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ZEALOT: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth
ZEALOT: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth
Reza Aslan
Random House, 2013
296 pp., $27.00

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Robert Gundry


Jesus as a Jewish Jihadist

Reza Aslan's "Zealot."

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There are other errors, but it's time to stop nibbling around the edges. As to the central thesis that Jesus was a revolutionary, Aslan has to admit that in AD 10-36—i.e., during Jesus' teens and on through his public ministry and beyond—"the Galileans enjoyed a period of peace and tranquility." This "most stable period in the entire first century" casts doubt on Jesus' supposed anti-Roman revolutionism. So Aslan has to resort to speaking of a "slow burn." To maintain that Jesus "render[ed] irrelevant the entire priestly establishment and their costly, exclusivistic [sacrificial] rituals," Aslan similarly has to say that "Jesus is joking" when telling a healed leper to go offer the Mosaically prescribed sacrificial gift for a testimony to the priests. Jesus' saying to "go also the second mile" when a Roman soldier requisitions you to carry his gear "one mile" ill suits Aslan's speaking of Jesus' "condemnation of the Roman occupation."

Astonishingly, Aslan affirms Jesus' teaching that Caesar should be paid back the tax owed him, exactly opposite what a revolutionary should or would have said. Then Aslan tries shifting the issue from tax-paying to that of Palestine as "God's land" (emphasis original), which should be paid back to him. But nothing in the context speaks of the Holy Land, and Jesus' addressees (Pharisees and Herodians) were in no position vis-à-vis the Romans to give that land back to God. Aslan might have been better off to deny the historicity of that episode, except that doing so would have made more obvious than ever the Procrustean bed he uses to amputate materials unfriendly to his thesis.

Granted, the Jews who acclaimed Jesus at his triumphal entry into Jerusalem probably thought of him as a messianic king who would overthrow the Romans; but the Jesus who proceeded to cleanse the temple as "a house of prayer for all the nations" and aimed "to give his life a ransom for many" seems to have had in mind something different from a messianic rebellion against Rome. The two swords that he told his disciples were "enough" would hardly have sufficed for such a rebellion, and his repeated predictions of his own and his disciples' violent deaths betray a nonexpectation of God's imminent overthrow of Rome.

Though Jesus wasn't "a violent revolutionary bent on armed rebellion," he "instructs his disciples immediately after the Passover meal" to go sell their cloaks and each buy a sword, as for a violent revolution. So says Aslan, but he fails to mention the context of an evangelistic mission requiring not only a sword for self-protection but also a purse, bag, and sandals for travel, just as he fails to mention that Jesus' bringing a sword has to do, figuratively and contextually, with division in families over whether to follow Jesus, not with revolution against Rome (compare Jesus' saying in the different context of violence that "all who take the sword will perish by the sword"). Undoubtedly Jesus was crucified as "The King of the Jews"—i.e., as a messianic rebel—but Aslan has to doubt or deny that the Sanhedrin shifted from the religious charge of blasphemy, under which they condemned Jesus, to a false political charge of sedition when arraigning him before Pilate.

Stephen's seeing Jesus at God's right hand is supposed to have launched "a wholly new religion," divorced from "the historical person known as Jesus of Nazareth." Such a dictum requires a denial that Jesus himself predicted he would take a position at God's right hand. "After the Jewish revolt and the destruction of Jerusalem [in ad 70]," according to Aslan, "the early Christian church tried desperately to distance Jesus from the zealous nationalism that had led to that awful war" and consequently "transform[ed] their messiah from a fierce Jewish nationalist into a pacifistic preacher of good works whose kingdom was not of this world." It's strange, then, that Paul wrote already in the 50s that "the kingdom of God is … righteousness and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit" (Romans 14:16). But Paul and Peter didn't share "the same faith," says Aslan. So it's strange once more that in 1 Corinthians 3:22 Paul included Peter along with himself and Apollos as those belonging in Christ to the Corinthian believers (see also 1:10-17).

Beyond further criticisms, deserving of mention are Aslan's flights of imagination, whether they be true or false: "After his baptism" Jesus "stayed in the wilderness for a while … to learn from John [the Baptist] and to commune with his [John's] followers." When Jesus cleanses the temple, "a corps of Roman guards and heavily armed Temple police blitz through the courtyard looking to arrest whoever is responsible for the mayhem." Jesus died "on a bald hill covered in crosses, beset by the cries and moans of agony from hundreds of dying criminals as a murder of crows circled eagerly over his head waiting for him to breathe his last." The assassin "[w]ho killed Jonathan son of Ananus as he strode across the Temple Mount in the year 56 c.e." was probably "the first to cry, 'Murder!' " Such lively prose befits an "associate professor of creative writing" who holds "a master of fine arts in fiction" as well as "a Ph.D. in the sociology of religions."

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