two hard historical facts about Jesus of Nazareth upon which we can confidently rely: the first is that Jesus was a Jew who led a popular Jewish movement in Palestine at the beginning of the first century C.E.; the second is that Rome crucified him for doing so.  
Essential to any understanding of Jesus is grasping the fact that he was a Jew living under Roman occupation. Words like zealot, revolutionary, rebel and seditious gadfly are unavoidable.
The notion that the leader of a popular messianic movement calling for the imposition of the"Kingdom of God" -- a term that would have been understood by Jew and gentile alike as implying revolt against Rome --could have remained uninvolved in the revolutionary fervor that had gripped nearly every Jew in Judea is simply ridiculous.
The gospel images of Jesus as a Gandhi-esque pacifist are either incomplete or completely inaccurate. Why this softened profile? The Romans retaliated for the Jewish rebellion (which finally came about decades after Jesus' crucifixion) with devastating violence. The few Jews who survived it were no longer inclined to think fondly of the zealots who had driven the revolt.
Why would the gospel writers go to such lengths to temper the revolutionary nature of Jesus's message and movement? To answer this question we must first recognize that almost every gospel story written about the life and mission of Jesus of Nazareth was composed after the Jewish rebellion against Rome in 66 C.E. In that year, a band of Jewish rebels, spurred by their zeal for God, roused their fellow Jews in revolt. Miraculously, the rebels managed to liberate the Holy Land from the Roman occupation. For four glorious years, the city of God was once again under Jewish control. Then, in 70 C.E., the Romans returned. After a brief siege of Jerusalem, the soldiers breached the city walls and unleashed an orgy of violence upon its residents. They butchered everyone in their path, heaping corpses on the Temple Mount. A river of blood flowed down the cobblestone streets. When the massacre was complete, the soldiers set fire to the Temple of God. The fires spread beyond the Temple Mount, engulfing Jerusalem's meadows, the farms, the olive trees. Everything burned. So complete was the devastation wrought upon the holy city that Josephus writes there was nothing left to prove Jerusalem had ever been inhabited. Tens of thousands of Jews were slaughtered. The rest were marched out of the city in chains. The spiritual trauma faced by the Jews in the wake of that catastrophic event is hard to imagine. Exiled from the land promised them by God, forced to live as outcasts among the pagans of the Roman Empire, the rabbis of the second century gradually and deliberately divorced Judaism from the radical messianic nationalism that had launched the ill-fated war with Rome.
Moreover, the early Christians were now on missions to convert gentiles across the Roman world, and it was helpful to have a message (and a Jesus) who was more palatable to the Romans.
The Christians, too, felt the need to distance themselves from the revolutionary zeal that had led to the sacking of Jerusalem, not only because it allowed the early church to ward off the wrath of a deeply vengeful Rome, but also because, with the Jewish religion having become pariah, the Romans had become the primary target of the church's evangelism.  
...Thus began the long process of transforming Jesus from a revolutionary Jewish nationalist into a peaceful spiritual leader with no interest in any earthly matter. That was a Jesus the Romans could accept, and in fact did accept three centuries later when the Roman emperor Flavius Theodosius (d. 395) made the itinerant Jewish preacher's movement the official religion of the state, and what we now recognize as orthodox Christianity was born.
... The common depiction of Jesus as an inveterate peacemaker who "loved his enemies" and "turned the other cheek" has been built mostly on his portrayal as an apolitical preacher with no interest in or, for that matter, knowledge of the politically turbulent world in which he lived. That picture of Jesus has already been shown to be a complete fabrication. The Jesus of history had a far more complex attitude toward violence. There is no evidence that Jesus himself openly advocated violent actions. But he was certainly no pacifist. 
Aslan repeatedly reminds us that Jesus was a Jew, and to grasp his mindset, we must examine the culture in which he lived, including the central place the Temple occupied in the society -- only then can we see the relevance of Jesus' rage when he wrought havoc there, in one of the final acts of defiance before his arrest.
Unlike their heathen neighbors, the Jews do not have a multiplicity of temples scattered across the land. There is only one cultic center, one unique source for the divine presence, one singular place and no other where a Jew can commune with the living God. Judea is, for all intents and purposes, a temple-state. The very term 'theocracy' was coined specifically to describe Jerusalem.
