Saturday, August 24, 2013

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

According to Reza Aslan, Jesus was a guerrilla leader who wanted to drive Rome out of Palestine and he points to the scriptures as evidence: "I came not to bring peace, but a sword" (Matthew 10:34, Luke 12:51), "If you don't have a sword, sell your cloak and buy one" (Luke 22:36), "From the days of John the Baptist until now the Kingdom of God has been coming violently, and the violent ones try to snatch it away" (Matthew 11:12, Luke 16:16).

According to Aslan, when Jesus said the Kingdom of God was near, what he meant was the expulsion of Rome and the establishment of an independent Jewish state. After all, the god Jesus worshipped was the warrior god of the Hebrew Bible (Exodus 15:3), blood-splattered (Isaiah 63:3), angry, and genocidal. The god who repeatedly told the Jews to violently expel foreigners from their land and bathe in their blood (Psalms 68:21-23). As a Jew, Jesus despised gentiles. He referred to them as dogs (Matthew 15:21-28) and instructed his disciples not to preach to them (Matthew 10:5).

When Jesus speaks of the rich being made poor and the poor being made wealthy, he is speaking as a revolutionary who wants to overthrow the social order. The reason he spoke in parables that no one could understand was to keep his sedition hidden from Rome. Jesus also told everyone to keep the fact that he was a messiah secret to avoid Roman execution (Mark 4:11-12), yet he knew the fate that awaited all would be kings such as himself, so he also repeatedly predicted his own death. (Aslan acknowledges these predictions could have been placed into Jesus's mouth after the fact, but he thinks they are genuine historical sayings of Jesus simply because there are so many of them!)

Aslan's main evidence that Jesus was a zealot was the fact that he was crucified. Rome almost exclusively reserved crucifixition for insurrectionists. Usually, the seditionists were executed first, then their bodies were put up on the cross as an example to any other would be rebels. The men crucified to either side of Jesus are called "lestai" in the gospels (except in Luke), which literally translates as "bandits" but was a term Rome used for rebels.

Additionally, the titulus nailed above Jesus declaring him the "King of the Jews" indicates that this was his crime. Since Jews were subject to Rome, declaring yourself King of the Jews or Messiah, another kingly title, was the same as calling for an overthrow of Roman rule. The entry of Jesus into Jerusalem on the back of a donkey (or two donkeys as Matthew has it) was a clear indication that Jesus thought he was meant to be king since David and other Jewish kings in the Hebrew Bible rode donkeys into Jerusalem to proclaim their kingship.

Jesus was executed not only because he called himself Messiah (i.e., King of the Jews), but also because he threatened to destroy the Temple (Mark 13:2, Matthew 26:61), which, as a symbol of Roman power in Palestine, was the same as threatening Rome itself. Not only did Jesus say he would destroy the Temple, but he also drove out the money changers with a whip and prevented anyone from entering (Luke 19:45-48, Matthew 21:12-16, Mark 11:15-18, John 2:13-16). Since the Temple was the center of Judaism, it was gigantic; and since many zealots both before and after Jesus captured it to make political statements, it was patrolled by numerous armed guards. The only way Jesus could have taken over the Temple would have been with the help of an army.

As a revolutionary zealot, Jesus was not unique. There were several men just like him both before and after this time who wanted to throw off the shackles of Rome and assassinate the wealthy priests of the Temple. Aslan also tells us that the miracles performed by Jesus aren't unique either. Many other magicians also healed the sick and raised the dead at this time.

Aslan tells us that Jesus began as one of John the Baptist's disciples. After his baptism (or lack of baptism as the gospel of John has it), Jesus went out into the wilderness, the place John the Baptist had just emerged from, not to be tempted by satan, but to learn from John. The first words of Jesus's public ministry echo John: "The time is fulfilled. The Kingdom of God is near. Repent and believe in the good news" (Mark 1:15). The first action in Jesus's ministry is to start baptizing people like John did (John 3:22-23). Jesus's first disciples, Andrew and Philip, were originally John's disciples (John 1:35-37). Jesus also calls his enemies a "brood of vipers" a phrase he picked up from John (Matthew 12:34).

In the gospels, groups such as the Pharisees, the scribes, the chief priests, and the elders are lumped together when in reality they were separate and distinct groups. The depiction of the Pharisees in the gospels is quite contradictory. They are Jesus's chief opponents, yet he is also on friendly terms with them. It was a Pharisee who warned Jesus that Herod wanted to kill him (Luke 13:31), a Pharisee who helped bury him after his execution (John 19:39-40), and a Pharisee who saved the lives of his disciples after he ascended to heaven (Acts 5:34). Jesus dined with Pharisees, lived among them, and even counted a few as his disciples, yet they are also the main bad guys of the gospels.

