Sunday, September 1, 2013

Reza Aslan's "Zealot": Book Review

"No lord but God" echoes as still relevant among religious radicals, or reactionaries. That was the Zealot party's battle cry. An Iranian immigrant, Reza Aslan as a new Californian briefly left behind his Shia heritage for a teen stint as a born-again Christian. Now a professor of religion at UC Riverside, and long interested in ecumenical as well as jihadist studies, Aslan freshly times his lively look at Jesus. He mixes scholarship with social media; as a Muslim and a CEO of a studio covering Middle Eastern issues and the diaspora, he shows awareness of how to package a very familiar subject in attention-getting ways. N.B.: If you come to this review ready to attack Aslan before reading the book or my last paragraph, kindly reconsider, as this careful study deserves a patient reading; my already long review elides much. I emphasize that that nearly a third of Zealot is endnoted; Aslan, a UCSB Ph.D. in the sociology of religion, has done his homework in two decades of meticulous investigation. Here's my summation.

At least since Ernest Renan sparked controversy with his 1863 life trying to make Jesus more human by making him less Jewish, so as to be more "Aryan" Christian, learned biographers seek to understand a Jesus making sense to today's rational, contextual, and text-based mindset. The "higher criticism" of the mid-19th century popularized (more in seminars than seminaries) this. Aslan emphasizes a rebel alongside the two "thieves" really assassin-revolutionaries ("lestai") crucified: a trio condemned for resisting the Roman empire and its Jewish collaborators. Reminding us that the Sicarii were "daggermen," he places Jesus within a cabal closer to today's insurgents in this same region than with honey-voiced peacemakers, or wistful redeemers with flowing locks and fair or dark eyes that follow you across a room. What follows is my paraphrasing of Aslan's brisk re-reading.

While this version of the Son of God as warrior has been preceded by liberation theology with a Galilean upstart rallying peasants and workers to an uprising, Aslan in presenting a vibrant, tense depiction for today appears to want to wake us up out of complacency, vividly. His appended annotations support his interpretation but this scholarship is subtle, to opt for verve. For instance, the narrative proper starts not with a manger scene or Annunciation, but a well-paced informative depiction of the Temple, ending with the assassination of High Priest Jonathan in 56 CE by a zealot.

The Zealot Party did not exist until a generation after the death of Jesus; Aslan after taking us forward to show their revolt and defeat (Masada as the last stand) moves backwards then (not sure why this provides the book's structure, but he keeps this often-told tale quite entertaining, precise, and provocative, certainly its best feature) to the Gospel narratives. He cautions readers who expect the historical Jesus to match the mythic Christ; he explains the backdating of all new testaments about Jesus functioning as an heroic tale so that even those in the know or closer to the real events that may have supported the Church's revisionism would understand. As these Christian scriptures are not meant as eyewitness accounts but fulfillment of prophetic "truth," this literary activity makes whatever can be extracted out of the accounts (and those which fill in the story outside the canon) tendentious. Rather than cherry-pick chapter and verse (although I suppose any biographer of Jesus or biblical critic may fall into this occupational hazard), Aslan strives to frame his arguments 'in situ.' (Again, I anticipate disputes may arise from those who do not ponder his endnotes within their own context, or recite rote objections or quibbles without the academic training of Aslan and colleagues.)

He tries admirably for an accessible prose style, not to mention keeping his narrative free of academic contention, while integrating many ancient sources smoothly and modern scholarship tacitly. Aslan argues for a "Fourth Philosophy" (i.e., after Pharisees, Sadducees, and Essenes) zealot-friendly Jesus. "Give back" what is Caesar's by linguistic study becomes the telling phrase, and this is not "render unto" the imperial powers in submission by the downtrodden Jewish nation, but a defiant in your face sort of response to that tricky question. As a defiant Jew, Jesus is shown as telling his disciples in guarded analogies and curious parables his messianic "secret" when he would rule his homeland, for these "aspirations" persist as the "singular fact" that led to his crucifixion, with "The King of the Jews" posted above him not as a taunt but as was Roman custom, the reason for his conviction.

