Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth

ZealotZealot is a straightforward yet scholarly account of the life of Jesus, unencumbered by metaphysical speculation about what Christians regard as religious mysteries. For atheists or agnostics with an interest in mythology and religion as a social phenomena, Reza Aslan has done exactly what it says on the cover. It’s about “the life and times of Jesus of Nazareth.”

Other readers may feel short-changed by the focus on the material facts of the life of Jesus in the context of first century Palestine. Yet others, apparently without reading the book, have been upset by the fact that it’s written by a Muslim, as if his religion disqualified Aslan from writing on the subject. See this toe-curlingly embarrassing clip from Fox News for a particularly egregious example.

As well as being a scholar of religions, Aslan is also an Associate Professor of Creative Writing at the University of California, Riverside, and he takes a novelistic approach that emphasizes story, setting, and characterization. He begins in the present tense, taking us on a journey through the Temple in Jerusalem to witness the assassination of the High Priest in 56 CE by Jewish zealots. Along the way, he introduces us to the architecture, personnel, and functions of the Temple, even the smells of the place during Passover. It’s a brilliant, almost cinematic, introduction to the key facts.

Aslan accepts that a real, historical Jesus, a disciple of John the Baptist, was the basis for Christianity. As a careful scholar, however, he always distinguishes between the Jewish Jesus and accretions of the Christ mythos. While there are no footnotes to clutter up the text, he writes exhaustive chapter notes at the end of the book.

His historical background covers the period of Roman rule, up to and beyond the Jewish-Roman War of 66-70 CE, encompassing the many Jewish Messiahs, of which Jesus is the most well-known. The title of the book, Zealot, points to their common characteristic, outrage at both Roman occupation and the collaboration of the Temple authorities.

In conjunction with his focus on the historical Jesus, Aslan is painstakingly agnostic about the miracles recorded in the Gospels, those which allegedly occurred during his ministry and the resurrection itself. He merely notes that most people accepted them as true. As an atheist, I wanted more scientific rigour, but you can’t have everything.

Aslan spends some time analyzing what the word “Messiah” meant to Jews at the time, since the definition is central to the story of Jesus. To that end, he deconstructs the Gospel accounts to reveal Jesus as a zealot, leader of a movement aiming to wrest control of Israel from Roman rule. In terms of verifiable events in the life of Jesus, however, Aslan devotes the bulk of the book to the events of the Passover Festival in Jerusalem. In part this is because there are so few verifiable events.

The idea of Jesus as Jewish zealot is not a new interpretation – I remember reading a book written in the Seventies with this premise – but Aslan’s combined scholarship and novelistic skills make a compelling argument. In the event, it was an easy sale, since I’ve long subscribed to the idea.

He is particularly interesting on the religious rivalry between the Jewish mother church in Jerusalem and Saul of Tarsus’ conception of Jesus as Christ. The former, led by James, brother of Jesus, saw him as a Jewish Messiah, and their church bound by the laws of the Torah. Saul, who became Paul after his attack of hysterical blindness on the road to Damascus, preached a vision of an eternal Christ to the gentiles. If Aslan’s novelistic approach lets down the scholarly side, it’s here. You can see in his characterization that he clearly dislikes Paul. As do I, so we’re on the same page. If I had a time machine, Paul would not be history. Literally.

This is not a book everyone will warm to, but I’ve not read a better account of the life of Jesus in his historical context. Highly recommended.

Here Be Dragons

Dragon Killing St. George

Today is Saint George’s Day, when the English celebrate the killing of exotic mega-fauna on the dubious theological grounds that they represent Satan and all his Works. Or, for the political Right, the non-white hordes sweeping in like a tsunami to steal our jobs and housing. I’ve no idea if the gentleman below feels the same way, but if you crave a tattoo like this, then you have strong feelings about being English.

George and the Dragon Tattoo

Saint George is reputed to be a Roman centurion from Greece, tortured and executed by Diocletian in the last great persecution of Christianity. The legend states that the Empress Alexandra and a pagan priest, Athanasius, were so impressed they converted on the spot and were also martyred. Crusaders brought the legend back to Europe, along with a story drawn from Greek Orthodox iconography, which portrays George slaying Satan, represented by the Dragon.

So all the elements were there for the standard artistic iconography. George is of course a knight, mounted on a rearing horse, stabbing downwards with his lance at the cowering beast. Who isn’t very big. Frankly, it doesn’t seem like a fair fight. The captive Maiden represents Alexandra, but Athanasius doesn’t get a look in. Here’s Paolo Uccello’s portrayal, in which the inherent unfairness is highlighted by the Maiden seeming to lead the Dragon on a leash. Far from being under threat, she is actually inviting Saint George to stab her pet through the eye.

St  George and the Dragon Paolo_Uccello

There was always the possibility of romantic involvement in this scenario, and it took the sentimental Victorians to bring that into the art. Here is Edward Burne-Jones’ take on the situation. The Maiden is clearly besotted by her Hero.

Saint George and the Dragon Edward Burne-Jones 1600

It took those filthy-minded Surrealists, and a Johnny Foreigner, to really open up the can of worms lurking inside the symbolism. Giorgio de Chirico’s Maiden is naked and lusting after her saviour. There are even waves crashing on the shore to go with the whole lance thing.

Saint George and Dragon Giorgio de Chirico

But is she? Could it be a look of apprehension at being caught up once more in the Patriarchy, after a blissful respite with the Dragon? Here is Silvia Pastore on the benefits of an absence of George.

The Absence of George

The legend of Saint George and the Dragon carries a lot of interpretations. For me, the Dragon represents every wild and natural thing in this world, a world with no place or tolerance for anything unregulated, unprofitable, or without an official purpose. We’re the monsters, and the Dragons are defenceless against us.

The 13th Warrior (1999)

The 13th Warrior is a superb film about the Vikings, seen from the point of view of an Islamic poet. Our unlikely hero has been banished to the North for lusting after someone else’s wife at the court of the Caliph of Baghdad. Well-researched, acted, and directed, this intelligent version of the Beowulf story shows that not all Hollywood historical epics are crap (though most are).

Blasphemy No Longer for the Day

A response to the BBC’s Thought for the DayYou don’t have to be a believer to enjoy a day of rest.

After last week’s epiphany, I’ve decided to dump Blasphemy for the Day as a feature. Blasphemy is appropriate for any day of the week and doesn’t need a label. And it’s too depressing to contemplate the lunacy that sometimes passes for faith unless something really pisses me off. Or unless I can have some creative fun with it.

I’m signing off with The Odyssey – the full movie.

The Story of the Christmas Krampus

Have you ever wondered if there was something missing from the Santa Claus story? Certainly the well-behaved children get their presents, but we’re not interested in those Goody Two-Shoes, are we?

Well, if you’re on the Naughty List, this is what happens to you.

A fine pre-Christian tradition, I think you’ll agree. For a few tips on adding this splendid new element to the yuletide festivities, we need to go to Austria. Look and learn.