Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth (Reza Aslan)

Posted: November 6, 2014 in nonfiction, other media
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So. The ex and I had been married for a few years, and still hadn’t seen all of each other’s favorite movies, so I made her watch What Dreams May Come. I love this film – it touches on the love of children for their father, it goes into how to deal with grief and extreme depression in a romantic partner, and it’s visually one of the more beautiful films I’ve seen. Afterward, I asked her what she thought, and she was just like, eh. It’s okay. When I asked her to elaborate, she said, “It’s not real.” Of course it’s not real! It’s not intended to provide a road map of the afterlife. It’s a story about love and responses to grief; death is just a convenient way to isolate a few characters and re-juxtapose them so they don’t recognize each other. Diana Wynne Jones and C. S. Lewis do this by transporting characters into magical fantasy worlds; the filmmakers just used death instead of a magical wardrobe. For me, the fact that the movie isn’t real doesn’t matter.

This question came up in reading Zealot. The book is a biography of Jesus, based on historical research. Being based on documented fact instead of the accounts written by his followers, the depiction of Jesus is rather different than what most people expect. But, like with What Dreams May Come, is it real? And does that matter?

The Fox-News interview focused on his credentials instead of on his book, so let’s review those. Aslan was raised a Muslim in Iran, but his family fled to the United States. Islam became a reminder of the troubles they were escaping, so most of them left off practicing. As a teenager, he became converted to evangelical Christianity; preparing for college, he reverted to Islam. He got a PhD in religion and an MFA in creative writing, attending the illustrious Iowa Writers’ Workshop. This much he tells us himself, in the introductory material. First off, we need to address the IWW. It’s famous for producing some of America’s finest writers in the last few decades. However, I’ve noticed that while they all have different interests and foci in their work, they all tend to sound the same. The IWW style is clear, concise, serviceable. But it’s not florid. I like florid. I like it when an author luxuriates in language simply because he loves words. The IWW writers don’t do this. For them, language is not a paintbrush; it’s a screwdriver. There were no passages of especial beauty for me to transcribe here – Aslan has written the least emotional account of Jesus’ life I’ve ever read, possibly the least emotional account of any person’s life. It draws the reader in, moves quickly, shows off the author’s vocabulary, describes the setting sufficiently to place the reader in the world depicted, all those things that good prose is supposed to do, except make the reader fall in love. Porro unum est necessarium.

What is a Muslim doing writing about Jesus? Well, what is Islam? Submission to God, worship of the single monotheistic God. Therefore, all the prophets, all of ‘God’s people,’ have been Muslims. Islam teaches of four major prophets: Abraham, Moses, Jesus, and Muhammad. Followers of Abraham, Moses, and Jesus were just as much Muslims as those who follow Muhammad today. The Qur’an tells stories about Jesus; they have just as much a right to him as anyone else. Christians write books about Jeremiah and Isaiah; Muslims can write about Jesus. The point that Aslan focused on, though, is that he has a terminal degree in religion. He teaches religion in a prestigious university. It’s his job to talk about Jesus all day long. He’s not writing a book about faith; it’s a book about a historical person, one that the author has spent years studying. I could write my thesis on Charlotte Brontë and Jane Austen without being an Englishwoman; Aslan can write a book about Jesus without being Christian.

But he’s wrong in implying that Islam has nothing to do with his book. Iran tends to be mostly Shia; this is the minority of Muslims that are more prone to violent acts in the name of God. When he describes the Jewish Robin Hoods that were trying to throw off the yoke of the Roman oppressor, waving their swords and shouting “No lord but God,” it sounds an awful lot like Muslim extremists who go into their fight against Israel (or more moderate Muslims) saying the “La illaha.” Aslan never makes this explicit, but his language certainly invites the comparison. He makes Jesus seem like a two-thousand-year-old suicide bomber. Aslan rips apart the Christian idea of Jesus and replaces it with a narrative that fits more closely with Islam’s presentation of him, including the idea that the deification of Jesus began with Paul, who rarely concerned himself with what Jesus actually said.

The first quarter of Aslan’s book describes the historical context, going back about 150 years before Jesus was born and extending a hundred years or so after he died. The focus is on the interaction between Jerusalem and Rome. Judea was a troublous province way off in the sticks; they wouldn’t submit to assimilating nicely like all the other conquered peoples. Jerusalem was the home of the Temple, the symbol of the Jews’ faith and their most important gathering-place. This was where God spoke to the people. The priests tended to live in luxury while the rest of the Jews got poorer and poorer. They blamed their poverty on the wealthy foreigners who moved into their cities (or built their own new cities on Jewish land). There were a number of violent insurgents who tried to drive the foreign elements out of their land and free the Jews; a lot of them were called messiahs. Rome was brutal in putting down the insurgents. They called them bandits and thieves, like the two who talked to Jesus when they were all hanging around on the crosses. The extreme violence makes this a terrible time and place to have lived. This part of the book, I think, would be of great interest and import to those people who want to understand the world Jesus lived in, what he would have considered normal. These are his cultural expectations.