The Kingdom of God challenged the Temple authorities. He detested the scribes as well as moneychangers; quislings like Caiaphas in league with Pilate (revealed as a ruthless ruler, not the hesitant caricature) represent the Caesar whose imposition of taxes and servitude rankles Jesus and his careful group of chosen apostles. He asks them who people say he is but cautions them to keep quiet. Aslan interprets this as subterfuge until Jesus can come to Jerusalem to take on his opponents. Until then, as an "itinerant exorcist and miracle worker," the real difference of this purported carpenter (that steady line of work is so doubtful in mud-brick Nazareth it's likely apprentice Jesus and his brothers had to labor to rebuild the resort city of Sepphoris): he offered his magic for free.

Rather than a "utopian fantasy," the Kingdom of God "vindicates the poor and oppressed. It is a chilling new reality in which God's wrath rains down upon the rich, the strong, and the powerful." While some parse turning the other cheek or loving one's enemies as assurances of pacifism, Aslan rejects this. He reminds readers (unlike Renan's work) that Jesus is a Jew, and has the back of his own people, as any faithful Jew would in occupied Palestine as in defeated Judea or ancient Israel. "He understood what every other claimant to the mantle of the messiah understood: God's sovereignty could not be established except through force." John the Baptist and other rebels set this in motion.

The curious title "the Son of Man" Aslan shows as part of the necessary secret. Jesus promotes this as a sort of overt identity to cover the messianic title that his followers bestow upon him. "This man is the messiah" as confirmed by early hearers of his message betrays the tension: this equates (in my phrasing) to a deadly terrorist threat today spoken against those in charge. Sedition=death.

Novelistic touches, as in the high priest's assassination or the prayers in Gethsemane, reveal Aslan's talent for enlivening with careful detail the greatest story ever told over and over for two millennia. Why Jesus when arrested stays largely silent seems logical: three years of a ministry bent "on destruction of the present order and the removal of every single person who stands now in judgement of him" speaks for itself. Aslan reasons that later Christians glossed over much of the radical context he extracts as to the rebellious nature of Jesus as fractious Jew before he was elevated to Christ for all Gentiles. If you remain curious as to how the passages he must select have been judged by scholars as more trustworthy than others, this appears embedded in his appended research but submerged in the main body of narrative. (I have an e-galley proof to rely on; at 70% Aslan's afterword and annotated endnotes begin, to document his range of scholarship, nearly a third of the entire text under review.)

He does often show how "patently fictitious" certain iconic sections are. As with the "trial" offered by Pilate to the rabble, often Mark and later writers (aimed at certain audiences) distance themselves safely from any sympathy with the rebels in the wake of the destruction of Herod's Temple. Such back-dating must always remain foremost in mind by any educated reader of the Christian scriptures.

This revision for non-Jewish readers meant the Gospels had to be sanitized of "revolutionary zeal": Jesus had to be recast (in each succeeding gospel in more outlandish form) as peacemaker and the Romans as free of what now the Jews were given full blame for: his death. Caiaphas proves the heavy; Pilate plays his pawn. In "passion narratives," for "liturgical purposes," a ritual sequence of events arises that early Christians can re-enact. The end is a given: Jesus as crucified messiah. Aslan strips accretions off and looks at the crucifixion for sedition, but then jumps ahead to the first martyr.

Stephen, as imagined soon after Jesus' death, learns his resurrection is attested as confirmation of him as the messiah. But this does not jibe with Judaism, "awaiting a messiah who triumphs and lives." Yet, as Stephen does not live in Jerusalem, is not a scribe or scholar, and so does not know the prophecies that Jesus' followers reinterpret, Aslan figures "he was the perfect audience" for a new pitch "being peddled by a group of illiterate ecstatics whose certainty in their message was matched only by the passion with which they preached it." 33-35 CE, Acts reimagines Jesus' trial (while repeatedly misappropriating Jewish scripture) as Stephen's speech to his persecutors before he is commemorated as the first one to die for his savior. He makes the speech recasting the resurrected, messianic "god-man" in otherworldly, apolitical fashion: blasphemy to the Jews. Then the stones fly.