The Temple, and its exclusive (and often corrupt) clique of high priests, had become puppets of the Romans, which infuriated the Jews who felt that the sanctity of the Temple was compromised -- it was becoming something that belonged more to Caesar, less to God.
If the Romans wanted to control the Jews, they had to control the Temple. And if they wanted to control the Temple, they had to control the high priest, which is why, soon after taking control over Judea, Rome took upon itself the responsibility of appointing and deposing (either directly or indirectly) the high priest, essentially transforming him into a Roman employee. Rome even kept custody of the high priest's sacred garments, handing them out only on the sacred festivals and feast days and confiscating them immediately after the ceremonies were complete.
Looking at the atmosphere in Judea at the time of Jesus is illuminating. The gospels, all written at least 40 years after Jesus' death circa 33 CE, give us little historical fact about the life of Jesus, but I always find it interesting to learn more about why they contain what they do.  Mark, the earliest of the gospels, opens with Jesus' baptism by John the Baptist -- there is no birth narrative. Matthew and Luke, the next two gospels, do include birth narratives, but they conflict in several regards. Each evangelist took different steps to make the point that this child was in fact the Messiah whose coming had been prophesied.
Matthew has Jesus flee to Egypt to escape Herod's massacre not because it happened, but because it fulfills the words of the prophet Hosea: "Out of Egypt I have called my son" (Hosea 11:1). The story is not meant to reveal any fact about Jesus; it is meant to reveal this truth: that Jesus is the new Moses, who survived Pharaoh's massacre of the Israelites'sons, and emerged from Egypt with a new law from God (Exodus 1:22).
...Luke places Jesus's birth in Bethlehem not because it took place there, but because of the words of the prophet Micah: "And you Bethlehem -- from you shall come to me a ruler in Israel" (Micah 5:2). Luke means that Jesus is the new David, the King of the Jews, placed on God's throne to rule over the Promised Land. Simply put, the infancy narratives in the gospels are not historical accounts, nor were they meant to be read as such. They are theological affirmations of Jesus's status as the anointed of God. The descendant of King David. The promised messiah.
One of the points that Aslan hammers repeatedly is that Jesus of Nazareth was a peasant from a small, backwater village, and almost certainly illiterate. That he had as much impact as he did is remarkable, but the gospels again inflate his status.
Whatever languages Jesus may have spoken, there is no reason to think he could read or write in any of them, not even Aramaic. Luke's account of the twelve-year-old Jesus standing in the Temple of Jerusalem debating the finer points of the Hebrew Scriptures with rabbis and scribes (Luke 2:42-52), or his narrative of Jesus at the (nonexistent) synagogue in Nazareth reading from the Isaiah scroll to the astonishment of the Pharisees (Luke 4:16-22), are both fabulous concoctions of the evangelist's own devising. Jesus would not have had access to the kind of formal education necessary to make Luke's account even remotely credible.
...After Jesus was declared messiah, the only aspects of his infancy and childhood that did matter were those that could be creatively imagined to buttress whatever theological claim one was trying to make about Jesus's identity as Christ.
Jesus isn't the only one to get a make-over in the gospels. Pilate is whitewashed to look like a reluctant participant in Jesus' crucifixion (this once again making the new sect more appealing to would-be Roman converts).  The historical record suggests that Pilate and Jewish high priest Caiaphas collaborated to keep the peace in Jerusalem and would have been equally motivated to dispose of seditious rabble-rousers.
The gospels present Pilate as a righteous yet weak-willed man so overcome with doubt about putting Jesus of Nazareth to death that he does everything in his power to save his life, finally washing his hands of the entire episode when the Jews demand his blood. That is pure fiction. What Pilate was best known for was his extreme depravity, his total disregard for Jewish law and tradition, and his barely concealed aversion to the Jewish nation as a whole. During his tenure in Jerusalem he so eagerly, and without trial, sent thousands upon thousands of Jews to the cross that the people of Jerusalem felt obliged to lodge a formal complaint with the Roman emperor.
