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The Historical Jesus vs The Christ-- Challenging Reza Aslan's book-thesis in "Zealot"

Updated on July 8, 2014
Author Reza Aslan
Author Reza Aslan


In mid of 2013, the book “Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth” by scholar Reza Aslan became a Bestseller. I read the book in April of 2014. It is a well written and scholarly book. It gives a valuable account and analysis of the historical record on Jesus (which is mainly from The Gospels) as well as first century Judaism. Many reviewers and readers have commented that while the book doesn't offer much in the way of what is already known from the annals of history on Jesus, it does challenge some long held notions by Biblical scholars.

The book makes certain claims about the nature of some of the accounts in The Gospels as well as Jesus’s own understanding of certain concepts. This Hub is not a book review as much as it is a challenge to the claims put forth in the book. I will provide a summary of these claims below along with my counter-argument on the thesis of this book.

The book attempts to builds a case that Jesus may not have been any different from a myriad other Messiahs who roamed the Roman territories around Jerusalem at the time. The messianic fervor was in full bloom and Rome on the lookout for rabble rousers. And Jesus’s notion of The Kingdom of Heaven and a zeal that sought the Holy Land to be cleansed of the infestation of gentiles and Roman rule was typical. And that like all the other Messiahs he was arrested and ignominiously crucified for his ambitions against the Roman Empire. Thus, the notion of Jesus as The Prince of Peace who taught the Jews to pay their tax-dues to Caesar and reform themselves spiritually to enter the Kingdom of Heaven was concocted by the disciples who wrote the Gospels decades later. They would supposedly do this to “Spiritualize” Jesus’s statements such as his mission to usher “The Kingdom of Heaven” as defensive tactics. Why they would choose to build a legacy for someone who was just another claimant as Messiah and died the same mortifying death as the false Messiahs is not expounded upon, and perhaps it cannot be. So, what the author is saying is that Jesus was really a political phenomenon who was later fashioned into the “Christ”.

As overture for the argument in his book, the author opens the book with the following verse from The Holy Bible, “Do not think I have come to bring peace to earth, I have not come to bring peace but the sword” (Matthew 10:34)

This of course is not the first time anyone has cherry picked a verse but coming from someone in the academic community it is regrettable. If you study Matthew Chapter 10 the context is straightforward. Jesus is speaking about disruption to family bonds. He is explaining that when heavenly dispensation comes from God then it is a must for believers to follow it even if it means losing near and dear ones. That is what the sword means here—terrible commotions and excitements leading to severance between relatives.

Although Reza Aslan has stated several times that he sees Jesus Christ as a revolutionary, the book does not seem to attempt to answer the question why and how Jesus Christ’s legacy turned out to be so overwhelmingly larger-than-life whereas no one even knows the names of those other would-be Messiahs—I had already forgotten them in a couple of weeks after reading the book. The historicity as portrayed in the book eludes a good reconciliation. Next, I will proceed to prove that while this book is admirable and scholarly its argument is fundamentally flawed. I will pick only a few extracts from the book to focus upon but these by the author’s own admission are crucial to the thesis of the book.

Jesus in the Court of The Gentiles

An image of Jesus believed to be cleansing the court of gentiles
An image of Jesus believed to be cleansing the court of gentiles

In the prologue to Part II of the book, second last paragraph of the chapter “Zeal For Your House”, Reza Aslan writes, “To be clear, Jesus was not a member of the Zealot Party that launched the war with Rome . . . nor was Jesus a violent revolutionary bent on armed rebellion, though his views on the use of violence were far more complicated than it is often assumed.” Jesus’s statements, given that he was known to speak often in parables, need not be complex most of the time. Such as in the above quoted Matthew 10:34 verse where the statement on the apparent use of violence is easily reconciled. Frankly, I was surprised that the author admitted that Jesus cannot be taken as a violent revolutionary like some of the other better known rebels of the time such as Hezekiah and Judas the Galilean. The statement seems to act against the premise of the book. However, that would be the historicity of the record on Jesus—that he did not preach violence as he didn't act upon it. Verses that supposedly ‘complicate’ his views on violence may be colored as parables or open to some other rejoinder. But such complication should not form the basis for premise, especially in the absence of support from the wider practice of Jesus of Nazareth.

In the same Chapter, the author focuses on the event of Jesus’s entry into Jerusalem on a donkey and the next day he supposedly disrupts proceedings of the corrupt culture at The Court of Gentiles in The Temple of Jerusalem. The author places the event in a pivotal light to understand Jesus’s real and core sense of his mission. He takes issue with how the writers of the synoptic Gospels have referred to the event in a fleeting manner either oblivious to its meaning or intentionally downplaying it. There is rationale to the emphasis that the author places here—this is the only event narrated as such that he has at his disposal to prove his theory. The author states, “So revelatory is this single moment in Jesus’s brief life that it alone can be used to clarify his mission, his theology, his politics . . .”. Well, I believe most people will take serious issue with such a statement and say that isolated events should not form the basis of a thesis, but rather the larger study of what someone said and did.

