Reza Aslan has been raising up quite a sandstorm of controversy in faith communities with his most recent publication, Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth. Aslan is an Iranian born, former cultural Muslim turned born-again Christian who has since surrendered his faith in Jesus the Christ for a now equally passionate devotion to Jesus of Nazareth. As he explains in his book, he believes the distance between the Jesus of faith and the Jesus of history is significant enough to write an entire book about it, and yes, even commit an entire life to it.
Much of Reza Aslan’s scholarship is supported by consensus among leading biblical scholars. It’s the overall picture he paints of Jesus as a political revolutionary and illiterate rabble rouser, a sort of caricatured modern day white supremacist or black nationalist, that raises my eyebrows and those of many other students of the bible. Aslan’s claims that Jesus deliberately and intentionally engaged an unwinnable war against Rome, not Satan, which led to his execution on the cross for the crime of sedition lacks teeth. In one paragraph he explains that crucifixion was a severe punishment reserved exclusively for those who rebelled against the government. In the very same paragraph he argues that those crucified with Jesus were simply thieves being executed for their misdeeds. The disconnect in logic there, one of several in his book, leads me to question whether Reza Aslan is in fact the zealot.
Nothing in the scriptures or extra-biblical literature even suggests that Jesus was ever present at any of the many protests against roman occupation. Although one of his disciples, Simon, was called a Zealot many scholars contend that the Zealot movement didn’t begin in earnest until some 30-40 years after Jesus’ death.
Despite the apparent differences between the biblical and historical Jesus, it requires a presupposition to stand on the argument that Jesus was a political dissident. The written claims we do have about him are consistent: he said repeatedly that his kingdom was not of this world. The substance of his teaching affirmed all civil/political protest as an attempt to control someone other than ourselves, and as such destined for ultimate failure.
Jesus was much too spiritually practical to be a political dissident. He understood that we humans can sustain the behavioral changes we implement ourselves for ourselves, but coerced change doesn’t last, isn’t real, and is deceptive.
Jesus a zealot? Nahhh! His movement was and is about the systemic changes that begin with a heart change. His movement was and is about changing the inside in order to organically transform the outside. Nominal, perfunctory change is fashion, form, and not substantive. Jesus agreed with his Father that changing laws doesn’t change hearts, and so laws meant for good that are dependent on external behavior will always fail. No, his movement was and is about writing laws on the heart. That’s something zealots don’t really understand.