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September 26th, 2013

Was Jesus a Violent Revolutionary?

Over the summer there was a lot of buzz over Reza Aslan’s new book about the historical Jesus, entitled Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth.  Basically, based on a reconstruction of the political and social context of first-century A.D. Galilee, Aslan argues that Jesus was most likely an intensely patriotic revolutionary, a man deeply outraged by the foreign occupation of the Holy Land, who gathered a group of followers with a view towards the overthrow of the illegitimate government of Rome.  What should the Christian community make of these claims?

Well, I have been having my students read Zealot in our Gospels course at Montreat College, mostly as an exercise in critical thinking, and I would not discourage any believer from picking up Aslan’s book at the local Barnes & Noble.  Aslan is a wonderful writer (one of those rare religious scholars with an M.F.A.), and he does an excellent job of spinning a story about Jesus, as he summarizes a great deal of historical material in an accessible format (mostly garnered from the first-century Jewish historian Josephus).  Not everything Aslan says is wrong, and there are certainly things that can be learned about Jesus and his world from this intriguing book.  It is certainly true that there was resentment in Jesus’ day regarding the occupation of the Holy Land by foreign powers.  There certainly were Jewish rebels in the area where Jesus was raised who gained followers, both before and after Jesus.  The memory of the Maccabees (who overthrew foreign occupation a couple centuries earlier) was still in the patriotic bloodstream of Jesus’ culture.  No doubt, there were people who heard Jesus, and who saw the steadily increasing crowd of his followers, some of whom abandoned their livelihoods to join his movement, who would have assumed that he was advocating violent resistance against Rome.  And there can be no doubt that nervousness about the potential for riots and violence in the crowded Jewish capital during the week of the Passover celebration played a role in Jesus’ arrest and crucifixion by Pilate.  But beyond that general summary, there is a lot in Aslan’s book that does not sit well, either with the Christian faith, or with sound historical knowledge.

If Jesus was starting an armed revolution, why did the Romans not arrest any of his disciples after his arrest and crucifixion?

If Jesus was an advocate of violent revolution, why was Christianity, from the beginning, opposed to the (supposed) message of its founder?  This can be seen both within the Gospels (Matt. 5:43-48) and in Paul’s letters (Rom. 13:1-7).

Why did Jesus’ followers believe that this Jewish freedom-fighter, in contrast with all the others, had been raised from the dead and named as Lord of all (Acts 2:32-36; Rom. 10:9)?  When freedom fighters were squashed by Rome (as they always were), their memories were revered, but nobody imagined that they ascended to heaven and sat down on God’s throne.  How do we get from the political aims of Jesus (as Aslan understands them) to the theological claims of the early church?

The Christianity that was spread around the world by the apostle Paul had nothing to do with violence, Roman occupation, or the need to cleanse Palestine of the presence of foreigners.  In order to make his thesis work, Aslan has to suppose that Paul cared very little about the historical Jesus, and had no access to real information about him.  This, despite the fact that Paul was a close friend of Luke (the author of one of the Gospels), and an acquaintance of Jesus’ disciples and family members (Gal. 1:18-19)!  Aslan’s attempt to drive a wedge between the Jesus of history and the Jesus of “Pauline” Christianity is fraught with historical problems.

At least that’s my opinion!  Have any of you read the book?  What do you think?