Review 1856: Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth

First, let me say that I am not a religious person, furthermore, that I have a big problem with how many people practice their religion, especially if it involves war. I believe one of my brothers feels the same, so I was surprised when he recommended Zealot to me.

Reza Aslan is not so much interested in Jesus Christ as in Jesus of Nazareth, that is, not in the ministry of Jesus or the beliefs about him, but the actual man—what can be found about him from the earliest and most reliable sources. This examination involves placing utterances and events in their proper context, not as we understand them today.

The result is eye-opening, starting with the story of his birth, for example. For Aslan reveals this story as a construct by the writers of the gospels—all written well after his death—to support messianic claims. The messiah was supposed to be a descendant of David, which meant he had to be born in Bethlehem. There was indeed a tax levied, but on Judea, and it would never have required the populace to travel to pay it, as taxes were levied in the place of residence. Jesus’s parents lived in Galilee and so were not subject to that tax. Jesus was known as Jesus of Nazareth all his life, as he was born in Nazareth.

One by one Aslan knocks down the myths that have risen around the life of Jesus and explains why these myths were created. Instead of the gentle soul that emerges from the gospels, we get a fighter for the poor and a strong supporter of the laws of Moses who never intended his teachings for anyone but Jews.

One of the myths is that Jews killed Jesus, not the Romans. Aslan explains that after his death, the new religion shifted from being a sect that was always meant to be a form of Judaism to one that began to recruit gentiles. As Rome was the base of many of these activities, the writers of the gospels had to find a way to appease Rome. They couldn’t come out and say Jesus was killed by Rome. So, to quote Aslan, “Thus, a story concocted by Mark strictly for evangelistic purposes to shift the blame for Jesus’s death away from Rome is stretched with the passage of time to the point of absurdity, becoming in the process the basis for two thousand years of Christian anti-Semitism.” And wait until you read what this book says about Paul.

This book is an eye-opener, written by an acclaimed scholar of religion.

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Day 554: The Testament of Mary

Cover for The Testament of MaryIt is years after the crucifixion. Mary is living a quiet life in Ephesus, visited by two of her son’s disciples. It is clear their visits are unwelcome, as they have been trying to force her memories to agree with the documents they’re writing. But Mary has always seen her son’s followers as men with something lacking in them, and she insists on telling her her own truths.

This provocative novella takes the position that Mary was not a believer but was simply trying to save her son from his fate. She grieves his loss and regrets that at the end her courage failed her. While the disciples try to place her and Mary (Toíbín does not name anyone Mary Magdalene, but that is whom he means, I assume) at the grave witnessing a resurrection, they were actually fleeing for their own lives.

While the novella seems to accept some of the miracles, the raising of Lazarus is more of a horror than a wonder. Mary also notices that the jugs of water are brought forward quickly at the wedding at Cana and that only one of them was opened beforehand. Toíbín evokes an atmosphere of feverish excitement and hard fanaticism during these scenes, wherein both Jesus’ enemies and his followers push her son toward his fate.

This novella, which was shortlisted for the Booker Prize, is thought-provoking in its exploration of cult-like origins for Christianity and the shaping of Christian myth after Jesus’ death. As always with Toíbín, it is meticulously and beautifully written.