Unravelling The Jesus Of History
08 September, 2013
Reza Aslan's "Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth" is a biography of Jesus of Nazareth, an effort to unravel the Jesus of history, a very difficult task due to the paucity of historical material other than the canonized Gospels. Azlan painstakingly dives into Roman historical archives and whatever written history available from the Hebrew sources.
The picture that emerges is both fascinating and may be a little unsettling for the 'true' faithful Christians. Jesus of Nazareth roamed Galilean villages and towns, carefully avoiding the cities, at a time the 'messianic zeal' against the Roman occupation of Palestine was at its peak. So many messiahs roamed Palestine challenging the Roman occupation before and after the life Jesus. Most of them were executed, more accurately, crucified, a punishment common in those times, for the crime of sedition and treason. His message was both against the corrupt priestly class who colluded with the occupying forces as well as against occupation. The fact that he was 'crucified' means that his punishment was for sedition and treason against the Roman empire rather than anything else.
According to Aslan Jesus was probably a disciple of John the Baptist. He preached John's message to the poor and the destitute. Self proclaimed messiahs roaming the Palestine countryside doing exorcisms, curing the sick and doing miracles was a common sight. What distinguished Jesus from others was that he did it for free, mostly for the poor and impure. As to the veracity of his miracles, Aslan cautions, we should not view them with our scientific rationality of modernity but how it was perceived by the first century illiterate Jews. As to the “Kingdom of God” he preached it belonged to this world.
His preaching was precisely aimed at fellow Jews. This tradition continued even after Jesus' crucifixion especially under the leadership of Jesus' brother, James the Just, Peter and John. They did not consider Jesus as God or even as Son of God. They never challenged authority of Temple of Jerusalem, the spiritual and power center of the Jewish cult. They wanted the nascent Church of Jesus to follow the Jewish laws of Moses and the rituals. It was Paul who was a Greek educated diaspora Jew, who changed it all. He was the one who elevated Jesus to the status of Son of God or even God incarnate and named him 'Jesus Christ'. He started preaching to the gentiles and converting them to the nascent religion. For him the central point of the new religion was faith, as opposed to the Moses's laws and rituals advocated by James the Just and the apostles. Incensed by this Paul was summoned to Jerusalem by James the Just, and ordered to correct his ways and do a purification ceremony at the Jerusalem temple (Acts 17-26). It was here that other diaspora Jews recognized him as the one who advised them to break Moses's laws. Paul is arrested and exiled to Rome as he was a Roman citizen.
A decade after this in 66 AD Palestinian Jews rise up in revolt and Rome retreats. For four years Palestine is a free nation! Rome returns to Palestine with reinforcement and raid and destroy the Palestine villages one after other and lay siege to the Holy city and in 70 AD, Jerusalem is taken and the temple is destroyed. The Jerusalamite Church of James the Just also was destroyed, its followers either killed or scattered over the empire. The umbilical cord that linked Jesus the Nazarean's life and his teachings to his Church was broken forever.
With Jerusalem's destruction a new religion was born under Paul's Christology. Paul's teaching was total break from Moses's law. Its corner stone was faith. Abiding the law or performing the rituals will not give you an entry to the “Kingdom of God”
All the canonized Gospels were written after the destruction of Jerusalem. So, it was necessary for the Gospel writers to temper or even completely absolve Jesus of Jewish nationalism to make it palatable to the mainly Roman (Empire) audience. That is why the historical Jesus was lost to us. What remained was the Jesus of Paul ie, Jesus the Christ. Paul's epistles were written before the canonized Gospels. So it was natural that they were heavily influenced by Paul's writings. Luke was even one of the disciples of Paul.
The nascent religion spread slowly in the Roman empire first among the diaspora Jews and then among the gentiles and in AD 325 Emperor Constantine called the first council of Nicaea and asked the bishops to arrive at a consensus on the Godly nature of Jesus. And thus the Christianity as we know it is born.
I was always curious and confused about the contradictions of the various teachings and episodes of Jesus' life as told in the Gospels. Take for instance, the arrest of Jesus, his instructions to his apostles about spreading the word, abiding the Jewish law etc. This book by Aslan sheds light on many of these contradictions. As Aslan says, it is the result of two decaedes of research.
There were other narratives of Jesus's life by author's like Kazant Zakis', "Last Temptation of Jesus Christ", Jose Zaramago's "Gospel According to Jesus Christ" and even avowedly the Marxist and atheist Passolini's "Gospel According To St Mathew" follow more or less the canonized Christology of Paul. Reza Aslan's "Zealot" is definitely a better attempt to unravel Jesus the Nazarean. We must all thank him for that.
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