Aslan’s “Marxist” Jesus of Nazareth Biography “ZEALOT”O:-)
we transition from this zealot, Jesus, to an emerging world savior, the Christ. The writer notes this pivot in the Gospel of Mark, written around 70 AD. Here, when it became clear that this Messiah who was a hostile Jewish Revolutionary would no longer appeal to a Roman audience, the early church writers begin a face-lift on Jesus. The problem is that the character and meaning of Jesus, in part, had been predestined at a much earlier point, dating back to the earliest sayings found in the gospels and written by none other than that supreme auteur, the Apostle Paul.
Paul was probably converted three years after the death of Jesus (36 AD?), when he experienced a vision (he never spoke of lights and horses). After 12 years of Paul’s ministry, we have his letter to the Thessalonians, written approximately 48 AD, or 15 years after the death of Christ. All of Paul’s letters (7-14?) that quote the earlier sayings and traditions (i.e., I Corinthians 15:3-8) were written before 70 AD; most scholars would argue that here Paul largely fashions the meaning of Jesus later integrated by the gospels. As a matter of fact, if we include Luke, whom Aslan rightly quips is “Paul’s biographer,” and his Luke-Acts two-volume history, 15 out of the 27 New Testament books were written by Paul or his followers. Citing Paul in one chapter (14), titled “Am I Not An Apostle?” in a Book on Jesus is like citing Mozart as an afterthought in the history of classical music. Paul and his conflict with the Jews in Jerusalem over the Gentile mission are the bridge that crosses the gap between the Jewish cult and the Roman religion. And yes, as Aslan argues, more mysticism enters the faith through Paul, in part due to the Greco-Roman audience. Yet the author forgets that it had always been Paul’s practice with his own Jewish mysticism, well-documented by Jewish scholars. It’s not so “either or” as Aslan puts it, either political or mystical; sometimes, in the case of Jesus, it is both: theo-politik.
Also, in Paul’s theo-politik, God’s divine plan is the true nexus between Jesus and Paul and their successive roles in the “coming Kingdom.” Paul, a self-proclaimed zealot, believed Jesus had disclosed to him alone a vision of the “first fruits” of the Kingdom, which was a radical departure from the Jewish idea of general resurrection. He reasons that Jesus did not crush the Roman Empire because God, out of his mercy, allowed a time of grace for the Gentiles to enter the fold, the house of Zion. In other words, Gentiles needed to be offered entry, and Paul was the prophet called to fulfill the plan. Righteous judgment, or the final battle, as Paul refers to it, was with the “principalities of this world,” the dark spirit behind Rome, only delayed.
Lastly, reading into history a neo-Marxian perpetual revolution against Roman power misses the central conflict at the core of the Christian faith, which was one of culture (ethnicity): the question of who was in and who was out. In light of the Messiah, who were chosen and who were not for the kingdom? Should the Mosaic laws apply? Jesus himself, when he cleansed the Temple of Roman influence, was defining these boundaries. No Roman (Gentile) money in my father’s house! The Jewish War was the final blow to the Mother Church in Jerusalem, but it was long in coming. Moving west, away from Jesus’ original teachings about the Torah, was the doing of Paul and clearly a position different from that of James and the Jerusalem Apostles, and a matter of no concern to the Romans, outside of collecting taxes or keeping the peace.
Whether the clash that propelled the Christian faith into the Western World was cultural and/or political, the truth is, like Paul or Mark or the human character of Jesus, we are all many things at once, which is why the modern use of the word zealot reads a bit strongly. Though it was neutral in ancient times, it now implies a disproportionate passion when seen in light of the humanity of others. Written with a fine narrative and colorful language, Reza Aslan’s Zealot helps fill in the background world of Jesus from Nazareth. It reminds us that even our highest aspirations — even divine meaning⎯passes through flesh, a fact that still goes largely unrecognized.