...But whereas Gratus appointed and dismissed five different high priests in his time as governor, throughout Pilate's decade-long tenure in Jerusalem, he had only one high priest to contend with: Joseph Caiaphas. Part of the reason Caiaphas was able to hold the position of high priest for an unprecedented eighteen years was because of the close relationship he ended up forging with Pontius Pilate. The two men worked well together. The period of their combined rule, from 18 C.E. to 36 C.E., coincided with the most stable period in the entire first century. Together they managed to keep a lid on the revolutionary impulse of the Jews by dealing ruthlessly with any hint of political disturbance, no matter how small.
Thus, Jesus' tantrum in the temple -- raging against the money-lenders and other vendors within -- was an insufferable act of rebellion in the eyes of the Roman occupiers and the priests who were colluding with them.
After all, an attack on the business of the Temple is akin to an attack on the priestly nobility, which, considering the Temple's tangled relationship with Rome, is tantamount to an attack on Rome itself. ... But look closely at Jesus's words and actions at the Temple in Jerusalem -- the episode that undoubtedly precipitated his arrest and execution -- and this one fact becomes difficult to deny: Jesus was crucified by Rome because his messianic aspirations threatened the occupation of Palestine, and his zealotry endangered the Temple authorities. That singular fact should color everything we read in the gospels about the messiah known as Jesus of Nazareth.
... Like his zealous predecessors, Jesus was less concerned with the pagan empire occupying Palestine than he was with the Jewish imposter occupying God's Temple. Both would come to view Jesus as a threat, and both would seek his death. But there can be no doubt that Jesus's main antagonist in the gospels is neither the distant emperor in Rome nor his heathen officials in Judea. It is the high priest Caiaphas, who will become the main instigator of the plot to execute Jesus precisely because of the threat he posed to the Temple's authority.  
And what of John the Baptist? Aslan concludes that he was a highly popular and respected preacher preceding Jesus, who probably indeed began as one of John's disciples. Their blood relationship as related in Luke's gospel is fictional, as is the tale of Salome demanding the Baptist's head. I write that with a pang, as Mary's visitation to her cousin Elizabeth -- prompting the Magnificat -- and Herod Antipas presenting the bloody prize to his wife and step-daughter on a platter are two of my most cherished New Testament scenes.  (I did, however, climb up to the ruins of Machaerus in Jordan in 2005, which is the fortress in which scholars believe John was in fact executed, with or without Salome's connivance. It's a haunting spot.)
John's warning of the coming wrath of God might not have been new or unique in first-century Palestine, but the hope he offered those who cleansed themselves, who made themselves anew and pursued the path of righteousness, had enormous appeal. John promised the Jews who came to him a new world order, the Kingdom of God. And while he never developed the concept beyond a vague notion of equality and justice, the promise itself was enough in those dark, turbulent times to draw to him a wave of Jews from all walks of life -- the rich and the poor, the mighty and the weak. Antipas was right to fear John; even his own soldiers were flocking to him. He therefore seized John, charged him with sedition, and sent him to the fortress of Machaerus, where the Baptist was quietly put to death sometime between 28 and 30 C.E.
Despite his fame, however, no one seems to have known then -- just as no one knows now -- who, exactly, John the Baptist was or where he had come from. ... If John's baptism was for the forgiveness of sins, as Mark claims, then Jesus's acceptance of it indicated a need to be cleansed of his sins by John. If John's baptism was an initiation rite, as Josephus suggests, then clearly Jesus was being admitted into John's movement as just another one of his disciples. This was precisely the claim made by John's followers, who, long after both men had been executed, refused to be absorbed into the Jesus movement because they argued that their master, John, was greater than Jesus. After all, who baptized whom?
Reza Aslan doesn't quail about referring to Jesus as a miracle-worker, as it was a well-recognised occupation at the time. He also makes plain that this was in direct contrast to the Temple priests, who would not touch the diseased or crippled for fear of contamination and who demanded fees for those they would attempt to heal. This, Jesus' story of the Good Samaritan suggests, is the ultimate hypocrisy, the supreme disregard for the law to love they neighbour as theyself.
In first-century Palestine, professional wonder worker was a vocation as well established as that of woodworker or mason, and far better paid. ... Yet from the perspective of the Galileans, what set Jesus apart from his fellow exorcists and healers is that he seemed to be providing his services free of charge.
How one in the modern world views Jesus's miraculous actions is irrelevant. All that can be known is how the people of his time viewed them. And therein lies the historical evidence. For while debates raged within the early church over who Jesus was -- a rabbi? the messiah? God incarnate? -- there was never any debate, either among his followers or his detractors, about his role as an exorcist and miracle worker.