Jesus and his disciples enter the Court of Gentiles at the Temple of Jerusalem and in a violent rage the set about to cleanse the court of impure trade and conduct that had become its culture. They go about overturning tables of money-changers, releasing caged animals prepped for slaughter, setting birds free etc. etc. Jesus is apparently confronted by the authorities there, which according to the author includes a corps of Roman guards and armed temple police. Jesus accuses them of having turned a house of prayer into a “den of thieves”. He then goes on to pronounce the enigmatic prophecy, “Destroy this Temple and in three days I will raise it up”. The author goes on to say that, “the crowd is dumbstruck, so much so that they apparently do not notice Jesus and his disciples calmly exiting the Temple and walking out of the city, having just taken part in what the Roman authorities would have deemed a capital offense: sedition, punishable by crucifixion”.

Now, there is a serious problem with the conclusion of this event. Let us say that for a brief period of time Jesus and his disciples are able to “vandalize” the Court of Gentiles without the crowd reacting to hold them down. Are we to believe that a corps of Roman guards and armed temple police stood and watched Jesus and his disciples calmly depart the scene? Because they were dumbfounded? And were not able to give chase even after such a serious crime occurred in front of their eyes? Is that the explanation they would give to their seniors? That guards and policemen were dumbfounded by criminal activity? Obviously something is terribly amiss here. What this narration says is that the way this event is portrayed is unlikely how it probably happened. Firstly, I do not believe Jesus would teach his disciples to ever go and vandalize. I do not say this because I am a believer in Jesus as a heavenly guide and teacher but because that is where the broader context of his legacy and teachings point to. Probably, he had made scathing remarks and warnings to them as is recorded in the Bible. May be, someone upset with the corruption they saw around them was inspired by Jesus’s speech and went on a rampage. We cannot say for sure. Probably, a commotion did occur. But what is highly improbable is that after watching their criminal conduct guards and police would allow culprits to walk away. Therefore, in my opinion, this supposedly pivotal event that ‘clarifies’ what Jesus stood for, is itself sunk in confusion. And even so, singular isolated events should not merit a thesis.

Another event is cited with the narrations around the Garden of Gethsemane where Jesus instructs his disciples to sell their good to purchase swords. They purchase two and Jesus says it is enough. I don’t think they hoped to fight a Roman legion with two swords. I don’t think anyone with good sense can choose to interpret this event as evidence that Jesus saw violence as a means to restore the Kingdom of God. The narrative is complicated. Why two swords? However, when Jesus is being arrested and a disciple of his pulls one of the swords, Jesus reprimands him with “Those who live by the sword, die by the sword”—I felt it was unfair of the author to have omitted this account as it shows Jesus shunning the sword. Hence, the implications of the sword here are complicated and it is best to default to the wider legacy of Jesus. Thus, this event should not be admissible to the thesis.

A celestial expression of The Kingdom of Heaven among other contemplated views
A celestial expression of The Kingdom of Heaven among other contemplated views

The Kingdom of Heaven

Another argument brought by the author is that there appears to be no unified view of what “The Kingdom of Heaven” or “The Kingdom of God” actually means in Old and New Testaments as well as Jesus’s own sayings. The Kingdom of God is said to be near at hand, it could be something that occurs here on earth or perhaps entirely celestial. It could be all of those things. The author writes, “If the Kingdom of Heaven is neither purely celestial nor wholly eschatological, then what Jesus was proposing must have been a present kingdom: a real kingdom, with an actual king, that was about to be established on earth. That is certainly how the Jews would have understood it”. This is a far reaching assumption. The Kingdom is referred to as celestial, temporal and eschatological. It is not acceptable to cast it as strictly temporal just because it is not fully landing on the other concepts. With some common sense one can say that there certainly is a celestial concept of a paradise, and there can be godly kingdoms on earth that are examples of morality and justice. And, there may even be something in end-times that will assume such a state i.e. sometimes referred to as “The Day of the Lord”. This by no means makes a fair argument that it is something purely on earth and that is how Jesus must have been referring to it.

The Gospel of Mark believed to be the first one written around 70 CE
The Gospel of Mark believed to be the first one written around 70 CE

Per the Author some Gospel accounts are substantially fabricated

All this leads the author to believe that most of the non-temporal concepts of The Kingdom of Heaven must have been thought-up by the writers of The Gospels in order to spiritualize Jesus’s message. However the author does not take issue with many of Jesus’s own “revolutionary” statements such as the beatitudes which are more generally understood to be spiritual. Yet these are not deemed to have been fantasies or fabrications of the Gospel writers. This does create an inconsistency. The author states when Jesus states in the beatitudes that the weak will inherit the earth, and that the poor will be rich—these are revolutionary expressions in an earthly sense. But again, it is hard to accept these in the temporal sense. The poor becoming rich can be an expression of a revolution but in what temporal sense are the weak able to inherit and rule the earth—that does require strength and courage which is not inimical to spirituality. What Jesus is likely talking about is that wealth and strength are given by God Almighty, and such as it has been endowed on some in this earth so God is capable of endowing it upon his loyal and faithful servants. That would be acceptable rather than a temporal expression of the beatitudes in a temporal Kingdom of Heaven. Even when studying from a purely historical perspective, things have to make sense and be logical.

