Zealot? A biography of Jesus could have no more provocative title. But it turns out to be the perfect one for Reza Aslan's unearthing (or should that be un-heavening?) of "the Jesus before Christianity" in Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth (Random House; 296 pages; $27).
As Aslan cogently demonstrates, the real Jesus — the radical Jew who preached, agitated and was executed for his pains — was a far more complex figure than many Christians care to acknowledge.
The zeal in question is both religious and political. At a time when this kind of zealotry is associated predominantly with Islamic extremists, it's fascinating to see similar processes at work in first-century Jewish Palestine, which was occupied territory — occupied, that is, by the Romans. In opposition, messianic nationalist movements created what Aslan aptly describes as "zealous warriors of God who would cleanse the land of all foreigners and idolaters."
This is the historical and political context Jesus was born into, one that takes us beyond the Christ figure created by his followers after his death to the actual man, "a revolutionary swept up, as all Jews of his era were, in religious and political turmoil."
Given that turmoil, it should come as no surprise that "the Jesus of history had a far more complex attitude toward violence" than is usually assumed. Gentle shepherds don't have much place here. Aslan reads the admonitions to love your enemies and turn the other cheek as directed toward relationships between Jews, not between Jews and foreigners, and especially not between Jews and occupiers. "The message was one of repossessing the land," he writes, "a movement of national liberation for the afflicted and oppressed." A kingdom, that is, very much of this world, not another.
This historical territory has been explored before, by biblical scholars such as Richard Horsley and Dominic Crossan. But in Aslan's hands, it gains broader resonance. He brings to bear his expertise in the volatile territory of politics and religion (his earlier book Beyond Fundamentalism analyzed the root causes of militant religious extremism) as well as his deep background as a scholar of religion, renowned especially for the most readable history of Islam yet written, No god but God.
As in those earlier books, not only does he get the full picture, but he can also write — sometimes irresistibly, as when he drops into a kind of tongue-in-cheek interfaith slang, mentioning Herod's "nebbish sons," for instance, and Herod himself as "King of the Jews, no less!"
But cherished legends, watch out. Aslan can be scathingly dismissive of such episodes as Salome dancing for John the Baptist's head, or Pontius Pilate's interrogation of Jesus. Prepare for words like "nonsense" and "fairy tale" as he traces what holds up historically (and geographically), and what's been elided, even deliberately disguised, in the gospel accounts. Which is not to blame the gospel writers. Aslan points out that the concept of empirically valid historical reality is a relatively modern one. "It would have been an altogether foreign concept to the gospel writers for whom history was not a matter of uncovering facts, but of revealing truths."
Perhaps the most fascinating part of Zealot, then, is the analysis of how Jesus was tamed by his own followers, and why. Soon after his death, the early Jesus movement split between the "Hebrews" who stayed in Jerusalem under James' leadership, and the Hellenists abroad led by Paul. The bitter infighting between them would be resolved by force majeure: the disastrous failure of the Jewish rebellion against Rome, which led to the torching of Jerusalem in the year 70 and the expulsion of surviving Jews from what remained of the city. With the "Hebrew" faction thus in disarray, the Hellenist appeal of Paul's Christianity won out, and Jesus' specifically Jewish revolutionary fervor would be toned down to suit a much larger audience: the Roman empire itself.
This entailed absolving the Romans from responsibility for the crucifixion, instead blaming the unruly (and unrulable) Jews, and thus laying the basis for two millennia of Christian anti-Semitism. Where the early Jesus movement was Jewish, Christianity would now be anything but. As Aslan notes, the gospels are, in this sense, a radical break with history — a wiping out of the specific past to be replaced by a universal future.
Yet Zealot itself is testament to the fact that they didn't quite succeed. Aslan's insistence on human and historical actuality turns out to be far more interesting than dogmatic theology, and certainly more intriguing and exciting for any modern reader not piously devoted to the idea of gospel truth. This tough-minded, deeply political book does full justice to the real Jesus, and honors him in the process.
Lesley Hazleton is the author, most recently, of The First Muslim: The Story of Muhammad.