Aslan points out that the gospel's depiction of Pilate couldn't be further from the truth. Josephus records an instance in which Pilate pilfers the Temple treasury to pay for the Jerusalem aqueduct, then sends his troops to slaughter the Jews when they complain about it. The Pilate of history executed so many people on a daily basis, he didn't have the time to question them individually as the gospels say he did with Jesus. This is a far cry from the gospel depiction of Pilate who doesn't want to execute Jesus, but is forced to by the Sanhedrin. In reality, the Sanhedrin couldn't force Rome to do anything. They were completely at Pilate's mercy. (Jesus's trial by the Sanhedrin is also not historical. The Sanhedrin was not permitted to meet at night, meet during the Passover, meet on the eve of the Sabbath, or meet casually in the courtyard of the high priest, all of which the gospels claim happened.)

Like the hundreds of other scholars who write books about the historical Jesus, Reza Aslan highlights the parts of the Gospels that confirm his theory and dismisses or reinterprets the parts that disagree with it. Therefor, Aslan takes the violent sayings of Jesus at face value, but he reinterprets the peaceful sayings like "love your enemies" and "turn the other cheek" to make them fit his picture of Jesus. For example, Aslan says the point of the Good Samaritan parable wasn't that the command to love your neighbor includes non-Jews, but rather the real point is that the Temple priests who didn't help the victim on the side of the road are evil and must be overthrown.

Aslan is far from the first scholar to propose that Jesus was a revolutionary. In the end, this is basically a summary of other scholar's work and gives us little that is new. But how historically reliable is Aslan's depiction of Jesus?

"Granted, writing a biography of Jesus of Nazareth is not like writing a biography of Napoleon Bonaparte. The task is somewhat akin to putting together a massive puzzle with only a few of the pieces in hand; one has no choice but to fill in the rest of the puzzle based on the best, most educated guesses of what the completed image should look like." (Zealot, page xxxi)

And guess Reza Aslan does. However, you wouldn't know it from the tone of this book. Aslan presents his speculations as if they are fact. True, he sometimes presents opposing viewpoints in his endnotes, but far too often he simply tells us "most scholars agree" as if that settles the matter. As Leonardo da Vinci once said, "Anyone who conducts an argument by appealing to authority is not using his intelligence; he is just using his memory."

Assuming Jesus existed and wasn't just a mythological figure who was historicized, what can we know about him? Some ancient historians such as Josephus and Tacitus mention Jesus, but even if these references aren't the interpolations they appear to be, they come too late to be relevant. Really, the only source of information we have about the historical Jesus is the New Testament, and therein lies the problem.

Aslan tells us in his introduction that, "the gospels are not, nor were they ever meant to be, a historical documentation of Jesus's life." Incredibly, he then goes on to paint a picture of the historical Jesus using the gospels as his source! This is akin to using the Iliad to tell us about the historical Achilles. Aslan removes the parts of the gospels which are obviously not historical and declares that we can trust that what remains is true. This is an approach no historian outside the field of Biblical studies would ever use. Can you imagine a serious historian telling us that while the supernatural aspects of the Odyssey are fictitious, everything else that's described really happened because nobody would have made it up?

Aslan tells us Jesus wasn't really born in Bethlehem. The gospels just said he was to fulfill prophecy. Fair enough. But he concludes from this that Jesus had to have been born in Nazareth, even though the gospels say Jesus grew up there to fulfill prophecy as well! (See Matthew 2:23.) Aslan tells us there's no evidence Nazareth existed at the time of Jesus: no mention in any histories, no appearance on any map. (He could have also added that there is no archaeological evidence that it was populated at the time of Jesus.) Aslan takes this lack of evidence as evidence that Nazareth must have been a really small town! He doesn't even seem aware of the possibility that it's a second century anachronism like many others found in the New Testament.

For example, one of Jesus's apostles is called Simon the Zealot, even though the Zealot party did not exist until the second century. Aslan explains that this is not an anachronism, Simon was called a Zealot because he was particularly zealous! He doesn't say how he knows this. He's probably just assuming the gospels are first century creations. I suppose this is possible, but the job of the historian is to discover not what is possible (almost anything) but what is most probable. Given all the other second century anachronisms in the gospels (Jesus being called a rabbi, Pilate being called a Procurator, the existence of Galilean synagogues, Jesus referring to the murder of Zechariah son of Berachiah as if it had happened in the past, followers of Jesus being anti-Semitic, the description of the Bar Kokhba revolt in Mark 13, etc.), it's most likely that this is one more second century anachronism.

