Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth by Reza Aslan ★★★★½
Edition: Books on Tape (2013), OverDrive MP3 Audiobook; 8h08
Original publication date: 2013
I don’t celebrate Easter, but rarely does Easter go by without me thinking of Jesus, even though I’m not and never was a Christian. And I guess it wasn’t such a great coincidence that I decided to finally pick up this book—which had been around the top of my reading list since it was released—toward the beginning of this month. And then of course I couldn’t resist the temptation of posting the following comments on Easter Sunday. I don’t think it’s possible for me to talk about this book and why it’s now among my favourites so far this year without giving a short history of my family’s religious backgrounds and how that came to shape my views on the man who came to be known as Jesus Christ, so this is more of a personal account than an actual review.
My paternal grandmother’s father was what is known by the Hebrew word, as a shochet, and though in the original language this is a designation for any kind of butcher, the English interpretation rightly describes what my great-grandfather was; a religious Jew duly licensed and trained to slaughter mammals and birds for food according to kosher standards. I’ll always remember granny Sonia as a voracious reader, with piles of books by the bedside, and how she always had several open at once. This in itself was not an unfamiliar sight to me, since my own mother has always equally been surrounded with mounds of books as far back as I can remember. But my grandmother Sonia’s reading abilities amazed me because like many East European Jews of her generation, she spoke several tongues and read books in three languages (German, Polish and Russian, though she could also read Hebrew and Yiddish). She read great works of philosophy and literature, but though she grew up in a devout Jewish household, she abandoned religion in her teens, when she became part of the Jewish Socialist movement. Needless to say that had she passed on religious traditions to my father, who got his dose of religion from weekly readings of the Torah in school (much as I did, years later while living in Israel for a few years), needless to say I wouldn’t have gotten any teachings about Jesus the man or the Christ from that quarter. Though interestingly enough, Aslan’s portrayal of Jesus the Man taught me more about some of the traditions of that branch of my lineage than I had ever been able to assimilate so far.
My mother on the other hand was raised in a devout Catholic household and spent most of her childhood and teens as a boarder in Catholic convents, being taught and supervised by nuns 24 hours a day, which was a standard form of education in Quebec in the 1950s. Like most children of that generation, she was loyal to the teachings of the Roman Catholic church and took weekly confessions very seriously, even making up sins when no real offences had been committed, just so she’d have something to tell the priest. But again, none of that religious education trickled down to me, or at least not as any code of conduct of belief system, because as soon as she was able to get her hands on forbidden books in her teens, she read voraciously and as widely as she could about all the banned subjects, and this probably contributed to dispel any belief in the Immaculate Conception, one of the core Catholic doctrines, among other things. But since I went to French school in Montreal at a time when the Catholic School Board was still going strong, there came a time when I very much wished to have my first confession so I could wear a tiny white wedding dress with matching white shoes and socks and be wedded to Christ. What finally convinced me to put that idea out of my head was my mother’s patiently and repeated explanations that in order to go through that ceremony, I would have to first be baptized and receive comprehensive religious teachings. This did not appeal as strongly as the notion of the white dress and the gift watch, so I let it go. A few years later, apparently influenced by a friend from Chile whose family held a veritable cult of Christ, I got bitten with that passion too, put up pictures of him holding his bleeding heart on my walls and prayed to him before going to sleep at night and waking up in the morning. This phase probably didn’t last long, and I remember it amusing and bemusing my mother, understandably enough I guess.
But growing into adulthood, matters of faith mostly remained in the periphery of daily life, if at all, and I think I figured out quite early on that no matter what my personal belief system may be, I could not become a willing participant in any form of organized religion, because I’ve always been resistant to doctrinal notions. All the same, the figure of Jesus, celebrated as he is in the Christian world at least twice a year come Christmas and Easter, has always held a certain amount of fascination for me. Who was this man? How and why did he come to have such devoted disciples and followers? Why did both Jews and Romans have it in for him? How and why did his crucifixion become such a powerful symbol? What are the Gospels and the New Testament?
Perhaps I’m moved by the same motivation which led Reza Aslan to preface his main subject by summarizing his own religious evolution and relationship with Jesus before tackling the meat of his book. I suppose this makes sense when you are about to discuss at some length one of the most powerful religious icons, while more or less stripping him of the trappings of his saintly image, to present him simply as Jesus the Man, conceived and born in the conventional way, and like any human being, filled with complex and sometimes contradictory motivations. That is: present him as a historical figure first and foremost and explain how and why he came to be a religious icon, an approach which could understandably upset certain groups of people. What I read about his approach is precisely what attracted me to this book when it was released, because Aslan’s work promised to provide answers to things which had long excited my curiosity. The man who was Jesus has always been a fascinating figure to me, more than the one who was considered as the Son of God, since the latter would have required for me to either have a religious background I do not possess, or to have made a conversion of faith which isn’t within my scope.
