There are only three things we know for certain about the historical figure of Jesus, Reza Aslan told the Los Angeles World Affairs Council on Wednesday night:he was a Jew, he talked about re-establishing the Kingdom of God, and because of that he was crucified. Other than that, “everything about Jesus is speculation…In the end, it is just guessing.”
Which didn’t deter Aslan, a scholar of religions with degrees from Santa Clara, Harvard and UC Santa Barbara, from spending the next 45 minutes laying out in a fascinating fashion what he thinks is reasonable to suppose about the life of Jesus, based on evidence in the Gospels and the detailed Roman documentation of life in first century Palestine.
Aslan, whose book Zealot, The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth, has become a New York Times bestseller, was born a Muslim in Teheran, emigrated to the US when the Shah fell in 1979 and grew up in San Francisco - but, as he said, “in the ‘80s it was not a good time to be from Iran...I used to pretend I was Mexican”.At age 15 he converted to Christianity and became an evangelical, “fascinated by the story of Jesus.”In college he converted back to Islam, but says his core views on religion and his faith in God never changed – “it was just like using a different language to say the same thing - my faith has never been in a religion, it’s been in God.”But he did come to realize that much of what he knew, or thought he knew, about Jesus, was either incorrect or, at least, incomplete.
To begin with, he says, Jesus was almost certainly not born in Bethlehem.The story of Joseph and Mary “returning” to Bethlehem for the Roman-imposed taxation census runs counter to Roman practice, and at the time of his birth there was no census for Galilee.Jesus, he says, was most likely born in Nazareth, a tiny village in Galilee with about a hundred mud brick huts, no road and no school and no synagogue - so small it didn’t appear on maps at the time.He was dirt poor, “unquestionably illiterate -as were 95% of Jews at that time - the only Jews who could read and write were the Pharisees and the priests and the scribes, and Jesus was not one of these” – and probably worked as a day-laborer.Yet he had charisma and an innovative take on religion and “he founded a movement of the poor, the marginalized and the disabled”.
In fact, says Aslan, there is more evidence of Jesus as an exorcist and a miracle-worker than anything else - this was widely accepted about him at the time.Nor was this unusual - there were many exorcists traveling around casting out devils and spirits at that point in history.The world of Palestine inthe first century was “steeped in magic and miracles”.Even physical illness at the time was regarded as a form of demonic possession.What made Jesus unusual, says Aslan, was that he did his exorcisms for free - which is why so many of the poor flocked to him, because they didn’t want to go to the others who charged.And he was doing it for free because it conveyed a message - that it was a sign of the Kingdom of God.
From what evidence is available, Jesus spent most of the three years of his ministry in small villages in Galilee - and only the last five days of his life in Jerusalem.“Suddenly he said to his followers we are going to Jerusalem to die - he truly chose to sacrifice himself to amplify his message.”With his triumphal march into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday, “he became such a threat to the stability of the Roman empire that he was hunted down, tortured and executed”.The method of execution, crucifixion, was telling in itself.Crucifixion was only carried out on non-Romans, and was reserved for crimes against the state – it was not even used for capital crimes, but for rebellion, insurrection, sedition and treason.The idea was to make it a deterrent against others challenging Roman power, and so the crucified bodies were left in a public place for days as a spectacle.
And this is where it could have ended for Jesus – dead on the cross.Jesus had been seen as a Messiah, like many other Jewish rabble-rousers at the time who also claimed to be messiahs.“In the first century if you say you are the Messiah you mean you are descended from King David and have come to reestablish David’s Kingdom.” The Romans executed many would-be messiahs, and so their mission was seen to have failed. “Except Jesus’s disciples stuck around, and within 10 years of his death the belief that he had risen from the dead was very widespread - the belief in his resurrection became the foundation of Christianity.”With the doctrine of the Resurrection, “they changed the definition of Messiah - his kingdom was a heavenly one, not an earthly one.”
This theory was not popular among Jews, but among non-Jews it caught on - 40 years later, by the time the first gospel (Mark) was written, Christianity is “unquestionably a Roman movement, no longer a Jewish movement.”The four gospels were written in Greek, not in Hebrew or Aramaic, and the center of Christianity shifted to Rome.
He conceded that in looking for details about Jesus, the Gospels are full of contradictions.He says they were not written as “factual” histories, but as spiritual documents containing greater “truths” - a function of pre-Enlightenment thinking, that is hard for us to conceive in the present day, now thatwe are in the age of science.And what makes the search for the historical Jesus even more vexing is that nobody who wrote about Jesus ever met him or saw him in action.The gospel of Mark was written around 70 AD, some four decades after Jesus was crucified, Matthew and Luke were written between 90–100 AD, and John was written between 100-110 AD.There are also dozens of other Gospels found in Egypt which date from the second to the fourth centuries, and so are of even less value to researchers of Jesus.
Asked why he wrote the book, Aslan said he had always been fascinated by the human part of Jesus.“It is the central pillar of what makes him interesting:Jesus is fully God AND fully man.”Aslan said that in conventional Christian teaching, “the god part subsumed the man part - it made it hard for him to be sad, or cold, or alone - like a tightrope walker with a net, it didn’t matter if he fell, he was God.”The human story of Jesus, Aslan felt, was uniquely compelling – one of the greatest stories deserving to be told.