Wednesday, January 28, 2015

Book Review: Zealot - a cautionary tale for our times?

Reza Aslan: Zealot, the life and times of Jesus of Nazareth (Random House, New York, 2013), 272 pages, index, bibliography, copious and excellent chapter notes, chronology, map of the Holy Land, diagram of the temple of Jerusalem.

Biblical quotes, unless noted otherwise, are from the New King James Version, Thomas Nelson, 1992, Nashville, TN

              Professor Aslan is a biblical scholar of secular persuasion (and a bit irritatingly cheeky about it at times - one of the few weak points of the book). In Zealot, he searches for the "Christ of the humanists" below centuries of theological accretion and "elaboration" of the original Christmas story.

           On a purely novelistic level Zealot is a quite good read. It recounts the partisan struggle of the "Israeli National Resistance Movement(s)" against the occupying Roman army and Rome's local allies: the priests of the Jerusalem temple, the hellenized bourgeoisie engaged in the profitable "Mediterraneanized" trade (the Romans' version of globalization). The Pax Romana - the Roman Peace - was a feeble pre-echo of Pax Americana, scaled down to shoebox size to fit into the then known world.

                                   The dying Gaul, Roman statue, 1st century ce

            The poorer Palestinians of Christ's time deeply resented the Roman occupation and many messianic leaders rose to stir the population against the occupiers. Groups like the Zealots and the "daggermen" (sicarii) carried out targeted assassinations and random acts of violence against "collaborators". Compared to modern suicide bombers, the rebels' technology was barely adequate to the job yet sufficed to raise Roman ire and fear. In 56 ce, about 25 years after Christ's execution by crucifixion, daggermen murdered the high priest of the Jerusalem temple, the sacred heart of Israel. No one who served the foreign master felt safe any longer..

            Jesus of Nazareth was born poor. Prof Aslan argues he was probably illiterate and from a numerous family (those numerous references to "brothers and sisters", some named, which have troubled Virgin Birth theology for centuries). ( See footnote 1). Aslan speculates that Jesus and his brothers were employed by the rich landowners of the larger towns of his region (Galilee). There, he learned to detest the foreign master and their servile collaborators. At some point he realized he had a divine mission to cleanse the land of foreign rule and institute God's Kingdom on earth as promised in the the prophetic teachings.

"He who sacrifices to any god, except the Lord only, he shall be utterly destroyed." Exodus 22:20

                          the ancient temple of Jerusalem, sacred heart of Israel

The question of biblical miracles. While some rationalists might disagree, Prof Aslan wisely sidesteps the issue of the "reality" of biblical miracles. Miracles were simply part of the world view of the age. 

Augur: (Latin) A diviner who predicts the outcomes of human activities from natural "signs": storms, behavior of birds, "meteorological" phenomena like meteors, comets, solar or lunar eclipses. These priest-diviners were employed by all ancient civilizations as far as I can tell: Rome, Greece, Egypt, China, new world civilizations..

"Sign": precursor events believed to reveal future events in a symbolic manner. Physical causality, as we understand the term in modern physics, was not - strictly speaking - involved except, perhaps, in a secondary, derivative sense: as the means by which a symbolic connection between two events manifested itself. (For the ancients, it was often the perceived symbolic connection which was more important than the actual physical processes that manifested the connection. See, for example, psychologist Carl Jung's notion of synchronicity.)

           Court astrologers in ancient Egypt, Rome, Greece, China, India.. constructed birth charts of royal children to discern their destiny. The biography of the Buddha gives a striking example of the practice and the importance attached to it. Animal sacrifices with divinatory analysis of the liver - hepatoscopy - were conducted prior to Roman military maneuvers. 

                                          divinity Mithras sacrificing a bull

           Healings in Christ's world could be interpreted as exorcisms of evil spirits. Thus we read in Luke 9: 38 -43:

"Suddenly a man from the multitude cried out, saying 'Teacher, I implore you, look on my son, for he is my only child. And behold, a spirit seizes him and he suddenly cries out; it convulses him so that he foams at the mouth; and it departs from him with great difficulty, bruising him..' Then Jesus answered and said:..'Bring your son here." And as he was still coming, the demon threw him down and convulsed him. Then Jesus rebuked the unclean spirit, healed the child and gave him back to his father. And they were all amazed by the majesty of God."

             The point here is that such beliefs were part of the ancients' picture of "reality", just as our modern beliefs (or disbeliefs) are part of our modern "reality". I guess reality just ain't what it used to be..

               There is a corollary to the above observation: to project our beliefs back onto the ancients' world and judge their behavior by our belief systems is a wee bit anachronistic (not to say unfair!) If you lived in ancient Palestine would you be "smart" enough to diagnose the child as epileptic? And even if you managed to dream up some modern notions of "central nervous system lesions" as causes of epileptic seizures, what treatment could you possibly offer to that boy and his father? Prof Aslan wisely accepts the biblical stories as offering indices of how Jesus and his mission were understood by those followers who lived after his death and recorded his life.

