Under the logic of the reigning “national security” regime the line between legitimate dissent and “terrorism” has often been blurred if not entirely abolished. Examples are plentiful. From Joe Biden’s denunciation of Julian Assange as a “hi-tech terrorist” to the repeated (and unsubstantiated) allegations that Edward Snowden, by publicizing NSA crimes, is “helping the terrorists”, this fact is difficult to ignore. Unfortunately, repressive policies of this kind are not new. It’s in the nature of power systems to discredit opposing views by portraying them, independent of facts, as civilizational threats which can only be overcome through massive doses of state violence. So constant is this principle that it can even be found in the histories of civilizations that we have been taught to conceptualize as apolitical, mystical, and immune to the ideological contests of the “modern” world.
Religious studies scholar Reza Aslan lays bare this essential truth, and much more, in Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth. In this remarkably ambitious and penetrating examination of the “Jesus of history”, Aslan paints a Jesus thoroughly immersed in the political culture of first century Palestine, a society characterized by “the rapidly expanding divide between the absurdly rich and the indebted poor.” It is in this environment of systemic injustice that Aslan presents Jesus as “a Galilean peasant and Jewish nationalist who donned the mantle of the messiah and launched a foolhardy rebellion against the corrupt Temple priesthood and the vicious Roman occupation …”
Like the contemporary power elite, the power factions of first century Palestine—the Roman Empire and the Temple authorities—laid down explicit ground rules prohibiting those acts of disobedience which endangered core doctrines of the ruling class. Harshest punishment was reserved for those who engaged in the crime of sedition. For those with the temerity to defy the Roman occupation, execution was the only answer. As Aslan observes, “Jesus was crucified by Rome because his messianic aspirations threatened the occupation of Palestine, and his zealotry endangered Temple authorities.” This acknowledgement is central to Aslan’s portrayal of the “Christ of history” because it inserts him squarely in the middle of the Jewish liberation struggle of his era, a liberation struggle that was meant to be won on earth, and not, as some would later contend, in heaven. Other consequences follow if we accept the radical humanity of Jesus, foremost the fact that he failed to liberate Jerusalem from the tyrannical power of Caesar.
To paraphrase Aslan in an interview on this book, here was Jesus “as a tightrope walker without the net.” Throughout, the reader is made to confront this haunting absence, the historical assertion that Jesus wasn’t, as Stephen claimed in the Book of Acts, a “God-man”, but a flesh-and-blood human being subject to the same political pressures and consequences as his revolutionary predecessors. So it was by no means unusual for someone in first century Palestine to claim to be “the messiah” with the objective to liberate the Holy Land from the brutality of Rome. Judas the Galilean, Hezekiah “the bandit chief”, Menahem, Simon son of Giora, and Simon son of Kochba are just some of the “messiahs” who, like Jesus, were also crushed under the weight of the Roman Empire.
It was years after Jesus’ execution, when his followers (headed by the Jerusalem assembly) continued to spread his emancipatory message, not during his lifetime, that he was celebrated as the messiah. But this outcome was only reached after a period of intense internal conflict centering on the cultural identity of the Christ movement. In one camp was the brother of Jesus, James. He maintained that the Christ movement should retain its character as a movement principally dedicated to the liberation of the Jewish people and the Law of Moses, but not completely closed to non-Jews. Opposing this interpretation was Paul (Saul of Tarsus), who, despite having never met Jesus, insisted that mere belief in Jesus, completely divorced from the ritualistic practices and laws of first century Judaism, was sufficient to call oneself a member of the Christ movement.
On this topic Aslan’s analysis is most compelling, as it shows how revolutionary leaders, once killed, can easily be co-opted by the powerful and drained of all features deemed “dangerous” or “subversive” (what Dr. Cornel West once referred to as “the Santa-Clausification” of Dr. King is an obvious contemporary example of this phenomenon). It was upon the ruins of Jerusalem, decimated by Titus after the mass Jewish insurrection of 66 C.E., that this new “pacifistic” and thoroughly Hellenized Christ emerged: “With the destruction of Jerusalem, the connection between the assemblies scattered across the Diaspora and the mother [Jerusalem] assembly rooted in the city of God was permanently severed …” This initiated the split between “the Christian community and Jesus the Jew.”
As a result, the Roman Empire, the occupier, was free to “[erase], as much as possible, any hint of radicalism or violence, revolution or zealotry, from the story of Jesus …” Vital historical context of this kind, coupled with a nuanced critique of how these political interests converged in scriptural presentations of Jesus, forces the reader to rethink some of the more pernicious beliefs that have become standard in many religious circles. For instance, Aslan intelligently deconstructs the age-old slander that it was “the Jews”, and not the Roman Empire, who were responsible for the killing of Jesus. Drawing from the documentary record of first century Rome, Aslan is unequivocal in his conclusion: “a story concocted by Mark strictly for evangelistic purposes to shift the blame for Jesus’ death away from Rome is stretched with the passage of time to the point of absurdity, becoming the basis for two thousand years of anti-Semitism.”
From his graphic description of Titus’ terrorist assault on Jerusalem—a savage attack where he “ordered his men to build a stone wall around Jerusalem, trapping everyone inside and cutting off all access to food and water” (this should remind us of Israel’s punishment of Gaza)—to his description of crucifixions as “a public reminder of what happens when one challenges empire” (this should remind us of the judicial lynching of Chelsea Manning), Reza Aslan’s Zealot is a triumph of the scholarly imagination, a meaningful exploration not only of the documentable realities of the world Jesus inhabited, but of what he calls “truth intentionally detached from the exigencies of history.” In this period of renewed intellectual dialogue—where reductionist, de-contextualized explanations of extremely complex and multidimensional religious narratives passes for informed commentary (re: New Atheists) —books like this are sorely needed. One can only hope that the “Jesus of Nazareth” and his revolutionary example of defiance motivates others to pursue this path of inquiry, if not out of religious inspiration then for the sake of that component of the human mind we all should nurture regularly: the spirit of dissent.