A peasant boy named Jesus grew up in Nazareth, a destitute village of a few hundred farmers and their families. There was no commerce, no temple, nothing to do but milk the livestock and tend the fields. As the boy grew up, he became a revolutionary and started traveling around the neighborhood villages, preaching about starting the Kingdom of God to his fellow peasants and fishermen. His career as a preacher only lasted a few years, and soon the Romans and the Jewish establishment decided he was a nuisance and they killed him, as they had many like him before, and as they would many like him after. How did it happen that the few years of teachings of the man Jesus of Nazareth resulted in the largest religion in history, one that would last over 2000 years? How is it that we even ended up using his year of birth as the beginning of our worldwide calendar? Who was this remarkable man, and who were his followers that kept it all going?
When I was a young boy in school in Germany, we had to participate in mandatory “Religious Education” classes. Almost everyone in Bavaria is Catholic. So once a week, for an hour, a Catholic cleric would come into the classroom and teach us about religion. After all those years of sitting through those classes I remember nothing of them. I don’t remember the teachers, and I remember none of their teachings. All I remember is that the classes were very – boring.
Professional religious educators who had me as captive audience for more than a decade could not get me interested in the subject. Then I picked up this book titled Zealot by Reza Aslan, and I was captivated within the first page. I learned more about the Christian and Jewish religions in the few days while reading Zealot than I did in my entire life leading up to it.
Reza Aslan was hounded by the conservative media when the book first came out a few months ago, because supposedly he was Muslim (at one time) and therefore would not be qualified to write this book about Jesus. What a bunch of crock!
Aslan is a religious scholar who has obviously studied Christianity, Judaism (and I am sure many other religions) for decades. He is dealing with complex subjects that have kept religious scholars busy and arguing for 2000 years now, so I don’t expect that everyone, every expert and critic, will agree with some of his conclusions. Certainly the average American superficial fundamentalist may find areas to argue with. I found Azlan’s command of the details and his ability to convey a complex time in history to laymen like me utterly refreshing. Biblical times came alive for me. The teachings of the New Testament, something so boring I could never make myself read more than a few pages at a time, now have a fresh face and I have gained new appreciation for the complex and very unlikely history of the early Christians.
Aslan provides a vivid perspective and imagery that shows the background of the Jewish religion and how it was practiced during Jesus’ time. He describes the functioning of the Roman Empire, and how it related to the Jewish people, their state and their Temple hierarchy. He explains how the Jews struggled with the Romans, and describes their internal strife, their quest for power and money through the ancient Temple rituals. Then he explains why the times were ripe for revolutionaries and zealots to rise for a few years before they were beaten down, tortured and killed by the political and religious establishment.
Jesus was killed by the Romans for the crime of sedition. He was not different from other rabblerousing prophets, who called themselves messiah, who came before or after him— like Hezekiah, Judas, Theudas, Athronges the Egyptian, Simon son of Giora and Simon son of Kochba, to list just some of them. Every one of those men were Jews, preachers, claiming they were the messiahs predicted by the scriptures, descendants of King David, revolutionaries against the Jewish Temple establishment, and outspoken critics against the rule of Rome. Jesus of Nazareth was one of them.
We might say Jesus was different, because he performed miracles. Not really. Here is Azlan in an excerpt:
Jesus was not the only miracle worker trolling though Palestine healing the sick and casting out demons. This was a world steeped in magic and Jesus was just one of an untold number of diviners and dream interpreters, magicians and medicine men who wandered Judea and Galilee. There was Honi the Circle-Drawer, so named because during a time of drought he drew a circle in the dirt and stood inside it. “I swear by your great name that I will not move from here until you have mercy on your sons,” Honi shouted up to God. And the rains came at once. Honi’s grandsons Abba Hilqiah and Hanan the Hidden were also widely credited with miraculous deeds; both lived in Galilee around the same time as Jesus. Another Jewish miracle worker, Rabbi Hanina ben Dosa, who resided in the village of Arab just a few kilometers from Jesus’s home in Nazareth, had the power to pray over the sick and even intercede on their behalf to discern who would live and who would die. Perhaps the most famous miracle worker of the time was Apollonius of Tyana. Described as a “holy man” who taught the concept of a “Supreme God,” Apollonius performed miraculous deeds everywhere he went. He healed the lame, the blind, the paralytic. He even raised a girl from the dead. — (Kindle Locations 1747-1756)
In page after page, Azlan discusses the roles of Jesus and his followers, his direct disciples James, Peter and John, their early relationship to the outcast Paul, who didn’t even know Jesus personally. He eventually illustrates how the majority of the New Testament ended up being either written by Paul, or about Paul, and how that transformation resulted in making Jesus of Nazareth, the man, into the strange deity Christianity has made him out to be since.
Was Jesus a man or was he the Son of God? Per Azlan:
Numerous figures are called “Son of God” in the Bible, none more often than David, the greatest king— (2 Samuel 7: 14; Psalms 2: 7, 89: 26; Isaiah 42: 1). Rather, when it came to referring to himself, Jesus used an altogether different title, one so enigmatic and unique that for centuries scholars have been desperately trying to figure out what he could have possibly meant by it. Jesus called himself “the Son of Man.” — (Kindle Locations 2205-2208)
I am an atheist, and I am now fascinated by the story of early Christianity and the historical figure of Jesus of Nazareth.