Tuesday, March 18, 2014

Paul done it

In popular religious historian Reza Aslan's Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth, Jesus was a

revolutionary zealot who walked across Galilee gathering an army of disciples with the goal of establishing the Kingdom of God on earth, [a] magnetic preacher who defied the authority of the TempIe priesthood in Jerusalem, [a] radical Jewish nationalist who challenged the Roman occupation and lost ...

This is not a book about the person subsequent Christians believe is truly God and truly human; it's a vivid picture of turbulent and bloody eruptions in first century Roman-occupied Palestinian countryside and in the Jewish temple city of Jerusalem. That's what the historical records -- as opposed to the founding documents of the Jesus movement, the Gospels -- make available.

... It is a miracle that we know anything at all about the man called Jesus of Nazareth. ... The first century was an era of apocalyptic expectation among the Jews of Palestine, the Roman designation for the vast tract of land encompassing modern-day Israel/Palestine as well as large parts of Jordan, Syria, and Lebanon. Countless prophets, preachers, and messiahs tramped through the Holy Land delivering messages of God's imminent judgment. Many of these so-called false messiahs we know by name. A few are even mentioned in the New Testament. ...

In the end, there are only two hard historical facts about Jesus of Nazareth upon which we can confidently rely: the first is that Jesus was a Jew who led a popular Jewish movement in Palestine at the beginning of the first century C.E.; the second is that Rome crucified him for doing so....

Aslan recounts the trajectories of five or six of these disruptive Jewish revolutionaries, most of whom were hailed as "messiah" by themselves or by their followers; all of them and their movements were brutally suppressed and are largely forgotten.

Aslan places the Gospel stories of the wandering Nazarene preacher within the cosmos of Jesus' contemporaries. Here's a sample of how he explicates Gospel accounts of miraculous healing.

Jesus was surely not the first exorcist to walk the shores of the Sea of Galilee. In first-century Palestine, professional wonder worker was a vocation as well established as that of woodworker or mason, and far better paid. Galilee especially abounded with charismatic fantasts claiming to channel the divine for a nominal fee. Yet from the perspective of the Galileans, what set Jesus apart from his fellow exorcists and healers is that he seemed to be providing his services free of charge.

... To the modern mind, the stories of Jesus's healings and exorcisms seem implausible, to say the least. Acceptance of his miracles forms the principal divide between the historian and the worshipper, the scholar and the seeker. It may seem somewhat incongruous, then, to say that there is more accumulated historical material confirming Jesus's miracles than there is regarding either his birth in Nazareth or his death at Golgotha. ... All that can be known is how the people of his time viewed them. And therein lies the historical evidence. For while debates raged within the early church over who Jesus was -- a rabbi? the messiah? God incarnate? -- there was never any debate, either among his followers or his detractors, about his role as an exorcist and miracle worker.

... Well into the second and third centuries, the Jewish intellectuals and pagan philosophers who wrote treatises denouncing Christianity took Jesus's status as an exorcist and miracle worker for granted. They may have denounced Jesus as nothing more than a traveling magician, but they did not doubt his magical abilities.

Though Aslan is (at least by ancestral culture) a Muslim, this book reads as a very Jewish account of the founding figure of Christianity. The hinge that turned the times in Aslan's telling is the destruction of the Jerusalem Temple, the essential center of Jewish religion, and the murder of the city's people by the empire forty years after the empire had casually snuffed out the insignificant Galilean. Rome intended to kill or completely scatter this troublesome bunch and so thoroughly succeeded that the result was a new form of Torah Judaism, centered on the book rather than the Temple, that is the ancestor of today's religion.

This development killed off the Jewish adherents of the Jesus movement still located in Jerusalem just as thoroughly as it killed off establishment Jewish leaders and practice. The suppression of Jewish Temple religion put the gentile converts assembled by the controversial apostle Paul at the center of the emerging worship of Jesus. According to Aslan, the horrible example of what the empire had done to militant Jews encouraged Christian communities to separate themselves from remaining faithful Jews and to renounce the militant strands in the Jesus story such as their leader's assault on Temple commerce and corruption. Early Christians wanted to keep their heads down and avoid unsettling the powers that might eradicate them. Paul had once been considered an outlier by the Jesus community around James the brother of Jesus -- but no longer.

After the Temple was destroyed, the holy city burned to the ground, and the remnants of the Jerusalem assembly dispersed, Paul underwent a stunning rehabilitation in the Christian community. ... the only writings about Jesus that existed in 70 C.E. were the letters of Paul. ... Without the mother assembly [Jerusalem Christian community] to guide the followers of Jesus, the movement's connection to Judaism was broken, and Paul became the primary vehicle through which a new generation of Christians was introduced to Jesus the Christ. ... Christianity after the destruction of Jerusalem was almost exclusively a gentile religion; it needed a gentile theology. And that is precisely what Paul provided. ... Two thousand years later, the Christ of Paul's creation has utterly subsumed the Jesus of history.

This interpretation of the emergence of the religion of Christianity is not original with Aslan. In fact, it comes up periodically as historians grapple with the sheer improbability that such an obscure figure and his movement might have have somehow sparked a worldwide religion. Unimaginative Christians routinely find such interpretations offensive; Aslan has been the target of a lot of ignorant insults about his exegesis of the historical record -- and the controversy made his little book a best seller.

I appreciated Aslan's honest statement of the real problem with the history of Jesus -- that in the absence of much of what moderns consider evidence, that we find ourselves trying to plumb the truth of his life at all. This book provides an unvarnished account of the brutality of an empire past ...

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