AUGUST 11, 2013
Image: Antonio Ciseri, Ecce Homo, 1871
ZEALOT: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth is the latest in a long line of fictions about the “historical Jesus,” or Jesus-the-man, a lucrative genre that never lacks readers, but seems markedly graver during paradigm shifts. Jesus-the-man is a handy instrument for gauging the magnitude of a spiritual and cultural earthquake because he can be called on to be a historical human whenever we need a transcendent understanding. This is the instrumental use of the messianic figure’s promise to return in the body and in person. The timing of this promise is, theologically, up to Christ the God, but meanwhile, Jesus-the-man stands ready to serve temporal bewilderments.
After the Second World War, a most notable such Jesus was the revolutionary firebrand of Pasolini’s film The Gospel According to St. Matthew (1964), who served as the Che Guevara-like model for the Liberation Theologians of the 1960s. The historical Jesus of Nikos Kazantsakis’s 1951 novel The Last Temptation of Christ became a scandal and, as a movie, a box-office success. The conservative reaction to that sexualized Jesus was the vividly tortured Jesus of Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ (2004). All these figures were drafted for a shift in the zeitgeist, whether post-war social justice, sexual liberation, or the collapse of totalitarian communism. An artist or a historian can assign Jesus any ideological orientation, but the result will always be a fiction about overthrowing the Pharisees in whatever form the writer conceives them.
None of these fictions transcends history, and Jesus-the-man will be on call for his next remake.
The Jesus of Zealot is all about history. He is, politically, both left and right, a revolutionary communist and a zealous nationalist. He doesn’t claim to be the Messiah, but doesn’t mind people saying that he is. What he does know is that he is witnessing an impending cataclysm that demands his participation. Born in the Roman-occupied country given to the Jews by God himself, he knows well the tragic history of his people, which has taken them through slavery in Egypt, Babylon, and Persia, before returning them, still fond of their God, to the Promised Land. At his birth he finds them “at home,” but they are a client state of Rome, obliged to pay tribute to the Emperor. Rebels (“bandits,” to the Romans) belonging to every shade of nationalist sentiment are gathering followers in Judea, Galilee, and Samaria. The rebels are impatient with the arrangement that the Temple authorities have made with Rome. Messiahs-cum-revolutionaries appear, incite, and are executed. The Temple is barely holding on, but holding on it must, because the priests are also defending their own wealth and privileges. A class war, a war for independence, and a religious war have merged into an apocalyptic monster that threatens to engulf the homeland. By the time Jesus is born, the monster has already transcended its earthly demands. The ancient prophets of the Bible are raving again through new incarnations. Isaiah is once again alive. A radical theorist is birthing new God-filled Jews from the ranks of the malcontent by dunking them into the Jordan River. John the Baptist is preparing the way for Jesus. Marx is clearing the ground for Lenin.
What distinguishes Aslan’s revolutionary “zealot” from Pasolini’s populist leftist guerilla is a more emphatic addition of Leninist, terrorist, and nationalist traits, at the expense of contradictory, human passions. Throughout his career this Jesus acts under cover: he denies that he is “the son of God,” insisting instead that he is “the son of man” (ben Adam), which is to say, a “man.” He performs miracles and gathers a following, but he trusts only a small loyal circle of yes men. He is always on the move, circling the great, dangerous cities, carefully plotting to stage his entry into Jerusalem. He is rarely spontaneous and often depressed by the messianic script he’s been handed. His fiery speeches condemn inequity but they are ambiguous. His miracles are strictly pragmatical: he straightens twisted limbs and feeds the hungry. The masses of poor peasants who attend his rallies grow larger the more medical and nutritional miracles he performs. His speeches sound like he wants something from these people, but his parables are never explicit enough. He doesn’t belong to the Zealot Party but his agenda is similar to that of those later revolutionaries. He is not sexy, inspired, or visionary, but does shine with a malevolent light when he speaks of war and bloodshed. Otherwise, he is dour, hidden, engaged in an endless pedantic quarrel with the guardians of the Temple. He doubts himself only when he feels that he’s not zealous enough.
Anyone recognize this Jesus?
