Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth, by the Iranian American Reza Aslan, is not only a brief, well-written introduction to the scholarly debate on the historical Jesus. It’s a polemic. Aslan, who converted to evangelical Christianity in his teens, but returned to Islam as an undergraduate, argues that far from being an otherworldly mystic who promised us a reward in heaven in exchange for our obedience here on earth, Jesus was a working-class revolutionary.
The violent uprising that erupted in 66 AD, and which led to the complete destruction of Jerusalem 5 years later, was not only a nationalist uprising against the Roman Empire. On the contrary, it was the final stage of an ongoing rebellion of the landless Jewish poor against the Romans and their aristocrat Jewish puppets. The Second Temple was the spiritual center of Roman occupied Palestine. Keeping true to the Jewish faith involved an elaborate ritual of pilgrimages and sacrifices that served to drive the poor deeper and deeper into debt and enrich the wealthy priests. Independent family farmers became landless sharecroppers.The priestly class of the Second Temple, in turn, became fabulously wealthy landlords.
Like so many client states of a great empire, ancient Judea was also a gangster state. The Caiaphas who arranged to deliver Jesus to Pontius Pilate, for example, was the son-in-law of Ananus, arguably the most important Jew of the First Century AD. If Ananus makes you think of Don Corleone, you wouldn’t be alone. In addition to Caiaphas, five sons of his sons would also serve as high-priest before the Romans destroyed the Second Temple in 71 AD. To preach, as Jesus did, “as though he had authority, and not as the scribes,” was more about more than religion. It was a threat to the deeply corrupt social order of ancient Palestine.
Even if he stuck closely to the Jewish law as handed down by Moses, Jesus was one of a long line of messianic rabble rousers that had been stirring up the Jewish poor for as long as the Romans ruled the country through Herod the Great and his descendents. Judas of Galilee, Menahem ben Judah, The Egyptian, John of Giscala, Simon bar Kokhba, there were so many “failed messiahs” in the first and second century AD that the best way to approach the historical Jesus, Aslan maintains, is through what for lack of a better term might be called “speculative history.” We know very little about the historical Jesus as an individual. But we know a lot about what kind of a religious leader he probably was. Locate Jesus in a well-established tradition of peasant “zealotry,” and we can understand what he was like as a man.
When Jesus talked about the Kingdom of God, for example, he meant it literally. The kingdom of heaven was not a state of bliss the faithful would experience after they died, but a revolutionary society the “messiah” would establish after God helped him defeat the Romans. In other words, God would side with Jesus against the Romans exactly the way he helped David beat Goliath, exactly the way he parted the Red Sea and drowned the Egyptians. Jesus was a revolutionary leader, but certainly not a secular one. When the Romans put Jesus to death after he led the march on the Second Temple and overturned the tables of the money changers, therefore, it looked as if he was just another failed messiah. Goliath, after all, didn’t kill David. Moses didn’t drown in the Sea of Reeds or die of starvation in the Sinai.
As Paul, one of the founders of Christianity, wrote, “if Christ be not risen, then is our preaching vain, and your faith is also vain.”
James, the younger brother of Jesus, not Paul or Peter, was the undisputed leader of the early Christians, who would not, in fact, have even referred to themselves as Christians. Like Jesus, James was not the founder of a new religion, but a revolutionary leader of the Jewish poor against the Romans and their puppets. Like Jesus, he was also martyred by the wealthy priests of the Second Temple. During a brief interruption of Roman power in 62 AD, Ananus ben Ananus, the son of the Ananus who was also the father-in-law of Caiaphas, moved quickly. After James led the opposition to his attempt to seize tithes from poor Jewish priests for the rich temple priests, he had James charged with blasphemy and stoned to death. James, in fact, was so well-regarded by the Jewish poor, that many of them blamed Ananus ben Ananus for the destruction of Jerusalem eight years later.
Aslan considers James, who remained a very strict, very orthodox Jew, a key, if not the key figure in the history of Christianity. While many scholars believe that Christianity stayed a revolutionary faith well into the fourth century, when it finally became the state religion of the Roman Empire, Aslan thinks the end came much earlier, with the destruction of the Second Temple. Paul, the apostle to the gentiles, wrote about Jesus, not as a radical leader of the poor against the wealthy, but as “the Christ,” as an otherworldly spirit who would rule over the Kingdom of God, not in this world, but in the next. When Jesus himself said “my Kingdom is not of this world,” he meant the Herodian puppet kingdom of the Roman Empire. For Paul, “my Kingdom is not of this world” meant that nobody would see it until after the resurrection of the dead.
But as long as James remained alive, Paul was an unpopular heretic. The followers of Jesus continued to hope for a messianic revolution against the Roman Empire. After James was martyred, however, the idea of Paul (and Luke) gained the upper hand. Faith became more important than “works.” To follow Jesus meant to obey the state as it existed, whether it was run by the Romans, by aristocratic Jewish priests, by British imperialism or American capitalism. The Roman genocide, begun in 70 AD, and completed in 132 AD after the failure of the bar Kokhba uprising, put the final nail in the coffin. Even as late as the Protestant Reformation, the hatred James felt for the rich and the emphasis he placed on good works would be a spectre that haunted the Christian religion. Luther, for example, tried to have the Epistle of James removed from the Bible. But without the Temple in Jerusalem, that spectre would never become a flesh and blood revolution.
It would take a rebellion against the Christian religion, the Enlightenment, the French Revolution, Karl Marx, and the Russian Revolution, to liberate the ideas of Jesus the Galilean peasant from Jesus the Christ.