My expectations were well rewarded. Basing himself on two decades of research into the New Testament and the origins of the Christian movement, Aslan delivers a narrative about the man and his time which is so exciting, so filled with momentous events, realistic details and a sense of immediacy, of being plunged into the Palestine of 2000 years ago, that it became an unputdownable book from the first page of the introduction:
“The First century was an era of apocalyptic expectation among the Jews of Palestine, the unofficial Roman designation for the vast tract of land encompassing modern-day Israel/Palestine as well as large parts of Jordan, Syria, and Lebanon (the land would not be officially called Palestine until after 135 C. E. [i.e. current era]). Countless prophets, preachers, and messiahs tramped through the Holy Land delivering messages of God’s imminent judgment. Many of these so-called false messiahs we know by name. A few are even mentioned in the New Testament. The prophet Theudas, according to the book of Acts, had four hundred disciples before Rome captured him and cut off his head. A mysterious charismatic figure known only as “the Egyptian” raised an army of followers in the desert, nearly all of whom were massacred by Roman troops. In 4 B.C.E, the year in which most scholars believe Jesus of Nazareth was born, a poor shepherd named Athronges put a diadem on his head and crowned himself “King of the Jews”; he and his followers were brutally cut down by a legion of soldiers.”
What Aslan does brilliantly here, is explain the sociopolitical context of the times Jesus of Nazareth was born into, of the conflicts between the Jews and the Roman rulers, in what became an ongoing war, when the Jews zealously fought to retain their distinct religion (Aslan calls Judaism a cult throughout) at a time when polytheism was the most commonly accepted belief system throughout the Roman empire. Believing in only one vengeful God, who could only be approached through the intercession of the powerful and rich priestly class with expensive sacrifices at the Temple in Jerusalem; with background information given about how the Jewish priests came into their position and made a living, what the sacrifices entailed in terms of cost and details of how they were practiced, and of how the Temple was rigidly organized, we can understand why Jesus made a scene there; although, the Jesus of Nazareth he describes was very much steeped in Judaism, was devoutly religious and sought to follow the teachings of the Torah and of Moses above all else, never thinking of creating a new religion. I suppose these are the kinds of details most Christians would be familiar with, but I learned as much in this book about Jesus’s faith and the state of the Jewish religion and practices of those days as about how the cult of Christianity was born. I also learned much about what kind of place Israel was (then, as always it seems, a locus or roiling political and religious tensions) and I was finally able to put together many dispersed bits of knowledge I’d acquired about the Israel of 2000+ years ago, when I lived there as a child and repeatedly visited Masada, various Roman ruins and Old Jerusalem and it’s environs, and was taught about historical events that until now were disconnected in my mind.
As logically follows, Aslan then patiently demonstrates how far from the real man the early Christians—and particularly Saul of Tarsus, known as Paul the Apostle—deliberately reinvented the image of Jesus Christ, to distance Jesus from the Jewish ‘cult’. Since to most Jews, Jesus of Nazareth was simply another zealous messianic figure among many others (who were rather ubiquitous at the time, as he makes clear in his introduction) and also very much a political animal who sought to incite the Jews to free themselves of Roman domination, there was little hope then of converting many Jews to the new creed. He also needed to be reinvented as a supernatural being who required only belief, without the trappings of a temple or priests or costly sacrifices, and certainly with <i>no</i> political intentions to make him accessible to gentiles and that much larger pool of potential converts to the new religion. Yet Aslan convincingly argues that in this time of turbulent conflict, Jesus could not have been a meek, peace-seeking and all-forgiving saintly figure, though interestingly enough, he also doesn’t attempt to rationalize the miracles he performs, and instead brings us to understand that the zeitgeist was so completely different from the world view we understand today, that miracles might in fact have been possible. And he does all this by quoting from the scriptures and by describing many historical details and events of the times, based on an extended bibliography. Most importantly, he confirmed to me the impression I’ve long held, that while each person can choose to believe or not in Jesus Christ, Jesus of Nazareth certainly was a fascinating human being, and made me understand how such a person came to have such a powerful cult built around him, as perfectly expressed in the closing paragraph of the book:
(obviously, this is a spoiler of sorts, if there is such a thing as a spoiler in a work on non-fiction…)
“Christianity after the destruction of Jerusalem was almost exclusively a gentile religion; it needed a gentile theology. And that is precisely what Paul provided. The choice between James’s vision of a Jewish religion anchored in the law of Moses and derived from a Jewish nationalist who fought against Rome, and Paul’s vision of a Roman religion that divorced itself from Jewish provincialism and required nothing for salvation save belief in Christ, was not a difficult one for the second and third generations of Jesus’s followers to make. Two thousand years later, the Christ of Paul’s creation has utterly subsumed the Jesus of history. The memory of the revolutionary zealot who walked across Galilee gathering an army of disciples with the goal of establishing the Kingdom of God on earth, the magnetic preacher who defied the authority of the Temple priesthood in Jerusalem, the radical Jewish nationalist who challenged the Roman occupation and lost, has been almost completely lost to history. That is a shame. Because the one thing any comprehensive study of the historical Jesus should hopefully reveal is that Jesus of Nazareth—Jesus the man—is every bit as compelling, charismatic and praiseworthy as Jesus the Christ. He is, in short, someone worth believing in.”
This is a book I’ll definitely want to revisit.
(Quotes transcribed from the eBook edition.)