I didn’t. This carefully strategic Jesus of “history” is born of Aslan’s own pruning and sifting of the meager “historical evidence.” Jesus the Zealot emerges as little more than a collection of bullet points for Aslan’s arguments against the “love Jesus.” (Produced, incidentally, by the same “historical evidence.”) Zealot certainly took away my appetite to revisit Jesus Christ Superstar. I had to stay home and study my Marx, Engels, Lenin, Stalin, and all the other dreary horrors of the “revolutionary” horde that bored the piss out of my childhood. Even Che Guevara, a proven ideological monster, started looking good next to this Jesus, to speak only about their looks. Che still looks good on his youth poster, but Jesus, who didn’t photograph so well on the shroud of Turin, doesn’t even look human when Aslan’s done with him.
Still, he’s Jesus from Nazareth, the “historical” human, so let’s see how he got so grim. He began, one assumes, conflicted, like any human, so one can follow him along the lines of his declaration, “Do not think that I have come to bring peace on earth. I have not come to bring peace but the sword,” (Matthew 10:34); or go the opposite direction with his Sermon on the Mount: “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.” (Matthew 5:9)
Guess which one makes the Aslan cut.
The pacifist, nonviolent Jesus, Professor Aslan asserts, is an invention of the evangelists who were writing in Rome, after the death of Jesus, the destruction of the Temple, and the mass slaughter of Jews by the Romans in 70 C.E. They were trying to distance Jesus from the doomed revolutionary insurrection in order to protect budding Christianity from the Roman authorities. The “real” Jesus was killed (again) by Christians so that an imaginary loving Jesus might take his place to protect them. Reza Aslan then introduces us to the real Jesus of “history,” the “Nazarene” who lived for war, to free Israel from Rome, abolish the rule of the rich, and wrest the Temple from the hypocrite priests. So, were the Romans right to kill this Jesus, the man who admitted before his accusers that he was indeed “the King of the Jews,” a.k.a. the Messiah? Yes, the Professor allows, the Romans had the right guy. And by law, they had to kill him. There is no explanation why the strategic revolutionary who denied for so long being the Messiah would finally admit it when his human life was at risk. Was he tired of his ineffectual “fame”? Or, as Professor Aslan suggests, was he obliged by “history” to adjust himself to the biblical prophecy of the coming and death of the Messiah? This isn’t the only “adjustment” to tradition that this Zealot makes, though it’s his last. In fact, “history,” via Reza Aslan, adjusts the Zealot before his birth.
What urgency of our current zeitgeist does this quasi-novel, but defeated, Zealot of “history” address? And: given a choice between an imaginary guy who inspired two Christian millennia and an imaginary guy pieced from “historical” odds-and-ends by a neo-Marxist, which one would you choose?
It should be easy to choose between two fictions, a 2000 year-old bestseller and a soon-to-be New York Times bestseller. But there are complications. In the time of Jesus-the-man, rebellion spoke the language of religion, and religion spoke both the angry and the soothing words of God. The Jesus ready to die fighting a class war against the wealthy, against Rome, and for God, clashed with the “fisher of men” Jesus who performed free healings and helped the poor. And how would these two get along with the Jesus-of-ethics sent by God to remind the people of his commandments? Could Jesus-the-man have been only a flesh conduit with no cause of his own? Was he even willing to die for any cause? On the cross, he cried out in the Aramaic of his village, “Eli Eli lama sabachthani?” (“My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”) (Matthew 27:46), which implies, at the very least, that his execution was not part of his deal with God. Did he die for the wrong reason? Or did he die for a myriad reasons, as many reasons as there are fictions of Jesus? If he was a rebel “bandit,” he died under the Roman Law. If he was a “fisher of men,” he died for drawing customers away from the Temple. If he was God’s messenger, he died because the prophecies said so. The Zealot under discussion dies because his genitor (Reza Aslan) blows his cover, that of a peace-loving wonder-worker, to reveal the tax-resister “bandit” underneath. If the Christians of the Gospels also kill him once more, there is only one explanation: Jesus-the-man was created in order to be martyred. That goes for all those whose name he bears: the “historical” Jesus, the Nazarene, the Zealot, the man, the man-of-peace, the man-of-war, God’s only son.
The Zealot is less trouble than the rest. He will never make it out of Jerusalem after his death. He’ll be just a corpse on Golgotha, one of thousands of zealots crucified for rebellion. He dies forever. But for Christians, who follow another Jesus, there is much to come. Their Jesus makes it into the 21st century.
