Media attention is focused on author Dr. Reza Aslan because of the controversy in his latest book, Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth. An Iranian-born American writer and scholar of religions, Aslan is a professor of creative writing at UC Riverside. He converted to evangelical Christianity in his teens in San Francisco but then, before heading to study at Harvard Divinity School, he converted back to Islam. The controversy begs the question: Is Jesus
Starting in the year 6 B.C.E, the Zealots began as a Jewish revolutionary political party in revolt against the Roman occupying army in Israel. In the year 70, they took part in a fanatical stand against Rome’s army which led to the destruction of
the Temple, and much of Jerusalem. Some believe that Barabbas, the “robber”
Pilate released from prison instead of Jesus, may be a Zealot who led an
insurrection against Rome.
Aslan argues that Jesus is also a Zealot and not a pacifist but the leader of a
nationalist revolt against Rome. His punishment was, in Aslan’s view of history,
for sedition, not blasphemy. And, Jesus’ saying of “Render to Caesar what is
Caesar’s and to God what is God’s” (Mt 22:21) is thus an almost treasonous
statement encouraging Israel’s resistance to Rome rather than acceptance of
Rome’s authority as traditional theologians have said. Whether one accepts
Aslan’s theories or not, they are interesting.
The Gospel of Luke calls one of the twelve, Simon, a “Zealot,” (6:15) an accurate
translation of an Aramaic word, derived from a root meaning, ‘to be zealous.'
(Incidentally, Jesus spoke in Aramaic and the Gospels were written in Greek) In
the Gospel of Mark (3:18) Zealot is transliterated Cananaean. What we can gather
from this is one of two things, either that Simon, a disciple, was zealous in
his faith or was a part of the Zealot movement.
Although Jesus may have had a Zealot in his inner circle, I don’t think he was one. Jesus had the opportunity to lead an armed revolt against the occupying army in
Jerusalem when he processed on a donkey with large groups of people shouting,
“Hosanna in the Highest!” During his last week, however, Jesus did things that
caused people to fall away until what remained was a small band of sleepy
disciples that met the Roman Guard in a garden early Friday morning. When Peter drew his sword, Jesus told him to put it away. Is this something a Zealot would do? Probably not. As Jesus was hanging from the cross, people were pleading with him to call down angels and put an end to all of the insanity; but he didn’t. Likewise, his followers didn’t treat him like a martyr and fight against Rome after his death. Instead they spread a Gospel of love and reconciliation to Jews and Gentiles alike.
Aslan’s book raises some key spiritual questions. Who is Jesus and who is Jesus to you? Is he a crazed madman, a good teacher, a pacifist, a leader of a violent
revolution, a shepherd of souls, a Marxist who wanted all wealth to be shared, a
lover of all human kind, a Zealot, a Pharisee, or perhaps God in human flesh.
In our spiritual journey together, Jesus meets us and slowly reveals who he is. The
journey has hills and valleys, blind corners, and even some long boring
stretches. Is Jesus the same today as he was to you a year ago, or in your
childhood? Is he going to be the same to you a decade from now? I cannot speak
for you, of course, but my relationship with Jesus, like other relationships I
have, is dynamic, constantly updating, and changing. And I am quite comfortable
May your journey with Jesus be one where you find him revealed as he is.