The more I probed the Bible to arm myself against the doubts of unbelievers, the more distance I discovered between the Jesus of the gospels and the Jesus of history – between Jesus the Christ and Jesus of Nazareth.
Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth by Reza Aslan was given to me to read by a Jewish friend, who told me “you have to read this book.” He had recently attended a gathering where the keynote speaker was Reza Aslan – an American-Iranian writer and academic in religious studies and creative writing – and was mesmerized by both the author and the book.
Aslan was born in Tehran, Iran in 1972, but fled with his parents to the United States in 1979 during the Iranian Revolution. Raised in a Muslim home in San Francisco, he converted to Christianity when he was 15, earned a BA in Religious Studies from Santa Clara University and then converted back to Islam before he attended Harvard Divinity School where he earned a Masters in Religious Studies. He went on to earn an MFA at the University of Iowa’s Writer’s Workshop and a PhD in Sociology at the University of California. All of this information is important because knowing the author’s background and education is key to understanding how perplexing it is that a book about Jesus would be written by a Muslim.
Published in 2013, Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth is the story of the historical Jesus as pieced together by the author through the study of the New Testament – and primarily the gospel of Mark and the Q material (the hypothetical collection of Jesus’s sayings) in formulating the story of a man who profoundly changed the course of religion in our world.
Referring to the gospels that were not written by the people for whom they are named, with the possible exception of Luke, Aslan makes a strong argument that the gospels about the “life and mission of Jesus” were composed after the Jewish rebellion against Rome in 66 AD (and Rome’s ultimate victory four years later in 70 AD) and are therefore testimonies of faith – not eyewitness accounts of Jesus’s words and deeds recorded by people who knew him.
In the most simplistic terms, the author puts forth the idea that Jesus was a poor, illiterate Jew from Nazareth who led a popular Jewish movement in Palestine at the beginning of the first century and that the rulers of Rome crucified him for doing so. Rome ruled the world then and although Jerusalem was primarily occupied by Jews, the governor (appointed by the ruler of Rome) controlled the city and its inhabitants.
The Temple in Jerusalem managed the daily lives of the city’s residents but, again, the temple authorities were controlled by the governor and ultimately the rulers in Rome. And, although Jesus’s death has often been placed squarely on Judaism, the Romans are to blame because Jesus threatened the established order and the Jews simply fell into line. Of course, there is much more to the story but before I turned the last page, I wondered why – and this is a generalization – the Jews don’t hate the Italians with the same intensity in which they hate the Arabs – for Jesus was ultimately a nationalist, a self-proclaimed messiah who believed in the customs and traditions of his forefathers and in the State of Israel, and not in the sanctity of Rome. That a whole new religion would emerge – Christianity – was not something that Jesus or his followers ever imagined, as put forth by the author.
Imperial Christianity, like the empire itself, demanded an easily determinable power structure, one preferably headquartered in Rome.
And, the rest is history. Even if a reader rejects the author’s argument that Jesus was a politically conscious revolutionary (and not a peaceful spiritual leader as promulgated by the Christian church), a word is a word and must be interpreted with an open mind and in the context of the day in which written and by who penned it. That the orthodox beliefs of the Christian church were established in Rome more than 300 years after Jesus’s death and that more than half of the twenty-seven books that make up the New Testament are either by or about Paul (who was not an apostle and was scorned by the leaders in Jerusalem) provided the Romans with a way to separate Jesus from Judaism and the Jewish nationalism that he believed in. By excluding the gospels that were not canonized as part of the New Testament, the Roman officials opted to present a singular but contradictory interpretation of who Jesus was, which still leaves much of the world guessing.