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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.



Very little is known about the historical Jesus, as opposed to the Jesus of myth who appears in the New Testament. He is mentioned by the 1st-century historian Flavius Josephus in reference to his brother, James, who led Jesus’ followers after his death. Two second-century Roman historians, Tacitus and Pliny, also refer to Jesus’ arrest and execution in discussing the movement he founded. Other than that, we have to rely on biblical writings, particularly the gospels — the earliest of which (Mark) was written down almost 40 years after Jesus’ death. None of the gospels were written by eyewitnesses to the events described; they’re based on oral and perhaps some written traditions. Much of contemporary biblical scholarship involves parsing and triangulating the various accounts to surmise which bits are the oldest and most likely to represent some real event or statement by Jesus himself.

This, of course, hasn’t stopped anyone from trying to reconstruct a historical account of Jesus’ life, however speculative it must necessarily be. The latest to try is Reza Aslan, a professor of creative writing with a background in religious studies, which seems like just about the right configuration of skills. Aslan is best known for “No god but God: The Origins, Evolution and Future of Islam” and his appearances on “The Daily Show,” but his literary talent is as essential to the effect of  “Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth” as are his scholarly and journalistic chops. This book, he explains in an author’s note, is the result of “two decades of rigorous academic research into the origins of Christianity.” It’s also a vivid, persuasive portrait of the world and societies in which Jesus lived and the role he most likely played in both.

Any account of the historical Jesus has to be more argument than fact, but some arguments are sounder than others. Aslan wants to “purge” the scriptural accounts of “their literary and theological flourishes and forge a far more accurate picture of the Jesus of history.” The picture he uncovers is very different from the now-common view of an unworldly pacifist preaching a creed of universal love and forgiveness. Instead, Aslan’s Jesus is a provincial peasant turned roving preacher and insurrectionist, a “revolutionary Jewish nationalist” calling for the expulsion of Roman occupiers and the overthrow of a wealthy and corrupt Jewish priestly caste. Furthermore, once this overthrow was achieved, Jesus probably expected to become king.

The most fascinating aspect of “Zealot” is its portrait of the political and social climate of Jesus’ day, 70 years or so after the conquest of Judea by Rome, an event that ended a century of Jewish self-rule. The Romans replaced the last in a series of Jewish client-kings with a Roman governor, Pontius Pilate, when Jesus was in his 20s, but even Pilate ruled by working closely with the aristocratic priestly families that controlled the Temple in Jerusalem and thereby all of Jewish politics. This elite reaped great wealth from the sacrifices the faithful were required to offer in the Temple, as well as taxes and tributes. In the provinces, noble families used the tax and loan systems to seize and consolidate the lands of subsistence farmers. They also began to adopt the customs of the pagan occupiers.

The dispossessed migrated to cities in search of work or roamed the countryside causing trouble. Some of them, called “bandits” by the Romans, robbed the wealthy (who were often seen as impious) and rallied the poor and discontented. They invariably offered religious justifications for their activities; many claimed to be the messiah, the prophesied figure who would eject the foreigners, raise up the oppressed, punish the venal rich and restore the Jews to supremacy in their promised land. Although Jesus himself wasn’t such a “bandit,” he definitely fit the well-known type of apocalyptic Jewish holy man, so commonplace in the countryside that the Greek philosopher Celsus wrote a parody version, a wild-eyed character running around shouting, “I am God, or the servant of God, or a divine spirit. But I am coming, for the world is already in the throes of destruction. And you will soon see me coming with the power of heaven.”

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