Saturday, December 14, 2013

Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth by Reza Aslan

One of my favorite tracks on The Bells of Dublin album by the Chieftains is “The Rebel Jesus” performed with Jackson Browne, the composer of the song. The song doesn’t celebrate the usual pieties of Christmas: the Prince of Peace, our Savior Sweet and Mild. Instead, it celebrates a different view of Jesus, one that the Gospel accounts hint at but don’t explicate. Jesus was a radical in politics, economics, and religion. I thought of this song as I read Reza Aslan’s Zealot. The song could serve as the theme song for the book. (Too bad only movies get theme songs; it could prove an interesting exercise for books.) 
Aslan’s thesis is straightforward: Jesus was out to overturn the Roman rule of Palestine and to overturn those Jews—primarily those in the cities and the priestly class—who corroborated with the Romans. Aslan begins by providing a detailed description of the political economy of Palestine around the time of Jesus. The picture is not a pretty one. The Romans ruled Palestine (Judea, Galilee, and the surrounding lands) with sword, fire, and crucifixion. They did so through the corroboration of those who controlled the Temple in Jerusalem. The result is one of the oldest and most common stories in history: the wealthy elites in the cities extract wealth from the countryside by force. As the countryside becomes impoverished, increasingly destitute peasants flood into the cities, desperate and poor. Those who lived in a small village like Nazareth in Galilee would have felt the weight of oppression imposed upon them by “the rich”. It was from this milieu that Jesus—and many other would-be messiahs and rebels—emerged. No one succeeded in overthrowing the Romans, and finally the Romans destroyed Jerusalem in 70 C.E., when a Jewish rebellion went too far in Roman eyes.
Aslan’s thesis is not new or especially unique. He’s not a Biblical scholar, but he has done his homework. He especially acknowledges the work of John Meir (Catholic priest and Biblical scholar), whose four-volume work, A Marginal Jew, explores the world of  Jesus and the nature of his mission as best as history can reconstruct it. And this is the problem: the writers of the four canonical Gospels did not write history. They wrote to establish grounds for faith well after Jesus’ death. Those seeking to look behind the curtain, starting back in the nineteenth century, have had to search other sources and speculate (as logically and coherently as possible) about the history (not Good News) of Jesus. Aslan brings this search up to date in a readily accessible work that assumes no Biblical scholarship on the part of the reader.
The book was a pleasant surprise for me. I thought that historical scholarship focused on the idea that Jesus was primarily concerned with the end time, the eschatological vision inherited primarily from the Book of Daniel and reflected in the Gospels and other NT works. Aslan argues instead that Jesus’ mission, as Jesus experienced it, was primarily one of earthly concerns, such as bringing "the Kingdom of God" into the world in which he lived and walked. Terms like “the Kingdom of God” and “the Son of Man” were as enigmatic then as they are now. What did Jesus mean by these terms? That still isn’t clear, but Aslan argues that these terms didn’t address the end of the world in the physical sense, but they intended to signal a restoration of the Jewish people to their political independence and to their dedication to God.
Aslan also enlightened me about the conflict between Paul and the Apostles in Jerusalem, Peter, John, and James, the brother of Jesus (and known as “the Just” for his considerate treatment of the poor). The Roman destruction of Jerusalem destroyed this apostolic contingent as well as the city itself and its inhabitants. That catastrophic event allowed Paul’s view—a very different view of Jesus and his calling from that held by the Peter, James, and John—to dominate the NT corpus and the theology of the nascent Church. Indeed, the destruction of Jerusalem had a profound effect on both the new Christian movement as well as the whole of Judaism.
I really enjoyed Aslan’s book. It gave me fresh insights into the most important and enigmatic person in Western Civilization. I assume that I’m not the only person who’s pondered the conflicting visions of Jesus found in the Gospels and the remainder of the NT. Did Jesus come to bring peace or a sword? Why did he create such a ruckus in the Temple? And what was the Temple all about with its High Priests and such? Was he against the family? Do we have to sell everything and give it to the poor? I could go on and on. I now know that in the NT we have a collection of writings from different times and places with different perspectives, even different perspectives within what we might otherwise think of as a single work (say a Gospel). It’s not neat and tidy; in fact, as the Jesus Movement becomes Christianity, the story only becomes messier. In the end, we’re far, far away from whatever Jesus said, did, and intended some 2000 years ago. But that’s true of any figure: Socrates, Mohammad, Buddha—take your pick. In the end, I believe that it’s what we do with any legacy—how we apply it now—that really counts. Yet better understanding of how these stories came to be—and how they’ve changed—gives us a new depth that should help guide us. Aslan’s book helps greatly in our quest to better understand the figure of Jesus of Nazareth. 

N.B. Aslan goes to all of the right places: UI Writers Workshop, Hamburg Inn, and the Jaipur Lit Festival. He knows how to pick-em! Looking forward to seeing him again in Jaipur. 

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