I Don’t Get What’s Special About Jesus

Zealot life and times of Jesus of Nazareth

I always thought Jesus of Nazareth was the same as Jesus Christ. It was how I was brought up. That figure was the man I was taught over and over again never to question, to always take whole, never to tackle in a way that could tarnish his divine image.

But, as it seems, Jesus of Nazareth is entirely different from Jesus the Christ. One is the simple historical version of a man who existed the same way you and I did. The other is the embellished version that the Church has worked years to build. The man from Nazareth was someone who was born in Palestine and who was crucified. Whether his birth was of immaculate conception and whether he got resurrected after his death are matters of pure faith that fall under the domain of Jesus the Christ. If you believe in those two entities, then Jesus of Nazareth doesn’t really matter because your faith is unshakeable. But if you’re like me, full of doubts and constantly questioning, Jesus of Nazareth may hold a few surprises up his sleeve.

I recently read a book about the historical Jesus – the man that Jesus truly was. The book was titled: Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth. Yes, it’s the book that caused a ruckus across the United States because its author was Muslim. Yes, I read it more out of interest in what the fuss was about than about the entity on whom the book revolved. Yes, it was an interesting read. Yes, I was left with more questions than when I first set reading the book’s pages. Yes, I think the book is impeccably researched. No, I don’t think the author is biased. No, I don’t think the author’s religion impinges on his judgment – if anything, he’s also discrediting his religion by saying Jesus actually died on the Cross as opposed to what Islam preaches on the issue. No, I don’t think the book is perfect. No, I’m not silly enough to believe what he’s saying is scripture but I believe it’s important enough to strike a conversation about.

The entity of the historical Jesus doesn’t really challenge Christian faith whose foundations are built upon three main elements: the Holy Trinity, Jesus’ birth and Jesus’ resurrection. The concept of the historical Jesus is what happened to Jesus’ life between his birth and death. If you believe Jesus died and resurrected for your sins, then whatever happened when he was alive holds little importance.

For starters, the Gospels were not really written by the saints to whom they are associated. It seems that was common practice back then, as a form or respect, to write what a man would have written and associate it with them. They were never meant to be a historical documentation of Jesus’ life and yet we are taught that they are.

Jesus was not born in Betlehem. The census that the Gospels speak about apparently happened after Jesus’ supposed birth and the type of census wouldn’t have required Joseph and Mary to relocate all the way to Betlehem. Why was this altered? Because the Gospels were trying to give Jesus the characteristics of the Jewish Messiah who had to be born in David’s town.

Jesus apparently had brothers and sisters and this is has been historically proven. The Church has tried to cover the fact that the man to whom Jesus gave the mantle of the Church was his brother James because this poses a problem to the doctrine of the perpetual virginity of Mary. To me, however, Jesus becomes much more interesting if he actually had siblings and if those siblings had tried to keep his message alive.

Jesus was a man of profound contradictions which we apparently don’t notice. At one point, Matthew 15:24, he says: “I was sent solely to the lost sheep of Israel.” At another point, Matthew 28:19, he calls to “go and make disciples of all nations.” Sometimes he calls for peace: “Blessed are the peacemakers for they shall be called the sons of God”; Matthew 5:9, and at other points he calls for violence: “If you do not have a sword, go sell your cloak and buy one”; Luke 22:36. These verses have been proven to have a higher accuracy chance than others because they happen to exist across the four Gospels that are believed to be the most accurate. It’s worth noting that if Jesus had his way, we may not have turned Christian at all: “Go nowhere near the gentiles and do not enter the city of the Samaritans,” Matthew 10:5-6.

Some infamous statements that Jesus made, such as “love your enemies” and “turn the other cheek” were also removed out of the Jewish context in which they were said because early Christians wanted to make his character more universal and disassociated from Jewish zealous nationalism.

Jesus was also not an anomaly in the times that he lived. There were plenty of “self-proclaimed” Messiahs that came before him and many more after him. His preaching time, which lasted three years, started soon after he met John the Baptist. Historical proof seems to indicate that Jesus was a disciple of John the Baptist but Gospel-writers tweaked the story later on to make it sound like John the Baptist was the subordinate during Jesus’ baptism. His miracles, however, have apparently happened. There’s no scientific proof, obviously, that they were truly miracles, but there is proof and enough documentation about a man called Jesus who trotted around Galilee, healing people. However, even in this Jesus was not alone. His advantage? He didn’t charge any fees.

The story of Jesus’ death, the way he was dragged from one court to the next, seems to have been embellished as well. Pilates’ washing his hands from any guilt regarding Jesus’ crucification while pinning it all on the jews is but the attempt of early Christians to make their preaching more accessible and acceptable to the Romans who soon became their main focus. Pilates, it seemed, was a ruthless man who crucified any one he met. Jesus may have had an audience with him but it wouldn’t have been more than a reading of the charges and a quick sentencing. But Jesus has been crucified and crucification was reserved by the Roman authorities to people whom they viewed disrupted order.

