A political Jesus

by Catherine Murphy |
Zealot speaks to rebellion against empire—and to the current moment. Which is both the strength and the weakness of the book.

SCU religious studies alumnus Reza Aslan ’95, associate professor of Creative Writing at U.C. Riverside, has turned his attention from Islam (No god but God, 2005) and the war against terror (Beyond Fundamentalism, 2010) to Jesus in his most recent book, Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth (Random House, 2013). While the focus on Jesus is new, the world of first-century Palestine that Aslan conjures looks remarkably like the present scene of cosmic battle and religious-political zealotry that Aslan explored in Beyond Fundamentalism. Here is a Jesus who advocated political rebellion, a zealot who sought to replace a rapacious Temple cult with free healings and cleansings, a messiah who shunned traditional messianic expectations but nevertheless called himself Son of Man and king. Resurrecting a hypothesis as old as the historical Jesus quest itself, Aslan sees Jesus as a nationalist Jew with a (merely) political message made over by his disciples into “a celestial being wholly uninterested in any earthly matter.” (H.S. Reimarus suggested as much in the 18th century). In portraying Jesus as a zealot, Aslan is careful to observe that the actual party known as the Zealots post-dates Jesus by several decades, so that Jesus is one of several messianic hopefuls who anticipate a later political movement, while not actually themselves being official members of it. S. G. F. Brandon explored the same idea in a 1967 book, Jesus and the Zealots, although he thought that Jesus committed no “overt and direct revolutionary act” against Rome but rather was guilty of a more implicit rebellion against Roman proxies in the Temple aristocracy.

There is much to commend this book, from its lively pacing to its smooth—though not linear—narrative style. Aslan prefers to tell the story of the first century “backwards,” from the turmoil of the mid-first century back to Jesus, thus highlighting the political and economic context through which Aslan views the Jesus of three decades earlier. On one level, this is helpful, for it reminds us of events that deeply affected the evangelists’ portraits of Jesus in the gospels, and for many readers, this may be their first exposure to that history.

But reading backward is ultimately as anachronistic as reading the post-70 CE gospels as clear windows onto the historical Jesus. It reduces the historical man and divergent views of him among his contemporaries to a single feature—a political program—and a rather narrowly construed version of the program at that. Granting that Jesus was crucified as “King of the Jews” by the Romans, there are many ways to imagine the threat Rome perceived him to pose, among which Jesus the advocate of armed rebellion is not entirely persuasive. If Jesus had advocated armed revolt, why didn’t Rome’s client-king Herod Antipas ever arrest and execute him during his ministry in the Galilee, as he had John the Baptist with much less cause? (The first-century Jewish historian Josephus recounts that John was executed for drawing too large a crowd, which is a kind of political threat, but falls far short of advocating Herod’s overthrow.) Why didn’t the Temple authorities or Pilate pursue and arrest Jesus’ followers in the immediate aftermath of Jesus’ execution, if indeed he had been training them for rebellion? Why would the followers, including Jesus’ brother, have remained in Jerusalem, the center of Roman power and thus a dangerous place for zealots? Why is the witness of the early Christian movement consistently one of participation in the Temple in the first decades, and nonviolent resistance to Rome in the first centuries? How in this picture of Jesus’ zeal do you account for Jesus’ practice of open table fellowship—which most historical Jesus scholars consider certain—a fellowship that included not only Pharisees but also tax collectors? To have religious rigorists and Roman proxies at the same table symbolizes the kind of kingdom Jesus is building, but it is not the partisan rule of a political purist with which we are all too familiar today.

Aslan reads Jesus’ command to “love one’s enemies” as a “complete fabrication” of the evangelists in their apologetic makeover of Jesus; he imagines that the nationalist Jesus meant rather to love only one’s fellow Jews. But most historical Jesus scholars consider this saying historical by virtue of its sheer awkwardness and difficulty, and in any event a nationalist zealot would have been the last person to extend this degree of charity to compatriots collaborating with Rome. Aslan imagines that the early Christians changed Jesus from a rebellious nationalist to a celestial being and Son of God, and that this made him politically safer and less relevant to this world. However, research on Roman political theology indicates that to call Jesus “Son of God” raised the political stakes, for this is the term that the Roman emperors were using for themselves, just as “gospel” (“good news” in Greek) was the term they used to announce their beneficent gifts to their subjects. We may divorce theology and belief from politics, such that a political Jesus seems more worthy of belief than a transcendent one, but it is anachronistic to impose this divorce on early Christians.

There is another contention in the book that must be addressed, and that is the portrait of the Temple and its priests as an institution rendered irrelevant by Jesus’ free healings and cleansings. It is not just that this misrepresents the function of ritual sacrifice, which is about performing a relationship with God and the Jewish community through mechanisms enjoined by God in scripture. Jesus’ healings and cleansings may facilitate participation in that system, but they do not replace it. Every indication is that Jesus himself, and his followers after his death, and countless other Jews including the Zealots, continued to participate willingly in this ritual system even when they opposed the aristocratic priests who ran it (the Essenes are the only known exception in Judea). More disturbing is the attribution of terms like “costly” and “exclusivist” to the rituals, and of terms like “rapacious,” “hypocrites,” and “thieves” to the priests, which evoke centuries-old Christian slanders about the presumed obsolescence and atrophy of Jewish religion and the imagined greed of its adherents (whose economic lives were in fact mightily constrained by Christian laws). I would have wished that Aslan had been more sensitive to the legacy of such language. To be fair, Aslan depends here on many contemporary scholars who have written of a “Temple domination system,” but those scholars have been rightly criticized for rarely providing evidence that the Temple actually exploited the poor. It is unlikely that any contemporary Jew would have regarded the Temple as “the principal symbol of Rome’s hegemony over Judea.” As Amy-Jill Levine, author of The Misunderstood Jew: The Church and the Scandal of the Jewish Jesus, observes, Jesus doesn’t discourage the widow from donating her mite to the Temple but rather praises her. And one might fairly ask whether Jesus, in his command that disciples leave everything to follow him, isn’t in fact even more rapacious than an annual Temple tithe and occasional sacrifice.

Zealot is an engaging read that represents a substantial engagement with the sources. Aslan is to be praised for immersing himself in the material and rendering it afresh for our current historical moment. If in the end it reflects too much of the current moment, with its need for materialist readings and its discomfort with both pacifism and belief, it is at least a vigorous argument for a relevant Jesus that will hopefully spark deeper reflection and conversation about the man from Nazareth.

Catherine Murphy is an associate professor of religious studies at Santa Clara University.

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Winter 2014

Table of contents


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Mission Matters


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A sight of innocence

George Souliotes went to prison for three life sentences after he was convicted of arson and murder. Twenty years later, he’s out—after the Northern California Innocence Project proved he didn’t do it.