Another point the author brings up is that the Gospel narratives relating to Pontius Pilate as someone who takes interest in Jesus and fails to find fault with him as well as absolves his own responsibility in Jesus’s punishment goes against the annals of history. History writes Pontius Pilate as an overly cruel anti-Semite who crushed Jewish rebellions ruthlessly in blood. According to author Reza Aslan, to picture Pontius even lifting up his head to pay attention to Jesus is hard to imagine. At the most he would have heard the crime and instantly dispatched him to Golgotha. However, the challenge to this premise would be that why would the Gospel writers feel the need to drum up these narratives of Pilate interrogating Jesus, his wife warning Pilate to stay away from the good man, Pilate washing his hands in public to symbolize his detachment from Jesus’s punishment etc etc. How would that further their purpose? If they were keen to present The Kingdom of Heaven in a spiritual light then they already had done that elsewhere in The Gospels including Jesus’s interrogation by the high priest Caiaphas. Also, if Jesus really had revolutionary ideas to explain to the Jews that a return to the glory of the Kingdom of David was not necessary to redeem oneself before God, and why would the Messiah usher that Kingdom for them if they were so steeped in sin and violence, then he may have found appreciation with The Roman authorities who would have been aware of these notions of a jihad (so to speak) to usher in the heavenly kingdom. So if Jesus was truly revolutionary in his view, then may be Pilate may have lent him an ear and may even have wanted the Jews to open up to this non-violent and peaceful interpretation. As I will make the case in the next section, we have support from The Gospels that this is what Jesus would have stood for.

A statue based on the Isaiah 2:4 verse of beating swords into plowshares-- a prophecy from the Old Testament referring to the peaceful nature of The Messiah to come.
A statue based on the Isaiah 2:4 verse of beating swords into plowshares-- a prophecy from the Old Testament referring to the peaceful nature of The Messiah to come.

The Old Testament Prophecies About The Messiah

In fact, we have supporting evidence in the Old Testament itself regarding the nature of the teaching of The Messiah who was to come to the Israelites. And they are testifying to the nature of The Kingdom of Heaven as they are mentioned in The Gospels. The following verses are cited by Jewish Rabbis and scholars as referring to the coming of The Messiah. In the Hebrew Bible (Old Testament) it says about The Messiah . . .

(Isaiah 2:4) “And he shall judge among the nations, and shall rebuke many people: and they shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks: nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war anymore.”

(Isaiah 11: 6-8) “The wolf also shall dwell with the lamb, and the leopard shall lie down with the kid; and the calf and the young lion and the fatling together; and a little child shall lead them. And the cow and the bear shall feed; their young ones shall lie down together; and the lion shall eat straw like the ox. And the sucking child shall play on the hole of the asp, and the weaned child shall put his hand in the cobra’s den.”

Now, many Jewish Rabbis use these same verses to make literal interpretations and justify that Jesus could not have been the Messiah since much of these supernatural and rather bizarre things did not occur during Jesus’s life time. Christians believe that these prophecies will probably come to pass in a literal sense also when Christ returns in his second coming. However, it is ridiculous to make literal interpretations of such verses. Isaiah 2:4 seems to be fairly straightforward in its prophecy that The Messiah will rebuke the nations (nations here should be taken as the nations of Israel in my view) and cause men to beat their swords into plowshares. Like I’ve said before, I believe that this is about Jesus correcting the corrupted Jewish notions about waging war while in a state of moral corruption to establish The Kingdom of God. The Isaiah 11 verses speak of animals of opposing nature coming together in peace. One theme that be discerned from these verses is transformation, perhaps a revolution of ideas. And if Jesus was a true revolutionary, which is how most see him in a historical perspective, then his ideas and notions would be very different from how the Jews had come to understand the Kingdom of Heaven.

How do you believe that Jesus took the notion of The Kingdom of Heaven

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Summary and Conclusion

Therefore, per the author’s own admission that there is nothing in Jesus’s history to indicate that he preached violence, and by the objections I have raised to the many passages in the book that are used to justify the view of the author, and also by highlighting the prophecies in the Hebrew Bible about the nature of the coming of The Messiah, there is sufficient rationale to take the said passages of The Gospels as genuine. And to believe that Jesus in fact understood The Kingdom of God to be as it is narrated in the Gospels. These need not be deemed as wholly fabricated. And it is difficult to reconcile, even from a historical perspective, that Jesus was merely another rabble-rouser Messiah who was crucified like all the other would-be Messiahs given how his legend and fame has established over history.

I would certainly recommend reading this book. It is well written and a great lens into history despite what in my opinion is a premise open to challenge.


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