It would have been impossible to have written a book like Reza Aslan's Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth, without it generating a bit of controversy. For starters, there is that title. Today, we hear the word "zealot" and think of Osama bin Laden. It has landed in the same category as "fundamentalist," "fanatic," and "extremist." Sure enough, the dictionary tells us a zealot is a person who is fanatical and uncompromising in pursuit of their religious, political, or other ideals. If you read a bit further down, however, you come across the older, original meaning of the word;
a member of an ancient Jewish sect aiming at a world Jewish theocracy and resisting the Romans until ad 70.
Hmm. Someone advocating a universal "Kingdom of God" who challenged the might of the Romans. Sound like any biblical figures you know?
But here is where it gets really controversial...for some people, at least. Aslan's book is a meticulously researched, highly readable study of 1st century Roman Judea and the historical figure known as Jesus of Nazareth. It is not, however, about Jesus the Christ. This is not to say that Aslan sets out to prove Christianity is all wrong or that Jesus was just an ordinary man. He is very careful not to do that. Rather, he is trying to write a modern history of Jesus, a concept that did not exist when the Gospels were written. He points out that the authors of the Gospels had no intention of relaying historical facts, but rather were attempting to convey spiritual Truths as they understood them. The question of his birthplace is a good example.
All four Gospels call him "Jesus of Nazareth," and agree he was a Nazarene. It was common practice in an age when people lacked surnames to specify your birthplace in this way to avoid confusion (in fact, of the many 1st century charismatic leaders in Judea who claimed to be the messiah there was even another "Jesus," Jesus of Ananias). The author of Luke, however, tells us Jesus was actually from Bethlehem, and concocts a story that his contemporary readers would all have known was absurd. In this tale, the Romans call for a census that requires families to uproot and return to the place where the head of the household was born to wait there and be counted. It is ridiculous of course, and the Romans never did anything of the sort (how can you take count of persons and property when the property was left behind?). But the point is Luke's Roman audience would have known it was not factually accurate, but it did explain how Jesus was born in Bethlehem in fulfilment of prophecy (Micah 5:2). Matthew goes even further and adds another absurdity, having the family flee soon after into Egypt to escape Herod, who is killing infants in the area. This also never happened, but in fulfils yet another conflicting prophecy that the messiah would come out of Egypt like Moses (Hosea 11:1). Contemporary readers would likely have also known this was not a description of real events, but the ancients were not as unsophisticated as we like to think. They understood that something could be inaccurate but also reveal a Truth.
Aslan's book, then, is not an attempt to reveal that Truth but rather to be factual accurate. It is not debunking the biblical narrative, but relating the facts as we known them. There is the Jesus that people accept as Truth--the Son of God, the peacemaker who died for our sins--and there is also Jesus of Nazareth, a Jew who existed before Christianity, and of whom all written accounts we have come from decades after his death. By sticking to the facts that all accounts agree on, and comparing them to what we know of the period, a very interesting figure emerges.
1st century Roman Judea was a volatile, violent place about to be completely and literally wiped off the map in 70 C.E. Under the Roman occupation, the local peoples saw their culture and values under assault by foreigners and foreign ideas. Essentially a theocracy (the word was actually invented to describe the ancient Jewish state), it was a land divinely ordained, giving to the Hebrews by their God. How then could something ordained by God be taken away from them? The answer was, it couldn't. A messiah would emerge and drive the Romans out.
Interesting word, that. Messiah in ancient times meant a "king." David, for example, was a messiah. Under the Roman occupation it came to mean the "true king" rather than the false puppets the Romans had installed, a king anointed by God who would restore the old Jewish state (the "Kingdom of God"). Under Roman rule there were literally dozens of men claiming to be that messiah, and nearly all of them met with the same fate.
It is a simple fact that the Romans reserved crucifixion for one crime and one crime only; sedition or treason. It is also a fact that they placed a sign over the victim's head to announce the nature of his treason. Though the English translation for those who died alongside Jesus is "thieves," this is in fact a mistranslation. A closer word would be "bandit," and it meant people who hid in the hills like modern Al Qaeda fanatics, robbing passerbys to fund their campaign against the state. The Romans never crucified simple "thieves." Nor was the charge levelled against Jesus a joke. To the Romans, at least, "I.N.R.I" was his crime. He had claimed to be King of the Jews.
Given that fact, it becomes clear that Jesus of Nazareth was crucified by the Romans for the crime of defying Caesar. The bit about Pontius Pilate being reluctant to kill Jesus and forced into it by the Jewish establishment is almost comical. The historical Pilate had nothing but contempt for the Jews and ordered hundreds of crucifixions, and actually had to be scolded by the Emperor Tiberius for going out of his way to antagonise the Jewish people. He was eventually recalled for his treatment of them. After the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 C.E., however, Christianity was fast becoming a Roman religion, and it became necessary to soften the Roman involvement in his death.
Looking back at Jesus as one of the men crucified for the crime of claiming to be the messiah, Aslan examines his life and doings in this light. What emerges is a fascinating picture of a revolutionary, quite possibly a disciple of John the Baptist who would eventually take over and expand his movement after John's arrest. From his birth (possibly as an illegitimate child--when he first returns to Nazareth the locals call him son of Mary, which meant only one thing in a culture where "son of" was followed by the father's name) to his terrible death, Aslan retraces his steps, and it is a gripping account.
In the end, the most controversial thing about Zealot is how uncontroversial it really is. There is little in this book that I was not taught twenty years ago studying the history of early Christianity. It does disturb some sacred cows, but doesn't attempt to butcher them as Sam Harris or Christopher Hitchens night have. Aslan is not out to rob you of your faith. He simply presenting the facts as academics have done time and time again before him. But Aslan has a knack for breathing life and passion into what otherwise might be dry and dusty history, and Zealot is a surprising page turner. Further, its theme--a fundamentalist religion that feels it is under attack by foreign influences and changing times--is as relevant now as it was twenty centuries ago.
Highly recommended for those interested in the historical Jesus, believer or non-believer alike.
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