For Aslan, this marks the end of the historical Jesus and the start of the Christian cult: Jesus as God.  Nobody who knew Jesus (don't trust names titling Bible books) wrote anything. Illiterate apostles, while Jesus' family waits for his return, hunkered down rather than evangelize as Paul did: this limited who defined Jesus' message. Greek-speaking Jews and then non-Jews in the diaspora wanted not a "revolutionary zealot" but "a Romanized demigod" who preferred to stay celestial. The veil of the Temple rent, direct access to God's Son ended any need for Jewish ritual or Torah-true teachings.

Yet, why did Jesus persist among his followers as the accepted messiah, when rival claimants did not? Aslan credits "fervor." A true messiah could not die by Mosaic Law. So, "a stumbling block to the Jews" as Paul notes let alone a contradiction, return from the dead had to be claimed so as to establish a risen Christ's victory. Verifications "according to the scriptures" ensue: "they are carefully crafted rebuttals to an argument that is taking place offscreen." Earthly rule faded; heavenly rule rose.

Diaspora Jews relying on Greek were more open to arguments that appealed by metaphor and symbol beyond the Hebrew-based, less sophisticated community in Jerusalem of Jesus' family and followers. After Stephen's death, intriguingly, the Hellenized community was sent away, and they increased the ranks among urbane, Greek-literate Jews who would be the first to be called Christians in Antioch. Rather than fulfilling the Law, Jesus did away with it. National concerns of reforming the priesthood in Jerusalem did not matter compared to the doing away with the Temple ritual entirely, and then incorporating the Gentiles within a missionary movement for non-kosher, uncircumcised converts.

There's less concentration in Aslan's survey on the Gospels, for his analysis takes up only about 20% of this book. Zealots for the first 30%, and then halfway on, the post-Resurrection reactions to Jesus. Paul, a repentant Pharisee, claims himself as the first apostle. He justifies his outreach rejecting Torah as "a ministry of death, chiseled in letters on a stone tablet." While Jesus can be held (depending on which verses: refer to endnotes) as upholding the Law, Paul abandons Jewish history. Given Paul's extremism, creating a Christ mattered, not a human Jesus or Roman rule during that violent century.

James differed; Paul dissented. Rival versions of the message angered Paul, and after meetings in 50 and 57 CE with those in Jerusalem, his former enemies, Paul finds trouble. The latter visit is poorly timed, for he is mistaken in the crackdown after Jonathan as a rebel leader of 4,000 Sicarii, "the Egyptian." Meanwhile, this chaos leads James' Hebrew sect to anticipate the Second Coming. This unrest leads to Paul being extradited, supposedly under house arrest, to Rome. There, Gentiles listen. Peter seems to have preceded Paul to preach there; both are said to have been killed under Nero in 66.

For James, 62 CE marks his stoning by the Sanhedrin amidst Roman reprisals in Jerusalem. His unjust fate, not that of his brother, is the main focus of Josephus' quick glimpse, the first non-biblical mention of Jesus "the one they call messiah" extant. Aslan reads this as evidence of James' stature (rather than Paul's) as leader of the Jesus movement. Why James gets short shrift may be due to later promotion of the perpetual virginity of Mary, and distrust of dynastic inheritance by the early Church.  Priestly power--expanding by a Christian, Romanizing empire through Constantine and his Rome-dominated council of clerics--fits well into Peter's papal placement as "bishop of Rome." The Nicene Creed set down Jesus always as God, and not as once human, codifying imperious tradition.

Aslan does not editorialize about his presentation. He leaves it up to us to judge the efficacy of such a bold messiah. He expects a mature readership able to handle revisionism and historicity. Certainly any new book examining this most debated of all figures will spark denial or dissent. I leave experts to parse claims advanced in the narrative; suffice to say Aslan's endnotes strive to support what my summation above and his main-text presentation must simplify for clarity. Whatever scholars say, providing this very readable and engaging set of reflections on Jesus, his times, and his impact, Aslan deserves an attentive audience willing to reject tendentious Sunday school tales, for a rigorous study.

(P.S. I reviewed this carefully for Amazon. As Aslan explains: "Anybody who thinks this is an attack on Christianity has not read it." Note sadly this "ad hominem" attack by a Fox News interviewer: she clearly had not read it, nor many on Amazon who attack this. I tried to be fair, but many are closed-minded to a scholar's right to write about religion objectively. 7-16-13 to Amazon US)

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