The second quarter, a little longer than the first, tells the story of the life of Jesus. There are very few reliable historical documents that refer to him; Aslan talks about Josephus’s brief mentions of him. Some of this section is derived directly from the source material in the first: Jesus was killed for the same crime as some of these other guys, so let’s see what they did to draw attention to themselves and then assume that Jesus did something similar. Aslan has a troubled relationship with the Bible; some parts he dismisses as fabrications, others he treats as historical fact, and he rarely tells us why he treats the stories so differently. The thing is, like What Dreams May Come, most of the Bible was never intended to be taken as literal historical fact. The different gospels were written with different purposes in mind: to compare Jesus to King David as king of Israel, or to convince people that he was this eternal god incarnated for a brief time, for example. The stories in the gospel aren’t about facts; they’re about truth. If your messiah is an illiterate, probably illegitimate peasant, then you’ll need to argue that he’s descended from the royal line of Israel, whether anyone believes it or not. The point of those genealogies is to tell us who Jesus should remind us of, not to trace a literal family tree.

In chucking out a good bit of the gospels, Aslan is chucking out the Qur’an as well. Muslims also believe in the virgin birth, though Aslan dismisses it as a patent impossibility. He says that either Joseph jumped the fence or Mary was sleeping with a Roman soldier. Yet, he accepts Jesus’ ability to perform miracles. The area was full of faith healers, and no one (in the Roman government or American academia) seems to have opposed them. Why can we accept the idea that Jesus was an actual magician, but not that he was born magically? Aslan seems arbitrary in his choice of what he will accept and what he will not. As another example, Aslan does not challenge the story of the Transfiguration even though there were only four people present for it and none of them wrote the story of it. None of them could have, not being able to read or write. The gospels come from two basic sources, Mark and Q. Mark was written thirty years or so after Jesus died, and I’m not sure about Q. Q has gone missing, but scholars have recreated much of it by using the shared material in Matthew and Luke. And John, well, John’s just different.

The main point is that Jesus defied the authority of Rome and the Temple. The Temple was in Rome’s pocket anyway, since they appointed the high priests. Jesus drove out the Roman influence and said a lot of Jerusalem-for-the-Jews kind of stuff. There was also the Triumphal Entry. Jesus was challenging Rome, so the Romans killed him, just as they had everyone else who had done the same thing. It’s pretty simple.

Much simpler than the task of harmonizing the four gospels. The only other account of Jesus’ life I’ve read is James E Talmage’s Jesus the Christ. His attempts are sometimes contrived, and his story is much drier. Even in the faith tradition Talmage comes from, his book is considered difficult to get through. He puts forth a valiant effort to make the four different stories fit together; often he’s successful, sometimes not so much. Talmage accepts everything in the gospels as gospel, though, unlike Aslan.

The third section is comparatively brief. It covers the time after Jesus’ death. It reads a bit like The Brontë Myth; it’s about the creation of Jesus as a phenomenon, how he is uncoupled from his historical reality and transformed into The Christ. Aslan blames first Stephen, who claimed to see Jesus sitting at the right hand of God (and therefore in a position of equivalent power and authority), right before he was stoned to death for blasphemy. Yeah, it is blasphemous, and Jesus would have seen it that way too. The next, more important culprit is Paul. Originally he went around persecuting the followers of Jesus, but he had a dramatic conversion experience and joined their team. But the problem is that he never really joined them. He took the idea of Jesus to the Greek-influenced foreigners and repackaged him for their consumption. That’s why he stripped away all of that Law-of-Moses stuff: so that his Hellenic audience would buy it. The real followers of Christ in Jerusalem didn’t. They called him back to Jerusalem to try to get him back in line with the rest of them, but he absolutely refused. Paul went on inventing Christian theology with nary a thought as to the actual historical Jesus, whom most people could still remember (if they had ever heard of him before Paul started preaching). Unfortunately in the eyes of some, Paul’s version caught on in Rome (even though Peter got there before him), and when Christianity became the religion of the empire, it was Paul’s version, which he mostly made up himself.

The really important guy was James, Jesus’ brother. Despite what many Christians believe, James was the real leader of the group of Jesus’ followers, not Peter or Paul. He did everything he could to keep the real, historical, political, Jewish Jesus alive in people’s minds and hearts. His version of things wasn’t so popular with the literate, powerful crowd as Paul’s was, so he has faded with time. James was the monotheistic one who didn’t associate anyone else in the worship of God; Paul started all that polytheistic weirdness we call the Trinity.

The last third of the book is documentation and source material, so maybe Aslan isn’t as arbitrary as he seemed to me. But reading through bibliographical references isn’t very interesting, so I skipped that part. Besides, I don’t know enough about the academic study of Jesus’ life to recognize any of his citations.

How should Christians take all this? Well, they survived The Da Vinci Code, they can survive this. They already believe in a lot of things that defy logic, so I don’t see how a logical argument like this one can pose any sort of threat at all. It’s so polarized that it will only convince those who are already inclined to agree with it. It’s easy to dismiss if you’re thoroughly convinced in the literal interpretation of the Bible. I found Aslan’s book convincing, despite the occasional inconsistencies, but I was raised in a church where the most influential leader of the nineteenth century said that the story of creation in Genesis is more of a bedtime story than anything to do with either history or science.

Which leads me back to What Dreams May Come. So, I’ve determined that the stories in the Bible aren’t factual. But does that matter? Like the film, they were never intended as such. There are still a lot of good ethical ideas in Christian writings, still a lot of beauty in Christian poetry, still some comfort to be had in Christian ritual. But I can admit that without having to adopt their version of a suicidal, bloodthirsty, vengeful, jealous, possibly plural god. I don’t have to reject everything in Christianity, but I don’t have to accept it all either. I just need to remember that in my ongoing search for spiritual guidance, I can’t rely on those who interpret the bible literally. It all has to be taken with a grain of salt.

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