Mus­lim por­trays Je­sus as Jewish lib­er­a­tor

Winnipeg Free Press - Section G - - ARTS & LIFE -

THE high priest Jonathan, an open ally of Rome, has just left the Holy of Holies in the Tem­ple of Jerusalem when an as­sas­sin whips out a dag­ger and slits his throat.

It’s a dramatic open­ing for a book, but the as­sas­si­na­tion took place more than 30 years af­ter the cru­ci­fix­ion. What does it have to do with Je­sus?

Ev­ery­thing, ac­cord­ing to Reza As­lan’s hy­poth­e­sis in his con­tro­ver­sial work of Chris­tian schol­ar­ship, Zealot: The Life and Times of Je­sus of Nazareth.

The ret­ri­bu­tion un­leashed by Rome for the Jewish re­volt against its oc­cu­pa­tion — raz­ing Jerusalem, killing most of the Jews and driv­ing the rest from their land — changed the way we know Je­sus, he says.

The hu­man be­ing who walked the earth a few years ear­lier claimed he was a Jewish mes­siah who had been sent to over­throw Ro­man rule. He was not the divine paci­fist por­trayed in most of the New Tes­ta­ment.

The hu­man, rev­o­lu­tion­ary part of Je­sus was de­lib­er­ately ob­scured and down­played by the early fa­thers of the church as they made their re­li­gion more ac­cept­able to Ro­mans.

As­lan, an Ira­nian-born Mus­lim, has writ­ten two pre­vi­ous books, No god but God: The Ori­gins, Evo­lu­tion and Fu­ture of Is­lam and Be­yond Fun­da­men­tal­ism, and edited a lit­er­ary col­lec­tion.

His fam­ily fled Iran af­ter the Is­lamic Rev­o­lu­tion. He con­verted to evan­gel­i­cal Chris­tian­ity as a young man but be­gan ques­tion­ing his faith when he en­tered univer­sity.

Upon Zealot’s re­lease in Au­gust, As­lan was in­ter­viewed on Fox TV by a host who im­plied that he was un­qual­i­fied to write about Chris­tian­ity be­cause he was a Mus­lim. The in­ter­view went viral and the book shot up best­seller charts.

As­lan con­cedes that he has no new sources about Je­sus be­yond those al­ready well-known to schol­ars. In fact, most of As­lan’s ev­i­dence is drawn from Je­sus’s own words as writ­ten in the four Gospels.

What he brings to the ta­ble is a thor­ough read­ing of other his­tor­i­cal sources about the re­li­gion and tra­di­tions of the Jews and their re­la­tion­ship with the Ro­man Em­pire.

His read­ing of the New Tes­ta­ment is that it rep­re­sents a chrono­log­i­cal record of the early church ac­knowl­edg­ing its Jewish roots and Je­sus’ role as Jewish mes­siah in Mark, the ear­li­est gospel.

That mes­sage be­comes in­creas­ingly weaker in sub­se­quent gospels and then is dis­placed by the mes­sage of Paul, for­merly Saul of Tar­sus, per­se­cu­tor of Chris­tians.

As­lan gets to pick and choose among the New Tes­ta­ment writ­ings as they fit his pur­pose while ac­knowl­edg­ing other in­ter­pre­ta­tions in his lengthy Notes sec­tion.

The trial of Je­sus be­fore Pon­tius Pi­late, es­pe­cially the crowd of Jews call­ing for his cru­ci­fix­ion — the Bi­b­li­cal ba­sis for anti-Semitism for the last 2,000 years — is a com­plete fab­ri­ca­tion, he says.

The early church fa­thers made up the story to win favour with the Ro­mans by por­tray­ing Pi­late as a gen­uinely de­cent hu­man be­ing forced to ex­e­cute Je­sus against his will.

In fact, Pi­late ex­e­cuted peo­ple like Je­sus — there were lots of prophets in those days — and any­one else he wanted without a pre­tense of a trial. The no­tion that he would give his sub­ject peo­ple any say is laugh­able, the au­thor says.

As­lan has put Je­sus back on the pub­lic agenda with a book that chal­lenges old as­sump­tions and en­cour­ages deeper thought.

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