Was Jesus just a zealot?

Listening to the Unbelievable podcast, hosted by Justin Brierley, is often an exercise in patience.

He’s currently running an excellent three week series on “Was Jesus just a…?” and the first show asked the question, “Was Jesus just a zealot?” (Click to listen.)

The focus of discussion was a book published in July 2013 by Reza Aslan, boldly entitled Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth. I can’t comment with any authority on the book, but I will be interested to read it at some point. I just wish to pick up on a question or two that I felt could have been more clearly addressed on the show (something one inevitably feels as Brierley has to pick his way carefully through all the possible issues and lay it out as best he sees fit into the hour-or-so given over to dialogue on the show).

As Justin pointed out, one of the central theses to Reza’s claim that Jesus should be seen as principally a political threat, rests its argument greatly on the nature of Jesus’ death. For some reason Reza wanted to be quick to point out that he himself is aware of the various causes for crucifixion in the ancient world, but argues that it stands out as a punishment for political revolt against Roman authorities. Thus Jesus’ activities surely must have in large part constituted serious revolutionary schemes which became known to the Roman authorities.

This is riddled with holes, I’m afraid, but one of the principle difficulties I have is that first of all, the Gospels (our only history for the crucifixion, with the exception of Josephus) paint Pilate as being in a difficult position, unable to sustain any real case against Jesus. Reza made this out as the Gospels’ rewriting of the history, without any real explanation as to why Pilate would need to be painted in this light (surely it’s too subtle for a convenient reworking of the story). I’m more convinced by something I have read (and so obviously am biased at the moment against something I haven’t). Nick Page has done some good historical groundwork in the Gospels for a popular audience (similar to Reza’s brief), and in The Longest Week, draws a complicated picture of the inner workings of the Roman authorities at the time – between Rome and outlying posts such as Jerusalem. It takes some arguing, with reference to numerous primary and secondary sources, but one gets a sense that Pilate is worked into a corner, has had enough, and doesn’t want any more problems in his district which would upset Caesar. It’s not Jesus he’s worried about, so much as about the trouble that might be caused by the Jews if he doesn’t allow them to have their way in crucifying Jesus.

There is a lot behind this whole question – the issue of the historicity of the Gospels; the balance of dense scholarship to popular appeal. Ultimately it seems to me that Reza has produced a book which proposes to carry historical clout and yet which treats the Gospels liberally – taking what is convenient and reworking what is not. His arguments on the show itself were open and honest enough, accepting disagreement without a flinch, but in my view seemed to reflect an agenda determined from the outset to picture Jesus as a revolutionary, political zealot and then work the scholarship and the arguments that way in his favour.

Part of the frustration lies therein for me, because Reza made out that he needs to rescue this more historical Jesus from the picture of a ‘divine, angelic, pacifistic being’ (I forget his exact words but you get the picture) that is apparently promulgated within Christianity. To this I would just about agree! The quest for the historical Jesus is being undertaken by many Christian scholars and always uncovering more of the complicated picture of the person of Jesus as depicted in the Gospels. I am familiar with the idea that some of his rhetoric might have had political overtones. This is not something I would wish to be pitted against some other kind of view but, in line with all (as I see it) good Biblical scholarship, absorbing it into the big picture of who Jesus was and is, and doing proper Christology with that. Popularist books will tend to go for the one aspect and magnify it to the obliteration of all the rest. Jesus, in my view, may not have been a ‘zealot’, but he would have at least been aware of the potential ramifications of saying “The kingdom of God is here” within earshot of a Roman centurion – for example.

The quest for the historical Jesus goes on, and every now and again you’ll get popularist books emerging with controversial theses and therefore great market appeal. I expect that Zealot is one of those, but I would very much like to read it so that I don’t just have to make that statement pre-judgmentally!

One thought on “Was Jesus just a zealot?

  1. Interesting comments. I thought that on Unbelievable, Aslan’s views and his book were easily taken apart by Le Donne. I haven’t read the book, but I expected Aslan’s arguments to be much more persuasive than they were.
    To be honest, Aslan’s arguments sounded a bit like the weak arguments with regard to the person of Jesus that you often get in the media from those of a muslim background.

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