You may have noticed the controversy surrounding Reza Aslan’s Zealot: The life and times of Jesus of Nazareth earlier this year. I gather there was a surreal appearance on Fox News—you’d think they’d love a guy who appears to be named after the Christ-Lion character from Narnia, but I guess they didn’t see it that way, what with him being Iranian-American and having written books about Islam.
Some of Zealot really shouldn’t be controversial, since it’s stuff that, according to Bart Ehrman, every priest and mainstream minister learns in the seminary, though most never mention it to their flock: that Matthew, Mark, Luke, John and Paul present different messages, each as concerned with his own circumstances and agenda as with anything the real Jesus might have said or done. For example, there is no “nativity story,” but rather two mutually contradictory stories in Matthew and Luke, neither one of which is remotely plausible.
Another piece of Aslan’s argument is less universally accepted but will be familiar to readers of, say, John Dominic Crossan: Jesus was an illiterateJewish peasant who preached a revolutionary anti-imperial message until the Roman authorities and their upper-class collaborators executed him as a subversive. Where Aslan departs from liberation-theology types is in his restrictive identification of Jesus as a ‘zealot.’
The Zealots were a leading faction in the great Jewish rising of 66 that culminated in the sack of Jerusalem, the razing of the Temple, and the siege and eventual mass suicide at Masada. But Aslan uses the term more broadly to denote a long series of guerrillas, bandits, and messiahs who sought to establish the Kingdom of God, that is, a righteous, independent Jewish state in Palestine. To see what this identification means, consider Jesus’ response when he is asked whether one should pay taxes: he asks whose picture is on the denarius coin, then says that we should “Give back to Caesar what is Caesar’s, and give back to God what is God’s.” The first clause probably plays on the taboo against graven images—what self-respecting Jew walks around with a picture of some heathen dude?
As for the second part, Aslan is convinced that it refers specifically to the land, which properly belongs to God and should be returned to him through the expulsion of the Romans and the corrupt high priests who serve them.
That’s one possibility, but Jesus asked a great deal of his followers, and anything they gave up for his sake might plausibly be said to be given back to God. And for that matter, if they were not great landowners, they couldn’t really give the land back, though they might take it back.
According to Aslan, Jesus was “no fool.” He recognized that the existing state could only be overthrown with violence, and to that end assembled an “army” of adherents. He came, after all, bringing not peace but the sword. What about loving thy neighbor, turning the other cheek, and all that? These things, he explains, refer only to relationships between fellow Jews: if your neighbor is Jewish, you turn the other cheek; if he’s a Gentile, give him the sword. The idea that Jesus had some universal message for humanity is an accretion of later writers who were trying to export his sect to a wider audience.
What troubles me here is not so much the conviction that Aslan is wrong about Jesus being essentially indistinguishable from other nationalist rebels, though I do suspect that J was weirder and harder to pin down than Aslan gives him credit for. Rather, what if he is right? He claims to have great admiration for the real Jesus of Nazareth, as opposed to the fictional Christ, but is his Jesus, a narrow nationalist trying to install himself as King, really so admirable? And what are we to make of a leader who plans to start a violent revolution by assembling a ragtag band of mendicants, to whom it occurs only in his final days that somebody should buy a sword or two? A leader whose big insurgent operation against the Roman Empire is little more than a flash-mob at the Temple? Sounds like, well, a fool.
To give his students an idea of how people must have reacted to early Christians who claimed that Jesus had been not only the Messiah but personally divine, Bart Ehrman asks, “What would you think if I told you that David Koresh was the Ruler of the Universe?” His point is partly that, from a Jewish perspective, to put any man on a par with God is a shocking blasphemy. But also (and this is the part that is relevant here) the Messiah was supposed to be a powerful ruler, someone who would kick ass and take names and settle scores. The idea that some loser from Hicksville who rode into town on a donkey and promptly got himself killed like a common criminal was the Messiah…that was ludicrous.
It is perfectly legitimate for Aslan to place Jesus in the context of other messianic resistance movements of his time. But if we file away anything that stands out from or cuts against that context, we are left with a figure whose main distinction from Judas the Galilean or the Egyptian or Simon bar Kochba is his spectacular lack of success.