Zealot, How Jesus the man Evolved into Jesus the Christ

Two thousand years ago, an itinerant Jewish preacher and miracle worker walked across the Galilee, gathering followers to establish what he called the “Kingdom of God.” The revolutionary movement he launched was so threatening to the established order that he was captured, tortured, and executed as a state criminal.  Within decades after his shameful death, his followers would call him God.

Balancing the Jesus of the Gospels against the historical sources, Reza Aslan, author of  Zealot The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth, describes a man full of conviction and passion, yet rife with contradiction; a man of peace who exhorted his followers to arm themselves with swords; an exorcist and faith healer who urged his disciples to keep his identity a secret; and ultimately the seditious “King of the Jews” whose promise of liberation from Rome went unfulfilled in his brief lifetime. Aslan explores the reasons why the early Christian church preferred to promulgate an image of Jesus as a peaceful spiritual teacher rather than a politically conscious revolutionary. And he grapples with the riddle of how Jesus understood himself, the mystery that is at the heart of all subsequent claims about his divinity

This, Aslan does very well. His end-notes and bibliography are thorough, informative, and demonstrate an in-depth familiarity with the salient arguments concerning Christianity and the New Testament. The book is well written, and in a style and tone that makes it very hard to put down. The work is organized into three major sections: (1) what we know about 1st century Judea; (2) what Jesus the man was like (the flesh-and-blood peasant laborer from Nazareth), and the religio-political nature of his Galilean messianic movement; and (3) how the zealous views of Jesus and his immediate followers were dramatically altered into something non-Jewish by Paul and the Gentile community.

The first section explicates the dozens of messianic movements that plagued Judea following the death of Herod the Great in 4 BCE. These rebellions tell us much about the historical times and circumstances in which Jesus lived. Aslan reminds us of the apocalyptic Zeitgeist that suffused the whole of Judea (and particularly Galilee), and the powder keg of discontent that Jesus was responding to.

The second section is gripping: Reza Aslan marshals a tour-de-force argument that Jesus is best understood as a staunch critic of both the Roman occupation of Judea (and the destruction of the agricultural roots of the Judean economy), and the corruption of the Herodian elites and the High Priests of the Temple. Jesus calls for justice and a return to the "Kingdom of God" ... not some ethereal and otherworldly kingdom, but the notion embraced by many zealots, that GOD should be in charge of Judea, not the Romans. Jesus' resistance to both Rome and the Temple leads logically to his arrest and execution for "sedition," an attempt to overturn the political and social order. This, after all, is the explicitly stated charge against Jesus in the Gospel of Luke, along with preaching the non-payment of taxes to Rome.

Aslan tells us that the first century was full of countless prophets, preachers, and messiahs delivering messages of God's imminent judgment. There are only two hard historical facts that we can confidently rely on - that Jesus was a Jew who led a popular movement in Palestine, and that Rome crucified him for doing so. (Aslan also points out that crucifixion at that time was reserved for those fomenting insurrection, and that the two crucified with him were seen similarly guilty - the term 'bandit' was the most common term for such.) However, when combined with what we know about that era (thanks to the Romans) we see Jesus as an illiterate peasant with great charisma who became a zealous revolutionary swept up in the political/religious turmoil of the time, with little resemblance to the gentle shepherd image cultivated by the early Christian community. His most pivotal moment was the cleansing of the Temple, an event that led to his arrest and execution. He and his followers break open cages holding animals, kick over the tables of the moneylenders and money changers, and makes a whip out of cords and starts beating people. Why did the gospels seek to transform Jesus from a revolutionary into a peaceful spiritual leader with no interest in any earthly matter? Almost every gospel story about Jesus was composed after the Jewish rebellion against Rome and the subsequent slaughtering of tens of thousands in retaliation. This more peaceful version was a Jesus the Romans could accept, and they did so three centuries later.