PROPHET MO­TIVE

DE­COD­ING THE BEST­SELLING JE­SUS BI­OG­RA­PHY

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Front Page - Peter Craven

By Reza As­lan Allen & Un­win, 336pp, $29.95

REZA As­lan’s new bi­og­ra­phy of Je­sus hit The New York Times best­seller list in provoca­tive cir­cum­stances: the author was grilled on Fox News. Why has a Mus­lim writ­ten a book about the founder of Chris­tian­ity, in­ter­viewer Lau­ren Green asked, sev­eral times — and the footage went vi­ral on YouTube.

The Ira­nian-Amer­i­can author is in fact an ex-Chris­tian (though he was born into the Mus­lim faith). And he has the al­most im­pos­si­bly glamorous name, for a Christ bi­og­ra­pher, of As­lan. It would be wrong to say, ‘‘ Hands off our lion!’’ but any­one who knows how much that Lion King in CS Lewis is a fig­ure of You Know Who will gape at the co­in­ci­dence.

In Zealot, As­lan wants to take the God out of Je­sus and shock the world with the re­duc­tive per­spec­tives of bib­li­cal schol­ar­ship. The fact the book is based on the re­search of be­liev­ers who as­sert their faith has noth­ing to fear from their learn­ing (as the Do­mini­can priest Roland de Vaux told Ed­mund Wil­son af­ter the dis­cov­ery of the Dead Sea Scrolls in 1947) doesn’t stop As­lan hav­ing a field day sug­gest­ing the his­tor­i­cal Je­sus was one more Jewish crazy lurch­ing to­wards cru­ci­fix­ion in a Jerusalem that was headed to­wards the de­struc­tion of the Tem­ple and the an­ni­hi­la­tion of the city in AD70.

Lit­er­ary critic Ge­orge Steiner once said that when he was a child he was asked which three peo­ple from his­tory he would most like to meet. Je­sus, Homer and Shake­speare, he replied. Why? To find out whether they re­ally ex­isted.

It’s a greedy, pre­scient, pre­co­cious an­swer. Some­one, af­ter all — not nec­es­sar­ily the same some­one or only one of him — com­posed the Greek epics. Some­one, whether an enigma from Strat­ford or an­other of the same name, wrote the plays that are the great­est works in the English lan­guage.

And did Some­one de­liver the Ser­mon on the Mount? ‘‘ Blessed are the mer­ci­ful for they shall ob­tain mercy . . . blessed are the meek for they shall in­herit the Earth’’? Did he say of Mary Mag­da­lene, or some woman like her, ‘‘ Much is for­given her for she has loved much’’? Did he say, ‘‘ Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind and shalt love thy neigh­bour as thyself’’?

Zealot comes with the luminous iconog­ra­phy of the thing it would de­cry: the cover is adorned with a de­tail from El Greco’s Cristo Sal­va­tor Mundi, a work that presents with a tragic luminescence the quin­tes­sen­tial Re­nais­sance im­age, long-faced and moist-eyed, of the com­pas­sion­ate Christ, the one to whom all who are heavy-laden come, the redeemer of the world.

More­over, this at­tempt to re­duce Je­sus Christ to the scratchy records of an al­ready scep­ti­cal his­tory would have no res­o­nance with­out the race mem­ory of the God man.

The dif­fi­culty with all hunts for the his­tor­i­cal Je­sus is they de­pend on where the seek­ers hang their hats. If you be­lieve he was the sec­ond per­son of the blessed trin­ity, very God of very Gods, you may be be­mused by the talk of the il­lit­er­ate peas­ant who was just some mil­lenar­ian nut­ter. And the same prob­lem af­flicts the doc­u­ments: do the Gospels Syn­op­tic and Jo­han­nine rep­re­sent one of the fullest bi­o­graph­i­cal quar­ries we have of an in­di­vid­ual from the reign of Tiberius or are they the mer­est myth-mak­ing?

As­lan wants to get at the real Je­sus be­hind the God hype. He is full of neatly provoca­tive re­marks about Je­sus as a nonen­tity, or some­one set to be one. Here’s his sum­mary of the Cru­ci­fix­ion: That is how, on a bald hill, cov­ered in crosses, be­set by the cries and moans of agony of hun­dreds of dy­ing crim­i­nals, as a mur­der of crows cir­cles over his head, wait­ing for him to breathe his last, the mes­siah, known as Je­sus of Nazareth, would have met his ig­no­min­ious end, would have met his end like ev­ery other mes­siah who came be­fore or af­ter him. Ex­cept that un­like those other mes­si­ahs this one would not be for­got­ten.

One thing that should be im­me­di­ately ap­par­ent about this is the ba­nal rhetoric. As­lan has a doc­tor­ate in com­par­a­tive re­li­gion and is a for­mer Tru­man Capote fel­low at the Univer­sity of Iowa creative writ­ing school. In fact Zealot is a bit of a re­hearsal of thin fac­toids with the aid of an op­por­tunist’s mega­phone.

Early on in the much more tem­per­ate and ur­bane 50-page sup­ple­ment to the book (in lieu of foot­notes), As­lan cheer­fully ad­mits: I’m greatly in­debted to John P. Meier’s epic work A Mar­ginal Jew: Re­think­ing the His­tor­i­cal Je­sus . . . as his de­fin­i­tive look at the his­tor­i­cal Je­sus planted the seeds of the present book in my mind. Fa­ther Meier’s book an­swers the ques­tion of why we have so lit­tle his­tor­i­cal in­for­ma­tion about the man who so thor­oughly changed the course of hu­man his­tory. His the­sis — that we know so lit­tle about Je­sus be­cause in his life­time he would have been viewed as lit­tle more than a mar­ginal Jewish peas­ant from the back­woods of Galilee — forms the the­o­ret­i­cal ground­work for the book you are read­ing. Of course, I ar­gue fur­ther that part of the rea­son we know so lit­tle about the his­tor­i­cal Je­sus is that his mes­sianic mis­sion — his­tor­i­cal as it may have turned out to be — was not un­com­mon in first­cen­tury Pales­tine.

We learn else­where that As­lan needs a dic­tionary to do his notably un­flash trans­la­tions from the Greek and that the trans­la­tions from the He­brew and Ara­maic are by a col­league. So what we get is a rhetor­i­cal in­fla­tion of a de­fla­tion­ary im­age.

Je­sus grew up in Nazareth, which was a dump, with­out even a tem­ple. He was prob­a­bly il­le­git­i­mate and James, the chap who goes on to be­come the head of the Chris­tians in Jerusalem and who quar­rels with Paul in the name of more Jewish or­tho­doxy, was cer­tainly, not pos­si­bly, his brother. He grew up in a world of ban­dits and as­sas­sins who made war on a priest­hood that must be un­der­stood in — rather nar­rowly con­ceived — mod­ern class terms as sim­ply ex­ploita­tive.

He was an ob­scure fig­ure in the pre­destruc­tion of Jerusalem world, a world rife with mes­sian­ism and vi­o­lence and where the Ro­mans were fe­ro­cious and blood­thirsty. As­lan de­tails the cru­el­ties of Pi­late and de­clares dog­mat­i­cally that the in­tro­spec­tively self-doubt­ing char­ac­ter of the Gospel ac­count, wash­ing away his guilt, is an im­pos­si­bil­ity.

He de­tails Jose­phus’s ac­count of the Masada, the tragic mass sui­cide of the sur­viv­ing Jewish rem­nant, though he is never lu­cidly his­tor­i­cal about how the Jews wrested con­trol from the Ro­mans in the first place.

Al­though As­lan does not sub­due Je­sus to

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