Aslan tells us Luke's nativity story is not historical: the census of Quirinius which took place in 6 AD did not include the region of Galilee, so no one from Nazareth would have taken part. Also, the Romans held the census for taxation purposes, so it would have been ridiculous to have everyone return to their ancestral homeland. The contradictory nativity story of Matthew is also not historical. While the numerous sins of Herod the Great, who died in 4 BC, are well documented, there is no record that he ordered the slaughter of infants in Bethlehem. Despite the fact the nativity stories are obvious fabrications, Aslan tells us Matthew did correctly record the time of Jesus's birth!

Aslan acknowledges that the early Christians (such as Paul) were not interested in Jesus's life, only his death and resurrection, and he also acknowledges that Jesus wasn't the only god to die and come back to life, yet, incredibly, he still believes the gospel accounts (written long after Jesus died) preserve historical information about him. He acknowledges that Matthew and Luke are based on Mark and that "the gospel of John is little more than Pauline theology in narrative form", yet if all four gospels agree on something, he claims it must have really happened! This is like comparing all the various Hercules stories and declaring all points of overlap are historical.

Aslan points out that the story of Jesus is based on figures from the Hebrew Bible such as Elijah and Moses. However, instead of recognizing this for the literary borrowing that it most certainly is, he thinks that the historical Jesus intentionally patterned his life on the prophets! This is possible, but given that the entire gospel narrative start to finish is based on different parts of the Hebrew Bible, it's far more likely the gospels are a midrash of the Old Testament rather than works of history. I suppose Aslan should be given credit for treating the gospels with more skepticism than the average fundamentalist, but if he wants people to call him a scholar, he needs to be much more skeptical.

Aslan began his book with a vivid description of the Temple written in the second person to make you feel like you're really there. His first chapter actually wouldn't be out of place in a historical novel:

"The money changers will also collect the half-shekel Temple tax that all adult males must pay to preserve the pomp and spectacle of all you see around you: the mountains of burning incense and the ceaseless sacrifices, the wine libations and the first-fruits offering, the Levite choir belting out psalms of praise and the accompanying orchestra thrumming lyres and banging cymbals."

His also gives a lush description of Jerusalem later on:

"The purple vineyards whose vines twisted and crawled across the level plains, the well-tilled fields and viridescent orchards bursting with almond and fig and olive trees, the green beds of papyrus floating lazily along the Jordan River--the Jews not only knew and deeply loved every feature of this consecrated land, they laid claim to all of it."

I was about to say Aslan missed his calling as a novelist, but according to his bio at the end of the book, he has a master's degree in fiction, he is the editor of a literary magazine, and he is currently Associate Professor of Creative Writing at UC Riverside. Since this book is mainly educated guesses and speculation mixed with a dash of history, I wonder why he didn't just write a historical novel in the first place.

Tuesday, January 1, 2013

A Brief Summary of the Book of Isaiah

When I was in grade school, I attended a Mormon seminary. The seminary teacher taught us that the Book of Isaiah is really complicated and hard to explain. Isaiah is an important book for the Latter Day Saints because it is quoted at length in the Book of Mormon. I decided to reread the Book of Isaiah and see if I could make any sense of it.

It helps to read it in a modern day translation, for as poetic as the King James Bible is, it's difficult to understand. There are more than 500 words in the KJV which have since changed their definitions. For example, "awful" originally meant "inspiring wonder," "by and by" meant "immediately," "profitable" meant "useful" and so on. Of course, Isaiah isn't going to make much sense if you read an out of date translation of it.

It turns out that Isaiah isn't that difficult to understand after all. There are a few confusing passages here and there, of course, but basically it's just an explanation of why Israel has been brought low with a prediction for future greatness. The Mormons, like most Christians, try to interpret Isaiah as being a prophecy about Jesus. This simply does not work if you take Isaiah at face value. It could be about Jesus if you read it metaphorically, but then again, it could be about absolutely anything at all if you read it metaphorically.

I've included a broad outline of Isaiah below. It's obviously not an in depth analysis, it's simply a humble summary.

Chapter 1 Israel has been overthrown because her rulers are greedy. Yahweh detests prayers, offerings, and religious assemblies.

Chapter 2 In the last days, there will be peace between all nations, but everybody will run and hide from Yahweh who is mad at them for making idols.

