Zealot? A biography of Jesus could have no more provocative title, but it turns out to be perfect for Reza Aslan’s unearthing (or should that be un-heavening?) of “the Jesus before Christianity.” As Aslan cogently demonstrates, the real Jesus — the radical Jew who preached, agitated and was executed for his pains—– was a far more complex figure than many Christians care to acknowledge.
The zeal in question is religious and political. At a time when this sort of zealotry is associated predominantly with Islamic extremists, it’s fascinating to see similar processes at work in 1st century Jewish Palestine, which was occupied territory — occupied, that is, by the Romans. In opposition, messianic nationalist movements created what Aslan aptly describes as “zealous warriors of God who would cleanse the land of all foreigners and idolaters.”
This is the historical and political context Jesus was born into, one that takes us beyond the Christ figure created by his followers after his death to the actual man, “a revolutionary swept up, as all Jews of his era were, in religious and political turmoil.”
Given that turmoil, it should come as no surprise that “the Jesus of history had a far more complex attitude toward violence” than is usually assumed. Gentle shepherds don’t have much place here. Aslan reads the admonitions to love your enemies and turn the other cheek as directed toward relationships between Jews, not between Jews and foreigners, and especially not between Jews and occupiers. “The message was one of repossessing the land,” he writes, “a movement of national liberation for the afflicted and oppressed.” A kingdom, that is, very much of this world, not another.
This historical territory has been explored before, by biblical scholars such as Richard Horsley and Dominic Crossan. But in Aslan’s hands, it gains broader resonance. He brings to bear his expertise in the volatile territory of politics and religion (his earlier book Beyond Fundamentalism analyzed the root causes of militant religious extremism) as well as his deep background as a scholar of religion, renowned especially for the most readable history of Islam yet written, No god but God.
As in those earlier books, not only does he get the full picture, but he can also write — sometimes irresistibly, as when he drops into a kind of tongue-in-cheek interfaith slang, mentioning Herod’s “nebbish sons,” for instance, and Herod himself as “King of the Jews, no less!”
But cherished legends, watch out. Aslan can be scathingly dismissive of such episodes as Salome dancing for John the Baptist’s head or Pontius Pilate’s interrogation of Jesus. Prepare for words like “nonsense” and “fairy tale” as he traces what holds up historically (and geographically), and what’s been elided, even deliberately disguised, in the gospel accounts. Which is not to blame the gospel writers. Aslan points out that the concept of empirically valid historical reality is a relatively modern one. “It would have been an altogether foreign concept to the gospel writers for whom history was not a matter of uncovering facts, but of revealing truths.”