The very purpose of designing the Temple of Jerusalem as a series of ever more restrictive ingressions was to maintain the priestly monopoly over who can and cannot come into the presence of God and to what degree. ... With every leper cleansed, every paralytic healed, every demon cast out, Jesus was not only challenging that priestly code, he was invalidating the very purpose of the priesthood.
Much as the gospels would have us believe that Jesus was preaching universal truths to all humanity, Aslan reminds us of the difference between Jesus of Nazareth and Jesus the Christ -- the man cannot be removed from his historical context or social environment. The man was a Jewish revolutionary.
After the Jewish Revolt and the destruction of Jerusalem, the early Christian church tried desperately to distance Jesus from the zealous nationalism that had led to that awful war. As a result, statements such as "love your enemies" and "turn the other cheek" were deliberately cleansed of their Jewish context and transformed into abstract ethical principles that all peoples could abide regardless of their ethnic, cultural, or religious persuasions. Yet if one wants to uncover what Jesus himself truly believed, one must never lose sight of this fundamental fact: Jesus of Nazareth was first and finally a Jew.
He insisted that his mission was "solely to the lost sheep of the house of Israel" (Matthew 15:24) and commanded his disciples to share the good news with none but their fellow Jews: "Go nowhere near the gentiles and do not enter the city of the Samaritans" (Matthew 10:5-6).
To the Israelites, as well as to Jesus's community in first-century Palestine, "neighbor" meant one's fellow Jews. With regard to the treatment of foreigners and outsiders, oppressors and occupiers, however, the Torah could not be clearer: "You shall drive them out before you. You shall make no covenant with them and their gods. They shall not live in your land." (Exodus 23:31-33).
If Christ is divine, then he stands above any particular law or custom. But for those seeking the simple Jewish peasant and charismatic preacher who lived in Palestine two thousand years ago, there is nothing more important than this one undeniable truth: the same God whom the Bible calls "a man of war" (Exodus 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 (Isaiah 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 (Psalms 68:21-23) -- that is the only God that Jesus knew and the sole God he worshipped.
The Jews of 1st-century Palestine were waiting for a Messiah to liberate them from the occupation du jour. Jesus proved to be an illiterate peasant who was executed in the most disgraceful fashion for sedition. This hardly met anyone's idea of a saviour.
The problem for the early church is that Jesus did not fit any of the messianic paradigms offered in the Hebrew Bible, nor did he fulfill a single requirement expected of the messiah. Jesus spoke about the end of days, but it did not come to pass, not even after the Romans destroyed Jerusalem and defiled God's Temple. He promised that God would liberate the Jews from bondage, but God did no such thing. He vowed that the twelve tribes of Israel would be reconstituted and the nation restored; instead, the Romans expropriated the Promised Land, slaughtered its inhabitants, and exiled the survivors. The Kingdom of God that Jesus predicted never arrived; the new world order he described never took shape. According to the standards of the Jewish cult and the Hebrew Scriptures, Jesus was as successful in his messianic aspirations as any of the other would-be messiahs.
...Regardless of how Jesus viewed himself, the fact remains that he was never able to establish the Kingdom of God. The choice for the early church was clear: either Jesus was just another failed messiah, or what the Jews of Jesus's time expected of the messiah was wrong and had to be adjusted. For those who fell into the latter camp, the apocalyptic imagery of 1 Enoch and 4 Ezra, both written long after Jesus's death, paved a way forward, allowing the early church to replace Jesus's understanding of himself as king and messiah with a new, post-Jewish Revolt paradigm of the messiah as a preexistent, predetermined, heavenly, and divine Son of Man, one whose"kingdom" was not of this world.
As the early Christians began to spread the word, they found the few surviving Jews in Palestine (following the Roman siege which ended the Jewish rebellion)  rather more receptive to the message than they had been earlier.
With the Temple in ruins and the Jewish religion made pariah, the Jews who followed Jesus as messiah had an easy decision to make: they could either maintain their cultic connections to their parent religion and thus share in Rome's enmity (Rome's enmity toward Christians would peak much later), or they could divorce themselves from Judaism and transform their messiah from a fierce Jewish nationalist into a pacifistic preacher of good works whose kingdom was not of this world.
