Faith or history?

by | Apr 7, 2014 | Book Reviews

The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth
Reza Aslan
Random House, 2013
296 pages, $27.00
ISBN 978-104000-6922-4

Reza Aslan, currently associate professor of creative writing at the University of California, Riverside, is a highly regarded scholar of religions (as opposed to being a religious scholar).

Born in Iran, he is widely-known for his best-selling book, No god but God: The Origins, Evolution, and Future of Islam, a highly readable argument for a liberal interpretation of Islam.

Raised in the United States in what he describes as a “motley family of lukewarm Muslims and exuberant atheists,” Aslan “found Jesus” at the age of 15 while attending an evangelical youth summer camp and eventually became a Christian. His enthusiasm for “sharing the good news of Jesus Christ” became tempered by a growing disbelief in the inerrancy of the Bible, leading him to examine and question the disparity between ‘Jesus the Christ’ and ‘Jesus of Nazareth.’ His mother, influenced by him, also converted from Islam to Christianity. Subsequently Aslan converted from Christianity to Islam and publication of his book set off a firestorm of criticism. “How dare he, a Muslim, write a biography of Jesus?”

In Zealot, Aslan attempts to synthesize and summarize, for the general reader, the accumulated research into the life of Jesus, as well as the development of the Christ legend. He discusses the research in the context of Jewish life in a Palestine ruled by Rome and ultimately decimated during the disastrously unsuccessful Jewish revolt in the first century BCE.

Aslan is generally even-handed in his description of the environment into which Jesus and his followers insinuated themselves, but sometimes appears unable to avoid the use of pejorative description. For example, the moneychangers in the temple courtyard are “grubby money changers;” the high priests are “rapacious;” the Temple priesthood is “bloated;” and the Torah scrolls maintain the “Jewish cult.” Despite this, the most interesting part of the book is perhaps Aslan’s depiction of the times and events surrounding Jesus’ career. Aslan repeatedly ensures us that Jesus and his disciples were Jews and he remains generally successful in his effort “to pry the historical Jesus away from the Christian Christ.” Contributing to the lack of historical clarity, early Christian church leaders felt it necessary to separate Jesus from the zealotry that led to the Jewish revolt against Roman rule and the destruction of Jerusalem. Unfortunately, the author is forced to rely heavily on the writings of Josephus, a Jewish historian of the last third of the first century. Josephus himself is not a totally reliable source, dependent as he was on Roman patronage.

The problem for early church leaders seemed to be that Jesus did not fulfill any of the messianic requirements. The end of days did not come to pass. His promise that God would liberate the Jews from bondage was not fulfilled. Rather than the restoration of the 12 tribes of Israel, the Romans expropriated the land and slaughtered its inhabitants. And the predicted Kingdom of God never developed.

Clearly, as Aslan illustrates, the evangelists, writing decades after the crucifixion, had an extremely poor grasp of Jewish law and Sanhedrin procedure. Descriptions of the trial of Jesus before the Sanhedrin are replete with problems. Jewish law precludes the Sanhedrin meeting at night; nor is it permitted to meet during Passover or on the eve of the Sabbath. Finally, if the Sanhedrin concluded that Jesus blasphemed then the Torah is specific on the punishment: “the congregation shall stone him to death.”

Aslan spends a good bit of time dealing with the matter of the resurrection as a matter of faith rather than history—“without the resurrection the whole edifice of Jesus’ claim to the mantle of messiah comes crashing down.”

Not satisfied to rely on the inerrancy of the Bible, a multitude of scholars have delved into the social and religious culture in which Jesus was born, lived, and died in an attempt to parse the minutiae of his life that can be reasonably validated. Your reviewer has a surprisingly vivid recollection of a controversial work by British biblical scholar, Hugh J. Schonfeld, who 50 years ago published The Passover Plot. Schonfeld concluded, in part,

“That Jesus was a deeply religious Jewish man…[who had]…a skeptical and somewhat rebellious relationship to the hierarchy and teachings mandated by the authorities (the Pharisees) of the Temple in Jerusalem…that Jewish Messianic expectation was extremely high in those times… that he was convinced of his role as the expected Messiah…and that he consciously and methodically…attempted to fulfill that role…being perfectly aware of the consequences of his actions.”

Schonfeld contended that the events of the Passover are more accurately presented in the Gospel of John and that everything from crucifixion to resurrection was planned: Jesus assumed he would not be on the cross for more than a few hours and, still alive, would be taken down according to the law, upon the arrival of the Sabbath. Foiled by the action of a Roman soldier with a spear (who may have stabbed Jesus to put him out of his misery), the plan to literally resurrect Jesus collapsed.

Zealot places on Paul’s shoulders the principal blame for distorting the words and life of Jesus to create a church more acceptable to the pagan believers of Rome. Where Jesus is believed to have said “Not everyone who says to me ‘Lord Lord’ shall enter the kingdom of heaven,” Paul’s epistle to the Romans says that “everyone who calls upon the name of the Lord will be saved.” Aslan concludes that:

“…two thousand years later, the Christ of Paul’s creation has utterly subsumed the Jesus of history. The memory of the revolutionary zealot who walked across Galilee gathering an army of disciples with the goal of establishing the Kingdom of God on earth, the magnetic preacher who defied the authority of the Temple priesthood in Jerusalem, the radical Jewish nationalist who challenged the Roman occupation and lost, has been almost completely lost to history.”

—Hal Sacks is a retired Jewish communal worker who has reviewed books for Jewish News for more than 30 years.