Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Aslan - Zealot, the life and times of Jesus of Nazareth

Reza Aslan stirs up controversy and reflection in his latest book, “Zealot, the life and times of Jesus of Nazareth.” I finished this book just before the 2013 Christmas holiday and I have to admit that many of Aslan’s assertions haunted me throughout the season. His purpose in “Zealot” might most simply be characterized as tackling the inconsistencies among Biblical writers and the historical records of Jesus of Nazareth, concluding in the end that Jesus of Nazareth was more a zealot than anything else.

Much of Aslan’s analysis critiqued the role of the Jewish leaders, especially their deference to Roman dominance during the times of Jesus. He described religious leaders who perceived themselves as exceptional in all ways, based on the commandments of Yahweh of old, and committed to maintaining order and devotion among their people. There were multiple claims to being the Messiah of the Jewish people, a claim equivalent to challenging the authority of Rome. And, the label “King of the Jews” was also recognized to be a threat to the order maintained by the Jewish leaders. In Aslan’s words, “Jesus was crucified by Rome because his messianic aspirations threatened the occupation of Palestine, and his zealotry endangered the Temple authorities.”

Aslan indicated that one of the reasons that the Bible differs from historical records is that the various authors of New Testament texts were less concerned about recording the facts than they were of revealing the truths about Jesus’ witness. He commented, “There is more accumulated historical evidence confirming Jesus’s miracles than there is regarding either his birth in Nazareth or his death at Golgotha.” Magic was widespread in Jesus’s time but the imposters who used it did so to impress and to gain favor and financial benefit. Jesus was documented to have done real miracles and he never asked for anything in return. In fact, the miracles attributed to Jesus were usually not intended as an end in themselves but were used to demonstrate a lesson that Jesus sought to teach. Jesus was not interested in having stories of his miracles touted among others – he actively discouraged his disciples from telling others but this only led to more people proclaiming the mystery of Jesus’s actions. Those who knew Jesus and observed his miracles were themselves martyred, one after another, for their unwillingness to disavow the miracles they saw.

James, brother of Jesus, was the de facto leader of Christianity after Jesus’s death and resurrection. However, the writings of James are often relegated to lower status than the other Gospels. Why? Because his message was more for the Jews, and with a zealous commitment to the teachings of the Torah, rather than to what the other apostles of the time advocated. In particular, Peter and Paul were central as the voice of Christianity in Rome, taking the message to the gentiles, which was perceived to be a more important objective at that time. Aslan proposed that neither Jesus nor James would have expected Christianity to become a separate religious group from Judaism.

The concluding pages of "Zealot" provided a compelling picture of a prophet who made an amazing statement in his own time, although not terribly different from many of the martyrs of that day. Aslan characterized Jesus as a product of his time, who challenged everything, including both Roman and Jewish leaders, and he asserted that subsequent believers in Jesus as the Messiah in many ways scrubbed the image too clean, seeking to portray a Jesus more often mild, passive, and compliant; this passive Jesus was constructed by other writers to be more comfortable to the many gentiles who were being drawn to the new religion of Christianity. The Jesus portrayed by Aslan was courageous, defiant, and subversive, the latter being the ultimate “crime” for which he would be crucified. Jesus was a threat to the political order of the time who, by challenging authorities, became a zealous activist for all those who were subjugated and oppressed. In his final reflections, Aslan concludes his historical analysis with, “Jesus of Nazareth – Jesus the man - is every bit as compelling, charismatic, and praiseworthy as Jesus the Christ. He is, in short, someone worth believing in."

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