I’ve just finished Reza Aslan’s new book Zealot, the subject of this cringe-worthy Fox News interview that’s been circulating on the internet. It would be a shame if that story overshadowed the book itself, because in some ways it’s far more provocative.
In popular culture, secular portrayals of Jesus tend to come from liberal Christians who see him as a peaceful hippie. As Kris Kristofferson sang in 1972:
Jesus was a Capricorn, and he ate organic food
He believed in love and peace and never wore no shoes
Long hair, beard and sandals and a funky bunch of friends
Reckon they’d just nail him up if he came down again
As in so many cases, country singers and historians are not in total agreement here. Scholars have been debating aspects of the “historical Jesus” for well over a century, and there are many competing narratives about what kind of a person he was, what his words really meant, and what he was trying to achieve.
The Jesus that Aslan presents was one of dozens of lone nationalist preachers among the Jews of his time — rebels against a succession of cruel and incompetent Roman governors and the corrupt, aristocratic priests who served as their puppet leaders in Jerusalem. Every few years, one of these guys would pop up, gather a few followers, cause a bit of trouble and then be arrested and executed for treason — which is, of course, exactly the story of Jesus. (And John the Baptist, for that matter, a few years earlier.)
So what differentiated Jesus from these other rebel leaders? Not much, according to Aslan. Like the others, he made no claims to divinity or long-term prophecy. The term “Son of God” was just a standard designation for royalty, and “Son of Man” was a cryptic scriptural reference that essentially meant the same thing: he likely saw himself as the king of a restored Jewish kingdom, in his own lifetime. “Kingdom of God” and “Kingdom of Heaven” were references to this kingdom, not to some ethereal realm. In other words, he was planning to depose the priests, expel the Roman soldiers and restore the true “kingdom of God,” not in heaven but right here on Earth.
Even Jesus’s miracles and exorcisms didn’t make him special, according to Aslan, as there were lots of travelling magicians at the time doing this kind of thing. If anything, what made Jesus stand out was not that he and his apostles performed these miracles, but that they performed them for free.
At any rate, Aslan thinks that many episodes in the New Testament have been misinterpreted by modern Christians. For example, when Jesus cast the moneylenders out of the temple and said “render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and unto God the things that are God’s,” this had nothing to do with anti-materialism or the spiritual life or the separation of church and state, nor was it an evasive answer to a trick question. What he meant was simply that the land was God’s, and that Roman currency had no place there. He was advocating revolt.
Similarly, there are many interpretations of the parable of the Good Samaritan, who stops to help a wounded man on the roadside after two priests have passed him by. Our modern interpretation of this story (and use of the phrase “good samaritan”) often neglects the purity element: the priests didn’t want to help the man because he might have been dead, and touching a corpse was impure according to Jewish law of the time. Aslan isn’t the first modern writer to point this out; I remember reading in Marcus Borg’s Meeting Jesus Again for the First Time that this parable was really about replacing an ethical system based on purity with one based on compassion. But Aslan takes it a step further: Jesus wasn’t even concerned about purity per se, but mainly with attacking the priests. He wasn’t telling his listeners to emulate the Samaritan but rather to condemn the priests.
He points out that modern Christians prefer to quote the Beatitudes as presented in Matthew (“blessed are the meek,” etc.) rather than the version in Luke which reverses every blessing: those who hunger now will be fed, but woe unto those who are well fed now, for they will go hungry. In this version, Jesus isn’t talking about a utopian future in which everyone is well fed, but a reversal of the social order in favor of the currently poor.
Now, others have argued that Jesus was more of a pacifist than other rebel leaders of the time, and this is what really set him apart. Aslan doesn’t buy this argument, but he doesn’t fully grapple with it. His main point is that it’s ridiculous to believe Jesus was apolitical, and that once you consider him as a political figure, it follows that he could only have been advocating the overthrow of the current priests and ruling class, and that he must have known that this couldn’t be accomplished without violence.
Like any coherent narrative of the historical Jesus, Aslan’s version relies on a good deal of cherry-picking and convenient ranking of different sources. To be honest, I struggle as a layman to judge which of these many versions has the most scholarly support. But Aslan does a good job of putting the events of the gospels in context, and paints a believable and vivid picture of what the short life of a first-century dissident preacher in Palestine might actually have been like.
One reviewer mocks his Jesus as a Che Guevara figure, but I’m not sure that’s the best comparison — after all, Che was part of a successful revolution. Aslan’s Jesus reminds me more of the writer Yukio Mishima, a cult figure and nationalist who died during a bizarre, staged coup attempt a few years after Guevara. Certainly Jesus’s politics were more like the left-wing Che than the right-wing Mishima, but Aslan presents his invasion of the temple as such a brazen and hopeless gesture that he knew would seal his own fate … it almost sounds like he shared Mishima’s death wish.
- Jesus Was a Rebel and a Bandit. What Made Him Also the Christian Son of God? (Tablet)
- Still a Firebrand, 2,000 Years Later (NY Times)
- Zealot by Reza Aslan, review (Telegraph)
- Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth (Guardian)
- Reza Aslan — Historian? (The Nation)