Jesus was a Jewish nationalist

Years ago, I visited Israel with my family. We’re not very religious, really. But it was a meaningful trip. I mean, it’s the holy land.

Afterwards, my Mom, who has eclectic tastes, subscribed me to Biblical Archeology Review and I read it for a few years. I enjoy archeology and so does my Mom and there’s an awful lot of interesting archeology in that region. It goes back to the iron age, of course, through the Canaanites, so many successor empires and migrant cultures. The Israelites, the Greeks, the Romans, the Christians, the Muslims, the Crusaders and so much more. The layering of cultures and histories is pretty amazing. And the uncovering of it all is interesting.

The Biblical Archeology Review covers new research and discoveries and major debates in the archeology. But there’s a bizarre and hilarious aspect to it. Most of the content is pretty straight forward archeology, which treats the subject more or less like a science and is able, thereby, to make surprising and counter-intuitive discoveries. But there are a lot of readers — and a few scholars — who have A LOT of interest in the outcomes. They’re in it to prove the Bible or specific aspects of Biblical interpretation. Every month there are angry letters from readers canceling subscriptions because BAR printed an article on some archeology that refutes something Biblical.

There are plenty of Jews in the debates, arguing different points and sometimes citing the Bible and the Torah. But the craziest stuff comes from Christians, mostly Americans, who are deeply offended when there’s an article that refutes fundamentalist orthodoxy — especially Jesus stuff, but also old Testament. And the debates devolve into strange contests, the one side quoting archeological and ethnographic study and the other citing the Bible and sometimes a few crackpot “scholars” who have tried to give scientific explanations for phenomena described in the Bible. There’s a lot in the Bible that is literally impossible. And, I suppose, that’s where faith comes in. But there’s a lot of spitting mad people who are itching to “prove” that everything in the Bible is literally true. And they write angry letters and engage in debates and are just certain they’re right and can be offended that anyone disputes it.

And for the BAR, this goes on every issue, year after years. It’s interesting, then it’s amusing, then it’s annoying, then it’s boring. And then you cancel your subscription. Or at least I did.

I”m not very religious. I’m not very Christian and I’m not very Jewish. But I went to Christian high school and have read and studied the Bible. And I have Jewish family. So, I’m a little interested and maybe a little more informed than your average person. And that’s why I was excited to read Zealot: the Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth by Reza Aslan. It was a chance to dip back into those debates about the historical and archeological Jesus.

And it was good. I’m recommending it to my Mom.

Aslan has spent many years trying to understand Jesus from and in his context — from Biblical sources and from the rest. What he finds is that Jesus was a Jew. And he was one in a line of messianic leaders who challenged the Jewish elites and religious hierarchy and, at the same time, was a threat to the occupying empire of Rome. His teachings, to the extent we can divine them through the smoke of history and interpretation, are in line with a kind of Jewish zealotry which resisted or rejected the Jewish religious establishment that was centered in the Temple in Jerusalem, in favor of a more direct, fundamentalist form of Judaism. Class and economic factors were important. And the accommodation between the Romans and the Jewish elite was a sore point. The critique of the religious hierarchy was wrapped also with a Jewish nationalism and desire to overthrow the Romans. The vision was to restore the Kingdom of God, in a restoration of King David’s line with a less mediated relationship with God and his law. Aslan posits a Jesus that did not reject Judaism and Jewish law, but who was a kind of fundamentalist calling for a restoration of a purer form and more rigorous compliance.

For his sedition against Rome and his challenge to the Temple elites, Jesus was executed, as were the other messianic leaders who emerged. Rebel movements that emerged were quashed by the Romans.

After his death, Jesus’ followers built a church, mostly within Jewish law and Jewish communities, although it began to spread to gentiles. There were some leaders, like Paul, who were actively seeking to de-Jewish the church, calling for the rejection of Jewish law and asserting that circumcision wasn’t necessary to join. There was an ongoing tension on these points for decades until a Jewish rebellion brought a disastrous Roman response, razing the Temple, flattening Jerusalem. And the Jerusalem-based assembly of Jesus followers disappeared. There after the Christian church had to adjust and evolve to survive. Jesus lost a lot of his Jewishness and his Jewish nationalism faded in later interpretations. Debates about adherence to Jewish law weren’t of much interest to the large influx of gentile believers. The Kingdom of God that Jesus foretold was abstracted — it was no longer a specific political program in a specific geography. It might not even be a real thing at all, but conceptual. Salvation no longer was for Jewish people, but for all humanity.

Aslan makes a pretty good case. And it was disappointing to me. I think there’s a lot of good and useful innovation in Christian beliefs. The evolution from a sort of Jewish tribal cult to a more universalist religion, among other things, was pretty important. The advocacy of the meek, the sick, the poor; that’s all good. The call to action and the personalization of spiritual responsibility. Also good (mostly).

But, on close analysis, not much of that seems to have come from Jesus himself. Rather it was the followers and the apostles and the interpretations that did all that. Not to denigrate them, or Jesus. But I had given Jesus more credit, perhaps, than he deserved.

The other main revelation for me in this book is what a horrible mess Christian belief is. The fact that this messianic leader failed so miserably to usher in the bright new kingdom, and was instead executed without too much fanfare, is a very difficult problem for a religion. The fact that devotion to Jesus and his followers persisted is a real miracle and a testament to something — the ingenuity of his apostles? The dissatisfaction and hollowness of Jewish and Roman religions? I can’t really fathom it. The miracles were hauled out a lot to justify and dazzle believers. Especially the resurrection, of course. Which was attested by first-hand witnesses for a few decades after Jesus’ death. But why would people believe it, something they hadn’t personally observed?

There’s so much in Christian belief and doctrine that doesn’t make sense and that makes it harder to live one’s life. Why do we do it? For so long, in different versions for 2000 years? Boggles my mind. Of course there’s so much in Christian belief and doctrine that has nothing to do with Jesus, what he said, who he was. Christmas, for example. And lot of non-Christian stuff has been incorporated, of course. But still. There are other belief systems that seem so much more coherent and relatable. The big debates of Christianity are kind of bizarre and uninteresting: was Jesus man or god? What the heck is the holy trinity? Are we saved through faith alone? Why is a baby sinful and in need of symbolic cleansing?

Anyway, Aslan caught all hell for trying to define an historical Jesus. He’s a Muslim himself, so that didn’t make Christian fundamentalists any more open to his interpretation. But good on him for trying. There’s a lot in his book that I knew already, but he pulls it all together in a very useful and interesting way. And his discussion of the early Christian church was especially useful to me.


I'm a human person, working in policy & advocacy on global poverty, development, and relief. Comments and written pieces are personal.

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