As mentioned before, some pointed editing to shift blame away from Pilate made the gospel an easier sell in Rome.
...the Roman intellectual elite had become the primary target of Christian evangelism. Reaching out to this particular audience required a bit of creativity on the part of the evangelists. Not only did all traces of revolutionary zeal have to be removed from the life of Jesus, the Romans had to be completely absolved of any responsibility for Jesus's death. It was the Jews who killed the messiah. The Romans were unwitting pawns of the high priest Caiaphas, who desperately wanted to murder Jesus but who did not have the legal means to do so. The high priest duped the Roman governor Pontius Pilate into carrying out a tragic miscarriage of justice. Poor Pilate tried everything he could to save Jesus. But the Jews cried out for blood, leaving Pilate no choice but to give in to them, to hand Jesus over to be crucified. Indeed, the farther each gospel gets from 70 C.E. and the destruction of Jerusalem, the more detached and outlandish Pilate's role in Jesus's death becomes.
As with everything else in the gospels, the story of Jesus's arrest, trial, and execution was written for one reason and one reason only: to prove that he was the promised messiah. Factual accuracy was irrelevant. What mattered was Christology, not history. [italics mine]
It may be true that, centuries after Jesus's death, Christians would interpret these verses in such a way as to help make sense of their messiah's failure to accomplish any of the messianic tasks expected of him. But the Jews of Jesus's time had no conception whatsoever of a messiah who suffers and dies. They were awaiting a messiah who triumphs and lives.
One of the early Christians, Stephen, was stoned to death outside Jerusalem for his outrageous statement that Jesus was a divine being. This is a significant moment, says Aslan, in the history of Jesus -- it is perhaps the transitional instant between Jesus of Nazareth and Jesus the Christ.
The Son of Man, in Stephen's vision, is a preexistent, heavenly being whose kingdom is not of this world; who stands at the right hand of God, equal in glory and honor; who is, in form and substance, God made flesh. That is all it takes for the stones to start flying. Understand that there can be no greater blasphemy for a Jew than what Stephen suggests. The claim that an individual died and rose again into eternal life may have been unprecedented in Judaism. But the presumption of a "god-man" was simply anathema.
One can say that it was not only Stephen who died that day outside the gates of Jerusalem. Buried with him under the rubble of stones is the last trace of the historical person known as Jesus of Nazareth.
The story of the zealous Galilean peasant and Jewish nationalist who donned the mantle of messiah and launched a foolhardy rebellion against the corrupt Temple priesthood and the vicious Roman occupation comes to an abrupt end, not with his death on the cross, nor with the empty tomb, but at the first moment one of his followers dares suggest he is God. Stephen was martyred sometime between 33 and 35 C.E. Among those in the crowd who countenanced his stoning was a pious young Pharisee from a wealthy Roman city on the Mediterranean Sea called Tarsus. His name was Saul, and he was a true zealot...
A true zealot, who also, it must be said, reads like an obsessive megalomaniac, insisting that although others had known Jesus personally, he was in direct communication with Jesus spiritually. What followed -- sometimes played out in various epistles from the warring factions -- was a battle between Peter, James and the disciples and Paul, both sides claiming they were preaching as Jesus would have wished. Paul proved the more zealous in the long run.
Paul holds particular contempt for the Jerusalem-based triumvirate of James, Peter, and John, whom he derides as the "so-called pillars of the church". "Whatever they are makes no difference to me, " he writes. "those leaders contributed nothing to me." The apostles may have walked and talked with the living Jesus (or, as Paul dismissively calls him, "Jesus-in-the-flesh"). But Paul walks and talks with the divine Jesus: they have, according to Paul, conversations in which Jesus imparts secret instructions intended solely for his ears.
Those who did know Jesus -- those who followed him into Jerusalem as its king and helped him cleanse the Temple in God's name, who were there when he was arrested and who watched him die a lonely death -- played a surprisingly small role in defining the movement Jesus left behind. The members of Jesus's family, and especially his brother James, who would lead the community in Jesus's absence, were certainly influential in the decades after the crucifixion. But they were hampered by their decision to remain more or less ensconced in Jerusalem waiting for Jesus to return, until they and their community, like nearly everyone else in the holy city, were annihilated by Titus's army in 70 C.E. The apostles who were tasked by Jesus to spread his message did leave Jerusalem and fan out across the land bearing the good news. But they were severely limited by their inability to theologically expound on the new faith or compose instructive narratives about the life and death of Jesus. These were farmers and fishermen, after all; they could neither read nor write.
