Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth by Reza Aslan
To take just one example: the Romans are said to display "characteristic savagery" on page 13 and are "generally tolerant" on page 14. Aslan contends that an illiterate "day laborer" called Jesus was part of an insurrectionary tradition in Israel, and the story of this Che Guevara of the early Middle East was co-opted by the dastardly Saul of Tarsus, aka Saint Paul, who defanged the zealot and turned him into an apolitical metaphysician. Frankly, parts of it are closer to Jesus Christ Superstar than any serious undertaking.
The core thesis of Zealot is that the “real” Jesus of Nazareth was an illiterate peasant from the Galilee who zealously, indeed monomaniacally, aspired to depose the Roman governor of Palestine and become the King of Israel. Aslan’s essentially political portrayal of Jesus thus hardly, if at all, resembles the depiction of the spiritual giant, indeed God incarnate, found in the Gospels and the letters of Paul. While Aslan spills much ink arguing his thesis, nothing he has to say is at all new or original. The scholarly quest for the historical Jesus, or the “Jewish Jesus,” has been engaged by hundreds of academics for the past quarter millennium and has produced a mountain of books and a vast body of serious scholarly debate. The only novelty in Aslan’s book is his relentlessly reductionist, simplistic, one-sided and often harshly polemical portrayal of Jesus as a radical, zealously nationalistic, and purely political figure. Anything beyond this that is reported by his apostles is, according to Aslan, Christological mythology, not history.
Aslan dismisses just about all of the New Testament’s accounts of the early life and teachings of Jesus prior to his “storming” of Jerusalem and his subsequent arrest and crucifixion. He goes so far as to insist that Jesus’s zealous assault on the Jerusalem Temple is the “singular fact that should color everything we read in the Gospels about the Messiah known as Jesus of Nazareth.” Everything! Aslan goes on to assert that the very fact of his crucifixion for the crime of sedition against the Roman state is “all one has to know about the historical Jesus.” Still, as the New Testament constitutes the principal primary source for these facts as well as for anything else we can know about the “life and times of Jesus,”Aslan has little choice but to rely rather heavily on certain, carefully selected New Testament narratives.
"As with every criminal who hangs on a cross, Jesus is given a plaque, or titulus, detailing the crime for which he is being crucified. Jesus’s titulus reads KING OF THE JEWS. His crime: striving for kingly rule, sedition. And so, like every bandit and revolutionary, every rabble-rousing zealot and apocalyptic prophet who came before or after him— like Hezekiah and Judas, Theudas and Athronges, the Egyptian [sic] and the Samaritan [sic], Simon son of Giora and Simon son of Kochba, Jesus is executed for daring to claim the mantle of king and messiah."
In the book you say that Jesus was “very likely” illiterate, and there’s “no reason to think” he could read or write. But a lot of Biblical scholars disagree. In Luke 4:16, we see Jesus reading. [“And he came to Nazareth, where he had been brought up: and, as his custom was, he went into the synagogue on the sabbath day, and stood up for to read.”] So where do you get that from, saying Jesus is illiterate when in the Bible he is seen reading?
Well, first of all, it may sound shocking to some people, but just because the gospels say something doesn’t mean it’s actually factual. The Gospel of Luke was written 60-70 years after Jesus had died, when Christianity was quintessentially a Roman religion and no longer a Jewish religion and the gospel writers were very interested in making Jesus someone who would appeal to a non-Jewish audience. But the facts of history speak for themselves. And I would say the vast majority of Biblical scholars would agree that the illiteracy rates in Jesus’s world were somewhere around 98 percent. 98 percent of Jesus’s fellow Jews could neither read nor write. The notion that a tekton, as Jesus is referred to in the Bible, a woodworker, which would make him the second-lowest rung on the social ladder in his time just above the slave and the indigent and the beggar, the notion that he would have had any sort of formal education, let alone the kind of education necessary to debate theological points with the scribes and the Pharisees, is difficult to reconcile with what we know of the history of the time.
But examining the broad sweep of historical trends of a particular time doesn’t necessarily tell you anything about an individual person.
It tells you everything about an individual.
It doesn’t necessarily tell you anything about an individual person. More than 99.999 percent of human beings can’t run as fast as Usain Bolt. You might conclude, given those trends, we couldn’t have a Usain Bolt. And yet we do.
What you are asking me is, is it conceivable that as a poor peasant from the backwoods of Galilee, who grew up a woodworker, a day laborer really, an artisan, in a village that was so small and so poor that it didn’t have any roads, or bathhouses or synagogues, and its name did not appear on any maps, could he have nevertheless been so well educated that he could not only read and write but debate the scriptures, is that possible? Sure. But is it likely? No. It’s the job of the historian to talk about what is most likely.