On July 26 last year, Fox New’s Lauren Green did an interview of Reza Aslan, author of Zealot, that many people found offensive. She questioned his ability as a Muslim to write a book about Jesus. Aslan pointed out that he is a scholar of religions. He wondered why she questioned that a scholar of whatever faith could research and write such a book. The interview went viral on the Internet and did a great deal to stimulate the sales of the book. (Makes me hunger for a similar interview for the book the Rev. Wayne Arnason and I edited titled Buddhist Voices in Unitarian Universalism. I’d enjoy being indigent as I’m asked how can two Unitarian Universalist ministers say anything about Buddhism.)
Still, Aslan waded into a stormy sea of research, speculation and controversy that has been navigated for the last several hundred years by many Biblical scholars of impressive credentials and accomplishments. Yes, Aslan has three graduate degrees but not focused on Biblical research.
One is from the University of Iowa where he studied creative writing (the subject he actually teaches at the University of California, Riverside); the second was a two-year masters degree at the Harvard Divinity School, where he concentrated on Islam; and his doctorate was not, as he indignantly told the hapless Green, in “the history of religions.” Rather, he wrote an exceedingly brief sociological study of “Global Jihadism as a Transnational Movement,” at UC Santa Barbara. (From excellent review in Jewish Review of Books by Allan Nadler)
Still, I’ll give him credit for the research he has done which is a lot more than I have. I bought the book before that interview because I knew Alsan is an engaging writer. After the interview I felt much more motivated to open it and read it which I have now done.
I’ve also read some more scholarly critiques of the book. While reading them pick it apart and huff and puff about this or that book he didn’t reference, I remembered what he wrote in his introduction:
Granted, writing a biography of Jesus of Nazareth … is somewhat akin to putting together a massive puzzle with only a few of the pieces in hand; one has no choice but to fill in the rest of the puzzle based on the best, most educated guess of what the completed image should look like…Scholars tend to see the Jesus they want to see. Too often they see themselves—their own reflection—in the image of Jesus they have constructed.
That is true of Aslan as well I’ll say. He also notes in his author’s preface that every argument he makes will likely be both supported and refuted by an array of scholars.
The basic problem here is the very scant first person evidence scholars use for their work. Much of what we know about the flesh and blood Jesus (and some even doubt that he existed at all) comes from suspect sources. None of the Gospel writers knew Jesus personally, saw him perform miracles or die on the cross, let alone come back from the dead. The letters of Paul are some of our earliest sources and he is utterly uninterested in Jesus-in-the-flesh. He is only interested in the Risen Christ he has directly encountered and whose message he preached to Hellenized Jewish followers of Jesus scattered around the Roman Empire.
The literate people who recorded the events of the day that have been preserved didn’t write much about the territory then called Judah. It was a backwater of the Roman Empire, more of a distraction than a focus for the emperor. The first non-Chrisian independent source is the Roman historian Josephus writing about the Jewish Wars. We can learn a lot about the Jewish rebellion from Rome in this book but precious little about Jesus or the Jesus movement. Almost all the sources we have come from the Christian tradition and not so friendly Rabbinical commentary in the Talmud.
Most of what we have is not from impartial observers just looking for the facts. They had a different idea about telling a story. The documentation of the life of Jesus had the purpose of proclaiming him as a savior. The stories and quotes were selected to serve that purpose. If any counter narratives were quoted, they were edited and corrected to support their purpose. The Gospel writers purpose is to support the hearer’s faith in Jesus the Christ not to let you make up your own mind based on the evidence presented.
But scholars are very clever at teasing what they think was closer to the truth out of the edited and embellished texts the Church decided to preserve. We also have later discoveries of texts not preserved by the church like the Gospel of Thomas that is a collection of sayings of Jesus, some familiar and others not. What Aslan has done is taken this material and the interpretations of it by eminent scholars then distilled it down into the creative narrative of what he thinks actually happened. And he tells a good story. That story is what I’d like to consider now.
First we need to understand what a ‘zealot’ was. Zealots were individuals who strove to live a life of zeal, dedicated to preserving and practicing their faith and traditions. Zealous Jews were protecting the identity of their faith from syncretism with Greek and Roman beliefs and practices. This is an age old struggle for Jews living along side people who practice different religions. The Torah is full of railing against people worshiping Baal and the golden calf. This drove Moses nuts and provided the fodder for countless prophets. In that way, Jesus was clearly a zealot for Judaism as opposed to Pagan, Greek and Roman religion.
