For at least two centuries, scholars and popular writers have mined the Christian Gospels to look behind the different images of Jesus, to create an authentic portrait: the historical Jesus as opposed to the Christ of faith. Reza Aslan’s masterpiece Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth is one such quest for grail. Suman Mukherjee follows the footprints of this scholar to steal a glance at the zealot’s tale.
People should, more and often, take suggestions from other trusted people rather than picking up random books from bookstores or semester syllabus. Suggested books, in my opinion, are better performers than others. Take this one. One of my closest friends, in whose reading habits I trust greatly, noticing my attraction towards religious studies suggested this book to me. One doesn’t have to be a religious person for that. Evolution of religions on the face of earth has always been an uncharted mystery. Faith as the cornerstone of any religion is the most crucial element in it. We all know to what extent men can go to defend their faith. Faith is neither rational nor irrational, but is closely associated with hidden unconscious bias – both right and wrong. This is how we choose one faith over another just like in daily lives we go for one suggestion and reject the other.
These invisible biases have visible reasons which lie in patterns underneath the multitude of discussions. Early historians from all over the world who have studied the evolution of religions had either neglected important patterns because of their incompetence or they had suffered from the inadequacy of resources without which all research efforts fall flat. Reza Aslan is fortunate. With four degrees from reputed institutions, fluency in four languages and two decades of devoted research on Christianity his expertise is unparalleled. Even after proving his undoubtable acumen, being a Muslim he has faced much criticism from white supremacists who questioned his credibility to conduct a research on Christianity. How pathetic it is that in this polarized world a scholar and a truth-seeker is not free from such attacks! Thanks to such controversial talks as it helped the book to scale the topmost position of bestsellers list.
After the author, comes the book.
A hardbound light object glowing with a fabulous Renaissance painting of young Jesus on the front is a charming beauty. Light yellowish tint of the pages and the precision of the expressions used are an addition to its glory. Aslan’s prose flows like a rivulet in the hills, finding path anywhere and everywhere, unburdened by heavy words and unnecessary information. His work epitomizes how history can be narrated within the limits of authenticity. One more sentence would have made the work unsaturated. The author has shown impeccable consideration towards his readers by putting all the scholarly comments and historical facts under the notes section at the back. This is surely one of the clever techniques other writers must emulate to keep their readers glued to the pages.
As you thumb through the book, a hazy old picture of the dust-laden Judea takes shape in the mind. The remote village of Nazareth where Jesus was born becomes more prominent as you proceed further. The peaceful pastoral image associated with idyllic life in the pre-Christian era is shattered by surprising revelations from the author. Religious beliefs are pushed aside and a buried truth is unfurled gradually.
Jesus Christ is the most documented personality of human civilization enjoying unmatched popularity across the globe among all sections till date. Unearthly stories about his resurrection are in circulation among masses all over the world since time immemorial. I remember being very fond of these stories in my childhood days. Later in my life it occurred to me why no other figure emerged with such a popular face. Though Buddha’s Jataka stories are well received among all but they come nowhere in comparison to Christ’s monopoly. This book answers all such queries that haunted generations before.
Jesus the son of a carpenter in the remote village of Nazareth was a youth who like other young men of his race felt threatened by the presence of the oppressive regime of the Roman empire. The age-old prophecy of salvation was still epochal among Jews who impatiently waited for a saviour as Rome grew weaker everyday. Political confusion was starting to brew up in the old and weary empire. The emperors unable to control the rebellious Judea directly had appointed powerful Jews as the governor kings of these provinces. These governors were no less apathetic to the poor Jews as the Roman lords were and in most cases, their cruelty even surpassed the atrocities done by the Roman overlords. Herod the Great was one such king whose name we have found in the childhood tales. Though the actual chronology points out that his name was wrongly attributed to make the tale of Jesus more appealing since Herod was the most feared and abhored of all Jew kings. Herod and his sons treated the revolutionary zealots harshly. Before Jesus, many other Jew bandits had separately organized rebellions united by the strength of one vague prophecy. All such efforts went in vain as Romans continued to suppress such acts of defiance ruthlessly. A prophetic leader was considered more dangerous than law-breakers. Jesus was more than a bandit peasant whose leadership attracted thousands of disciples. Had he been a bandit, he would have been spared without a second thought. One of his many crimes, was his urge to bring a social reform across the nation.
Not only the Roman lords but also the high society of the priests of the temple of Jerusalem had set a trap for the poor. The temple was no more a house of God rather it had become a den of bribery and corruption. Jesus and his disciples’ intervention into this corrupt business had made a fracture in this evil nexus. Quite obviously this was not liked by the priest community. These wealthy priests had strong connections with the Roman administrators who considered the priests as a means to extend and perpetuate their control over the rebellious population of Judea. An accidental murder of the high priest in the sacred ground of temple by another revolting goon leader supplied the spark to the gunpowder. Jesus was exposed as the centre of the storm; he became the chief suspect and his arrogance in front of the authority led him to his fateful end. His attempts to purify the corrupt practice of the priests and purge the Jewish population from bondage were considered as a war against the orthodox belief. His ability to question the tradition was read as blasphemy. Long after he was gone, his elder brother also met the same fate under the same charge. By this time St. Paul who was canonized much later started gathering the bits and pieces of the marvellous stories that were being carried forward from mouth to mouth. With his own interpolations which manipulated the stories largely, he wrote the first gospels of the holy book. With what interest he continued to reshape the figure of Jesus is still unknown but it was he who offered Jesus a divine stature to make him immortal among men. Later the other preachers had made their own additions to it. From a man who was charged with blasphemy, Jesus became the idolized God, a new form of God whose existence was hitherto unknown to the Jewish people. Aslan sees Paul’s efforts as a wonderful propaganda that triggered the final outbreak of a powerful revolt which robbed the Romans of their precious Pagan gods and set Christianity on the throne. The faith proposed by Jesus the zealot was not accepted but Jesus the Christ in its new avatar claimed the divine platform. Ironically the Roman empire which crucified the rebel became the principal seat of classical Catholic order.
Saint Paul gained highly from his calculated endeavour which not only saved his back from being labelled as a rebel disciple but also earned him the position of first Pope of the holy Church. More than a Pope, he was a great literateur, I would say. Till date The Bible offers the choicest of quotes available. Nonetheless, the holy book provides us a collage of the life of Jesus leaving the image incomplete. “Original rose endures in its name, we hold empty names.” Reza Aslan makes a frantic attempt to cull the petals of the original rose through his long quest for truth. The ending passage of the book justifies his toil:
“Two thousand years later, the Christ of Paul’s creation has utterly subsumed the Jesus of history. The memory of the revolutionary zealot who walked across Galilee gathering an army of disciples with the goal of establishing the kingdom of God on earth, the magnetic preacher who defied the authority of the Temple priesthood in Jerusalem, the radical Jewish nationalist who challenged the Roman occupation and lost, has been almost completely lost to history. That’s a shame. Because the one thing any comprehensive study of historical Jesus should hopefully reveal is that Jesus of Nazareth – Jesus the man – is every bit as compelling, charismatic, and praiseworthy as Jesus the Christ. He is, in short, someone worth believing in.”
Title photograph by Abhimanue
Next post on 1st January, 2019.