Chapter 3 Yahweh is going to destroy Jerusalem and Judah.

Chapter 4 Yahweh will clean Jerusalem and his glory will be like an umbrella over Mount Zion, providing shade during the day and protection from storms.

Chapter 5 Jerusalem and Judah are wicked, so Yahweh is going to destroy everything and start over.

Chapter 6 Isaiah sees a vision of Yahweh seated on his throne. The seraphim with six wings cleanse Isaiah's sin by touching a hot coal to his lips.

Chapter 7 A young woman (some translate this as virgin) will soon give birth to a son named Immanuel. King Rezin of Aram and King Pekah of Israel are marching on Jerusalem now, but the land of these two kings will be laid waste before Immanuel is old enough to know the difference between right and wrong. Also, Yahweh will hire the king of Assyria to be a razor to shave off Jerusalem's beard and pubic hair.

Chapter 8 Yahweh commands Isaiah to impregnate a temple prostitute and name his son Maher-Shalal-Hash-Baz (quick to the plunder) because Assyria will plunder Damascus and Samaria before the boy is old enough to speak.

Chapter 9 In the future, a child will be born in Galilee named Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace (or Elgibor, the father of Ad, ruler of Hashalom as the Dead Sea Scrolls have it). He will rule upon the throne of David in peace forever until the end of time. Yahweh will burn Israel and Judah and the inhabitants will eat their own children.

Chapter 10 After Yahweh is done using Assyria to destroy Jerusalem, Yahweh will destroy Assyria.

Chapter 11 A Branch from the stump of Jesse will judge with righteousness. He will slay the wicked with his breath. Lions will start eating straw. The scattered people of Judah will gather together again and destroy their enemies. The Euphrates River will dry up.

Chapter 12 Yahweh will be praised when he does this.

Chapter 13 Babylon is screwed.

Chapter 14 Israel will enslave the other nations and taunt Babylon. Even trees will taunt Babylon. Children will be slaughtered for their ancestor's sins. The Philistines will rejoice that Babylon is gone, but Yahweh shall destroy them too.

Chapter 15 Moab is screwed.

Chapter 16 Boy, is Moab screwed.

Chapter 17 Damascus is screwed.

Chapter 18 Cush is screwed.

Chapter 19 Egypt is screwed. Egypt will stagger about like a drunk in his own vomit.

Chapter 20 Yahweh commands Isaiah to walk around naked for three years because Assyria will one day lead Egyptian and Cushite captives away naked.

Chapter 21 Babylon is destroyed yet again. Also Edom and Arabia will be destroyed.

Chapter 22 Jerusalem is screwed. Yahweh will take Shebna, the palace administrator, and roll him into a ball and throw him far away.

Chapter 23 Tyre is screwed. Literally. The city of Tyre is a prostitute who will screw all the kingdoms on the face of the earth. All the money Tyre earns from her prostitution will go to Yahweh, which makes Him the Pimp Daddy.

Chapter 24 The whole world is screwed.

Chapter 25 Yahweh will prepare a rich feast for all people and swallow up death. Moab will be trampled down like straw in manure.

Chapter 26 Yahweh casts down the rich and raises up the poor. Yahweh has killed the other gods Israel used to worship, but the earth will soon give birth to her dead.

Chapter 27 Yahweh shall slay the great sea monster Leviathan with his sword. Jacob's guilt will be atoned once Israel stops worshipping Yahweh's wife Asherah.

Chapter 28 The tribe of Ephraim are drunks, so Yahweh will kill their leader and transform Himself into a crown. All tables are covered with vomit from the drunken priests and prophets. The people of Jerusalem have made a covenant with Sheol, the realm of the dead, but it will be annulled. Yahweh instructs farmers in the correct way to plant crops.

Chapter 29 Ariel, the city of David, will be destroyed, but so will all the nations that fight against her.

Chapter 30 Woe to those who go to Egypt seeking protection. Those who remain in Jerusalem will throw away their idols like a menstrual cloth and be protected. Yahweh sets Topheth on fire with His breath.

Chapter 31 Just in case you skipped past the last chapter, Yahweh will destroy those who fled to Egypt and protect those who remain in Jerusalem.

Chapter 32 The harvest will fail and the land overgrown with thorns and briers, but then the land will be fertile again.

Chapter 33 The sinners will suffer from a drought and be burned. The righteous will live in a mountain fortress and have plenty of water.

Chapter 34 Yahweh will destroy all nations. The stars will fall from the sky. Yahweh's sword is bathed in blood and covered in fat from lambs, goats, rams, and wild oxen. Edom will be set on fire and burn forever.