So whence such zeal for the Zealot? Reza Aslan imagines a Jesus for our time, a man who is indeed historical insofar as it is the history of our own time, seen through the lens of an implacable hostility to Empire and its wars against national and religious aspirations. But ours is also a time freighted with the post-Stalinist knowledge of criminal revolutionaries, of the tyranny of the Ayatollah and Al-Qaeda, a history that this Nazarene, operating under the cover of charity, either believes he can derail or just doesn’t care. He is an anarchist, maybe a terrorist, too disenchanted by “history” to believe that he’s a messiah. And he isn’t, not in this book: here he is nothing more than a gloss on dead utopias, the fruit of an academic essay. Maybe if his writer had not started with a mind already made up, he could have allowed himself (and his readers) the pleasure of discovering gradually just what the “history” of Jesus-the-man might yield. Had the Nazarene been a work in progress who revealed his humanity step by step during his reimagining, he might not have turned out to be a Zealot after all. We will never know. The point of no return in his creation occurs at a notorious fork in the road when Jesus is called to answer the questions that the Pharisees pose when he is brought to them:
Is it lawful to pay taxes to Caesar or not? Shall we pay, or shall we not pay? But He, knowing their hypocrisy, said to them, Why do you test me? Bring me a denarius that I may see it. So they brought it. And He said to them, Whose image and inscription is this? They said to him: Caesar’s. And Jesus answered and said to them, Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s. (Matthew 22:17-21; King James version)
Most commentators have taken this to mean a separation of powers: obey the temporal law of the Caesar, but tend to the worship of your Jewish God. Here is another translation, from “The New Covenant,” by Willis Barnstone (The Revised New Testament, Norton 2002):
Is it right to pay the tax to Caesar or not? Should we give or not give? But he saw their hypocrisy and said to them, Why are you testing me? Bring me a denarius to look at it. They brought one. And he said to them, Whose image is this and whose name? They said to him, Caesar’s. Yeshua said to them, The things of Caesar give to Caesar, and the things of God give to God.”
(Barnstone’s translation from the Greek restores the Hebrew names in the Bible, including that of Jesus/Yeshua.) Barnstone interprets the drama of the coin this way:
Yeshua’s recognition of the authority of the emperor for things of the emperor, the hypocrisy of Jewish authorities who cast doubt on the authority of the emperor, and that payment to the emperor does not imperil the things that are God’s. (RNT)
None of these translations, the authorized and the new, provide sufficient support to the image of the Zealot. Reza Aslan translates the Greek himself:
The Temple authorities [. . . ] ask: “Is it lawful to pay the tribute to Caesar or not?” [. . .] “Show me a denarius,” Jesus says, referring to the Roman coin used to pay the tribute. “Whose image is this and whose inscription?” “It is Caesar’s,” the authorities reply. “Well, then, give back to Caesar the property that belongs to Caesar, and give back to God the property that belongs to God.”
The insertion of the word “property” allows the author to claim that:
According to Jesus, Caesar is entitled to be “given back” the denarius coin, not because he deserves tribute, but because it is his coin: his name and picture are stamped on it. God has nothing to do with it. By extension, God is entitled to be “given back” the land the Romans have seized for themselves because it is God’s land: “The Land is Mine,” says the Lord (Leviticus 25:33). Caesar has nothing to do with it.
It’s a breathtaking interpretation: if this is what Jesus means and what his questioners understand, Jesus is inarguably a “bandit.” Reported to the Romans, the crime is clear and punishable by execution. Jesus is a peasant revolutionary who is leading an insurrection intended to crown him “King of the Jews,” an independent king of God’s occupied land. The ambiguity of Jesus’ answer doesn’t fool his questioners, according to Aslan, because ambiguity is the signature of this prophet who delivers his messages through parables and metaphors, analogies, poetry, and quotations from the older prophets of the Hebrew Bible. For the Pharisees and the Romans, the language of Jesus hides his seditious identity as the political messiah eager to be “the King of the Jews.” The author of Zealot retranslates the passage so that we might hear it just as the Pharisees and the Romans might have.
