As I mentioned weeks back, I finished Reza Aslan’s book Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth and came to many different conclusions from the book. Among those is that Aslan overcorrected his fundamentalist upbringing by tossing out the baby with the bathwater.
Aslan forcefully argued for the narrative of Jesus the historical figure transforming into a divine “Christ of faith” through the exploits of Paul and later century figures. He saw that after the many messianic claims of the early centuries, the belief that Jesus the Nazarene was God is purely wishful thinking from later followers of Jesus. However, I find his thesis lacking, and let me tell you why.*
Something Crazy Happened
Here’s what we know concerning the claims of the New Testament and First Century Palestine:
- Messiahs were meant to lead military revolutions in First Century Israel.
- Messiahs and good Jews do not typically claim to be god/God.
- Jews worship on Saturdays.
- Women are not reliable legal witnesses.
- Resurrection of the dead was believed to happen at the end of history.
Here’s what we know from common sense:
- Dead men stay dead— this is a fact of nature.
- If you make something up, at least make the leaders look somewhat intelligent.
As the New Testament scholar N.T. Wright points out in Surprised by Hope, something happened that turned Second Temple Judaism on its head. There was a historical Jesus who had a group of followers and he eventually was crucified for insurrection (claiming to be like God, claiming to be a king). Instead of disbanding, as so many followers of crucified messiahs did, the disciples started saying he rose from the dead. They claimed to have seen him as a physical person. Not only that—women were the first to encounter the empty tomb and connect the dots to a resurrection!
As alluded to above, if you are going to make something up in the First Century, don’t say women were there first. Because in the First Century, women were not legal witnesses. If you made something up, why not show Peter as the smart, faithful one? Why not tell the great exploits of the early leaders and simply remove the asinine stories that portray the disciples as faithless, prejudiced people?
The four gospel accounts recorded in the Bible provided differing accounts of the Jesus and are not four similar copies. Aslan is certainly correct in this. However, four witnesses will often times provide four different takes on a single event. The existence of narrative tension does not make the four different accounts false. It would be less believable and reliable if all four gospels were in unanimity in relaying the history (and theology) of Jesus the Messiah.
On another point, to be Jewish meant that you worshipped at the Synagogue or Temple on Saturdays. To move your worship day as a Jew to Sunday is a tremendous move. Moving days is not just a convenience factor, instead it is a reflection of the culture-shattering resurrection of Jesus. This is another element to hearing out the argument for a historical resurrection.
Concerning the resurrection, a lot of Jews at that time believed in the bodily resurrection of the just. Of course, this resurrection would occur at the end of time, when God intervenes in history. They did not expect for a resurrection to occur at that particular time. They certainly did not have a category to affirm a bodily resurrection in the Hellenistic Greek understanding either. Unless something out of the ordinary happened.
James vs Paul?
Surprisingly, Aslan created a narrative that pitted Paul against James the brother of Jesus and the Jerusalem church. He suggested that Paul took the teaching of Jesus and perverted them, turning the vast majority of the diaspora (Jews who did not live in Israel) and Gentiles against the traditional Jewish church in Jerusalem. However, this is grasping at straws, since Paul went throughout the Mediterranean collecting money to financial relieve a Jerusalem church. He also came under their authority several points in Acts (not to mention his writings are the earliest ones we have).
It is pretty well known that Martin Luther saw the Book of James as a sketchy book, propping up the false religion of works over faith in God. Aslan flips Luther’s idea over and suggests that Paul attacked James in his writings. However, the faith that Paul wrote about is not in opposition to the works that James wrote about. We are saved for good works, not saved by them or from them. This was his weakest point, because even a cursory look at how Reformational scholars interpret Paul and James shatter his hypothesis within a few pages.
If Christ Was Not Raised…
With all that said, Zealot is a well-researched book that is a very captivating read. However, this book is done with a motive. My guess is that Aslan’s work was written as a type of antidote to kids caught up in the subjective fervor of contemporary evangelicalism. Yet, reading the New Testament with modern eyes is just as pervasive in secular heads as it is in orthodox Christian heads. I simply do not think you have to separate the Christ of faith from the Christ of history. Because something happened in the First Century that changed everything. Something happened that has mystery to it. Something happened that is not found on a recorded video.
The Jesus of history and the Jesus of faith are the same person. Jesus the Messiah changed the cultural script for a conquering messiah and he meant to die a brutal death on the cross. It was not an accident that he died in his thirties. This was his mission: to give his life as a ransom so that we can enjoy a life with God both now and forever.
Maybe the reason why people argued with Jesus and rejected him at that time was because he claimed to be God and claimed to be a messiah who would not overthrow the Romans in a glorious coup d’etat. Maybe the reason why people rejected him then is the same reason people reject him now: he interrupts our lives and our own preconceived notions of what it means to truly live.
*I am indebted to the works of the brilliant scholar NT Wright for these arguments, and I commend you to read his material on the Early Church
Photo: Christ Cleansing the Temple by Bernardino Mei (Courtesy of J. Paul Getty Museum)