             Since I have an above average interest in comparative religion and - to a lesser degree - biblical times, Prof Aslan's book held no major surprises of historical fact or scholarly interpretation. I suspect, though, that many who have not reflected on the Christmas story since their childhood Sunday School will find much to surprise, even shock, them in Zealot. I especially appreciated Aslan's copious and most excellent chapter notes which present the alternative - even opposed - views of other scholars. Of course, much of the history of those poorly documented times will always remain subjective and interpretive (unless, of course, someone invents a practical time machine so we can see for ourselves..) In the final analysis, the final judgement must be the credibility the reader accords to the author. Aslan's Christ is, at least, plausible.

              Resistance to foreign military occupation in biblical Palestine  resembles the movements of resistance to empire seen in our own equally troubled times. The term temporal resonance popped into my mind several times during my reading, suggesting an inner "resonance" between our age and that of ancient Palestine and Rome. It is if the two epochs - despite the evident differences - somehow "marched to the same drummer". Perhaps, they share a common socio-political or spiritual dynamic, a "common constellation of forces" acting to produce similar - or analogous - events.

              In this "parallel history" reading, modern America becomes Nova Roma, once again dominating the Holy Land. Today's Arabs could replace the biblical Hebrews as a colonized nation. The Islamic State (or ISIS) and other jihadist sects could be seen as modern Zealots and "daggermen" (sicarii):

"Zeal implied a strict adherence to the Torah and the Law, a refusal to serve any foreign master.. and an uncompromising devotion to the sovereignty of God.. Many Jews in 1st century Palestine strove to live a life of zeal.. But there were some who.. were willing to resort to extreme acts of violence if necessary, not just against the Romans and the uncircumcised masses, but against their fellow Jews, those who dare to submit to Rome. They were called Zealots." (Zealot, page 40)

              Interestingly, we note that the majority of the victims of modern Zealots, the jihadists, are fellow Muslims just as most of victims of the Zealots and daggermen where fellow Jews.

               Like modern jihadists, the Zealots (and followers of messianic rebels in general) can be see as Utopians. The Kingdom of God on earth will be a true paradise. Oppressors will be punished in the name of God. This message rings clearly from the prophetic books of the Old Testament:

"You shall not afflict any widow or fatherless child.. If you afflict them in any way and they cry at all to Me, I will surely hear their cry [God is speaking directly]; and My wrath will become hot, and I will kill you with the sword; your wives shall be widows, and children fatherless." Exodus 22: 22- 24

               In concluding my reading of Zealot, I read the Epistle of James, recommended by Aslan as a particularly pure representation of the teaching of the early christian community of Jerusalem. James is generally accepted as a brother of Jesus. James assumed leadership of the community after his brother's crucifixion in 30 - 33 ce by the Roman occupation troops. Christ was duly crucified by the Romans as a rebel; worse, he was a self-proclaimed messiah.

              Christ's execution brought no peace though. The three decades following the crucifixion witnessed numerous messianic contenders - ancient competing jihadist sects, one could say - who tested the mettle of the occupying Romans. (The parallel - "temporal resonance" - with today is obvious: competing Jihadist sects carrying out terrorist campaigns against the West, whom they consider as a humiliating occupier.) 

              Revolt succeeded revolt: 36, 44, 46, 57 ce. Murder succeeded murder, in retaliative echoes. The high priest  of the temple of Jerusalem was murdered in 56 by a daggerman assassin. James, the brother of Jesus, was murdered in 62 ce because he was a troublemaker. Then, from 66 - 70 ce, the Great Revolt. The Romans, roused finally to action, retaliated - as was their wont - massively and barbarously (note 2). The temple of Jerusalem, sacred heart of ancient Israel, was razed - "not a stone shall remaining standing atop a stone" as the New Testament (retrospectively) "prophesies". The Zealots were liquidated: their last stand, the siege of the fortress of Masada where the defenders, rather than capitulate, committed suicide. Jews today still revere those Zealots who "fell for religious freedom".

                          ruins of the ancient fortress of Masada, Israel

              The ancient state of Israel was effectively wiped off the map by the Roman retaliation. Thus began the Great Diaspora of the Jews over the world. The modern state of Israel was only re-established after World War II, nearly 1,900 years later. (Another "temporal resonance": Israel and the great temple of Jerusalem did not exist for 1900 years, now they do - once again..)

                So what does this story tell us? Different readers will draw different inferences, of course. But one possible set of lessons or interpretations relates to empire and the hubris it breeds, about the human spirit and resistance. The story reminds us, too, that we have not evolved much - not morally anyway - over the past 20 centuries..

               The story of Jesus the Zealot also speaks to deeper values and aspirations. What is the good life? What is the good society? In the limit: what is the meaning or purpose of our life, if any?  Like our modern globalized, free market economy, the Roman Empire was both a time of increasing generalized wealth and a spreading gulf beween the rich and poor. It is of this gulf that the Epistle of James - Jesus' brother and leader of the Jerusalem church - speaks most eloquently.

