Perhaps the most fascinating part of Zealot, then, is the analysis of how Jesus was tamed by his own followers, and why. Soon after his death, the early Jesus movement split between the “Hebrews” who stayed in Jerusalem under James’ leadership, and the Hellenists abroad led by Paul. The bitter infighting between them would be resolved by force majeure: the disastrous failure of the Jewish rebellion against Rome, which led to the torching of Jerusalem in the year 70 and the expulsion of surviving Jews from what remained of the city. With the “Hebrew” faction thus in disarray, the Hellenist appeal of Paul’s Christianity won out, and Jesus’ specifically Jewish revolutionary fervor would be toned down to suit a much larger audience: the Roman empire itself.
This entailed absolving the Romans from responsibility for the crucifixion, instead blaming the unruly (and unrulable) Jews, and thus laying the basis for two millennia of Christian anti-Semitism. Where the early Jesus movement was Jewish, Christianity would now be anything but. As Aslan notes, the gospels are, in this sense, a radical break with history — a wiping out of the specific past to be replaced by a universal future.
Yet Zealot itself is testament to the fact that they didn’t quite succeed. Aslan’s insistence on human and historical actuality turns out to be far more interesting than dogmatic theology, and certainly more intriguing and exciting for any modern reader not piously devoted to the idea of gospel truth. This tough-minded, deeply political book does full justice to the real Jesus, and honors him in the process.
Lesley Hazleton reviewed this book for The San Francisco Chronicle.