Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Review of Zealot

The Siege and Destruction of Jerusalem, by David Roberts (1850).
There’s a fire burning in Reza Aslan’s book Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth, and that fire is in Jerusalem, torched by the Romans in 70 C.E. to put down Jewish rebellion. The conflagration that destroyed the Temple winds up being a compass point and boundary to which all the people and events described in the book are related. Jesus may be the subject of the book, but the heart of the meaning of the text comes from that fire.

Aslan states in his introduction: “[T]here are only two hard historical facts about Jesus of Nazareth upon which we can confidently rely: the first is that Jesus was a Jew who led a popular Jewish movement in Palestine at the beginning of he first century C.E.; the second is that Rome crucified him for doing so.” He hopes that “these two facts can help paint a picture of Jesus of Nazareth that may be more historically accurate than the one painted by the gospels.” The project he sets up sounds forensic with its promise of working from bare historical bones. But from the very first chapter the prose warns this is not the kind of book that’s coming. That chapter colorfully describes the assassination of the high priest Jonathan in 56 C.E., the dagger man homing in on the “peculiar melody” of the bells on the priest’s hem to get to his prey. There’s nothing wrong with Aslan’s decision as a popular historian to write this way, but it’s a clue that his book will not exclude the liberal application of imagination.  The chapter itself is winds up being an engaging description of the Temple that will be burned, its function in Jewish society, its connections with Roman power and the anger many felt toward it. Also telling is Aslan’s preference to introduce the Temple that will burn before he introduces the titular subject of the book.

“Hard historical facts” about Jesus ensue after this chapter, and for a chapter or so it seems Aslan will ground himself in them, but as the book goes on he brings in more and more scripture, which takes the story further from the objective premise of his introduction, and to this he adds his wonderful imagination. At no point in the book is there a sense that his source material, historical or scriptural, is less than sterling, but Aslan’s imaginative way of handling that material keeps raising questions about what he’s adding to the mix. Thankfully, he provides notes and a bibliography at the end that assuage some of this doubt, not that it can be erased, especially among scholars.

The book has been called controversial by a number of reviewers for reasons that must seem tired to those interested in Biblical scholarship, the possibility that Jesus was a revolutionary being one of them. Controversies come from the axes people grind, and the sparks of sharpening have shown brightly ever since the crucifixion. There is no end of controversies when it comes to the life of Jesus. But this book does have that other central source of light, that other fire of Jerusalem.

Jesus works his way to Jerusalem over the course of his life in Aslan’s book. From Nazareth Jesus commutes to the wealthy town of Sepphoras where there is work for carpenters. Sepphoras had been the seat of a Jewish rebellion that the Romans had razed in retribution. Sepphoras was being rebuilt “into an extravagant royal city fit for a king.” Here Jesus is inserted into a society in which disparity of wealth created by Roman and Temple power cannot be ignored. After his work as a carpenter Jesus studies under the zealous rebel John the Baptist. Jesus then forms his own messianic party with a traveling group of adherents that proselytizes through the region of Galilee and finally enters Jerusalem where Jesus runs afoul of the powers seated there. As a result of his challenges to those powers he is executed for sedition. Jesus’s mission, as Aslan describes it, is clearly to raise up the poor. And this poverty is a material one that results from injustice. It is also the stated mission of all the messianic rebellions described in the book. If there is a controversial meaning in this book, the first is in this concern, that is piqued in our day and age, with the disparity of wealth and its terrible consequences.

At the end of the first part of Zealot, chapters before Aslan describes the crucifixion, he tells of the sacking of Jerusalem 40 years later. This catastrophe is the result of a prolonged history of the abuse of power and disparity of wealth. And from this point on in the book this event is a measure of everything else. Did people live before or after it? Were texts written before or after it? What motives did people have before and after the event? The effect of describing the sack of Jerusalem early in the book after foreshadowing with the burning of Sepphoras creates an astonishingly haunting effect, and it must be Aslan’s intention.

Aslan describes the Jesus movement after the zealot’s execution as quickly becoming bifurcated between Jesus’s brother James’s cult in Jerusalem and Paul’s activity among the gentiles. James is described as being a very devout Jew (though not an ally of the Temple), earthy and devoted to the poor. Paul comes off as a bit weird: a mystic with little practical interest in worldly affairs who never actually met Jesus. James is executed shortly before the Romans descend on rebellious Jerusalem and decide to sack the city and destroy the temple that had been the center of Judaism. Paul is nowhere near this conflagration and survives, spreading his gospel that starts the Christian lineage we know in the West.

It is from this story that a second meaning comes, and it is related to the first concern with social injustice. With James and his followers wiped out, the original cult of Jesus was wiped out. With the destruction of the Temple and rise of rabbinical Judaism, so too was the original Christian mission itself. What survived was a comparatively otherworldly religion that offered salvation through belief and not through the work of justice that James and Jesus modeled. And here I believe Aslan throws a gauntlet.

Aslan asks, not explicitly but implicitly, whether a religious movement that values belief over justice, grace over works, is up to the task of dealing with the potential catastrophes of social injustice. The Fox News interview with Aslan was deplorable, suggesting that as Muslim he had no business writing about the life of Jesus. Yet in Aslan's challenge there is a detectable Muslim perspective, one that champions alms and charity for the downtrodden as acts that lead to salvation.

Of course the whole conundrum of faith versus works is nothing new to Christians, and it has been a vibrant part of their inner dialogue since Paul. Aslan has written a very readable book, but he has raised no new questions. His conclusions about the life of Jesus are disputable but not outrageous. His timing is important, though.

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