This weekend we began a sermon series, Zealot or Savior?, in which we’ll spend 4 weeks reflecting on and responding to the claims author Reza Aslan makes in his bestselling (but hardly novel) book, Zealot.
If you wish to be spared the minutiae of regurgitated, outmoded, largely discredit 19th century conjectures that Aslan makes in his book, then here’s the basic gist.
The Jesus of faith that has been received by the Church through tradition and canon bears little resemblance to the actual, ‘real’ Jesus of history.
The historic Jesus, according to Aslan, was a Zealot.
The Zealot movement, in case you didn’t know, was a 1st century political movement within the period of Second Temple Judaism that agitated for armed revolt against the Roman invaders. Whereas the Pharisees were the most extreme in wanting a return to moral and religious purity for their people, the Zealots were the most extreme in wanting to return to nationalistic purity. Simon, one of Jesus’ disciples, was a Zealot, according to the Gospels- a curious revelation to make, one would think, if the Gospels’ intent were to hide that Jesus was also one. Some scholars also believe Judas was a Zealot and attribute Judas’ betrayal of Jesus to Judas’ growing impatience and disenchantment that Jesus, having ridden into Jerusalem as a mock general, nevertheless refused to take up the sword.
Aslan’s assertion is based on the premise that crucifixion was reserved by Rome for the crime of sedition and threatening the state. Therefore, Aslan assumes, Jesus must have been a revolutionary.
That Aslan assumes such a revolution must necessarily manifest itself violently and that sedition and threat to the status quo can only come through force I think reveals a depressing lack of political imagination.
Aslan’s logic is essentially the same as someone who would argue that Martin Luther King must have ‘really’ been like Malcom X because non-violent resistance could never change the status quo or threaten the powers that be.
As Dennis Perry preached this past weekend, Aslan essentially claims that the ‘real’ more interesting Jesus is the one Pontius Pilate knew and condemned. That some of his find this Jesus more compelling too shows, I think, that, like Pilate, we don’t know the answer to the question: ‘What is truth?’
There are several lines of attack when it comes to critiquing Aslan’s book. For one, had Jesus been a Zealot his Messiahship would have conformed much better to 1st century Jewish expectations and it’s likely he’d be remembered today not as the Christ but as Judas the Hammer was for leading his own Messianic revolt.
The other points of critique I’ll save for another day save this one.
One of the tests historians use for the reliability of ancient documents, like the Gospels, is the degree to which they narrate unflattering, shameful details that would be embarrassing to their community and for which there’d be no reason to document UNLESS THEY WERE TRUE.
For example, divulging that all of your Messiah’s disciples betrayed or abandoned him.
For example, making women the first and key witnesses to the resurrection at a time when they could not even be witnesses in a Roman court.
For example, repeatedly saying that Jesus ‘ate and drank,’ ‘welcomed,’ and ‘forgave’ sinners. This is a consistent theme in every one of the 4 Gospels. And its one that could not possibly be true had Jesus actually been a Zealot.
Think of Zaccheus. Or Matthew. Their ‘sin’ wasn’t greed but collusion with the Roman occupation. The Zealots’ zeal was such that they had no patience for Jews like Matthew who would make their living skimming off the backs of their fellow Jews, making a profit off of Rome’s oppressive occupation. Jesus’ merry band of armed freedom fighters NEVER would’ve admitted someone like Matthew into their ranks.
If Jesus were a Zealot who welcomed sinners like Matthew and Zaccheus he would’ve been a failure before he even entered Jerusalem much less died on a cross.
If Jesus were a Zealot then Zaccheus, the wee little man, never got down out of that tree. If Jesus were a Zealot then Matthew was never a disciple and Jesus never fellowshipped with sinners just like him, a charge (made by the Pharisees remember) repeated too often for it to be the creation of the Church’s later imagination.