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.”
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.
Although Aslan never explicitly states as much, the parallels to today — to certain deeply religious and nationalist Muslims who zealously strive to cast out foreign occupiers and corrupt clerics — are hard to ignore, especially when Aslan describes Sicarii shouting, “No lord but God!” Perhaps “Zealot” is partly intended to make today’s zealots seem less alien and scary, or perhaps it’s meant to suggest that all religions go through a process of maturation that simply takes time. If so, I’m not sure it works. The historical Jesus’ call for justice is stirring, but the xenophobic and theocratic society he allegedly advocated is not — in fact, it sounds a lot like what the worst of (so-called) Christians seek today. I may not be a Christian myself, but even I can see that Jesus the Christ stands for something better than that.