Thursday, August 1, 2013

Jesus as Zealot: Reza Aslan's New Biography

Reza Aslan has written a splendidly crafted story of Jesus' life and ministry in which he argues that Jesus was a proto-Zealot who sought to overthrow the hegemonic Roman rule of 1st century CE Palestine. Aslan's Jesus is a political rebel who overturns the tables of the moneychangers at the Jerusalem Temple court. Aslan depicts Jesus as an "Occupy the Temple Court" sort of leader rather than the mild-mannered minister conventionally portrayed in the religious education classes and sermons of liberal Christian churches. Aslan supports his narrative with a caravan of religious and historical scholarship, posing the basic question of what kind of crimes were punished by Roman crucifixion? For those of us who are aficionados of the TV series, Spartacus, the answer, of course is sedition, crimes against the Roman state.
What is most enthralling about Aslan's book is the skill with which he recounts the narrative. Aslan, not only has a PhD from UC Santa Barbara in the sociology of religion, but also has an MFA from U of Iowa in fiction writing, and it shows! Aslan has mastered the highlighting of conflict and character development in Jesus, as well as created a detailed social historical context for Jesus' peasant revolt against the Roman rulers and the complicitous landowners and priests of Palestine. Moreover, he traces the budding conflict among the early Jesus followers between the "Hebrews" and the "Hellenists", between the Jerusalem church of Jesus' brother James and the Hellenistic Diaspora influenced Paul, who, according to Aslan's story, caused the theological rift that would forever separate Christianity form Judaism.
An interesting twist to Aslan's personal narrative is that he, a week ago, was interviewed on Fox News by Lauren Green, their religion correspondent. In a lamentable display of xenophobia, Green lambasted Aslan for being a Muslim writing about Jesus despite Aslan's scholarship in religious studies. I often wonder whether the "Religious Right" freaks out over ambiguous or multiple identity--how can Aslan both be a Muslim and a Christian religious scholar? How can Jesus be a zealot, a prophet and a wisdom instructor, all at the same time?

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