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Steve Sebelius reviews an important and controversial (just ask Fox News) new book that challenges the traditional view of Jesus

<p>Feet of Christ (Thinkstock)</p>

Feet of Christ (Thinkstock)

So, that whole matter of Christianity? Yeah, it turns out, it was all a very big misunderstanding.

That — horribly simplified — is the message of Reza Aslan’s best-selling Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth. And while some significant flaws in his premise remain, the University of California-Riverside professor and Iowa Writer’s Workshop graduate makes a fascinating case for a Jesus whose message has been radically misunderstood by billions during 2,000 years of human history.

Painstakingly harnessing the Bible and extra-biblical sources, Aslan makes the case for a Jesus who zealously wanted to throw off the oppression of the Roman Empire and the social order headed by Jewish temple priests. Aslan’s Jesus is an illiterate workman, not born in Bethlehem, who doesn’t amaze religious authorities with his knowledge of the Hebrew scriptures and doesn’t spend his formative years coming to grips with the knowledge that he’s the Son of God.

This Jesus becomes a disciple of John the Baptist (and shows that submission by being baptized by John). He joins a tradition of wandering preachers, plentiful in his day, but stands out from them by working his miracles and casting out evil spirits for free.

“How one in the modern world views Jesus’ miraculous actions is irrelevant,” Aslan writes. “All that can be known is how the people of his time viewed them. And therein lies the historical evidence. For while debate 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.”

Here Aslan comes to the first of several unrealized hurdles: Far from being irrelevant, it matters very much whether Jesus was actually working miracles (healing the sick, helping those who were thought to be possessed by demons). One may gather a large crowd by promising free ice cream on a hot day, but the crowd will not be so big the next day if the ice cream doesn’t appear. Aslan acknowledges Jesus was doing something that impressed the crowds. If those were legitimate miracles — or even if the ancient occupants of Palestine thought they were — that tends to contradict a thesis which holds that Jesus was in no way divine.

POLITICS, NOT THE PASSION

After three years of preaching in rural towns and cities, Jesus ultimately decides to go to Jerusalem, the holiest place in Judaism, where God himself was said to physically dwell in the innermost court of the temple. For Aslan, however, this is the final act in a temporal, political career, not the first act in establishing a global religion.

Each of Jesus’s actions in his final week — the entry into Jerusalem riding on a donkey; turning over the money-changers’ temples in the Gentile Court of the temple, debating religion leaders — is viewed by Aslan in a new and decidedly non-Christian light. These were the political acts of a Jewish zealot bent on liberating his people in the here-and-now, not a messiah establishing a spiritual kingdom of the afterlife. And Aslan makes his case with passion and precision.

“If the Kingdom of God is neither purely celestial nor wholly eschatological, then what Jesus was proposing must have been a physical and present kingdom: a real kingdom, with an actual king that was about to be established on earth,” Aslan writes. “That is certainly how the Jews would have understood it.”

The overturning of money-changers’ temples? An attack on an oppressive class of rich priests who extracted hard-earned shekels from a peasant people come to buy recompense for their sins in temple animal sacrifices.

The back-and-forth over whether it’s lawful to pay tribute to Rome? A statement of radical politics. Jesus was famously shown a coin bearing the image of Caesar, and said, “Render [literally, ‘give back’] to Caesar the property that belongs to Caesar, and render to God the property that belongs to God.” That property? The holy land, occupied by the Romans.

“That is the zealot argument in its simplest, most concise form,” Aslan says. “And it seems to be enough for the authorities in Jerusalem to immediately label Jesus as lestes. A bandit. A zealot.”

And by calling himself the Son of Man, Jesus is laying claim to a heritage that harkens to the beloved King David. “In short, he is calling himself king,” Aslan posits. “He is stating, albeit in a deliberately cryptic way, that is role is not merely to usher in the Kingdom of God through his miraculous actions; it is to rule that kingdom on God’s behalf.”

Telling prospective disciples to “take up [your] cross and follow me”? A political statement: “The cross is the punishment for sedition, not a symbol of self-abnegation. Jesus was warning the twelve [disciples] that their status as the embodiment of the twelve tribes that will reconstitute the nation of Israel and throw off the yoke of occupation would rightly be understood by Rome as treason and thus inevitably lead to crucifixion.”

After his arrest and trial — and Aslan mocks the idea that the merciless Roman governor Pontius Pilate would care a whit about a rabble-rousing Jewish peasant, let alone engage him in a presentence interview — Jesus is sent to be crucified. But that punishment is significant: It is the penalty for sedition against the empire.

“But try as he might, [gospel writer] Luke cannot avoid the most basic fact about his messiah: Jesus was executed by the Roman state for the crime of sedition. Everything else about the last days of Jesus of Nazareth must be interpreted through this singular, stubborn fact.”

Perhaps — but other stubborn facts remain. If Jesus really thought himself eligible for kingship, how did he plan to achieve it? Did he think his charisma and miracle-working would bring the rural Jews — visiting Jerusalem to observe Passover — to his cause? Did he really think he’d overthrow the priests of the temple, and the Roman legions thereafter? The Jesus of Aslan’s telling enters Jerusalem as a temporal king, but against the backdrop of the time, it appears more like a suicide mission. And one fact of kingship is undeniably true: You can’t rule if you’re dead. (It puts one in mind of Christian author and apologist C.S. Lewis’s famous binary choice: Either Jesus was who he claimed to be, the Son of God made flesh, or he was insane.)

