There is history and there is belief. As a Jew living in the modern State of Israel, I am putting my beliefs and faith aside and openly stating that I am interested in the historical figure that lived in this land two thousand years ago. There are two hard facts about Jesus of Nazareth. First of all, Jesus was a Jew who led a popular Jewish movement at a very tumultuous time. The second fact is that Rome crucified Jesus for doing so.
These two facts set the stage for the meticulously researched biography by Reza Aslan, published just last month. Entitled Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth, this book challenges many long-held assumptions about the man whose life and teachings form the foundations of Christianity. Aslan is not the first author to consider the case of the historical Jesus, but his jargon-free, unprejudiced, reader-friendly presentation of both Scripture and history will ensure that his message will reach a large lay audience.
Aslan defines Jesus as a zealot with a small "z". The man from Nazareth was not a member of the Zealot movement that revolted against Roman rule in the year 66 C.E. Instead, Jesus had zeal - great energy and enthusiasm - for the cause he promoted, which was primarily a call against the corruption of the priests serving in the Second Temple.
Because everything taking place in the Temple was overseen by the Romans (who literally overlooked the Temple plaza from their Antonio Fortress), and because the high priest was a political appointment who in many cases was a lackey of the Roman governor, any voice raised against the status quo would be considered an act of sedition.
Crucifixion was reserved for the crime of sedition
"Crucifixion was a punishment that Rome reserved exclusively for the crime of sedition," Aslan writes in the introduction to his book. Jesus's crime, in Rome's eyes, was striving for kingly rule, a crime equivalent to treason. This was "the same crime for which nearly every other messianic aspirant of the time was killed." As Aslan points out, during this era when apocalyptic fever was at its height, and when the Jews were fractionalized into rival camps of Sadducees, Pharisees, Essenes, and other religious sects, Jesus was not the first man to be considered the messiah, nor was he the last.
There is little written material available to make the case for "the Jesus of history, the Jesus before Christianity: the politically conscious Jewish revolutionary." Aslan takes into account the works of Josephus, but this Judean general who later became a historian made sure his storytelling would favor his Roman sponsors. Aslan also considers the gospels, but rejects their role in accurately recording the account of Jesus's mission. "If we expose the claims of the gospels to the heat of historical analysis, we can purge the scriptures of their literary and theological flourishes and forge a far more accurate picture of the Jesus of history," Aslan writes.
Daily life during Second Temple times
Putting Jesus aside for a moment, what I found particularly interesting in Aslan's book were its vivid descriptions of rituals, customs, and daily life during Second Temple times. The Temple of that period was "a kind of feudal state, employing thousands of priests, singers, porters, servants, and ministers", an institution that takes in taxes and gifts and sacrifices from visitors and pilgrims. "It is easy to see why so many Jews view the entire priestly nobility… as a band of avaricious 'lovers of luxury,' to quote Josephus," Aslan writes. No wonder that many common folk were quick to follow Jesus's call to cleanse the Temple of its corruption.
There is no way history can prove, or disprove, the resurrection, so the author doesn't dwell on that. Instead, he considers the following decades and how Jesus's Jewish movement was Romanized into a completely separate religion. Catholics and other adherents of traditional Christianity may find it hard to see their apolitical, inveterate peacemaker portrayed as a Jewish traditionalist leading a subversive rebellion against the greatest power on earth.
"Jesus of Nazareth was first and finally a Jew," Aslan emphasizes. "The story of the zealous Galilean peasant and Jewish nationalist who donned the mantle of messiah and launched a foolhardy rebellion against the Temple priesthood and the vicious Roman occupation comes to an abrupt end, not with his death on the cross, nor with the empty tomb, but at the first moment one of his followers dares suggests he is God."
Jesus the Jew would never have imagined, or condoned, the birth of a wholly new religion. Two thousand years later, "the Christ of Paul's creation has utterly subsumed the Jesus of history," Aslan concludes at the end of his book. "That is a shame," he writes. "Jesus the man is every bit as compelling, charismatic, and praiseworthy as Jesus the Christ."
Reza Aslan is an internationally acclaimed writer and scholar of religions. Born in Iran, he now lives in Los Angeles with his wife. Aslan's first book is the international bestseller, No god but God: The Origins, Evolution, and Future of Islam.
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Originally published at The Times of Israel.