Title: ZEALOT: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth
Author: Reza Aslan
Publisher: Random House
Review by Bob Lane, MA
When our first son was about four he went to play school one day and immediately went over to an easel. He stood there holding a brush ready to start painting. The teacher came up behind him and said, “What are you going to paint?”
“God,” he said.
“And do you know what God looks like?”
“I will when I finish the painting,” he said as he began to paint.
Isn’t that an amazing insight? Why do I find it important?
We do indeed give form and meaning to concepts and ideas in works of the imagination that we create including paintings and stories. We are the meaning seekers. We are the creators of meaning. The bible, for example, means by means of its stories. Think for a moment of the Christian hero, Jesus. There is a sense in which Jesus is a model for human beings to follow. He was a man of his time who held the assumptions and beliefs of his era. He is portrayed as a charismatic man who lived with intense purpose and drive, who had an existential thrust to his life, who cared deeply about human beings, and who wrestled with profound questions of ethics. The stories that grew up around him have affected the world for two thousand years and have touched the deepest parts of our humanity with their simplicity of image and their promise of “salvation”. [Lane, Reading the Bible]
There is a sense in which each “biographer” of Jesus of Nazareth is like my young son: once I finish the work then I will know what the subject looks like. Reza Aslan is no different. He is an Iranian-American writer and scholar of religions and is a contributing editor for The Daily Beast. He is best known as the author of No God but God: The Origin, Evolution, and Future of Islam, which has been translated into thirteen languages and named by Blackwell as one of the 100 most important books of the last decade. His new book is Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth. In a recent interview with The Nation Aslan is asked, Your Jesus is “the man who defied the will of the most powerful empire the world had ever known—and lost.” Sounds a bit like Bradley Manning. He answers:
I think you could make a lot of comparisons in that regard. The historical Jesus took on the powers that be on behalf of the poor and the dispossessed, the outcast and the marginalized; he sacrificed himself for a group that most Romans—and the Jewish elite—didn’t consider to be real people, much less people worthy of salvation.
Most of his approach is evident in that answer. Jesus, he argues, was outcast and marginalized, probably illiterate, and filled with zeal for the Jewish religion he was born into. He reminds us that the gospels were written after 70 CE, an important date because that is when the Romans returned and destroyed Jerusalem, burning the temple to the ground. The Romans slaughtered thousands of Jews, exiled the rest, and made Judaism a “pariah religion”. [Read the interview here.]
The Zealots were a revolutionary political party that emerged around 66 CE and were instrumental in the uprising against Roman occupation. Aslan presents Jesus as a small case zealot – one who is filled with zeal or a passion for the sanctity of God and for revenge on God’s enemies. Zeal for Jesus was both a religious and a political passion. The enemies of God included not only the occupying Romans but also the priests who ruled for them. This is a substantial book covering most everything one can learn about the historical Jesus from all the 20th century work done by the Jesus Seminar and the many books that came out of that study by top New Testament scholars.
In a sense the Gospel of Mark is a creation myth as he is the first to write of this itinerant preacher and miracle worker. Mark tells a marvellous story about Jesus and a fig tree. He tells of a time when Jesus and the disciples are walking from Bethany to Jerusalem. Jesus feels hungry and “noticing in the distance a fig-tree in leaf, he went to see if he could find anything on it.” Since it is not the season for figs, there are none on the tree. Jesus is angered by the lack of figs and curses the tree: “`May no one ever again eat fruit from you!’ And his disciples were listening.” The group proceeds to Jerusalem where Jesus goes into the temple and, still angry, drives out the money changers, upsets their tables, turns over the seats of the pigeon sellers, and cleans out all commercial activities in the temple. He then teaches the crowd about the proper use of the temple. Early the next morning Jesus and the disciples are walking back toward Bethany when they pass by the fig tree. Peter says, “Rabbi, look, the fig-tree which you cursed has withered,” and indeed we are told, “the fig-tree had withered from the roots up.” Still later, on the Mount of Olives, Jesus uses the fig tree in a lesson to his disciples about the Endtime that is coming. “`Learn a lesson from the fig-tree. When its tender shoots appear and are breaking into leaf, you know that summer is near. In the same way, when you see all this happening, you may know that the end is near, at the very door. I tell you this: the present generation will live to see it all.'”
Consider the fig tree from a literary point of view. Jesus teaches his disciples about Endtime: “`Learn a lesson from the fig-tree. When its tender shoots appear and are breaking into leaf, you know that summer is near. In the same way, when you see all this [a set of eschatological signs] happening, you may know that the end is near, at the very door.'” Just as leaves signal spring and summer, so do the signs of darkened sun and moon, falling stars and celestial explosions signal Endtime, when the mighty Son of Man will arrive in ”great power and glory” and “gather his chosen.” Jesus goes on to say, “I tell you this: the present generation will live to see it all. (Mark 13.30) Because Endtime is imminent he warns his disciples to `Keep Awake.’ The specific signs that Jesus says will be present right before Endtime also include these:
When you hear the noise of battle near at hand and the news of
battles far away, do not be alarmed. Such things are bound to
happen; but the end is still to come. For nation will make war upon
nation, kingdom upon kingdom; there will be earthquakes in many
places; there will be famines. With these things the birth-pangs of
the new age begin. (Mark 13.7-9)
Some of these warnings seem to relate to the destruction of Jerusalem in the first century of the common era, while some sound as if they warn of the end of history. Mark, of course, writes after the Second Temple destruction and would be in a position to know what was going to happen after the time period covered in the narrative. Prophesying after the fact is as good a ”prediction” as one can get
Yet a second time he goes off to pray and when he returns they are asleep again. When asked why they could not stay awake, “they did not know how to answer him.”
The third time we sense a dramatic shift in tone. Upon his return Jesus says quietly, “Still sleeping? Still taking your ease? Enough. The hour has come.” (Mark 14.41)
Anger and frustration shown in the fig tree story, the temple story, and in the Gethsemane story are finally washed away by the prayer and by the act of accepting his own death. “The hour has come.” There is a quiet resolution in that sentence. Acceptance has replaced anger and now Jesus can complete his destiny. Until one has accepted one’s own mortality, accepted death in a psonal and lucid sense, one cannot live. Thus Jesus teaches us: there is life in death. Death, as the poet Wallace Stevens reminds us, “is the mother of beauty.”
Aslan’s excellent book is indebted, as Aslan says, to John P. Meier’s thesis in his multiple volume work, Rethinking the Historical Jesus, “we know so little about Jesus because in his lifetime he would have been viewed as little more than a marginal Jewish peasant from the backwoods of Galilee.” Given the little we know Aslan produces a readable and believable biography of Jesus.
“Do you know what Jesus of Nazareth was like?”
I will when I finish the book.