An alternative explanation is that Jesus entered Jerusalem knowing he’d be executed, but knowing that death was necessary to accomplish his spiritual mission. Jesus reportedly tells Pontius Pilate in John’s gospel: “My kingdom is not of this world. If it were, my servants would fight to prevent my arrest by the Jews. But now my kingdom is from another place.”

Then again, as Aslan notes, that passage was written decades after Jesus’s death, and very obviously influenced by another major figure of the church.

PAUL: THE GREAT REINVENTOR?

Among the most fascinating aspects of Aslan’s book is his examination of divisions within the early church, between those close followers of Jesus whom Aslan claims continue to view him as a temporal messiah, albeit one who failed to institute God’s kingdom on Earth, and the views of the apostle Paul.

But before we reach that rift, however, we come to another of Aslan’s hurdles: the resurrection. He neatly sidesteps the issue by claiming it’s simply a matter of “faith.” But it’s hardly that — the resurrection is the central event of Christianity, acknowledged by its defenders as key to the faith.

Paul, writing to the Corinthians, makes plain why: “If there is no resurrection of the dead, then not even Christ has been raised. And if Christ has not been raised, our preaching is useless and so is your faith,” he writes. “Then those also who have fallen asleep [died] in Christ are lost. If only for this life we have hope in Christ, we are to be pitied more than all men.”

Proving the resurrection as a historical event is nearly impossible some 2,000 years later. But circumstantial evidence nonetheless exists. The Bible lists scores of eyewitnesses to the risen Christ, including some who interacted with him personally. The deaths of Christian martyrs is also significant — none recanted their account of the resurrection, even on pain of death. If it were false, would not at least one or two have denied it to save his own life? Is it this central and unique event that has caused Christianity to flourish over 2,000 years while every other messianic preacher of Jesus’ time has been lost to history? No matter the answers, it’s impossible to simply sidestep the issue by calling it a matter of faith.

Then again, Aslan’s depiction of Paul may cause even believers to read the New Testament in an entirely new light. Paul — who allegedly converted from a persecutor of the church to one of its most zealous proponents after an encounter with the risen Christ — has a unique take on Jesus. For Paul, Jesus is a figure for the ages, and for all people, not just for the Jews of first century Palestine.

For Paul, the law of Moses no longer mattered — the apostle argues Jesus came to fulfill the law and institute a new system whereby one is saved by faith alone. But for the followers of Jesus — including his brother, James, who took over leadership of Jesus’s followers in the wake of his death — their identity as Jews and the focus of Jesus’s ministry primarily to his fellow Jews was still paramount. And this was no trifling matter.

“Because Paul’s views about Jesus are so extreme, so beyond the pale of acceptable Jewish thought, that only by claiming that they come directly from Jesus himself could he possibly get away with preaching them,” Aslan writes. “Paul, instead, advances an altogether new doctrine that would have been utterly unrecognizable to the person upon whom he claims it is based. For it was Paul who solved the disciples’ dilemma of reconciling Jesus’ shameful death on the cross with the messianic expectations of the Jews, by simply discarding those expectations and transforming Jesus into a completely new creature, one that seems almost wholly of his [Paul’s] own making: Christ.”

Tensions grew, especially after Paul was ordered to Jerusalem and forced by James to undergo a purification ritual to demonstrate his continued devotion to Judaism. Paul’s disagreements with early church leaders crop up in his letters to churches he founded in Asia. (James’s own epistle can in many ways be seen as a corrective to Paul’s teaching, Aslan writes, especially given its emphasis on doing good works in the name of Christ, rather than simply having faith. “Faith without works is dead,” James says.)

So if Paul was so wrong, and so starkly at odds with the real leaders of the church, how did he end up getting 14 letters into the New Testament canon and James only one? Again, Aslan says, the answer is politics: After a Jewish revolt, Rome sacked Jerusalem, scattering the remaining disciples.

“Without the mother assembly 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,” he writes. “Paul’s conception of Christianity may have been anathema before 70 C.E. But afterward, his notion of a wholly new religion free from the authority of a Temple that no longer existed, unburdened by a law that no longer mattered, and divorced from a Judaism that had become a pariah was enthusiastically embraced by converts throughout the Roman Empire.”

And the rest — the formulation of the Nicene Creed in 325 A.D.; the adoption of Christianity as the official religion of the Roman Empire in 380 A.D.; and, perhaps most important, the listing of the books of the biblical canon at the Synod of Hippo in 393 A.D. — is history.

It’s occasionally been said of modern Christians that they would hardly recognize the founder of their religion if they met him today, ostensibly because they fail to practice some of his more socially oriented teachings. But Aslan suggests that criticism is true for another reason, that Christ was messiah in a way totally alien to modern understanding, whose message was meant for time long since passed.

It’s not impossible to distill the teachings of that Jesus into a modern moral philosophy that Christians and non-Christians alike could practice, especially his commands to help the poor, the sick and the oppressed and to love our neighbors as ourselves. (Those things would be a radical change for many modern churches, in fact.) But Aslan’s Jesus cannot function as the Jesus of Christian understanding. Whether his painstaking work of scholarship confirms your faith or challenges it, it’s undeniably worth the attention of believers and nonbelievers alike.

ZEALOT: THE LIFE AND TIMES OF JESUS OF NAZERETH, by Reza Aslan, Random House, 336 pages