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"Zealot:" The Real Jesus

Religious scholar Reza Aslan argues that the historical Jesus was not an unworldly pacifist preaching a creed of universal love.

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The legitimacy of all of these figures was founded on zeal, which Aslan characterizes as “a strict adherence to the Torah and the Law, a refusal to serve any foreign master — to serve any human master at all — and an uncompromising devotion to the sovereignty of God,” just like “the prophets and heroes of old.” Although the Zealot Party would not exist for a few more decades, most insurrectionists of the time — including Jesus — could be rightly called zealots. They revered the Torah and honored its many rules and regulations. The most fanatical of such groups, such as the Sicarii, practiced a form of terrorism, attacking members of the Jewish ruling class, even assassinating the high priest within the precincts of the Temple itself, “shouting their slogan ‘No lord but God!’”

Aslan points out that crucifixion was a punishment the Romans reserved for political criminals, and that the men hung on crosses next to Jesus’ are described with a word often mistranslated as “thieves” but that in fact indicates “rebel-bandit.” The placard “King of the Jews” hung on Jesus’ cross was meant not to mock his ambitions but to name his offense; using that title or claiming to be the messiah amounted to a treasonous declaration against the authority of Rome and the Temple.

Aslan also insists that the parable of the Good Samaritan is less concerned with the Samaritan’s compassion than it is with the “baseness of the two priests” who passed by the injured man in the road before the Samaritan stopped to help him. It was a class critique as much as an exhortation to help one’s neighbors. He also dismisses the gospels’ depiction of Jesus’ trial, with its reluctant magistrate, as “absurd to the point of comedy,” given that the historical Pilate never showed anything but contempt for the Jews and sentenced hundreds of politically troublesome people to the cross without a second thought.

How was Jesus, this “zealous Galilean peasant and Jewish nationalist who donned the mantle of the messiah and launched a foolhardy rebellion against the corrupt Temple priesthood and the vicious Roman occupation,” transformed into the incarnation of God, a being who sacrificed his life to mystically redeem the souls of all mankind? This new Jesus, Aslan asserts, was largely the invention of Paul, who never met the man he would celebrate as his savior (though he claimed to speak often with the “risen Christ”), and Paul’s theological heirs.

Paul clashed with James, John and Peter, who led the core of Jesus’ following after his death. Theirs was a deeply Jewish community centered in Jerusalem, where it awaited its founder’s return and the restoration of God’s kingdom on earth. Paul instead opted to convert and minister to gentiles as well as Jews in Rome and beyond. In the year 70, the ferment in Palestine finally erupted in a full-fledged revolt and then Roman reprisals. Ultimately, the Temple, Jerusalem and the holy city’s occupants were destroyed, and with these the Jewish core of Jesus’ followers. By default, it was Paul’s version of Jesus’ teachings — Christianity — that survived, splintering off from Judaism and incorporating many ideas from Hellenistic philosophy.

This is a credible account, and one that raises a provocative question: Just how much of Christianity has anything to do with Jesus? In many respects, Paul seems to have been the more visionary leader. Somewhat bafflingly, Aslan remarks in his author’s note that he finds Jesus the man “every bit as compelling, charismatic and praiseworthy as Jesus the Christ” — by which he means the divine figure who presides over Christian theology. I suppose that “the man” is more human and accessible, but he is also not especially exceptional, original or innovative.

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