Zealot: Part III
Aslan, Reza. Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth. Random House Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.


Do not think that I have come to bring peace on earth.
I have not come to bring peace, but the sword.

[MATTHEW 10: 34]


God Made Flesh

Stephen— he who was stoned to death by an angry mob of Jews for blasphemy— was the first of Jesus’s followers to be killed after the crucifixion, though he would not be the last. It is curious that the first man martyred for calling Jesus “Christ” did not himself know Jesus of Nazareth. Stephen was not a disciple, after all. He never met the Galilean peasant and day laborer who claimed the throne of the Kingdom of God. He did not walk with Jesus or talk to him. He was not part of the ecstatic crowd that welcomed Jesus into Jerusalem as its rightful ruler. He took no part in the disturbance at the Temple. He was not there when Jesus was arrested and charged with sedition. He did not watch Jesus die. (Kindle Locations 2559-2562)

But the concept of an individual dying and rising again, in the flesh, into a life everlasting was extremely rare in the ancient world and practically nonexistent in Judaism. And yet what the followers of Jesus were arguing was not only that he rose from the dead, but that his resurrection confirmed his status as messiah, an extraordinary claim without precedent in Jewish history. (Kindle Locations 2591-2594)

In the entirety of the Hebrew Bible there is not a single passage of scripture or prophecy about the promised messiah that even hints of his ignominious death, let alone his bodily resurrection . (Kindle Locations 2595-2596)

What Jesus’s followers were proposing was a breathtakingly bold redefinition, not just of the messianic prophecies but of the very nature and function of the Jewish messiah. (Kindle Locations 2603-2604)

But— and here lies the key to understanding the dramatic transformation that took place in Jesus’s message after his death— Stephen was not a scribe or scholar. He was not an expert in the scriptures. He did not live in Jerusalem. (Kindle Locations 2617-2619)

The story of that celebrated death can be found in the book of Acts, which chronicles the first few decades of the Jesus movement after the crucifixion. The evangelist Luke, who allegedly composed the book as a sequel to his gospel, presents Stephen’s stoning as a watershed movement in the early history of the church. (Kindle Locations 2624-2627)

What Stephen cries out in the midst of his death throes is nothing less than the launch of a wholly new religion, one radically and irreconcilably divorced from everything Stephen’s own religion had ever posited about the nature of God and man and the relationship of the one to the other. One can say that it was not only Stephen who died that day outside the gates of Jerusalem. Buried with him under the rubble of stones is the last trace of the historical person known as Jesus of Nazareth. (Kindle Locations 2655-2656)

The task of defining Jesus’s message fell instead to a new crop of educated, urbanized, Greek-speaking Diaspora Jews who would become the primary vehicles for the expansion of the new faith. (Kindle Locations 2677-2679)

The discord between the two groups resulted in the emergence of two distinct and competing camps of Christian interpretation in the decades after the crucifixion: one championed by Jesus’s brother, James; the other promoted by the former Pharisee, Paul. (Kindle Locations 2684-2686)

Chapter Thirteen
If Christ Has Not Been Risen

The disciples faced a profound test of their faith after Jesus’s death. The crucifixion marked the end of their dream of overturning the existing system, of reconstituting the twelve tribes of Israel and ruling over them in God’s name. The Kingdom of God would not be established on earth, as Jesus had promised. The meek and the poor would not exchange places with the rich and the powerful. The Roman occupation would not be overthrown.  (Kindle Locations 2715-2718)
Nevertheless, the fact remains that the resurrection is not a historical event. It may have had historical ripples, but the event itself falls outside the scope of history and into the realm of faith.  (Kindle Locations 2745-2747)

Except that nowhere is any such thing written: not in the Law of Moses, not in the prophets, not in the Psalms. 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 again on the third day, which may explain why Jesus does not bother to cite any scripture to back up his incredible claim. (Kindle Locations 2772-2774)

Unlike their brethren in the Holy Land, Diaspora Jews spoke Greek, not Aramaic: Greek was the language of their thought processes, the language of their worship. They experienced the scriptures not in the original Hebrew but in a Greek translation (the Septuagint), which offered new and originative ways of expressing their faith, allowing them to more easily harmonize traditional biblical cosmology with Greek philosophy. (Kindle Locations 2802-2804)

The Hellenists, who worshipped Jesus in Greek, relied on a language that provided a vastly different set of symbols and metaphors than did either Aramaic or Hebrew. The difference in language gradually led to differences in doctrine, as the Hellenists began to meld their Greek-inspired worldviews with the Hebrews’ already idiosyncratic reading of the Jewish scriptures. (Kindle Locations 2814-2817)

The more their focus shifted to converting gentiles, the more they allowed certain syncretistic elements borrowed from Greek gnosticism and Roman religions to creep into the movement. And the more the movement was shaped by these new “pagan” converts, the more forcefully it discarded its Jewish past for a Graeco-Roman future. (Kindle Locations 2840-2841)

Chapter Fourteen
 Am I Not an Apostle?