             Responding to an early intra-sect dispute over the relative value of "faith" versus "good acts" which split the Jerusalem church from the churches following Saint Paul, James stresses the necessity of good actions in the community:

"What does it profit, my brethren, if someone says he has faith but does not have works? Can faith save him? If a brother or sister is naked and destitute of daily food and one of you says to them, 'Depart in peace, be warmed and filled', but you do not give the things which are needed for the body, what does it profit? Thus also faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead."  Epistle of James 2: 14 - 17

               Likewise, more than any other writer, except perhaps the Jesus speaking to us in the Gospels, James excoriates the rich for their inequity in their dealings with their fellow Jews. In words which pre-echo Karl Marx:

"Come now, you rich, weep and howl for your miseries that are coming upon you!
.. Indeed the wages of the laborers who mowed your fields, which you kept back by fraud, cry out; and the cries of the reapers have reached the ears of the Lord of Hosts. You have lived on the earth in pleasure and luxury; you have fattened your hearts as in a day of slaughter. You have condemned, you have murdered the just, he does not resist you.

Therefore be patient, brethren, until the coming of the Lord. See how the farmer waits for the precious fruit of the earth, waiting patiently for it until it receives the early and the latter rain. You also be patient. Establish your hearts, for the coming of the Lord is at hand" James 5: 1 - 8

               I finished this excellent book feeling I had been through some kind of a time warp.

                                     contemporary Sicarii - "daggermen

Update: comparison of the inequity of opportunity and access to resources (physical, cultural, spiritual..) in the ancient Middle East and the modern global economy. The spreading gap between the rich and the poor. Our world indeed reflects the economic, political and social conditions of Christ's world, but on a much larger scale. One percent of the world's population now controls 50% of it's wealth, a much greater imbalance than existed under the Roman Empire!

            What did Jesus have to say? Matthew 9:24

"And again I say unto you, It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle, than for a rich man to enter into the kingdom of God."

            Bizarrely and ironically, many conservative "christians" in North America consider wealth - and the power over others it naturally confers - as a "sign of election", a token that God has predestined them for heaven. Their wealth is, so to speak, a foretaste of eternal future happiness in the next world. What a pathetically transparent self-serving dogma serving as a rationalization for social injustice (which biblical prophecy also often excoriates..) LOLOLOL!

            Mathew, chapter 5, the famous "Sermon on the Mount", presumably contains the core teachings of Christ (highlighted by red print in my King James bible):

"Blessed are the peace makers, for they shall be called sons of God.
Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness sake, for theirs is the Kingdom of Heaven."

            "Jesus" - or the school who spoke in his name - were both proposing a utopian social scheme (The Kingdom of God on Earth) and "prophesying" what such a world could look like (if we had the wisdom to chose to go that way).

           Today, one may argue over whether Jesus was a true "universalist" or not. Was he out to start a new universal world religion? Various New Testament texts don't support this view: "Do not think that I came to destroy the Law or the Prophet. I did not come to destroy but to fulfill" (Matt 5:17) Likewise, many modern scholars reject the end of the gospel of Mark, 16: 9 - 20, as a late addition to the original text. However, this "late addition" marks a charge to "go into all the world and preach the gospel to every creature" (Mark 16: 15) In effect, we may say that the "Jesus sect" was rejected by most Jews: Zealots, after all, did provoke the Roman reprisals which destroyed the temple and the ancient Israel state! In reaction to rejection, some followers of the "Jesus sect" turned to proselytizing the pagans (most notably Saint Paul and his controversial "mission to the Gentiles").

          A "universalist mission" cannot, however, be easily thrust aside even if we do conclude that Jesus was addressing fellow Jews only. The prophetic - Old  Testament - tradition that Jesus refers to does, in fact, present an idealized Israel that shall be a beacon for all nations, a standard of righteousness and justice for all wo/men.             

         On a larger, ecosystemic level of analysis, our unsustainable economies - based on non-renewable (hence depleting) resources - are plundering, polluting and destroying the natural world which sustains all life on earth, including humanity. We are making the ideal of God's Kingdom on Earth even harder to realize. We are headed in the wrong direction, totally..

         Here is a "Zealot" re-interpretation of early Christian (or proto-Christian) history just found on the Internet. It dates from 10 years before the publication of Prof Aslan's Zealot!


1- Other scholars disagree and cite texts in which Christ is depicted teaching in synagogs and reading sacred scrolls. They also take the term "rabbi", applied to Christ by interlocutors literally, implying that he had religious instruction.

2- I suppose one could draw a parallel with the attack on the World Trade Center in New York, September 11, 2001. 3000 people died in the original attack. The following war against Iraq killed - conservatively - 300,000, yet Iraq had absolutely nothing to do with the 9-11 atrocity in New York City! Romans, old or new, don't change their ways so easily..

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