There was however overlap between those who claimed to be a messiah and those who had zeal for their tradition. Jesus was not the only person who claimed the mantle of messiah that the prophetic Jewish texts predicted would arise, overthrow foreign occupation and restore the glory days when King David ruled Israel. Aslan tells the stories of these messianic claimants before Jesus and after him who were all crucified by the Romans and their followers exterminated or dispersed. The culmination of that messianic rebellion led to the destruction of the temple by Rome in 70 CE, forty some years after Jesus’ execution.
The question is, was Jesus a militant revolutionary messiah like the others we know about from history, or was he a different kind of messiah altogether. The evidence we have from the gospels Aslan presents begin with the fact of his crucifixion. Crucifixion was reserved for rebels as a tool of terrorizing and controlling the population. Those crucified were not taken down from crosses. They were left hanging to rot, be eaten by birds, until their bones fell down on the ground.
Why would the Romans crucify Jesus? Aslan claims he must have been seen as a threat to Rome. Clearly the story of his disruptive behavior in the Temple overturning the tables of the money changers would be all the needed evidence. Aslan argues Pilate would have ordered his execution without a second thought as he had done with many before and after him that littered Golgatha with bones.
After his crucifixion, the Jesus Movement took root first in Jerusalem, then in smaller groups of Hellenized Jews who spoke Greek and lived in non-Jewish cities like Corinth, Thessalonica, and Galatia. Jesus’ brother James was the Bishop of Jerusalem for some 30 years after Jesus’ death, establishing it firmly as the mother church.
Into this world came a persecutor of the followers of Jesus named Saul of Tarsus. Here is how Aslan tells his conversion story:
As he approached the city gates [of Damascus] with his traveling companions, he was suddenly struck by a light from heaven flashing all around him. He fell to the ground in a heap. A voice said to him, “Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me?” “Who are you, Lord?” Saul asked. The reply broke through the blinding white light, “I am Jesus.”
Saul took the name of Paul and started to follow Jesus. But he didn’t do it the same way James, Peter and John, the original disciples of Jesus followed him. Paul felt he had received direct guidance from the Risen Christ rather than the teachings of the Historical Jesus. He didn’t need to know anything about the flesh and blood Jesus because he received guidance directly from Jesus the Christ.
The record we have in Paul’s letters and in the Book of Acts outlines the conflict between the Jerusalem church and the church Paul envisions. As the temple was being destroyed, the Jerusalem church waited expectantly for Jesus to return and establish the Kingdom of God. Sadly for them, that isn’t what happened. They were all killed or scattered. Any texts they had created were destroyed. All that was left were the letters of Paul to propagate his vision of Christianity. Scholars believe the four gospels were likely written very close to or after the temple destruction. Certainly stories and Jesus sayings were known to the Christian diaspora but Paul’s organization of the meaning of it all shapes, dare I say infects, all of them, especially Luke and John.
There is much more in the book to examine and discuss than this quick overview of Alsan’s argument. I’ll be opening that up in three classes using his book starting March 3. Admitting that I am not a Biblical scholar, I’d now like to respond with my thoughts about the historical Jesus from my many years of reading about him, studying sections of the gospels and doing my own little bit of research. I expect I’m likely to guilty of creating Jesus in my own image, but maybe that is okay if I’m willing to own it up front. With Lent beginning in March in a little over a week, this is a good time to return to the story of Jesus and use it to find meaning for our lives. The truth of who he was, his purpose, and his after death transformation shall forever likely be a mystery. But by engaging his story, we can find meaning for our own lives. And we do have a story of the life of Jesus to work with.
There is fairly scant evidence of Jesus as a leader of a revolutionary movement that a traditional messiah would have mounted. What I read lines up more with the traditional actions of a prophet who goes before the king and tells him that he has deviated from the covenant with Moses and should come back to it or suffer God’s wrath. Jesus’ actions in the temple speak of symbolic protest more than an attempt to takeover the Temple or stage a rebellion. I don’t think such a rebel leader would be in the Garden of Gethsemane praying for the bitter cup to pass from him rather than manning the barricades with sword in hand.