Chapter 35 The desert will blossom. The blind will see; the deaf will hear; the lame will walk; and the mute will speak. There will be a highway called Way of Holiness that only the redeemed can walk upon. There will be no lions or wicked people there.

Chapter 36 Sennacherib, the king of Assyria, besieges Judah and asks that they surrender. The besieged are forced to eat their own excrement and drink their own urine.

Chapter 37 Isaiah tells King Hezekiah not to worry for Yahweh will kill Sennacherib. The angel of Yahweh kills 185,000 in the Assyrian camp. Sennacherib runs away. Later his sons kill him while he is worshiping his god Nisrok.

Chapter 38 King Hezekiah becomes ill. Isaiah predicts that he will die. Then he says Hezekiah will live for 15 more years and Judah will be delivered from Assyria. As a sign, the shadow cast by the sun goes backwards ten steps.

Chapter 39 Hezekiah shows off all his treasures to messengers from Babylon. Isaiah predicts that Babylon will steal all this treasure and make Hezekiah's descendants into eunuchs.

Chapter 40 Yahweh will raise the valleys and bring down the mountains so all the land will be flat. People are like grass that withers, but the word of God endures forever. Yahweh regards all nations as worthless and less than nothing. People are like grasshoppers to Him.

Chapter 41 Yahweh destroys nations with his sword and bow.

Chapter 42 Yahweh is more powerful than idols. Yahweh hands Israel over to plunderers for not obeying His law.

Chapter 43 Those of Israel can walk through fire without being burned. Yahweh will destroy other nations as a substitute sacrifice to redeem Israel. Yahweh is the one and only God and there is no other savior. Yahweh has disgraced Israel because they have stopped making animal sacrifices to Him.

Chapter 44 Yahweh is the only god and it's dumb to worship idols.

Chapter 45 Yahweh is the only god and it's dumb to worship idols.

Chapter 46 Just in case you skipped past the last two chapters, Yahweh is the only god and it's dumb to worship idols.

Chapter 47 Babylon is likened to a virgin daughter whose nakedness will be exposed. Yahweh allowed Babylon to destroy Israel, but soon Babylon will be destroyed. Babylon's astrologers and sorcerers will be burnt up.

Chapter 48 Yahweh is better than idols.

Chapter 49 Yahweh will remember Israel and gather the exiles back together. He will force Israel's oppressors to eat their own flesh and become drunk on their own blood.

Chapter 50 The servant of Yahweh has suffered, but Yahweh will soon return to torment all who oppose him.

Chapter 51 Yahweh will rebuild Zion. The inhabitants of earth will die like flies, but Yahweh's salvation will last forever. Yahweh defeats the monster Rahab and cuts it into pieces.

Chapter 52 Yahweh will redeem Jerusalem.

Chapter 53 The servant of Yahweh is ugly and despised. He suffers for the sins of Israel.

Chapter 54 Yahweh has abandoned Zion, but He will return and rebuild the city with sparkling jewels.

Chapter 55 Yahweh will forgive all who abandon their wicked ways. Mountains and hills will sing and trees will clap their hands.

Chapter 56 Eunuchs and foreigners will be blessed.

Chapter 57 The righteous die so they may be spared from evil. Those who worship idols will be destroyed. There is no rest for the wicked.

Chapter 58 Fasting does not please Yahweh. Instead, one should free the oppressed, feed the hungry, and clothe the naked.

Chapter 59 Yahweh isn't helping due to Israel's sins.

Chapter 60 All nations will either bring their wealth to Zion or perish.

Chapter 61 Israel will be rebuilt. Foreigners will be servants and the wealth of all nations will reside in Zion.

Chapter 62 Zion will be renamed Hephzibah (my delight is in her) and Beulah (married) for Yahweh will marry Jerusalem just as a young man marries a young woman.

Chapter 63 Yahweh makes his garments red with blood by stomping on all the nations like one treading a winepress. Yahweh was once Israel's Savior, but now he turns against them.

Chapter 64 Israel begs Yahweh to come back.

Chapter 65 Yahweh will punish most of the people of Israel for worshipping other gods, but will save a portion of them. Yahweh will create new heavens and a new earth and the former will not be remembered. The new people will live as long as trees, wolf and lamb will feed together, lions will eat straw.

Chapter 66 Yahweh will punish anyone who makes sacrifices to Him. He will execute judgment on all people with fire and with His sword. The dead bodies are eaten by worms and burned forever.