Sunday, October 06, 2013

Book Review - Zealot by Reza Aslan


According to American theology academic Reza Aslan's Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth, the historical Jesus was a revolutionary, a rebel, a dissenter. He was not a pacifist and his "Kingdom of God" was not detached from the human world, but in reference to a land free from Roman rule and the greed and corruption of the Temple priestly elite. He was dedicated to his Jewish faith, and he was solely concerned with his Jewish brethren. He was deeply involved in the issues of his people and with the political movements at the time. And so instead of the figure that people now recognize in Jesus, of divine detachment, hippie , peace-preaching ways, and miracles, we have a figure that was one of many who took on the mantle of messiah, who fought for his people and a vision of a Kingdom in which the weak became strong, the rich became poor, a figure who reacted strongly against the oppression of his people,the greed of the Priests, was prepared for violence and ended up dying for his cause.

What's also interesting is Aslan's looking at the development of the Christian faith after Jesus' death, though its not gone into in any great detail. The alterations and innovations made by those writing for a Greek and Roman audience completely changed Jesus as a figure and what he was preaching. Aslan looks at the significant opposing views of Paul, who had never met Jesus, and the person who was most significant in the years following Jesus' death, his brother James, who led the early Jesus Movement out of Jerusalem. James and the movement he led were very much tied to their traditional Jewish cult and practices, maintaining that Jesus was the messiah, whilst Paul proclaimed that in essence, Jesus was a cosmic being, a concept that was not only bizarre, but heretical, in traditional Jewish eyes. Once James had been killed and following the events of the Jewish Revolt in which Jerusalem and the temple were razed, Paul became the leading figure of the early Christian church. From this moment, Christianity took on a form that was born and molded in a Hellenistic world view, a view that deliberately distanced itself from the revolutionary actions and political messages against the Roman empire.

In what I think is very telling of how ideas can evolve over time (and become warped by those who appropriate the message to their own ends) ,we can look at the story of Jesus' death, in which many (Bible) stories, progressively over time, turn Pontius Pilate(who was known for his disregard of Jewish religion and his huge number of death sentences and crucifixions) into a figure that tried his best to save Jesus, and in turn makes the Jewish people look the villains, crying out for Jesus' blood. Though this version of events is quite obviously not true, given the nature of Roman rule and the reputation of Pontius Pilate, as well as the mysterious motive of why the Jewish people would wish for Jesus' death, it is the foundation for thousands of years of Christian anti-Semitism.

This book probably received plenty of criticism from the academic community for its simplification of the study of Jesus. Personally I was unacquainted with the historical background or even the general basic information regarding the historical Jesus, and so as a layman I found this book really interesting, useful and an enjoyable read. I think the fact that Aslan makes (his) arguments for the historical Jesus and the historical and cultural context easily understandable and accessible to the general public, to those like myself who are unaware of the academic study, is really good. It was a good introduction and provoked my curiosity to continue reading into the area, which is made easier by the excellent notes and references list at the end of the book.

This book is not making any kind of faith-based argument for or against Jesus Christ. Any criticism coming from a Christian faith perspective is irrelevant; this is about the historical Jesus, Jesus of Nazareth. Reading about what we can infer about Jesus and the events surrounding him from historical fact is fascinating, and I would venture to say that the historical Jesus is one that is every bit as interesting, if not more so than the one that has become a Godhead for the global religion. For me, the Jesus of faith has always been detached, unrealistic, unattainable. People imagine him as some white guy (he was a JEW) in immaculate linens, far above any kind of human politics or hardship, healing the sick and preaching about God

Overall, as Aslan passionately states, the loss of the Jesus of Nazareth to history is a huge shame "Because the one thing any comprehensive study of the historical Jesus should hopefully reveal is that Jesus of Nazareth - Jesus the man - is every bit as compelling, charismatic,and praiseworthy as Jesus the Christ. He is, in short, someone worth believing in."

As a side note, its really worth checking out the disastrous and ridiculous Fox News interview with Reza Aslan and the interviewer's insistence that despite Reza Aslan's impressive scholarly credentials, he has no right to write about Jesus, because as a Muslim he must have an agenda.

-RLH


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1 comment:

Camo Star said...

Good thoughts, thanks for the review. I'd quite like to check out the book sometime too. From what I'v heard, Aslan seems well-read and well-qualified!

Though I don't know if this is Aslan or you because I haven't read the book, here's a few thoughts: On the "solely concerned with his Jewish brethren," I would point out that the writings of the prophets in the Hebrew scriptures which were a large part of the thought-world of 1st Century Palestine, especially apocalyptic groups, did emphasise the ultimate inclusion of the Gentiles in God's plan, tied in with the vindication of the poor, widows, blind, lame, and other categories denoting vulnerability and oppression in the same thought-world. If Jesus only saw soldiers and high-ranking Roman officials I think it would be easier to say he was solely concerned with his brethren, but it's likely there were other Gentiles (slaves, Samaritans), who were in similar straits as the Jews.

On Paul and later Christians, it should be remembered that for the something like the first 300 years after Jesus and in parts of the Empire after that, Christians were not looked favorably upon by many. Also, Paul was a Jew, and though he participated in vastly different worlds, most New Testament scholars now understand him primarily as a Jewish thinker. Based on the New Testament sources, his education is ambiguous, though he did become a tent-maker, an occupation quite low on the social spectrum. He was imprisoned a few times in his life, faced whippings and stoning, and was probably eventually martyred. Early Christianity, as a radical challenge to the powers of empire, proclaimed not Caesar but Jesus as Lord, which, along with other practices and perceptions, resulted in widespread persecution. Jesus was not a revolutionary quickly domesticated by those after him, but his challenge was taken up.

It's sad that later theologians developed the Hellenistic notion of the impassibility of God, that is God cannot suffer. Paul, however, saw God in the person of Jesus, but not the far-off, everything gets better when you die God, but the God who becomes human, a "slave", and suffers and dies. I think Zizek and Badiou have both attempted to reclaim Paul as an important thinker.

Let me know what you think =)