“The Zealot” by Reza Aslan, a Review
The Zealot by Reza Aslan (Random House, 2013)
Christ as Jewish Nationalist, an Earthly Messiah, a Threat to the Roman Empire
So let’s get to the meat of Reza Aslan’s theory about Christ.
According to Aslan, in his potboiler book, The Zealot, Christ was a Jewish nationalist who was more interested in being an earthly king of the Jews than a sky-god miracle worker promising eternal life to those who followed him. “The principal task of the messiah,” says Aslan, “was to rebuild David’s kingdom and reestablish the nation of Israel.”
To add more fuel to the fire of Aslan’s position is that Christ’s crucifixion, as Aslan sees it, was Rome’s way of executing anyone who was a threat to the Empire (Aslan is emphatic here that Christ’s behavior and words were seen by the Romans as acts of “sedition”).
The crucifixion of “bandits,” by Rome was not an uncommon practice. And “bandits” was a code name given to those who were accused of treason or attempting to overthrow Roman occupation. They were the ancient Jewish variation of modern terrorists.
And the Jewish clerical hierarchy, especially the Jewish Temple rabbis, felt very threatened by Christ’s followers claiming him to be a Jewish Messiah or King of the Jews (There is some evidence to suggest that the Jews, by tradition, were not allowed to execute—ahem, somewhat debatable—so the rabbis willingly deferred to the Roman law that allowed execution for acts of “sedition”).
The Incarnation, a Pauline Invention
If Aslan is correct, there was nothing in the Hebrew messianic tradition that even came close to prophesying an incarnated god as messiah. The Incarnation, Aslan later tell us, was much more of a Pauline invention reflecting the beliefs of the Greek-speaking Jewish Diaspora and the Gentiles. The incarnation story later became part of the Nicene Creed—a long-standing packaged set of early Christian beliefs.
The early Christian church (Roman Catholic) would be totally Romanized in its break with the Judaic heritage of Christianity on so many levels, including the notion that Christ was part of a movement to establish a Jewish victory over Roman occupation and to establish a Jewish autonomous kingdom.
Aslan also asserts that, by the time the Zealot Party had run out of steam, because of its unpopularity among the Jews and because it was losing the war against Roman occupation, the early followers of Christ moved away from any association with a messiah-as-earthly king or Jewish nationalism.
And the sacking of Jerusalem in 70 C.E. gave even more impetus to the early church’s transformation of Jesus “…from a revolutionary Jewish nationalist into a peaceful spiritual leader….”
Romanized Christology: the Supernatural, Miracles, the Spiritual, Christ as Divine
As the Christian movement became more Romanized, Christology had begun to move into the realm of the spiritual and supernatural, including an emphasis on Christ’s divinity, his life of miracles, not to mention the spiritual messages in the Beatitudes. These spiritual interests would pose no political threat to the Roman Empire, even though Cicero thought that Christian monotheism was primitive, if not barbaric.
It is not clear to this reader whether the incarnation narrative, along with the ornamented number of New Testament miracles, was strongly affirmed by the early post-Resurrection-and-Ascension New Testament writers and followers of Christ in order to up the ante in the historical competition between Christ and any of a number of messiah claimants during Christ’s lifetime.
There is some strong evidence to also suggest that the post-Ascension Christ followers and the Jews, in general, were under serious threats of ethnic cleansing by the Romans. This could have resulted in the Christ followers and New Testament writers feeling the need to overly romanticize Christ with myths about his life in order to revive the “dream” of a Jewish messiah and nation. Part of that sentimentalizing process can clearly be seen in John’s Gospel with all of the intense mystical language associating Christ with the concept of the Logos, the eternal word made manifest in an incarnated sky-god-messiah.
Christ: Forerunner of Zealot Movement or Incarnated Divinity
Aslan also claims that Christ was a forerunner of the Zealot movement, a terrorist nationalist Jewish group that made every attempt to forcibly uproot the Romans from Palestine (Although the spirit of zealotry was certainly extant during Christ’s lifetime, the actual movement did not formalize itself as a group until many years after Christ’s death).
So, my friends, what are we to make of Aslan’s book?
My mainline Christian friends might be horrified at the thought that the divinity of Christ was more of a Pauline narrative, later incorporated as dogma into the Nicene Creed. That it was not a narrative that was part of the Hebrew tradition prior to, or during Christ’s lifetime.
The more modern Christology paradigm seems to be easing up on the need for a plateful of Christ miracles. However, the divinity-of-Christ followers might be surprised to know that even a Christian convert (Aslam converted from his Muslim heritage to being a follower of Christ) reduces (or raises) the Resurrection to a “faith” issue, rather than attempting to assert its literal, historical truth (which probably would come down to a “he-said-she-said” narrative of dubious validity).
Just in case readers may have missed Aslan’s central point, he summarizes it in his final statements:
“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 almost been lost to history.”
“Ipse Dixit,” as the poet once said.