From this point on the Zealot is set in cement. The covert Jesus, “Jesus the man,” hard at work hiding in plain sight before his inquisitors, as well as his followers, is a creature arisen from the ready-to-boil-over stew of the messianic, nationalist, and factionalized Roman client-state of Israel. He is now clearly just another “bandit,” leading an insurrection against the Jewish establishment, its Roman overseer, and “property” in general. Aslan deploys a fairly conventional Marxist-flavored analysis of Jewish society, economy, and class in the first century C.E. To arrive at his revolutionary destiny, Jesus is born in the dirt-poor farming hamlet of Nazareth, a forgotten, forsaken, pitiful congregation of a few mud huts where no carpenter (Jesus’ gospel-assigned profession) could have practiced; a place where learning could not have possibly taken place because we know (or suspect) that most people in such places were illiterate. Aslan’s argument begins with the infelicitous phrase, “The trouble with Nazareth” — a colloquial faux-academic turning up of the nose, which is ironically corrected when Aslan forgives Luke the odd assertion that Jesus “the Nazarene” was actually born in Bethlehem. Luke’s rebirthing of Jesus is for the (later) purpose of harmonizing him with the prophecy of Isaiah that the Messiah is going to be born in Bethlehem. Reza Aslan gives Luke a pass on spinning the place of Jesus’ birth because Jesus was for Luke “the eternal logos from whom creation sprang […] swaddled in a filthy manger in Bethlehem,” and not the “historical” Jesus who should be looked for “in the crumbling mud and loose brick homes tucked within the windswept hamlet of Nazareth.” What’s the difference, you might ask, between the authorized “filthy manger” and the “windswept […] loose brick […] of Nazareth?” Both are equally disregarded on maps and both socially wretched. What is the problem with Nazareth? Small, but not insignificant. Nazareth is more proletarian, more alienated. Bethlehem is more prosperous, farm-rich. In other words, if you are the Jesus about to come from this book, you must let people think that you are from a place profligate with metaphors (farming), not a severe (noir) slum that alone (and secretly) guarantees (through its lack of poetic fancy) the rigor of a true revolutionary.
Luke is forgiven his metaphysics, so that our contemporary myth-maker can build his dialectic. At first, I was not alarmed by this transmillennial deal between Luke and Aslan, because the story is well known and usually assigned to the eagerness of the post-Jesus writers of the Gospels to make everything about their Messiah fit the Jewish prophets. But the Nazarene tekton (constructor, builder, carpenter) is lent another hypothesis concerning his post-infancy: the nearby city of Sepphoris, a city with culture to spare, just a walk from Nazareth. Sepphoris needs labor, and the carpenter-tramps of the favelas are flocking to it. It’s here Jesus gets his chops, “a peasant boy in the big city.” Sepphoris is a “Hellenized and Romanized” city with a “rapidly expanding divide between the absurdly rich and the indebted poor.” It all makes sense if one knows that the tyrant of Sepphoris is Herod Antipas.” Jesus may have regularly set eyes upon the man who would one day cut off the head of his friend and mentor, John the Baptist, and seek to do the same to him.” Antipas didn’t, of course, get to do that.
With his birth and education taken care of, Jesus-the-man begins a vertiginous ascent to radical politics. Jesus-the-like-Lenin-man is surrounded by a thick atmosphere of supporting “facts.” To animate his protagonist, Aslan re-narrates the Bible, as does every historian, novelist, or film director. The retelling disposes of all unnecessary material circulated against type. Some of this is mythical detritus, quickly discarded: Mary’s status and Jesus’ legitimacy is better left to the ten thousand theologians standing over this question. Aslan tends briefly to the old question of whether Jesus was married or not, but in the end he leaves it to the Da Vinci Code. There is no hint of sexual impropriety, as befits a revolutionary leader, leaving “temptations” to the lesser Jesus biographers. On this subject, Reza Aslan is clear: “Scholars tend to see the Jesus they want to see,” which is true enough. Unfortunately, he goes on to say, “Too often they see themselves [italic in the original] — their own reflection — in the image of Jesus they constructed.” This is, I hope, untrue, because if Professor Aslan sees himself in the Jesus he’s constructed we are in trouble. Lock the door. Call Berdiayev.
