I apologize for the apparent deceit. This post has nothing to do with the amazing allegories found in C.S. Lewis’ Chronicles of Narnia. Those stories, which feature a Jesus-character who has taken on the shape of a mighty, good-but-not-safe lion named “Aslan” are awesome and I highly recommend them, not because they contain factual information about Jesus, but rather because they function as a set of parables intended to excite the imagination of how Jesus might interact with us in the midst of our own life’s struggles and dreams. This post is not about THAT Aslan, but rather a formerly Christian author turned Muslim, Reza Aslan, who wrote a book about the real Jesus called, “Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth.”
Aslan’s book is a classic example of letting a pre-formulated conclusion guide the selection and interpretation of evidence and assembling it in a just-so fashion that purports to have discovered “the real Jesus.” Such efforts are not new. Ever since the Jesus Seminar first began publishing its opinions on what Jesus actually did and said (with the mere presumption that he was not God) there has been a growing list of piggyback authors who ran with their theses and even started branching out in novel directions. This has ranged from Dan Brown’s, “The Davinci Code,” to this latest entry from Reza Aslan. In the latter case, Aslan has decided that Jesus was little more than a religious fanatic, not unlike his contemporary Jewish zealots and Roman-haters, intent on attacking the Roman establishment and any sell-out Jews (like the Pharisees) that happened to cross his path. Aslan’s key thesis is that Jesus was not crucified because he claimed to be God (which Aslan denies), but rather because of Jesus’ actions at the temple, when he overturned the money changers’ tables in Mark 11.15-18. Aslan claims this would have been perceived by the Romans as a direct attack on Rome itself. Yes, you heard that right. Aslan attempts to instruct readers that Jesus was just another rebel leader whose only moment of anger and action in the Jewish Temple was understood as an attack on the Roman Empire and this culminated with his trial, conviction and execution.
How does Aslan come to this conclusion? By only fixating on extra-biblical sources and the Gospel of Mark at the expense of other New Testament documents and by selectively interpreting the Temple cleansing moment in Mark with little corroborating evidence. In the meantime, Aslan produces all kinds of faulty assumptions and indeed, bogus counter narratives that give his theory an air of plausibility.
There are several things that must be considered about Aslan’s thesis, not the least of which is that the Romans most assuredly did NOT view the Israelite cult as being synonymous with the Roman Empire. Granted, the Jewish religion was recognized as an established, ancient tradition, and was permitted to continue with its beliefs and practices so long as they did not interfere with Roman business and governance. This is also why, later on, it was such a dangerous and contentious thing for the new Christians to distinguish themselves from Judaism, for it meant that they were NOT an ancient, well-established religion and were thus NOT afforded any recognition under Roman law. Keep in mind however, that the tolerance of Judaism was only tolerance and not celebration, and certainly it was never considered to be representative of Rome itself. The Roman Empire and its official pantheon, with Caesar as God incarnate at the middle, viewed the parochial deities of its conquered peoles as backwards and almost totally irrelevant. Not only is this why we hear the names Mars, Jupiter and Venus, but not Yahweh when we consider Roman gods, it is also why the Romans occasionally took it upon themselves to go to their outlying provinces and beat up on the local rabble-rousers whenever they deemed it necessary.
Indeed, as the intertestamental era proved (from both Jewish and Roman sources), the only times Rome bothered to deal with the Jews was when Israelites revolted against the empire, best highlighted under the leadership of the Maccabees and their wilderness raids on empire holdings before the birth of Jesus. The second, and perhaps better known event involving a Roman campaign against the Jews happened in A.D. 70 when, in the aftermath of another Jewish revolt, a Roman force captured Jerusalem and leveled all but one wall of the Jewish Temple. Again, no one disputes this, but according to Aslan’s theory, Rome held that the Jewish Temple was integral to Rome itself and simply could not tolerate any attack on it. Does anyone else see the problem with Aslan’s claim? Are we simultaneously to believe that Rome destroyed the very temple that it held so dear and was integral to its own identity, but could not tolerate a relatively unknown Jesus turning over some tables and releasing some domesticated animals in the outermost court on the Temple grounds? Something is wrong with this thesis.
Finally, we ought to consider the Roman prefect in charge of Jerusalem and his reaction to the charge the Jewish leaders brought against Jesus. Under Roman governance, the Jewish Sanhedrin was stripped of its formal ability to execute its own criminals. The Jewish court HAD to have Roman involvement to bring about capital cases, and this is precisely why they brought Jesus to Pontius Pilate. But what does Pilate say when the Jews bring Jesus before him? According to John 18:35 (which Aslan ignores), when Jesus asks why he is being brought to trial, Pilate responds with the following: “Am I a Jew? Your own people and chief priests handed you over to me. What is it you have done?” It’s pretty clear that Pilate has no idea what is going on with this odd Jewish, non-Roman religion. He can’t pretend to understand the complexities of this ancient sect or its regulations. The best sources we have for the affair, indeed, the only sources we have of Jesus’ trial indicate that it was not an offense that started in the Jewish Temple with moneychangers and pigeons (ok, “doves”), but rather because Jesus had claimed that he was a king, and not just any king, but THE King, like God. Because the Jews rightly perceived Jesus’ claims, they could not tolerate it, so they told Mom and Dad Rome who, given a history of Jewish revolts, essentially had to prosecute any additional backwoods subjects who threatened (real or imagined) the sovereign authority of the Roman Empire. So they executed Jesus in the Roman fashion reserved for rebels and Roman dissidents. Of course I would argue that when it comes to Jesus, you can’t keep a good man down, but I suppose that is another topic.
The bottom line is that people familiar with the New Testament can see where Reza Aslan gets his ideas. When push comes to shove, Jesus was executed as a rebel leader by the Roman Empire, and his disruption in the Jewish Temple could be perceived as acting against a religion that Rome officially recognized and tolerated. While these are necessary components for Aslan’s thesis, they are not sufficient to establish it as fact. To fabricate a counter-narrative about Jesus like Aslan did requires a lot of creative license, not to mention cherry-picking parts of the Bible that lend credence to his musings while ignoring evidence that calls them into question. His book is a classic example of stacking the deck to fabricate a picture of Jesus that casts aspersions on Christianity and does so with a whiff of plausibility. Just like the so-called “Gnostic texts” that tried their best to reinterpret Jesus and issue their own rendition of him (and were accepted by folks ignorant or uncomfortable with the Jesus offered by the oldest and best sources), the revisionist tradition continues today and has found new authors and credulous readers to carry forth the banner.
That being said, perhaps the most damning assessment of Alsan’s book can be found on its own back cover:
“Aslan rips Jesus out of all the contexts we thought he belonged in and holds him forth as someone entirely new. This is Jesus as a passionate Jew, a violent revolutionary, a fanatical ideologue, an odd and scary and extraordinarily interesting man.”—Judith Shulevitz
Well, what are we to say about a 21st century author who invents an “entirely new” Jesus almost completely unhinged from what the oldest and best sources say about him?
I’ve got a suggestion:
Thanks for reading me,