Current Christian theology stems from the teachings of St. Paul which are apparently drastically different from what early Christians believed Christianity should be: a variant of Judaism that is based on Jewish laws with the acknowledgement that Jesus of Nazareth was the long awaited messiah. This “fight” between James the Just and Paul illustrates the difference between Jesus of Nazareth and Jesus Christ: What Jesus was versus what it is believed he meant. It is the resiliency of Paul’s teachings that have done the most work at obscuring who Jesus of Nazareth was.

I was told that the historical Jesus was someone worth worshipping. After reading the book, I felt that wasn’t the case. I had no idea with what stroke of luck he managed to found the world’s biggest religion. I had no idea why he, out of everyone like him who came before and after, stood out. Two decades of rigorous research made Reza Aslan, the author of the book in question, a more devout follower of Jesus of Nazareth than he ever was of Jesus the Christ. Two days of reading his book have left me in the cold. What I thought was special about Jesus Christ turned out to be but a variation instilled in Jesus of Nazareth by the Church I was taught to follow. What I thought made the entity I worshipped special turned out to be but mere additions here and there to make his story fit ancient prophecies. As it stands, I really have no clue what’s special about Jesus of Nazareth.

I hope that changes soon.

5 thoughts on “I Don’t Get What’s Special About Jesus

  1. There’s nothing special about the book in terms of proposing novel historical interpretations.
    Sure, Jesus wasn’t the only messianic figure to rise during the era, especially not the only the-end-is-coming type of prophet; and yeah, the gospels aren’t first-hand accounts but written much later. But, at the end of the day, there’s nothing completely factual about Jesus at all. Sure, maybe he existed, maybe he didn’t, maybe’s a folk legend turned deity, maybe he’s an amalgamation of other dooms-day prophets from the era, etc. etc. etc. etc. But, it doesn’t really matter faith-wise since faith is about believing even though you lack justification to believe


  2. 5) What does he think we know about Jesus?
    His bottom line summary is as follows:
    In the end, there 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 the first century C.E.; the second is that Rome crucified him for doing so.

    If Aslan were to stop with what he considers the only hard historical facts on which we may confidently rely, it would make for a rather short biography.
    So he goes beyond these bare bones to offer an imaginative reconstruction of the life and times of Jesus based on his own thoughts about what most probably happened.

    6) Is that the way biographies are normally written?
    No. Biographies typically go beyond trying to offer imaginative reconstructions of a person’s life.
    If you really think that you only know two things about a person then you can’t write a biography of more than a few sentences.
    Providing a book-length exercise of imagination, however much detail from historical sources you include, puts you in the realm of historical fiction rather than biography.
    One is tempted to say that Aslan’s Zealot is only a “biography” of Jesus of Nazareth the way that Robert Graves’s I, Claudius and Claudius the God are “biographies” of the Roman Emperor Claudius.
    That is to say, all three are works of historical fiction written as if they were biographies.
    The difference is that Graves has more literary style than Aslan and is more up-front about the fictional nature of what he is doing.

    7) How does Aslan imaginatively reconstruct the figure of Jesus?
    Drawing on the facts that Jesus led a popular movement in Palestine and that the Romans crucified him, Aslan adds a third supposed fact:
    Crucifixion was a punishment that Rome reserved almost exclusively for the crime of sedition.

    He then infers that Jesus must have been guilty of sedition and re-casts him in the role of one of the many political revolutionaries of the day who tried to throw off Roman rule, only to get squashed.
    This is where the book gets its title—Zealot. The claim is that Jesus was just one of the many zealot-like revolutionaries of the time.
    Aslan then cherry-picks the evidence of the gospels, accepting whatever agrees with his thesis and discarding everything that doesn’t.

    8) How does he explain the fact that the gospels do not depict Jesus as a political revolutionary?
    According to Aslan, the gospels were written long after the fact and are unreliable on these points.
    However, they are apparently reliable whenever they say something that he can use to support his thesis.
    According to Aslan, all of the Gospels were written after the destruction of Jerusalem in A.D. 70. (He dates Matthew and Luke to between A.D. 90 and 100 and John to between A.D. 100 and 120!)
    At these late dates, Aslan informs us, Christians wanted to de-couple their religion from the failed political messianism that resulted in the destruction of Jerusalem, and so the gospels falsify their depiction of Jesus and make him a non-revolutionary.

    9) How widely received is this view in the scholarly community?
    It’s certainly been proposed before, but it is far from the only view out there.
    In fact, among the skeptical scholars who try to discern the truth about “the historical Jesus” (as opposed to “the Christ of faith”), the Jesus-as-failed-political-revolutionary view is not the dominant one.
    There are rival conceptions in the present or “third” Quest for the Historical Jesus. Wikipedia (accurately) notes:
    The mainstream profiles in the third quest may be grouped together based on their primary theme as apocalyptic prophet, charismatic healer, Cynic philosopher, Jewish Messiah and prophet of social change. But there is little scholarly agreement on a single portrait, or the methods needed to construct it.
    So Aslan’s view is neither original nor dominant, even among those who doubt the portrait of Jesus given in the gospels.

