A History Unlike Any Other
I can’t think of a book whose text I’ve highlighted more than Reza Aslan’s fascinating new biography, “Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth.” There are so many incredible points I’d never thought about, so many new takes on this 2000+ year-old story.
First off, this is not a debunking of Jesus Christ. It’s neither blasphemy nor sacrilege. The author, in his foreword, proclaims his Christianity. Still, this book might still make some devout Christians uncomfortable, even angry. Read it anyway. There is much to be learned.
“Zealot” is the product of over twenty years of research, and Reza Aslan’s well-researched and documented theories are like nothing I’ve ever read.
There are three basic areas of focus. First, he examines the Jewish world near the dawn of the First Century C.E. Jesus of Nazareth was not the only messiah walking around back then. There were dozens, all of them claiming to be the son of God, performing miracles, and preaching to big crowds. It’s not like Jesus turned thirty, then began doing something nobody else had been doing.
John the Baptist was different, preaching charity and humanity. He baptized people in the Jordan, regardless of whether they were rich or poor. There was no charge at all. More on that in a minute.
When Jesus came to be baptized by John the Baptist, He stood in line like everyone else. When John baptized him, there wasn’t a clap of thunder, a voice calling down from heaven, or a dove appearing out of nowhere. What happened was that Jesus became one of John the Baptist’s disciples for a period.
When Jesus began his ministry, He was considered just another preaching exorcist/magician wandering around Galilee. However, there was one big difference with Jesus: He didn’t charge for his miracles. Not a cent. The other roving “Messiahs” charged a lot.
The second part of Aslan’s book deals with the cozy relationship between the Jewish High Priests and the Roman governors. Jerusalem was the center of Judaism, and the Romans tolerated it—even welcomed it—as long as it kept the people in line. At Passover and other High Holy Days, Jews flocked to Jerusalem. The outer parts of the huge temple complex were filled with vendors selling sacrificial animals. The High Priest took a cut of everything the temple made, and he lived like a king.
One thing the Jewish High Priest never failed to do was make an arrangement with the reigning Roman governor, who also got a taste of the profits. Thus, it became doubly valuable for the governor to allow Judaism’s continued practice.
Jesus and his band of disciples—all of them essentially illiterate peasants and day laborers—stuck to the smaller towns and villages for most of His travels. Gradually, word got out that Jesus of Nazareth could heal the sick, and He spoke of a new kingdom to come. His reputation grew until He had His Biblically documented triumphant ride into Jerusalem for Passover.
And Jesus did go a little Old Testament on the temple. He overturned the loan-sharks’ tables, freed the sacrificial animals, and yelled at those who dared defile the temple. The Jewish elders tried and convicted Jesus, and the penalty for his actions was death by stoning. The Romans had a rule about that—no Jewish executions. Because Jesus was preaching about a new world order (for lack of a better term), Jesus was tried and convicted by the Romans, who sentenced Him to be crucified for sedition. The big trial in front of Pontius Pilate?
If Jesus and Pilate were even in the same room, it’s likely Pilate just wrote Jesus’s name down on an official scroll, and sent him on to Golgotha. The hand-washing thing? Offering a choice between Jesus and Barrabas? Pilate having a change of heart?
The final part of Aslan’s book—and a mindblower for me—was his discussion of early Christianity, specifically the completely different stories told by the Apostles and the newly minted Christian, Paul.
Paul’s version of Christ’s ministry was very different from what the Apostles remember. Paul added all the magic and showmanship, the drama and melodrama, things many of which never happened.
“Zealot” read almost like an adventure. Unlike some histories, I fought to find time to read it. It was that beautifully written and fascinating.
What Reza Aslan has done is challenge that much of Christianity is based on a Christ who never existed. BUT, the Jesus who DID exist was a spectacular, wonderfully inspired man worth every bit of adulation He receives.
Most Highly Recommended
(nb: I received an advance review copy of this title from the publisher via NetGalley)