The question is: why? A reader’s appetite for “fact” has long been satisfied. There isn’t much “evidence” concerning Jesus-the-man, but it’s enough to outline an absence that the centuries have filled with stories. And there is still room. We have written documentation within a century of Jesus’ death, and enough archeological evidence to place this Jewish prophet in a tradition and context, and harmonize him with the contradictions in the Gospels. But his “life” only begins after his death. Anything about the man must be inferred post-mortem. All the numerous forensic reconstructions have run a serpentine course through three languages, Greek, Hebrew, Aramaic, and through disputed issues of composition, translation, and orality. Scholars have identified and argued over the oldest material, as if less distance meant more veracity. Unfortunately, in the case of a man-god, imagination works faster than research, and wishfulness is quicker than expression. Even supported by arduous scholarship, books about “the life of Jesus” are fictions. What makes these fictions both difficult and very easy is the Gospels, which are such a devilish (to coin a phrase) brew of fiction and (some) fact, they can only be parted from one another at the risk of losing their central figure. All the Gospels were written in Greek, in the Roman Empire, in the first century, following the death of Jesus. The first, Mark’s, is spare, dramatic, and clean; it is the work of a writer (or a collective) who knows all there is to know about stories. In Mark, Jesus only goes to Jerusalem once, but he makes it a good one. He is born in Bethlehem where the Messiah must be born. His birth is not glossed, and the resurrection gets no ink: it is obvious to Mark that both birth and resurrection are miracles. The less said about miracles (as opposed to wonders) the better: glossing them drains their power.
By the time John wrote his gospel, 100 years after Mark, literature had done its damage: long descriptions, explanations, exhortations, and threats to unbelievers, excessive dialogue, vividly imagined spectacles. . . barnacles of style prefiguring the baroque. John’s Jesus goes to Jerusalem all the time with his family to offer sacrifice, and each time he picks up a little more Greek, a bit more theology, a soupcon of magic, the electricity of the Temple mobs. His messianic mission is overt, his healings and magic numerous. The birth is attended by cosmic phenomena, the resurrection witnessed by many. By the cutoff date of canonization, the Gospels have given us the life-story of “Jesus of Nazareth, the Son of Man” (a Jewish wonder-worker maybe born in Nazareth), and the materials to begin constructing “Jesus Christ, the Son of God” (a Jewish divinity lent to all nations by its evangelists). From Mark to John, Jesus undergoes a genre change: he has been transformed from poetry into prose, from a luminous absence to a cave filled with flashlights. He has become a seminal literary character. Subsequently, authors mass-produce human Jezi, some of whom appear to stand on “history,” others on nothing more than fancy and wish. But for all of them (or the good ones, at least) the smart money is on Mark. There is room in Mark. John is claustrophobic already.
Reza Aslan tiptoes into his own fiction on the tender crutches of two introductions. The first, titled “Author’s Note,” clearly written in anticipation of a “general reader” of the (perhaps) Christian variety, relates the touching personal story of an Iranian-American teenager who finds Christ at a summer Bible camp and is possessed of that marvelous encounter until college. The Bible camp presented him with a simplified, “naturally” anti-Semitic Jesus who “was America” (italic in the original). Jesus was also an embodiment of his teenage rebellion against his parents, who had fled from the Ayatollah’s zealotry to America, where they practiced a “lukewarm” version of Islam. In college he read in “religious studies,” and was thus presented, one assumes, with a variety of beliefs, including Zoroastrianism, the original Persian religion, and Islam. Thus enlightened, he “began to rethink the faith and culture of my forefathers, finding in them as an adult a deeper, more intimate familiarity […]” This return freed him from the Bible Camp Jesus to the point of liberating his inner “inquisitive scholar” to look for another Jesus, a “historical” one. Nothing wrong with either recovering his familiar faith or researching his former Savior. Quite the contrary. In so doing, the young researcher found a “revolutionary who challenged the rule of the most powerful empire the world had ever known.” If anything, this made the young reconvert to Islam even more fond of Jesus, so much so that he can “confidently say that two decades of rigorous academic research into the origins of Christianity has made me a more genuinely committed disciple of Jesus of Nazareth than I ever was of Jesus Christ.”
Oy! To my knowledge, no modern account of the “historical Jesus” makes such an ab initio pledge. Such a thing would seem ludicrous even in a novel, and plain weird in a history book. Imagine Paula Fredericksen’s Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews (2009), leading off with the writer’s personal relation to Jesus, whatever it might be. And yet, there is no mystery why the pledge is in this book. It is embarrassing for this Jewish-Romanian-American reviewer to note this “credo,” which may be sincere, or, in the worst case, required by the publisher’s fear that a life of Jesus written by an Iranian Muslim might need some extra cover. In either case, it is not irrelevant, because it reverberates in the writing. When the “criminal” Jesus “received a plaque” reading “King of the Jews” from the Romans, the arch phrasing makes it sound like an honor.