    10) How might one respond to Aslan’s claims?
    One line of response is to note the subjectivity which he himself attributes to it. He states:
    Writing a biography of Jesus of Nazareth is not like writing a biography of Napoleon Bonaparte.
    The task is somewhat akin to putting together a massive puzzle with only a few of the pieces in hand; one has no choice but to fill in the rest of the puzzle based on the best, most educated guess of what the completed image should look like.
    The great Christian theologian Rudolf Bultmann liked to say that the quest for the historical Jesus is ultimately an internal quest.
    Scholars tend to see the Jesus they want to see.
    Having told us that there are only two things about Jesus we can be really confident of, Aslan then promises only a portrait of Jesus based on “fill[ing] in the rest of the puzzle based on the best, most educated guess of what the complete image should look like.”
    This does not give us reason to take his portrait of Jesus particularly seriously.
    And his periodic mishandling of the evidence gives us further reason for caution.

    11) Does Aslan make obvious mistakes in his book?
    Yes. For example, at one point he writes:
    Paul may have considered himself an apostle, but it seems that few if any of the other movement leaders agreed. Not even Luke, Paul’s sycophant, whose writings betray a deliberate, if ahistorical, attempt to elevate his mentor’s status in the founding of the church, refers to Paul as an apostle. As far as Luke is concerned, there are only twelve apostles, one for each tribe of Israel, just as Jesus had intended.

    Even setting aside Aslan’s unwarranted and prejudicially-phrased statement on Luke . . . Um. Dude? Acts 14:14?
    But when the apostles Barnabas and Paul heard of it, they tore their garments and rushed out among the multitude.
    This is beyond a mistake in interpretation, to which every scholar is entitled. It is a mistake of basic fact, which an actual scholar of this material would not make.
    Aslan’s emphatic claim that Luke does not refer to Paul as an apostle betrays a fundamental lack of mastery of the material he is commenting on. He has, apparently, never even done a simple word study on the office of apostle, but he is making emphatic claims about it.

    12) How accurate are the dates Aslan gives the gospels?
    To support his cherry-picking, Aslan assigns very late dates to the gospels. In fact, he assigns dates that tend to be a decade later than most liberal scholars assign them.
    Of special importance is that they be written after the destruction of Jerusalem in A.D. 70, since this was (for the time being) a crushing blow to Jewish political messianism and would, on his theory, provide Christians with a reason to re-cast Jesus as a non-revolutionary.
    But the evidence is that the gospels were written much earlier. In fact, the best evidence is that they were all penned before A.D. 70, since they record Jesus’ prediction that the temple would be destroyed but they do not record its fulfillment.
    The evangelists would have loved to say, “And it all happened, just the way Jesus predicted.” It would be a mark of credibility. But they don’t say that. The most plausible explanation is that the fulfillment of his prediction had not yet happened.
    Further, since the book of Acts cuts off suddenly in A.D. 60, and since the Gospel of Luke was written before Acts, we have reason to think that Luke dates to no later than A.D. 59 (just 26 years after the crucifixion), and perhaps even earlier.

    13) What about his claim that the Romans reserved crucifixion for sedition?
    It is not true that crucifixion was “reserved almost exclusively for the crime of sedition”—particularly if by “sedition” you mean political rebellion:
    The Romans used crucifixion to bring mutinous troops under control, to break the will of conquered peoples, and to wear down rebellious cities under siege.
    Dangerous and violent robbers could be crucified—often near or at the scene of their crimes. Quintilian (ca. 35–95 a.d.) approved of crucifixion as a penalty for such criminals, and thought that this form of execution had a better deterrent effect when the crosses were set up along the busiest roads. . . .
    The Romans used crucifixion above all as the servile supplicium (“the slaves’ punishment”), a terrible form of execution typically inflicted on slaves [Yale Anchor Bible Dictionary, s.v. “Crucifixion”].

    14) What is the most fundamental problem with the book?
    The most fundamental problem is that Aslan’s central thesis can only be supported by cherry-picking the data—that is, accepting some of it and rejecting everything that doesn’t fit.
    This is an unreliable and unscholarly method, because if you can jettison anything that doesn’t fit your theory then you can prove anything you want to.
    With all the problems that beset Aslan’s imaginative reconstruction of Jesus, there is simply no reason to take Zealot as anything like a reliable account of his life.

    Dear Elie just read this link. And don’t rush to conclusions after 2 days of reading.

    Read more: http://www.ncregister.com/blog/jimmy-akin/14-things-you-need-to-know-about-the-new-book-zealot#ixzz2eR2EfeYV



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