New book presents two views of Jesus

Chuck Flagg

It is still early enough in 2014 that many people have been able to keep their new year’s resolutions. If yours include a vow to read more books, then here’s a suggestion.
“Zealot: The life and times of Jesus of Nazareth,” is a controversial book by Reza Aslan. Widely praised for his earlier work, “No God but God,” the author has a Ph.D. in religion and teaches creative writing at UC Riverside.
Aslan was 15 years old when his family fled the revolution in Iran to live in the United States. Raised a Muslim, he converted to Christianity while attending an evangelical summer camp. He recalls spending the next few years “preaching the Gospel to everyone whether they wanted to hear it or not.”
While attending Santa Clara University he began to discover that “far from being inerrant and literal, the Scriptures are figurative and full of the most obvious and blatant errors and contradictions.” At the suggestion of one of his Jesuit professors, Aslan began to reexamine Islamic spirituality, eventually becoming a practicing Muslim again.
The main thesis of this book is that there is a gulf between Jesus of Nazareth, the itinerant rabbi preaching in First Century Palestine, and Jesus the Christ, Son of God and Savior.
The authorship of much of the New Testament is unverified, and the accounts were written long after the events described occurred; this causes Aslan to write: “The Jesus that emerges from history – a zealous revolutionary swept up, as all Jews of the era were, in religious and political turmoil … bears little resemblance to the image of the gentle shepherd cultivated by the early Christian community.”
Crucifixion was a punishment the Romans used mostly for the crime of treason, and the inscription above his head, “King of the Jews,” showed they accused him of attempting to lead a rebellion. That he failed so ignominiously in this attempt, Aslan explains, had a great effect on his followers.
“The problem for the early Church is that Jesus did not fit any of the messianic paradigms offered in the Hebrew Bible. The early Church obviously recognized this dilemma … and made a conscious decision to change these messianic standards.”
Aslan conjectures that in order to reduce persecution from the Roman authorities, the early Church shifted focus from Jesus as failed revolutionary to Jesus as Son of God resurrected from the dead (a belief in a dying and rising Messiah that never existed in Judaism).
This definition of Jesus was possible because “practically every word ever written about Jesus of Nazareth … was written by people who, like Stephen and Paul, never actually knew Jesus when he was alive.” They were “educated, urbanized, Greek-speaking Jews” who “began to reinterpret Jesus’ message to make it more palatable to both fellow Greek-speaking Jews and their gentile neighbors.”
One of the most provocative chapters in the book is Aslan’s discussion of the Apostle Paul, whose dramatic conversion on the road to Damascus plays a major role in the development of Christianity. It is Paul who is most responsible for winning non-Jews to this new faith.
“Paul seems totally unconcerned with anything ‘Jesus in the flesh’ may or may not have said. In fact, Paul shows no interest at all in the historical Jesus … sometimes directly contradicting Jesus,” according to Aslan. “Paul’s portrayal of Jesus as Christ may sound familiar to contemporary Christians – it has since become the standard doctrine of the Church – but would have been downright bizarre to Jesus’ Jewish followers.”
Aslan writes that even as a Muslim he was profoundly drawn to the historical Jesus of his research.
“That man seems so much more real to me than the sort of celestial spirit that I was taught about in Church,” he said. “That’s the man I want to be like. How to confront powers, how to stand up for social justice: I learned that from the historical Jesus, not from the Christ of faith.”
Chuck Flagg is a retired teacher with a passion for religion. Reach him at [email protected]

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