Rather than a violent militant, the record we have of Jesus is one of a healer who worked without charging people for his services. That was one of the reasons for his enormous popularity. A doctor that fixed hips, knees, cured heart disease and infections for free would be very popular today too.
My hunch is that he was gravely offended by the execution of his own teacher, John the Baptist by Herod. The movement from Galilee to Jerusalem happened after John’s death. I wonder if his love of his teacher drove him to Jerusalem to protest the corruption of the Temple.
The value I think we get from Jesus will not be found in the magic of whether he came back to life in three days or if he will come back someday to save humanity. These all sit in the realm of speculative theology that most Unitarian Universalists don’t find useful.
What we do have of great value can be found in the Beatitudes; the congratulations to those who suffer for they will not suffer forever; the day will come when the poor will find the domain of heaven. Those who grieve will be consoled. The gentle will inherit the earth. Those who hunger and thirst for justice will feast. And those who work for peace will be recognized as holy. Of great value is Jesus’ vision of creating a good society organized around our highest and most precious values rather than the baser drives of individual profit and mutual mistrust.
As the Letter of James puts it: Has not God chosen those who are poor in the eyes of the world to be rich in faith and to inherit the [Realm of God]
The most valuable part of Aslan’s book for me was the direction to look to Jesus’ brother James as the source of what Jesus might have taught. And we do indeed have a letter from James preserved in the Biblical canon. What if this book closely parallels what Jesus might have taught?
We’ll have a look at the letter of James with that in mind in the class. As I read it, I hear echos of teachings in the gospels as well as teachings found in Buddhism. And I find core values that resonate with Unitarian Universalism.
The dilemma of the status of the poor and the rich is every bit as difficult today as it was in the time of Jesus. I can imagine both Jesus and James joining the occupy movement to rail against the 1%. I also see resonance with the Sarvodaya movement in Sri Lanka proclaiming their goal of no poverty and no affluence.
The vision we inherit from the historical Jesus is a vision of what the world would be like if God was in charge. That world vision would definitely reject exploitative empire as a way to govern people, whether emperor, king, colonial power, dictator or corporation. That is also a core principle of Unitarian Universalism that promotes democracy as well as peace, liberty and justice for all people.
If Jesus does decide to come back, I hope he would consider using our principles and our ministry as a way to finish his earthly work cut short by his execution.
Some Unitarian Universalists do see our collective work to embody those values Jesus preached and help usher in that good society he called the Kingdom of God, we sometimes call the Beloved Community.
Whether we embrace the vision of Kingdom of God or the Beloved Community, may we be guided by Jesus’ inspired values as we work to build world community and work to restore the health of our planet.
James, brother of Jesus, likely said:
Be doers of the word, not merely hearers.
We have heard much today about Jesus. In those words, powerful truth rides on the breath. It is our challenge to bring that truth to life. When we find ways to bring truth to life as a community, the Realm of God Jesus taught becomes real.
“Do not suppose that I have come to bring peace to the earth. I did not come to bring peace, but a sword. For I have come to turn ” ‘a man against his father, a daughter against her mother, a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law– a man’s enemies will be the members of his own household.’ “Anyone who loves his father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; anyone who loves his son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me; and anyone who does not take his cross and follow me is not worthy of me. Whoever finds his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life for my sake will find it.
Jesus entered the temple area and drove out all who were buying and selling there. He overturned the tables of the money changers and the benches of those selling doves. “It is written,” he said to them, ” ‘My house will be called a house of prayer,’ but you are making it a ‘den of robbers.’”
Congratulations to the poor in spirit!
Heaven’s domain belongs to them.
Congratulations to those who grieve!
They will be consoled.
Congratulations to the gentle
They will inherit the earth.
Congratulations to those who hunger and thirst for justice!
They will have a feast.
Congratulations to the merciful
They will receive mercy.
Congratulations to those with undefiled hearts!
They will see God.
Congratulations to those who work for peace!
They will be known as God’s children.
Suppose a man comes into your meeting wearing a gold ring and fine clothes, and a poor man in shabby clothes also comes in. If you show special attention to the man wearing fine clothes and say, “Here’s a good seat for you,” but say to the poor man, “You stand there” or “Sit on the floor by my feet,” have you not discriminated among yourselves and become judges with evil thoughts? Listen, my dear brothers: Has not God chosen those who are poor in the eyes of the world to be rich in faith and to inherit the [Realm of God]?