... [that] fell instead to a new crop of educated, urbanized, Greek-speaking Diaspora Jews who would become the primary vehicles for 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.
The discord between the two groups resulted in the emergence of two distinct and competing camps of Christian interpretation in the decades after the crucifixion: one championed by Jesus's brother, James; the other promoted by the former Pharisee, Paul. As we shall see, it would be the contest between these two bitter and openly hostile adversaries that, more than anything else, would shape Christianity as the global religion we know today.
The issue of the resurrection is of course a challenging one, for the historian as well as many theologians. Aslan (and most other New Testament scholars) return to the problem of Jesus as a "failed" messiah, which his followers chose to address by proclaiming his resurrection.
The disciples faced a profound test of their faith after Jesus's death. The crucifixion marked the end of their dream of overturning the existing system, of reconstituting the twelve tribes of Israel and ruling over them in God's name. The Kingdom of God would not be established on earth, as Jesus had promised. The meek and the poor would not exchange places with the rich and the powerful. The Roman occupation would not be overthrown. As with the followers of every other messiah the empire had killed, there was nothing left for Jesus's disciples to do but abandon their cause, renounce their revolutionary activities, and return to their farms and villages. Then something extraordinary happened. What exactly that something was is impossible to know. Jesus's resurrection is an exceedingly difficult topic for the historian to discuss, not least because it falls beyond the scope of any examination of the historical Jesus.
People seized it fiercely as truth, whether or not a matter of historical fact.
However, there is this nagging fact to consider: one after another of those who claimed to have witnessed the risen Jesus went to their own gruesome deaths refusing to recant their testimony. That is not, in itself, unusual. Many zealous Jews died horribly for refusing to deny their beliefs. But these first followers of Jesus were not being asked to reject matters of faith based on events that took place centuries, if not millennia, before. They were being asked to deny something they themselves personally, directly encountered.
They were beaten, whipped, stoned, and crucified, yet they would not cease proclaiming the risen Jesus. And it worked! Perhaps the most obvious reason not to dismiss the disciples' resurrection experiences out of hand is that, among all the other failed messiahs who came before and after him, Jesus alone is still called messiah. It was precisely the fervor with which the followers of Jesus believed in his resurrection that transformed this tiny Jewish sect into the largest religion in the world.
The gospels said the resurrection fulfilled Old Testament prophecies, but those prophecies seem to have disappeared.
"Thus it is written that the messiah would suffer and rise again on the third day," Jesus instructs his disciples (Luke 24:44-46). Except that nowhere is any such thing written: not in the Law of Moses, not in the prophets, not in the Psalms. In the entire history of Jewish thought there is not a single line of scripture that says the messiah is to suffer, die, and rise again on the third day, which may explain why Jesus does not bother to cite any scripture to back up his incredible claim.
Aslan returns to the rift between Paul and the Jerusalem-based apostles. Paul insists that Jesus marks a clear and necessary departure from Judaism; the others staunchly disagree, as the historical Jesus himself most likely would have.
[Paul] calls his fellow believers who continue to practice circumcision -- the quintessential mark of the nation of Israel -- "dogs and evildoers" who "mutilate the flesh" (Philippians 3:2). These are startling statements for a former Pharisee to make. But for Paul they reflect the truth about Jesus that he feels he alone recognizes, which is that "Christ is the end of the Torah" (Romans 10:4).
...That is not to say that James and the apostles were uninterested in reaching out to gentiles, or that they believed gentiles could not join their movement. As indicated by his decision at the Apostolic Council, James was willing to forgo the practice of circumcision and other "burdens of the law" for gentile converts. James did not want to force gentiles to first become Jews before they were allowed to become Christians. He merely insisted that they not divorce themselves entirely from Judaism, that they maintain a measure of fidelity to the beliefs and practices of the very man they claimed to be following (Acts 15:12-21). Otherwise, the movement risked becoming a wholly new religion, and that is something neither James nor his brother Jesus would have imagined. 
