Historian Jaroslav Pelikan began his insightful book, Jesus Through the Centuries: His Place in the History of Culture, with these provocative words: "Regardless of what anyone may personally think or believe about him, Jesus of Nazareth has been the dominant figure in the history of Western culture for almost twenty centuries." The question that immediately confronts the competent historian, of course, is why: why did a penniless, itinerant rabbi from a backwater district of the Roman Empire, executed in disgrace, exert such a powerful influence on Western civilization?
Reza Aslan's best-selling book, Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth, belongs to that genre of works devoted to unearthing the "real historical Jesus." Like countless authors before him, Aslan claims to have discovered a radically different Jesus from the personality portrayed in the gospels and preached by the church for two millennia. Like his predecessors, he assumes, without any hard evidence, that the Christian community conspired to reinvent Jesus in order to meet pressing social needs. Like them, Aslan delivers an account that fails, with staggering ineptitude, to answer the question that haunts all honest minds about the legacy of the Nazarene.
In Aslan's retelling, Jesus made no claims to divinity, nor did he interpret his life and death as the crowning act of God's redemptive mission on earth. Rather, he writes, Jesus was "a zealous revolutionary, swept up, as all Jews of the era were, in the religious and political turmoil of first-century Palestine." In short, Jesus was a freedom-fighter advocating violence to remove the boot of Roman rule from the neck of his fellow Jews.
Jaroslav Pelikan's book is worth revisiting in the midst of this latest debate. He reminds us that in each age of history, scholars as well as laymen depict Jesus in ways that endorse their own cultural biases and agendas. In the Renaissance, Jesus was "the Universal Man," the figure who inspired the humanistic revolt against traditional and medieval beliefs. In the Age of Enlightenment, Jesus was "the Teacher of Common Sense," a moral reformer opposed to the superstition and spiritual tyranny of organized religion. Thomas Jefferson, for example, required just three evenings at the White House to bang out his own version of the life of Jesus, "abstracting what is really his from the rubbish in which it is buried." The discarded trash included just about everything Jesus said about God, eternal life, and the coming judgment.
The habit of reinterpreting the life of Jesus to support professional and partisan agendas picked up steam in the turbulent twentieth century. In the throes of the First World War, American ministers and theologians invoked his name to convert the war into a holy crusade. "This conflict is indeed a crusade. The greatest in history -- the holiest," intoned Randolph McKim from his pulpit in Washingon, D.C. "Yes, it is Christ, the King of Righteousness, who calls us to grapple in deadly strife with this unholy and blasphemous power."
Scholars and ministers took the opposite line in the 1930s, however, having repented of their faith-based militarism. In their historical revision, Jesus was "the Prince of Peace" who endorsed utopian disarmament schemes and rejected war under any circumstances. The portrait of Jesus as Divine Diplomat was trotted out even as Nazi Germany launched its blitzkrieg throughout Europe. As late as 1941, with most of Europe under Nazi control, Rev. John Haynes Holmes spoke for many when he argued for complete disarmament: "Can anyone read Jesus' gospel, and study his life in fulfillment of that gospel, without seeing love is a weapon more potent than the sword?" Their twenty-first-century descendants, such as Duke University's Stanley Hauerwas, promote the same pacifist messiah, confident that Jesus categorically rejects the "war on terror" as an immoral foreign policy.
By the 1960s, leftist theologians were touting Jesus as "the Marxist Messiah." In their "liberation theology," Jesus championed the cause of the poor against their capitalist oppressors. As such, he endorsed violent revolution against Western-backed dictatorships, the nationalization of industry, and the collectivization of private property. "I think liberation theology's understanding of Jesus is part of a wider 20th-century appreciation of the historical Jesus and his ministry," says Fordham University's Michael Lee.
Zealot likewise fits the temper of our times neatly -- too neatly. Aslan's controversial Fox News interview, about whether his Islamic background allows him to write an objective historical account of Jesus, obscures the real problem: the hubris of the professional provocateur.
Aslan has advanced his career -- he is a professor of creative writing, not a historian -- with self-serving criticism of the "demonization" of Islam under the Bush administration. Having fled Iran in 1979 for the United States, he interprets the 9/11 attacks as a clarion call to Muslims in the Middle East to overthrow oppressive regimes. Thus, the Arab Spring is seen as the happy fruit of that horrific event: an unequivocal march toward political freedom. "Across the board," he told Mother Jones, "what has happened is that the regimes in the region now understand that they can no longer just ignore the will of the people." (Aslan has less to say about the pernicious influence of radical Islamist jihad in directing the "will of the people" in Egypt, Syria, Libya and beyond.)
Thus, we encounter Jesus the Zealot for Political Liberation: the embodiment of the revolutionary motif so congenial to Aslan's frame of mind. The problem, of course, is that textual and historical evidence to the contrary -- not to mention a good dose of common sense -- must be thrown overboard to support the storyline.
Jesus' counsel to his followers, for example, about whether to submit to Roman rule -- "give to Caesar what belongs to Caesar, and give to God what belongs to God" -- takes on a subversive meaning. Evading the plain rendering of the Greek text in the gospels, Aslan claims that Jesus forcefully denounced the oppressive political authority of Rome, embodied in its tax system. The telling fact that none of Jesus' disciples interpreted his words as a rallying cry for rebellion is not permitted to intrude into this fantasy narrative.
We are informed that the early Christians, desperate to avoid the persecuting wrath of Rome, sought to soften the militant themes embedded in Jesus' message. As Aslan writes: "Thus began the long process of transforming Jesus from a revolutionary Jewish nationalist into a peaceful spiritual leader with no interest in any earthly matter." We are asked to believe in a vast conspiracy of distortion, sustained over centuries, supported by false documents, countenanced and hushed up by church leaders.
Sound familiar? Dan Brown, author of The Da Vinci Code, at least had the decency to tell us that his work was fiction. The preaching of the early church, the collective testimony of Christian martyrs, the Christian moral code that challenged much of Roman cultural and political life -- all of this lays waste to the notion that the primitive church was more concerned about its social status than its fidelity to the life and teachings of Jesus.
Aslan insists that his aim is to "purge the scriptures of their literary and theological flourishes and forge a more accurate picture of the Jesus of history." What has been purged in this latest treatment of the life of Jesus, however, are not the flourishes, but the existential, redemptive core of the faith he founded. Other religions, including Islam, may be able to dispense with the miraculous and retain their essential meaning. Not the religion of Jesus. "The Christian story is precisely the story of one grand miracle," writes C.S. Lewis, "that what is beyond all space and time, what is uncreated, eternal, came into nature, into human nature, descended into His own universe, and rose again, bringing nature up with Him."
No account of the historical Jesus better explains his extraordinary and enduring influence over the human story than this one.
Joseph Loconte, PhD, is an associate professor of history at the King's College in New York City and the author of The Searchers: A Quest for Faith in the Valley of Doubt (Thomas Nelson).