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.