In the second introduction (“Introduction”), Reza Aslan brings the reader a little closer to the story of his Jesus, by re-familiarizing us with the unsettled epoch from which the messianic Nazarean sprang. It was a time when “countless prophets, preachers, and messiahs tramped through the Holy Land delivering messages of God’s imminent judgment.” These proto-hippie tramps were so ubiquitous they were satirized in Roman popular culture, much as they were later, in Monty Python’s Life of Brian. One of the messiahs from the New Testament is Theudas, who “had four hundred disciples before Rome captured him and cut off his head.” This offhand reference to the method of execution is later joined by another, meted out to a “James” (no relation to Jesus, but maybe his brother), who was stoned “for transgression of the law.” This character is extracted from “a brief throwaway passage” in Jewish Antiquities, a Roman history by the Jewish historian Josephus Flavius. Josephus goes on to serve much of Reza Aslan’s research, but even so, is there so much Flavius that he can afford to throw away a messianic reference that sets the stage for Jesus? Nor is “James,” who was “stoned” given much rope: “In a society without surnames, a common name like James required a specific appellation — a place of birth or a father’s name — to distinguish it from all the other men named James roaming around Palestine.” But: since Flavius also writes that this James was “the brother of Jesus, the one they call the messiah,” he may indeed be the brother of Jesus, which is hardly a “throwaway passage,” since it is the Jewish historian’s only known reference to Jesus. By 94 C.E. when Jewish Antiquities was written, Jesus the messiah executed by the Romans in yet another fashion, had already been noted by Suetonius, Tacitus, and Pliny the Younger. Well documented is also James, the brother of Jesus, who is leading the Christian community of Jerusalem and has a more-than-theoretical fight with Paul of Tarsus about the future direction of the cult. About Jesus, Tacitus and Pliny mention only “his arrest and execution,” but not the method. Professor Aslan does describe the various types of execution meted to different criminals for different crimes, and claims that crucifixion was a choice punishment reserved for messiah “bandits.” An honor, indeed. “Every criminal who hung on a cross received a plaque declaring the specific crime for which he was being executed. Jesus’ crime, in the eyes of Rome, was striving for kingly rule (i.e., treason).” His plaque read “King of the Jews.”
“Yet if one wants to uncover what Jesus himself truly believed, one must never lose sight of this fundamental fact: Jesus of Nazareth was first and finally a Jew [italics in the original].” “Israel was what mattered to Jesus.” “With regard to the treatment of foreigners and outsiders, oppressors and occupiers, however, the Torah could not be clearer: ‘You shall drive them out before you. You shall make no covenant with them and their gods. They shall not live in your land.” (Exodus 23:31-33; italics in the original) “The Kingdom of God” about to be established would be flowing with the blood of these foreigners. Jesus “wielded God’s finger” for “establishing God’s dominion through his miraculous actions.” Carried on by his Zealot Jesus, Aslan takes another leap, which lacks a few links: “He (Jesus) was, in effect, the Kingdom of God personified. Who else should sit on God’s throne?” So when Pontius Pilate asks the “beaten and bruised” preacher “Are you the King of the Jews?” the only answer is “Yes.” So he gets a plaque.
There are reams of text on the messianic aspects of Judaism, and much commentary following its waxes and wanes. The reformist, revolutionary, and nationalist impulses of Jewish history have been called into service by every theological or political argument that cared to use them. There is no point in taking issue with Reza Aslan’s description of first century atmospherics, but it’s worth, again, noting the language. The “Prologue” that follows the “Author’s Note” and “the “Introduction” speaks of the high priest “pocketing a healthy fee,” “the grubby money changers ” in the Temple, the ceremonies “someone must pay for. . .,” repeated for emphasis: “someone must pay for these necessities,” “with the new currency in han,” “money changers are happy to offer [. . . ] credit,” “exorbitant interest rates,” “default,” “banking on it,” “late payments,” “”the power of the purse,” this is not the time for thrift. [. . .] So purchase your offerings and make it a good one,” “a handsome price in the market place” (for a sacrificed animal’s hide). In one single paragraph we find “commerce,” “financial institutions,” largest bank,” and on the following page, “lucrative,” “takes a cut,” “passed down to him” (by the wealthy), and we are still in first century Jerusalem mind you, not on Wall Street. I would have passed over these passionate descriptions of Judaic avariciousness as an overzealous mise-en-scène for the scene of Jesus overturning the merchants’ tables in the Temple, if I hadn’t run, less than a few paragraphs later, into the Yiddish word “nebbish,” as in “his [Herod’s] nebbish sons, dulled by a life of idleness and languor.” At this point, I wasn’t sure what I was reading: a romance aimed at the gag reflex of attendees at a YWCA meeting or an advance apology for Kristallnacht (which, in all fairness, Jesus’ later outburst foreshadowed).
