By: Walter C. Uhler
A Review of Zealot, by Reza Aslan, (Random House, 2013) and Christian Beginnings, by Geza Vermes (Yale, 2013)
In his best-selling book Zealot, Professor Reza Aslan asserts that there are “only two hard historical facts about Jesus of Nazareth upon which we can confidently rely: the first is that Jesus was a Jew who led a popular Jewish movement in Palestine at the beginning of the first century C.E.; the second is that Rome crucified him for doing so.” “Crucifixion was a punishment reserved almost exclusively for sedition.”
(Even the two individuals allegedly crucified with Jesus were called lestai, “the most common Roman designation for an insurrectionist or rebel.”)
Thus, given the paucity of reliable historical evidence about Jesus, the author of Zealot places him in the social, religious and political life of first-century Palestine and uses solid historical evidence from that period to expose the many errors contained in the New Testament.
He begins by demolishing the claims, made in the gospels of Luke at (2:1-21) and in Matthew at (2:1-9), that Jesus was born in Bethlehem. First, Luke’s account of Quirinius’ census is “factually inaccurate.” Second, it is “preposterous” to believe “the entire Roman economy would periodically be placed on hold as every Roman subject was forced to uproot himself and his entire family in order to travel great distances to the place of his father’s birth, and then wait there patiently, perhaps for months, for an official to take stock of his family and his possessions, which, in any case, he would have left behind in his place of residence.”
Third, there is not “a shred of corroborating evidence” in any of the many chronicles or histories of the time,” whether Jewish, Christian, or Roman, to support Matthew’s claim that Jesus fled into Egypt in order to escape the massacre ordered by Herod of sons born in and around Bethlehem. Consequently, Professor Aslan concludes that Jesus was born in the “inconsequential and utterly forgettable” hamlet of Nazareth.
In Zealot, we are told that early first-century Nazareth had no roads, no school, no public buildings and no synagogue. Because approximately 97 percent of all early first-century Jews were illiterate, Jesus probably was illiterate. Thus, it follows that Luke wrote theologically inspired rubbish, both when he placed Jesus in a nonexistent synagogue in Nazareth and when he had him reading from the Isaiah scroll. See Luke 4:16-22.
Jesus probably spoke Aramaic and, perhaps, some Greek. Perhaps, he was a carpenter. Unfortunately, there’s only one verse in the entire New Testament — Mark 6:3 – that claims Jesus was a tekton, an artisan in the building trades.
Like many other New Testament scholars, Professor Aslan believes the gospel of Mark (who probably resided in Rome, whoever he was) is the most reliable of the gospels, because it was written first. Nevertheless, it was written anonymously some 40 years after Jesus’ death by a person whose “coarse, elementary Greek…betrays the author’s limited education.” But, if Mark 6:3 is accurate, “then as an artisan and a day laborer, Jesus would have belonged to the lowest class of peasants in first-century Palestine, just above the indigent, the beggar, and the slave. The Romans used the word tekton as slang for any uneducated or illiterate peasant, and Jesus was very likely both.”
Consequently, “Peasants like Jesus would have had enormous difficulty communicating in Hebrew, even in colloquial form.” Thus, Luke probably wrote theologically fanciful rubbish when he described twelve-year old Jesus standing in the Temple in Jerusalem and debating the Hebrew Scriptures with rabbis and scribes. (Luke 2:42-52)
According to the New Testament, Jesus had at least four brothers and an unknown number of sisters. If correct, such biblical claims pose immense problems for the Catholic doctrine of Mary’s perpetual virginity. Nevertheless, Professor Aslan believes that “the tradition of the virgin birth was an early one, perhaps predating the first gospel, Mark,” which fails to mention it. Matthew and Luke wrote about it, but only decades later.
Matthew’s gospel, which probably was written in Damascus some 60 to 70 years after Jesus’ crucifixion, contains theologically embellished rubbish intended to demonstrate how the life and death of Jesus fulfilled the prophecies of the Hebrew Scriptures. Two previously mentioned examples are: (1) Jesus was born in Bethlehem and (2) Jesus came out of Egypt.
