By: Walter C. Uhler
A Review of Zealot, by Reza Aslan, (Random House, 2013) and Christian Beginnings, by Geza Vermes (Yale, 2013)
In 1956, L. Festinger, H. W.Rieckin and S. Schlacter co-authored a book titled, When Prophecy Fails: A Sociological and Psychological Study of a Modern Group That Predicted the Destruction of the World. Summarizing its conclusions, John Gager noted: “Under certain conditions a religious community whose fundamental beliefs are disconfirmed by events in the world will not necessarily collapse and disband. Instead it may undertake zealous missionary activity as a response to its sense of cognitive dissonance, i.e., a condition of distress and doubt stemming from the disconfirmation of an important belief.” (Reza Aslan,Zealot, Notes: Chapter Thirteen)
Didn’t the Jews in the Jesus movement suffer precisely such cognitive dissonance? After all, as Professor Reza Aslan notes in his best-selling book, Zealot, “To the Jews, a crucified messiah was nothing less than a contradiction in terms.” Even worse, Deuteronomy 21:23 says, “Anyone hung on a tree [that is, crucified] is under God’s curse.”
Thus, in Aslan’s interpretation, “The very fact of Jesus’ crucifixion annulled his messianic claims. Even the disciples recognized this problem. That is why they so desperately tried to deflect their dashed hopes by arguing that the Kingdom of God they had hoped to establish was in actuality a celestial kingdom not an earthly one; that the messianic prophecies had been misconstrued; that the scriptures, properly interpreted, said the opposite of what everyone thought they did; that embedded deep in the texts was a secret truth about the dying and rising messiah that only they could uncover.”
Professor Aslan maintains that it was Paul “who solved the disciples dilemma of reconciling Jesus’ shameful death on the cross with the messianic expectation of the Jews, by simply discarding those expectations and transforming Jesus into a completely new creature, one that seems almost totally of his own making: Christ.”
Without suggesting any role played by Paul, the late Professor Geza Vermes, writing in his recent book,Christian Beginnings: From Nazareth to Nicaea, notes: “After the crucifixion of Jesus, a small number of Jewish Christians emerged in Palestine. They believed that the Messiah promised by the prophets had already revealed himself in the person of Jesus of Nazareth,” who “rose from the dead, was exalted to heaven and would soon return to inaugurate the eschatological Kingdom of God.” This small group displayed contagious ecstatic behavior that permeated the community.” (pp. 81-82)
The problem plaguing members of the Jesus movement, however, was their inability to persuade many Jews living in Palestine to believe in a crucified messiah. These Jews simply knew their Hebrew Scriptures too well.
Greater success, however, was to be found among the less knowledgeable Hellenized Jews living in the diaspora. And, thanks to the proselytizing of Paul — who achieved significant success among “lower-class, unsophisticated Greeks” (Vermes, p. 97) by his preaching and by exempting them “from the ceremonial and dietary regulations of Mosaic Law” (p. 94) — many Gentiles were converted to Christianity.
As a consequence, however, a serious rift developed between Paul, the self-proclaimed apostle who never met the historical Jesus, and Jesus’s actual brother, James, who had become the titular head and favorite of the Jewish Christians in Jerusalem.
Sometime around 50 C.E., Paul was summoned to Jerusalem to “answer for his deviant teachings” to the Apostolic Council. Moreover, “almost immediately after Paul left Jerusalem, James began sending his own missionaries to Paul’s congregations in Galatia, Corinth, Philippi, and most other places where Paul had built a following, in order to correct Paul’s unorthodox teachings about Jesus.”
According to Professor Aslan, “Paul was incensed by the delegations, which he viewed, correctly, as a threat to his authority.” In response, Paul wrote many of the epistles now in the New Testament and addressed them to congregations that had been visited by the representatives from Jerusalem.