The storytelling is rarely as vivid as in the passage about commerce in the Temple, though a page concerning the stink of sacrificed carcasses and the generalized gore of Temple ceremonies, comes close. After these early descriptive bubbles, the prose peters off to expository-gray with occasional purple patches. Here is an assassin assessing the nearness of his victim, the high priest: “He need only listen for the jingle of the bells dangling from the hem of his robe. The peculiar melody is the surest sign that the high priest is coming.” After the deed, “You should not be surprised if he is the first to cry, ‘Murder!'” I’m not surprised, I think I saw that on CSI last night.
Among the many revolts, massacres assassinations, and executions that follow the crucifixion of a carpenter named Jesus around year 30 C.E., the anti-tax anti-Roman revolts escalate. The sicarii, a terrorist group of assassins led by Menahem, who had proclaimed himself “King of the Jews,” seize the Temple, announce the arrival of the Kingdom of God, and issue their own currency inscribed Year One in Hebrew. The Zealot Party holds part of the Temple and fights other Jewish factions. Eleazar of the Temple, has Menahem tortured and killed for his blasphemous assumption of the kingly title. The sicarii and the Zealots, and their families, numbering about one thousand, are driven to their last redoubt, the fortress of Massada. A Roman legion arrives to besiege Masada, and the rebels commit collective suicide. Not one of them remains alive when the Romans finally stand victorious on top of the hill in 73 C.E.
To this tragic end of the Jewish nation, the author appends an entire paragraph: “The question is why it took so long.” Meaning, why did it take the Roman legion so long to take Masada?
Is Aslan commenting on the incompetence of a Roman army in disarray, the accelerating fall of Rome reflected by its fighting force? Or is he allowing himself a bit of Yiddish-flavored irony, like the earlier “nebbish”?
History answers only the first question. Rome enters into precipitous decline. 68–70 C.E are years described by Tacitus, and quoted by Aslan; “rich in disasters, terrible with battles, torn by civil struggles, horrible even in peace.” Emperor Vespasian resolves to make an example of the Jewish revolt. After annihilating the Jewish force, he outlaws their religion and transforms the Temple into a place of worship for Roman gods. “The Jews were now the eternal enemy of Rome.” “By the year 135 C.E., the name Jerusalem ceased to exist in all official Roman documents.” “The Jews who survived the bloodbath blamed the radical bandits, the Sicarii and Zealots, for the Roman brutality.” Jesus-the-Zealot stands thus accused, one more time.
If Reza Aslan’s Zealot Jesus-the-man from Nazareth had somehow escaped crucifixion, he might have led another failed rebellion in 132 C.E., and would have been finally removed (assassinated) by the rabbis of the second century so that they might “develop an interpretation of Judaism that eschewed nationalism.” There would have been no Christianity to speak of. It would have never happened. This is the likely conclusion of this particular Jesus-the-man from Nazareth, a zealot.
What can this Jesus mean? What can his politics mean to us in the age of popular culture? There is no overt mention of popular culture or any culture that Jesus-the-man might have enjoyed in his time as much as Lenin enjoyed Gorky in his. What does the Zealot tell us in a time of vampires, zombies, virtuality, and the surveillance state? It isn’t a stretch: religions, borders, economic reality, and avatars in a state of permanent war, are the world where Reza Aslan’s new Jesus-the-Man has been written. A relevant new Jesus would have to answer the dilemmas of a globalized world where all ideas of nation, God, reality, virtuality, script(ure), and vision are mixing. Covertly, the prose points willy-nilly to language in current use, and thus to the world we inhabit, and this is appropriate: the Jesus we expect hides in the Jesus we get, which is what Jesus, from his first appearance in history, has always done: hid in parables and fables. And in “history.” Reza Aslan can’t help hiding either himself or his character in the subtext. The author-as-fiction-writer stands in the same relation to his times as Jesus-the-man. In other words, the divine Christ and the true historian may not exist, but we are reasonably certain that the man and storyteller do. They live now and the book is published by Random House.