I recently finished reading Zealot, by Reza Aslan, of whom I learned after watching the hostile interview that a Christian facilitator from Fox News did of the author.
I must, from the onset, admit that I do not have any particular or definite views about the historicity of Jesus because I’m simply not convinced that it matters much. It’s impossible at this point to determine if Jesus really lived and who he was, plus I’m a non-believer and much more fascinated with the biographies of Epicurus and his associates.
The Jesus Seminar is (so far as I know) the only comprehensive scholarly attempt to find a historical Jesus from out of the convoluted, varied and contradictory scriptures that were written to promote him by the people who deified him. According to the Jesus Seminar, only about 18% of what is attributed to Jesus was actually said and done by the historical Jesus. The rest is fiction concocted during the “oral period” between his death and the writing of the Gospels.
I found Zealot a fascinating and thoroughly enjoyable read. Aslan is a great narrator, in fact he teaches the art of writing, and his skill at weaving an intriguing narrative is evident in Zealot. Characters, many of whom are very likely real people that lived in history, emerge from the pages much more alive, colorful, and complex than when I was subjected as a child to the comprehensive Catholic brainwashing program known as catechism. Their intentions, their milieu, the politics and the hostilities of the moment in time in which they lived, are much easier to understand and appreciate.
The Fox News interviewee accused Aslan of being a Muslim attempting to undermine traditional Christian faith and presenting Jesus as a terrorist. The book does that. It does make a compelling case that the real Yeshua was a seditious Jew who hated Roman occupation and its priestly enablers in the Temple, and who was part of one of many violent intifadas that were organized to expel the most powerful army on Earth from Judea.
Aslan cites references to passages in the Gospels where Jesus calls for violence, and brushes off the many passages where he calls for non-violent conflict resolution. In the end, we must grant that it is entirely likely that Jesus may have had terrorist sympathies and was later reformed by his worshippers into the peaceful hippie of scripture. The violent and fanatical Jesus has to be recognized as one of the historical possibilities, after all he wouldn’t be the first or only crazy cult leader to have lived.
The mythical Jesus is not the only character that is reformed in light of their historicity. John the Baptist and Saul of Tarsus are also looked at through a magnifying glass, the myths about them deformed and debunked. The Baptist becomes Jesus’ Guru, who baptised him and sent him on his mission just as Obi Wan Kenobi did with Luke Skywalker. Jesus was clearly John’s disciple, but was later made to look greater than John. When Jesus goes on his mission, he tells people to repent and seek God’s Kingdom, just as John the Baptist had preached.
Aslan’s Baptist reminded me of Bradford Keeney’s Shaking Medicine, a book which introduces a shamanic practice of Christianity and which derives much inspiration from the traditions of the Quakers and the Shakers, and of Pentecostals who shake not in fear of God but due to what they believe to be a sign of the power of Spirit. Keeney argues that Jesus was a shaman, a medicine man who–like many medicine men of primitive cultures–talked to spirits, ordered them around, argued with them, healed the sick, etc.
There is merit to this other version of Jesus. It’s true that, after the initiatory baptismal bath, Jesus went into the desert supposedly for 40 days to meditate and to seek a vision. This is done in traditional native societies still today. It’s called a vision quest, and it’s a necessary part of the initiation after which a person may enter into his new identity as a priest, as a warrior, as a prophet, or as an adult man or woman. Jesus did not begin his mission until he went on his vision quest.
However, Jesus’ vision quest included a curious scene where he’s tempted by the devil, who offers him rulership over all the lands. This, Jesus rejects and later, in John 8:44, Jesus tells a group of people identified simply as “the Jews” that they worship their Father, the devil, who was a murderer from the beginning. This is probably the most shocking indictment in the entire Bible of of the Jewish God as a genocidal monster, by far worse than Jeremiah’s diatribes, which funnily include the Bible’s own admission of having been falsified in Jeremiah 8:8.
The temptation scene is reminiscent of messianic prophecies where the messiah would rule from Jerusalem and extract a tax from all the nations, a prophecy that would have required generations of incessant violence to establish a global theocratic empire through jihad. Judea would have had to gather an army of religious militants large and powerful enough to replace Rome. The threat of messianic genocide is articulated in no uncertain terms:
The nation or kingdom that will not serve you will be destroyed. It will be completely wiped out. – Isaiah 60:12
Aslan would argue this away by saying that John’s Gospel was written late and served as an attempt to clean up the dangerous, violent Jesus after the temple had been destroyed and Rome had proven its might, but it may also represent something that may even be more important than the historicity of Jesus: the intentions of the Gospel authors. The Jesus movement may have been, in great part, a conspiracy to clean up the bloody history of Judaism and its messianic intentions, and to reform monotheism, to bring it to what it should have been.
In other words, the temptation scene might be an instance where Bible authors reasoned that if we have to live with people who believe in God, then let’s make it safer, less dangerous for people to hold this belief. If Jesus’ vision quest represents a demonization of Old Testament messianic prophecy, then the Jesus conspiracy should be reevaluated as having had very good intentions after all, sort of as a benign version of the Bene Gesserit sisterhood of Dune which controls human history from space by inspiring religious beliefs that it can later benefit from.
Some of the Aslan’s explanations of how the Jewish Yeshua evolved into the Gentile Christ, and into a God, I was already familiar with and have even written about in blogs like Arguments Against Paul. What we know today as Christianity is not the faith of Jesus, but of Saul of Tarsus who pulled the teachings out of a hat like the slick trickster that he confessed to be. What Aslan adds to Paul’s story in the book, again, are the nuances never presented in Sunday school but evident in the scriptures about the violent hatred between James–the brother of the historical Jesus and the leader of those who had known him–and Paul who never met Jesus, gave himself the title of apostle, and frequently expressed insolence and disdain for James and the other apostles.
Catholicism is the modern evolution of the Platonic doctrine of Paul, which evolved into the Roman version of Christianity while many other Christianities emerged elsewhere, and are still emerging. Even we Epicureans have our own Christian Gospel of Thomas Jefferson, titled the Life and Morals of Jesus of Nazareth. Jesus comes in many flavors … but to be clear: the historical religion of James, and of his brother Jesus, died with them.