Jesus may have disagreed with the scribes and scholars over the correct interpretation of the law, particularly when it came to such matters as the prohibition against working on the Sabbath. But he never rejected the law. On the contrary, Jesus warned that "whoever breaks one of the least of these commandments and teaches others to do so, will be called least in the kingdom of heaven" (Matthew 5:19).
...One would think that Jesus's admonishment not to teach others to break the Law of Moses would have had some impact on Paul. But Paul seems totally unconcerned with anything "Jesus-in-the-flesh" may or may not have said. In fact, Paul shows no interest at all in the historical Jesus.
...Why does Paul go to such lengths not only to break free from the authority of the leaders in Jerusalem, but to denigrate and dismiss them as irrelevant or worse? Because Paul's views about Jesus are so extreme, so beyond the pale of acceptable Jewish thought, that only by claiming that they come directly from Jesus himself could he possibly get away with preaching them.
There was a council in Jerusalem in which Paul met with James, Peter, et al to discuss matters, but both sides gave different accounts of the result. Ultimately, Paul remained unchastened and continued to preach his own Christology. Was he mad, egomaniacal, both, neither? The battle resumed.
...almost immediately after Paul left Jerusalem, James began sending his own missionaries to Paul's congregations in Galatia, Corinth, Philippi, and most other places where Paul had built a following, in order to correct Paul's unorthodox teachings about Jesus.
Nevertheless, James's delegations seem to have had an impact, for Paul repeatedly lambastes his congregations for abandoning him: "I am amazed at how quickly you have deserted the one who called you" (Galatians 1:6). He implores his followers not to listen to these delegations, or to anyone else for that matter, but only to him.
Even if that gospel comes "from an angel in heaven," Paul writes, his congregations should ignore it (Galatians 1:8). Instead, they should obey Paul and only Paul: "Be imitators of me, as I am of Christ" (1 Corinthians 11:1).
Making less headway than he might have wished with his campaign to convince Jews to renounce their customs and law -- especially the Hellenised diaspora Jews -- Paul turned his evangelical fervour toward the gentiles.
But according to Acts, the Hellenists in Rome reacted so negatively to Paul's preaching that he decided to cut himself off once and for all from his fellow Jews "who listen but never understand -- who look but never perceive." Paul vowed from that moment on to preach to none but the gentiles, "for they will listen" (Acts 28:26-29).
Jesus's brother, James, was identified by a number of texts including Josephus' histories and the non-canonical Gospel of Thomas, as being the man appointed by Jesus to lead the movement after his own death. Furthermore, James was known by the moniker James the Just. So what happened? Theological exigencies struck again.
Why then has James been almost wholly excised from the New Testament and his role in the early church displaced by Peter and Paul in the imaginations of most modern Christians?
James's identity as Jesus's brother became an obstacle to those who advocated the perpetual virginity of his mother Mary.
This has turned into what is possibly my longest post on Bookface, which reflects the thought and conflict Zealot provoked. It widened the gulf between Jesus of Nazareth and Jesus the Christ, the latter being largely the product of human editing in response to the political and theological realities of the times. Jesus of Nazareth was a Jew, preaching to and for Jews -- the Kingdom of God that he promoted was a Judea free of gentile occupation, in which the Jews could finally be ruled by their God and live under His law. The message has since been modified, or generalised or extrapolated to have universal significance. That's not to say that the Christian message is a bad one, but it is certainly not what Jesus of Nazareth had in mind. When we exalt Jesus the Christ, are we venerating nothing more than a phantom, a construction of Paul's fervour? I'm likely to wrestle with these ideas for the rest of my life, but I'm thankful to Reza Aslan for his contributions to the process.

1 comment:

  1. I love how the best argument some people can come up with is: "You're not Christian, so how can you write about Jesus Christ?" Riiiiiight. So should we also tell men: "You're not a woman, so how can you proclaim to support feminism?" Or animal welfare organisations: "You're not a farm animal, so how can you claim to represent their rights? How do you KNOW they suffer?"
    Seriously, if that's the best argument some people can come up with, then they have not earned the right to take a stand on an issue.

    This sounds like a great book and a worthy read. Probably not as good as Karen Armstrong's "A History of God" but I'm not going to hold him to such high standards ;)


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