The story of Paul’s dramatic conversion on the road to Damascus is a bit of propagandistic legend created by the evangelist Luke; Paul himself never recounts the story of being blinded by the sight of Jesus. (Kindle Locations 2863-2864)

Paul holds particular contempt for the Jerusalem-based triumvirate of James, Peter, and John , whom he derides as the “so-called pillars of the church” (Galatians 2: 9). (Kindle Locations 2884-2885)

In other words, Paul does not consider himself the thirteenth apostle. He thinks he is the first apostle. (Kindle Locations 2890-2891)

But Paul seems totally unconcerned with anything “Jesus-in-the-flesh” may or may not have said. In fact, Paul shows no interest at all in the historical Jesus. There is almost no trace of Jesus of Nazareth in any of his letters. With the exception of the crucifixion and the Last Supper, which he transforms from a narrative into a liturgical formula, Paul does not narrate a single event from Jesus’s life. (Kindle Locations 2910-2913)

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. Paul  advances an altogether new doctrine that would have been utterly unrecognizable to the person upon whom he claims it is based. (Kindle Locations 2926-2927)

Aslan, Reza (2013-07-16). Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth (Kindle Locations 2928-2929). Random House Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

Although “Christ” is technically the Greek word for “messiah,” that is not how Paul employs the term. He does not endow Christ with any of the connotations attached to the term “messiah” in the Hebrew Scriptures. He never speaks of Jesus as “the anointed of Israel.” (Kindle Locations 2932-2933)

Paul does not call Jesus the Christ (Yesus ho Xristos), as though Christ were his title. Rather, Paul calls him “Jesus Christ,” or just “Christ,” as if it were his surname. (Kindle Locations 2938-2939)

Nothing like what Paul envisions exists in the Q source material, which was compiled around the same time that Paul was writing his letters. Paul’s Christ is certainly not the Son of Man who appears in Mark’s gospel, written just a few years after Paul’s death. (Kindle Locations 2955-2957)

During the decade of the fifties, however, when Paul is writing his letters, his conception of Jesus as Christ would have been shocking and plainly heretical, which is why, around 57 C.E., James and the apostles demand that Paul come to Jerusalem to answer for his deviant teachings. (Kindle Locations 2963-2965)

Luke’s description of the meeting is an obvious ploy to legitimate Paul’s ministry by stamping it with the approval of none other than “the brother of the Lord.” However , Paul’s own account of the Apostolic Council, written in a letter to the Galatians not long after it had taken place, paints a completely different picture of what happened in Jerusalem. (Kindle Locations 2979-2982)

Almost all of Paul’s epistles in the New Testament were written after the Apostolic Council and are addressed to congregations that had been visited by these representatives from Jerusalem (Paul’s first letter, to the Thessalonians, was written between 48 and 50 C.E.; his last letter, to the Romans, was written around 56 C.E.). (Kindle Locations 2992-2994)

Yet by all accounts, Paul had little success in converting Rome’s Jews to his side. The Jewish population was not just unreceptive to his unique interpretation of the messiah, they were openly hostile to it. Even the gentile converts did not appear overly welcoming toward Paul. That may be because Paul was not the only “apostle” preaching Jesus in the imperial city. Peter, the first of the Twelve, was also in Rome. (Kindle Locations 3048-3051)

No record exists of these final years in the lives of Peter and Paul, the two men who would become the most important figures of Christianity . Strangely, Luke ends his account of Paul’s life with his arrival in Rome and he does not mention that Peter was in the city, too. Stranger still, Luke does not bother to record the most significant aspect of the two men’s years together in the Imperial City. For in the year 66 C.E., the same year that Jerusalem erupted in revolt, the emperor Nero, reacting to a sudden surge of Christian persecution in Rome, seized Peter and Paul and executed them both for espousing what he assumed was the same faith. He was wrong. (Kindle Locations 3061-3063)

Chapter Fifteen
The Just One

The authorities may not have accepted James’s message about Jesus any more than they accepted Paul’s, but they respected James and viewed him as a righteous and honorable man. (Kindle Locations 3072-3073)

The story of James’s death can be found in Josephus’s Antiquities. The year was 62 C.E. All of Palestine was sinking into anarchy. Famine and drought had devastated the countryside, leaving fields fallow and farmers starving. Panic reigned in Jerusalem, as the Sicarii murdered and pillaged at will. (Kindle Locations 3079-3082)

The passage concerning the death of James in Josephus is famous for being the earliest nonbiblical reference to Jesus. (Kindle Locations 3099-3100)

Indeed, James was more than just Jesus’s brother. He was, as the historical evidence attests, the undisputed leader of the movement Jesus had left behind. (Kindle Locations 3107-3108)

