The turning point of Jesus’s fateful week in Jerusalem was his protest at the Temple, which the Jewish priests saw as a challenge to their authority and which led to his trial and execution. But was this disruption violent or non-violent, a question posed by Reza Aslan in Zealot, a book reviewed by Rev. Howard Bess.
By the Rev. Howard Bess
Reza Aslan’s Zealot: the Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth is of special interest to me because our experiences are similar. Aslan was a devout Evangelical Christian, as was I. Aslan decided that he wanted to know more about the Jesus of history. So did I. The pursuit took us both over the last 200 years of scholarly research on the historical Jesus and the intense search for the historical Jesus over the past 40 years or so. But Aslan no longer identifies himself as an Evangelical Christian. I do.
To understand Jesus and what he was about, Aslan believes that we must begin with the story of the so-called Cleansing of the Temple in Jerusalem sometime in the last week of Jesus’s life. It is the event that makes his issues clear and explains, from a human point-of-view, why he was violently put to death. I agree completely. So also do all the New Testament scholars of which I am aware.
The ruckus in the Temple Court Yard took place and was the direct cause of the crucifixion of Jesus. But a huge disagreement exists over the nature of the ruckus that Jesus caused. Were the actions that Jesus took violent? Aslan answers that question with an emphatic “yes.”
His narrative about the cleansing is graphic and fascinating. It is great reading. Yet, here I must take exception with Aslan. The acts of Jesus were aggressive and action filled. However, I see the event as street theatre. The action was to get attention and to make a point.
Aslan sees the Temple episode, not as a cleansing of the Temple, but the beginning of the overthrow of the entire Temple system. I agree. Aslan sees Jesus angrily coming to the task with weapons of destruction. I disagree. I see Jesus coming in non-violent action much as Martin Luther King Jr. brought non-violent action to overthrow racism in America.
In Aslan’s argument for Jesus being a man of violence, he takes us back to the area known as Galilee, some 70 miles north of Jerusalem. Aslan, I believe, accurately describes the terrible economic plight of Galileans. Poverty had been brought on by an ugly alliance between the priests, Pharisees and Sadducees of Judaism and Roman rulers.
Extreme wealth had gone to the few and poverty had gone to the many. Land ownership had moved to the absentee super-rich, and economic slavery was the heritage of rural folk. Jesus lived among the poorest of the poor. He became the pedagogue of the oppressed. Jesus lived and taught among people of poverty who were angry over their plight.
Galilee became the seedbed of zealots. Eventually Galileans became a driving force behind a formal political movement called the Zealots, but that was not until some 25 to 30 years later. The Zealots in their roots and in their later organized form were advocates of violence. All men carried knives.
Aslan sees Jesus as a knife-carrying zealot. I disagree. He was a zealot in that he advocated the overthrow of the economic and religious powers that dominated Palestine. He called for justice. He believed there was a better way.
Aslan has written a very readable book, a 216-page epistle that reads like a novel. The book is very inviting to the lay person who has no particular background in critical Bible or history research. Aslan readily admits that what we know about Jesus is limited and sketchy at best.
In recent decades, our knowledge of the politics, economics, social structures and religions of the Holy Land has expanded rapidly. In putting together our image of Jesus, we know only a bit about Jesus. We know a lot more about the context in which he lived. It is only natural that devout pursuers of the historical Jesus tend to fill in the blank spots with both probability and a healthy imagination. Aslan does exactly that. He fills in the blank spots to fill out his image of Jesus from Nazareth.
As a conscientious student of both Bible and the search for the historical Jesus, I was very aware of the places in the book where I knew he lapsed from fact to his own opinions and perspectives. But Dr. Aslan writes his biography of Jesus without footnotes. In the body of the book, he never attempts to separate what scholars consider facts and the opinions of Reza Aslan. At the end of the book, Aslan adds 50 pages of End Notes in fine print, but few readers will bother turning to the End Notes.
Aslan’s book was published early in 2013. The book was not selling particularly well. Then he was interviewed on Fox Television. Many thought the Fox interviewer was very unfair to Aslan. Zealot zoomed to the top of the best-seller list and is still there. It is a great read and will be read by millions of people. The book cannot be ignored.
The Jesus of history needs a lot more attention, but I am not certain that Aslan’s version is entirely helpful.
The Rev. Howard Bess is a retired American Baptist minister, who lives in Palmer, Alaska. His email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.