Matthew also claimed that Jesus’ birth fulfilled the prediction of the prophet Isaiah, who at 7:14 in the Septuagint (a Greek translation of the Hebrew Scriptures) proclaimed: “Behold a virgin shall conceive and bear a son,” Apparently Matthew could not read Hebrew. For, had he mastered that language, he would have known that the Septuagint actually mangled Isaiah 7:14 by mistranslating the Hebrew word (’almah (which means young woman) into the Greek word parthenos (which means virgin). The Hebrew word for virgin,betulah, is nowhere to be found in Isaiah 7:14 of the Hebrew Scriptures.
Luke is equally unreliable. For example, when Luke quotes Jesus to say, “Thus it is written that the messiah would suffer and rise again on the third day,” he probably put false words into Jesus’ mouth in order to fulfill the law of Moses, the prophets and the psalms (Luke 42:44-46).
Why “false” words? Because, as Professor Aslan tells us, “In the entire history of Jewish thought there is not a single line of scripture that says the messiah is to suffer, die, and rise on the third day, which may explain why Jesus does not bother to cite any scripture to back up his incredible claim.”
Luke’s account of Jesus’ virgin birth does not refer to the fulfillment of prophecy. It is told as if it were a historical fact. According to Luke, who probably wrote his gospel in the Greek city of Antioch some 60 to 70 years after Jesus’ crucifixion, the angel Gabriel went to Nazareth to tell the Virgin Mary that “the Holy Spirit” would come upon her and, thus, she would conceive the Son of God.
But, renowned Jesus scholar, John Dominic Crossan, has posed a vexing question for Christians who believe that story. As I paraphrase him, he asks: “Do Christians also believe the account by the Roman historian Suetonius, who, in his Lives of the Twelve Caesars, writes about the divine conception of Octavius, who was born of a union between divine Apollo and the human Atia?”
Suspecting most Christians would believe the Bible, but doubt Suetonius, Crossan adds: “Either all such divine conceptions from Alexander to Augustus and from Christ to Buddha should be accepted literally and miraculously or all of them should be accepted metaphorically and theologically.” After all, “It is not morally acceptable to say directly and openly that our story is truth but yours is myth; ours is history, but yours is a lie.” [Crossan, The Birth of Christianity, 1998, p.28]
Although the divine conception of Jesus is no more believable than the divine conception of Octavius, biblical testimony about the miracles performed by Jesus appears to be supported by historical evidence. According to Professor Aslan, “in first-century Palestine, professional wonder worker was a vocation as well established as that of a woodworker or mason, and far better paid. Galilee especially abounded with charismatic fantasts claiming to channel the divine for a nominal fee.”
In fact, the recently deceased professor of Jewish studies, Geza Vermes, coined the term “charismatic Judaism,” and claimed (in his recent book, Christian Beginnings: From Nazareth to Nicaea), that it is impossible to understand the rise of Christianity without a proper grasp of “charismatic Judaism.”
He defined “charisma” as “the display of divinely granted power.” (p.3) Thus, Elijah behaved charismatically when he “miraculously multiplied flour and oil… [and] revived the son of the widow who sheltered him.” (p.6)
Elijah’s miracle-working cloak was inherited by Elisha, who also performed miracles, such as bringing a boy back to life. Honi-Onias from the first century B.C. E. and Hanina ben Dosa (a younger contemporary of Jesus) also qualified as charismatic.
According to legend, “Hanina’s closeness to God, his sonship of God, was constantly proclaimed by a heavenly voice.” (p. 25) Not only was he a rain-maker like Elijah and Onias, he miraculously cured of the son of Rabban Gamaliel and turned vinegar into oil.
(Another charismatic contemporary of Jesus, Apollonius of Tyana, stands outside Professor Vermes’ analyses, because he was pagan. But Apollonius gathered disciples, predicted the future, healed the sick, rid people of demons and raised people from the dead. Some of his followers believed he was the Son of God, and some claimed that he ascended bodily into heaven. [See Bart Ehrman, The New Testament, 2004, pp. 19-20])
“For the Jews of antiquity sickness, sin and the devil were three interconnected realities…Sin, brought about by the devil, was punished by sickness. In consequence, the healing of a disease was tantamount to forgiveness of sin, and both cure and forgiveness were the effects of exorcism.” (Vermes, pp. 32-33)
Mr. Vermes noted that the Synoptic Gospels mention at least ten specific cases of exorcism performed by Jesus. Curiously, the Fourth Gospel fails to mention even one, which, in Vermes’ view, “bodes ill for the general historical reliability of John.”(p. 35)
(The gospel of John, probably written in Ephesus some 70 to 90 years after the crucifixion of Jesus, is the least reliable of all the gospels. For example, John claims Jesus cleansed the Temple at the very beginning of his ministry, contradicting Mark who claims the event occurred during the last week of his life. John claims that Jesus was crucified on the day preceding the Passover meal, which also contradicts the testimony of Mark. Incredibly, John claims to know the details of a private conversation between Pontius Pilate and Jesus. While the Synoptic Gospels say that Jesus headed into the wilderness after his baptism and was tempted by the Devil, John places him elsewhere.)
(Although both Professor Aslan and Professor Vermes are convinced that all four gospels were revised to conform to early church tradition, the tampering with John is obvious and clumsy. Consider John 13:36 and 14:5 where Peter and Thomas respectively ask Jesus to tell them where he is going. Yet, in John 16:5, Jesus says “Now I am going to the one who sent me, yet none of you asks me ‘Where are you going?’”)
(Finally, unlike the Synoptic Gospels, “where only Jewish leaders oppose Jesus,” John blames “the Jews.” [Vermes, p. 129] Such hateful rubbish has contributed to 2,000 years of anti-Semitism.)
What set Jesus apart from most other exorcists and healers, in Aslan’s view, was his practice of performing miracles free of charge. They not only undermined the profitability of the corrupt Temple priesthood, they also gained him a large following.
His followers heard Jesus preach a last-shall-be-first populism and a revolutionary nationalism that he called the Kingdom of God. Professor Aslan asserts that “the central theme and unifying message of Jesus’ brief three-year ministry was the promise of the Kingdom of God.”
Jesus preached the imminent arrival of the Kingdom of God. As Mark, Matthew and Luke all generally attest, Jesus said: “Truly I tell you, there are some standing here who will not taste death until they see that the Kingdom of God has come with power.” In Luke, Jesus even claims: “The Kingdom of God is in the midst of you.”
According to Aslan, “The Kingdom of God is a call to revolution, plain and simple” – and Jesus intended to become the king of that earthly kingdom.
Not true, claimed Professor Vermes. “According to Jesus, this largely hidden reality of the Kingdom, like water accumulated underground, burst into the open through charismatic phenomena. He announced that victory over evil, the fruit of exorcism performed through the spirit or the finger of God, proved that the [earthly] Kingdom had already arrived.” (p. 45)
Thus, unlike Professor Aslan, who believes Jesus used miracles to advance a social and political revolution called the Kingdom of God, Professor Vermes maintains that, in Jesus’ mind, his very charismatic ability to perform miracles proved that a spiritual revolution called the Kingdom of God had arrived on earth, or would arrive soon.
For Professor Aslan, the abysmal failure of Jesus’ revolt was no different than the abysmal failure of the revolts led by Judas the Galilean in 4 B.C.E., by the Samaritan in 33 C.E., Theudas in 44 C.E., Jacob and Simon in 46 C.E. and the Egyptian in 57 C.E. Worse, the Jewish Revolt of 66 C.E. led to the wholesale slaughter of Jewish men, women, and children and the complete destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem in 70 C.E.
Consequently, Aslan claims, “the Jews would begin to distance themselves as much as possible from the revolutionary idealism that had led to the war with Rome.” Similarly and more significantly for the emergence of Christianity, the followers of Jesus “began the long process of transforming Jesus from a revolutionary Jewish nationalist into a peaceful spiritual leader with no interest in any earthly matter.”
Professor Vermes disputes the notion of a long transformation, asserting: “In effect, Jesus’ expectation of the instant arrival of the Kingdom of God was immediately replaced by the prospect of his impending Second Coming.” (p. 79) But, how did that happen?
Obviously, it was caused by fervent belief in Jesus’ resurrection. Yet, “nowhere in the New Testament is there a description of the Resurrection” (Diarmaid MacCulloch, Christianity: The First Three Thousand Years , p. 94).
Moreover, notes Professor Vermes, “We know that Jesus did not greatly care about being called the Messiah, and neither his death nor his resurrection and second coming were announced by him or correspond to the expectations of his apostles and disciples. Instead they caused surprise, shock and astonishment.” (Vermes, pp. 76-77) Nevertheless, as Aslan admits, “something extraordinary happened.”
Extraordinary was the fact that, although Jesus’ disciples “were beaten, whipped, stoned and crucified …they would not cease proclaiming the risen Jesus.” “It was precisely the fervor with which the followers of Jesus believed in his resurrection that transformed this tiny Jewish sect into the largest religion in the world.”
Finally, before turning to how Professors Aslan and Vermes interpret the work of Paul and John in Part Two of this essay, a few words need to be said about the details of final three days that culminated in Jesus’ crucifixion.
First, Professor Aslan destroys the assertion, found in Mark, that Pontius Pilate asked the crowd which prisoner should be released. “Never mind that outside the gospels there exists not a shred of historical evidence for any Passover custom on the part of any Roman governor. What is truly beyond belief is the portrayal of Pontius Pilate – a man renowned for his loathing of the Jews, his total disregard for Jewish rituals and customs, and his penchant for absentmindedly signing so many execution orders that a formal complaint was lodged against him in Rome…”
And, although he doesn’t explicitly say so, Professor Aslan also believes that the story found in the gospels concerning Jesus’ trial before the Sanhedrin is rubbish. Why? Because, “the trial before the Sanhedrin violates nearly every requirement laid down by Jewish law for a legal proceeding. The Mishnah is adamant on this subject. The Sanhedrin is not permitted to meet at night. It is not permitted to meet during Passover. It is not permitted to meet on the eve of the Sabbath. It is certainly not permitted to meet so casually in the courtyard (aule) of the high priest, as Matthew and Mark claim. And it must begin with a detailed list of why the accused is innocent before any witnesses are allowed to come forth.” Thus, the gospel writers demonstrate an “extremely poor grasp of Jewish law and Sanhedrin practice.”
Aslan doesn’t doubt that Jesus was crucified, but he notes that “the crucified were almost never buried. Because the entire point of the crucifixion was to humiliate the victim and frighten the witnesses, the corpse would be left where it hung to be eaten by dogs and picked clean by birds of prey. The bones would then be thrown onto a heap of trash, which is how Golgotha, the place of Jesus’ crucifixion, earned its name: the place of skulls.”
John Dominic Crossan also doubts that Jesus was buried. Speaking about Joseph of Aritmathia, he notes, “If Joseph was in the council [Sanhedrin], he was against Jesus; if he was for Jesus, he was not in the council. Second, if Joseph buried Jesus from piety or duty, he would have done the same for the two other crucified criminals, yet if he did that, there could be no empty tomb sequence.” (p.555)
Crossan also notes that, because the two earliest complete New Testaments in existence do not contain the last twelve verses of Mark, his gospel actually ended with: “So they went out and fled from the tomb, for terror and amazement had seized them; and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.” (Mark 16:8) Yet, if that’s how Mark actually ended, how did Mark find out that the women saw a young man in a white robe inside an otherwise empty tomb?
All of this leads Crossan to conclude: “the empty-tomb story is neither an early historical event nor a late legendary narrative but a deliberate Markan creation.” (p. 558)
Professor Vermes probably would dispute that last assertion, if only because he believed that “the themes of the identity, suffering and resurrection of the Messiah” were “inserted” into the gospels “under the impact of early church tradition.” (p. 76)
Part Two of this essay will examine the transformation of the historical Jesus of Nazareth, the messenger of God, into Jesus Christ — the message of God.
About the author: Walter C. Uhler is an independent scholar and freelance writer whose works have been published in numerous publications, including The Nation, The Bulletin of The Atomic Scientists, The Journal of Military History, The Moscow Times and The San Francisco Chronicle. He is also the President of The Russian-American International Studies Association (RAISA). Click here to visit his website.