By the third and fourth centuries, however, as Christianity gradually transformed from a heterogeneous Jewish movement with an array of sects and schisms into an institutionalized and rigidly orthodox imperial religion of Rome, James’s identity as Jesus’s brother became an obstacle to those who advocated the perpetual virginity of his mother Mary. (Kindle Locations 3149-3151)

The overwhelming consensus is that the traditions contained within the epistle can confidently be traced to James the Just. That would make James’s epistle arguably one of the most important books in the New Testament. Because one sure way of uncovering what Jesus may have believed is to determine what his brother James believed. (Kindle Locations 3176-3179)

There should be little doubt as to whom James is referring in these verses. In fact, James’s epistle was very likely conceived as a corrective to Paul’s preaching, which is why it is addressed to “the Twelve Tribes of Israel scattered in the Diaspora.” (Kindle Locations 3211-3213)

James may not have been able to read any of Paul’s letters but he was obviously familiar with Paul’s teachings about Jesus. The last years of his life were spent dispatching his own missionaries to Paul’s congregations in order to correct what he viewed as Paul’s mistakes. The sermon that became his epistle was just another attempt by James to curb Paul’s influence. Judging by Paul’s own epistles, James’s efforts were successful, as many among Paul’s congregations seem to have turned their backs on him in favor of the teachers from Jerusalem. (Kindle Locations 3229-3233)

James’s steady leadership over the Jerusalem assembly came to an end in 62 C.E., when he was executed by the high priest Ananus, not just because he was a follower of Jesus and certainly not because he transgressed the law (or else “the most fair-minded and … strict in the observance of the law” would not have been up in arms about his unjust execution). James was likely killed because he was doing what he did best: defending the poor and weak against the wealthy and powerful. (Kindle Locations 3299-3302)

True God from True God

The balding, gray-bearded old men who fixed the faith and practice of Christianity met for the first time in the Byzantine city of Nicaea, on the eastern shore of Lake Izmit in present-day Turkey. It was the summer of 325 C.E. The men had been brought together by the emperor Constantine and commanded to come to a consensus on the doctrine of the religion he had recently adopted as his own. (Kindle Locations 3316-3318)

The bishops were not to disband until they had resolved the theological differences among them, particularly when it came to the nature of Jesus and his relationship to God. (Kindle Locations 3321-3322)

After months of heated negotiations, the council handed to Constantine what became known as the Nicene Creed, outlining for the first time the officially sanctioned, orthodox beliefs of the Christian church. Jesus is the literal son of God, the creed declared. He is Light from Light, true God from true God, begotten not made, of the same substance as the father. (Kindle Locations 3324-3327)

As for those who disagreed with the creed, those like the Arians who believed that “there was a time when [Jesus] was not,” they were immediately banished from the empire and their teachings violently suppressed. (Kindle Locations 3327-3328)

It is certainly the case that the council’s decision resulted in a thousand years or more of unspeakable bloodshed in the name of Christian orthodoxy. (Kindle Locations 3329-3331)

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. These letters had been in circulation since the fifties. They were written to the Diaspora communities, which, after the destruction of Jerusalem, were the only Christian communities left in the realm. 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. (Kindle Locations 3336-3339)

Even the gospels were deeply influenced by Paul’s letters. One can trace the shadow of Pauline theology in Mark and Matthew. But it is in the gospel of Luke, written by one of Paul’s devoted disciples, that one can see the dominance of Paul’s views, while the gospel of John is little more than Pauline theology in narrative form. (Kindle Locations 3340-3341)

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. Hence, in 398 C.E., when, according to legend, another group of bishops gathered at a council in the city of Hippo Regius in modern-day Algeria to canonize what would become known as the New Testament, they chose to include in the Christian scriptures one letter from James, the brother and successor of Jesus, two letters from Peter, the chief apostle and first among the Twelve, three letters from John, the beloved disciple and pillar of the church, and fourteen letters from Paul, the deviant and outcast who was rejected and scorned by the leaders in Jerusalem. In fact, more than half of the twenty-seven books that now make up the New Testament are either by or about Paul. (Kindle Locations 3341-3349)

Two thousand years later,
the Christ of Paul’s creation has utterly
subsumed the Jesus of history.
(Kindle Locations 3353-3354)

The memory of the revolutionary zealot who walked across Galilee gathering an army of disciples with the goal of establishing the Kingdom of God on earth, the magnetic preacher who defied the authority of the Temple priesthood in Jerusalem, the radical Jewish nationalist who challenged the Roman occupation and lost, has been almost completely lost to history. That is a shame. Because the one thing any comprehensive study of the historical Jesus should hopefully reveal is that Jesus of Nazareth— Jesus the man—is every bit as compelling, charismatic, and praiseworthy as Jesus the Christ. He is, in short, someone worth believing in. (Kindle Locations 3354-3358)