It took acts of violence to resolve the dispute between the outsider Paul and the Jewish Christians led by James. James was executed in 62 C.E. and the Romans destroyed the great Temple in Jerusalem in 70 C.E. As Professor Aslan puts it, “After the Temple was destroyed, the holy city burned to the ground, and the remnants of the Jerusalem assembly dispersed, Paul underwent a stunning rehabilitation in the Christian community.”
Why? Because, “with the possible exception of the Q document (which is, after all, a hypothetical text), the only writings about Jesus that existed in 70 C.E., were the letters of Paul.”
Today “more than half of the twenty-seven books that make up the New Testament are either by or about Paul.” Moreover, all of the gospels were influenced by Paul’s letters.
Professor Vermes put it this way: “The switch in the perception of Jesus from charismatic prophet to a superhuman being coincided with a geographical and religious change, when the Christian preaching of the Gospel moved from the Galilean-Judaean Jewish culture into the surrounding Gentile Graeco-Roman world. The disappearance of Jewish teachers opened the gate to an unbridled ‘Gentilization’ and consequent ‘de-Judaization,’ leading to the ‘anti-Judaization’ of nascent Christianity.” (p. 147)
Thus, the Christianity that exists today is not only “an elaborate doctrinal construct developed by Paul’s fertile mind on the subject of the death and resurrection of the Lord Jesus Christ” (Vermes, p.99), but also a religion perpetuated by a Graeco-Roman church first created by Paul, that emphasized the authority of bishops, creeds and authoritative sacred texts.
Although “no teaching of the church can be traced back to Jesus,” (Vermes, p. 160) by the early second century Ignatius of Antioch was insisting that it was “the duty of all the Christians to subject themselves to their bishop, to a single usually named bishop in each single church, and to the colleagues of the bishop, the presbyters and deacons.” Perversely, as Professor Vermes observed: “the idea of the church totally absent from the teaching of Jesus, had now become a dominating principle eighty years after the cross.” (pp. 166-67)
It was the church, Professor Aslan asserts, that stood reality on its head by elevating the significance of Paul and Peter at the expense of James. Paul was preferable to James in the eyes of the church because the demand for faith in return for grace promised to gather more converts to Christianity than the demands for Mosaic Law and good works (especially works to help the poor.)
Peter was preferable to James because “the bishops who succeeded Peter in Rome (and who eventually became infallible popes) justified the chain of authority they relied on to maintain power in an ever-expanding church by citing a passage [probably unhistorical] in Matthew in which Jesus tells the apostle, ‘I say to you that you shall be called Peter, and upon this rock I shall build my church.”
It was the church that ultimately decided when Jesus became Christ — because, the New Testament offers contradictory explanations. The earliest explanation came from Paul, who had picked it up from some of Jesus’ early followers. According to Paul, Jesus became Christ only after his death, at his resurrection. “Thou art my Son, this day I have begotten thee” (Acts 13:33).
Soon, however, “some followers of Jesus reasoned that he must have been the Son of God, not just after his resurrection, but during his entire public ministry.” Thus, in the gospel of Mark, Jesus is baptized and a voice from heaven proclaims, “You are my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased.” Professor Ehrman notes, however, that Mark never says that Jesus actually is God. (Jesus, Interrupted, p. 247)
Not content to have Jesus become the Son of God after his baptism, Matthew and Luke – writing decades after Mark — have Jesus become the Son of God at his birth, as a result of intercourse between the Holy Spirit and the Virgin Mary. Thus, Jesus was the Son of God during his entire life.
Then, at least a decade after Matthew and Luke, John wrote yet a different story. “For John, Christ is not the Son of God because God raised him from the dead, adopted him at baptism, or impregnated his mother; he is the Son of God because he existed with God in the very beginning, before the creation of the world, as the Word of God…” (Ibid., p 248)
Ultimately, John’s view prevailed, but it “set into motion the heated doctrinal debates which stretched from the fourth to the sixth centuries” (Vermes, p. 133) But, imagine how much contradictory rubbish had to be glossed over in order for the church to get its story straight on this issue alone! Unfortunately, most of our so-called Christians remain blithely unaware of how Jesus became Christ.
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.