Tuesday, December 24, 2013

Reza Aslan's "Zealot" and the Search for Jesus

I finished Reza Aslan's Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth this week.* It's been a challenging read. Aslan is not just some hack with an agenda. He does have an agenda, but he's no hack; Aslan knows his stuff and he spent a lot of time researching this book, which has gained no small measure of notoriety.

Aslan comes from a family of Iranian-Americans who fled after the overthrow of the Shah. His family blamed Islam for the ruin of their country; he does not come from an antagonistic perspective. In fact, he was converted to evangelical Christianity as a teenager and only slowly moved away from this tradition in his further studies. The book's stated aim is to recast Jesus, though intense cultural and historical study, from Jesus the Christ, the ethereal, disconnected savior Aslan encountered in evangelical Christianity, to Jesus of Nazareth, a radical Jewish revolutionary.

Zealot argues that Jesus is not divine, mostly because it's highly unlikely. Obviously, those who disagree do so by faith, and Aslan readily admits there is no argument for or against - it is simply a matter of faith, mostly centered around the fact or fiction of resurrection. This is an assumption underlying the book, but not an essential part of his attempts to understand Jesus.

Something I'd never considered before was the likely fiction of the birth narratives. With the gospels having been written so long after the life of Christ, the details therein are theological in nature and not necessarily historical (or even real in some cases). It's a disconcerting thought, especially this time of year, but his arguments make a lot of sense; I don't find them particular helpful or harmful to an understanding of Jesus.

Aslan's notation system is more narrative than technical, lacking footnotes, but including a lengthy section for each chapter, which helps communicate his frame of reference. There is a strong attempt to be inclusionary of diverse opinions there, even if not in the prose itself. At the same time, "I agree with Richard Horsley" is an oft used phrase and it's clear many of his more controversial conclusions rely on the work of one man (albeit a strong scholar).

The book provides powerful, vivid descriptions of life in 1st century Palestine, along with an important summary of intertestamental history and a gripping narrative of the Jewish revolt and subsequent annihilation of Jerusalem in AD 70. I can't recall any element of his historical and cultural research that I questioned to any great degree. Zealot can be an important resource for anyone, Christian or otherwise, to better understand the context of Jesus' life and ministry.

The main problem, however, is the more we uncover the more difficult it is to define and understand both Jesus himself and the faith his life spawned. Aslan does indeed poke holes in the colloquial understanding of Jesus' life, something relatively easy to do now that the Church doesn't have a monopoly on information and authority. At the same time, he resides in an almost extreme opposite position, giving almost no credence to any element of the traditional Christian narrative that might speak to reality.

This is no more clear than in Aslan's characterization of Jesus' aims and intentions. Jesus of Nazareth is rightly placed into the mold of messiah, a common Jewish archetype of the period, usually a radical revolutionary bent on overthrowing the spiritual monopoly of the temple or the political domination of Rome (or both). Aslan lumps Jesus wholesale into the tradition, including its dedication to violence almost entirely on the authority of one verse - "I come not to bring peace, but a sword." For someone so willing to take liberties with the text, to parse them for redaction, sarcasm, and the like, he takes this one verse, upon which a main tenet of his argument hangs, with no critical engagement. The idea is to challenge the notion that Jesus' Kingdom was intended to be celestial. I personally have no problem challenging that notion; I do think there is plenty of room to affirm Jesus as a political and religious revolutionary bent on establishing an earthly Kingdom, I just suspect there's more nuance and possibility than Aslan ever seems willing to entertain.

More difficult, but important is Aslan's narrative of how the life of Jesus was communicated to subsequent generations. He sees the church quickly devolving into two competing bodies - a Jewish core, made up of the Apostles and Jesus' brother James, centered in Jerusalem, adhering to Jewish law and customs, and committed to the notion of Christ's immanent return and the arrival of the promised Kingdom. The other group, comprised of wealthy, educated Hellenized Jews - those who traveled from the farther reaches of the Empire for Passover, those more inclined to disconnect this new faith from its Jewish roots, the group led by Paul.

It is really Paul who becomes the villain of Aslan's story, a power-hungry egotist who hijacks the story of Jesus, transforms him into the literal Son of God, rejects the Torah, and makes the faith acceptable to the Roman world.

These claims are not entirely far-fetched, even within the corpus of scripture itself. Certainly there is a measure of real tension between the message of James' epistle and most of Paul's teaching. While some might consider these two important streams of Christianity necessarily held in tension, Aslan considers one valid and other false, despite Paul's clear victory in the long run.

There are a number of dichotomies that Aslan highlights in Zealot. He tends to make them either/or decisions, which is perfectly in line with traditional Christianity, which does the same thing from the opposite side of each debate. I am not convinced that any one "side" is going to (or needs to) "win." This book brings to light important realities and troubling contentions that are easier for the Church to simply forget, ignore or deny. We do ourselves a disservice to give in to those temptations.

There are a lot of doctrines the official "orthodox" church has established in stone that have always seemed less than crystal clear to me. Aslan succeeds in highlighting many of them - the largest being how Jesus relates to God. Many traditions, some existing through to the present day, refuse to affirm the absolute equality of Jesus with Yahweh. While I have no problem affirming the divinity of Christ, I suspect we do ourselves and the mystery of God a disservice to exclude those traditions outright. Ultimately, I don't see the Nicene Creed as the unifying faith statement of Christianity, but the early and simple declaration that "Jesus Christ is Lord." That can mean a lot of things to a lot of different people, but I believe our gracious willingness to work those out together is the best possible testament to the truth of our faith.

Zealot is not an easy read - and certainly has the potential to be earth-shattering for the unprepared. I'd love to have more time to investigate many of the sources he cites and the history he so deftly wields. There are some clear theological holes in his argument, but none of them strong enough to justify entirely writing off Aslan or his position.

Aslan ends the book with an interesting conclusion:

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 in 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.

I don't believe we need to choose between Jesus the man and Jesus the Christ. I agree that there is a narrative of Jesus in the Christian tradition that fails to take into account the reality of Jesus' life and times. I think we too often fall back on traditional interpretations, failing to analyze the gospel as a theological document from a specific period in history. There are a lot of challenges to faith inherent in the rediscovery of Jesus the man. At the same time, I see this rediscovery happening with great strength inside the Church. My seminary experience was filled with a rooted foundation of Jesus in Judaism, both culturally and religiously. It has made a profound impact on my faith - and quite honestly, if I had to make the choice between Jesus the Christ and Jesus the man as Aslan describes them, I'd make the same choice he does. I just don't think it's an either or.

The radical, revolutionary Jesus is a great critique of the traditional, ethereal, heavenly Christ narrative which has formed the backbone of much of Christianity, I just don't think one should, or can, ever subsume the other.

*This is not one of the books I've reviewed as part of the Booksneeze project. I chose this one myself and got it from the library. I'll probably have another one of those later in the week.

No comments: