“Zealot:” The Real Jesus

Source: Salon, via Alternet

Author: Laura Miller

Very little is known about the historical Jesus, as opposed to the Jesus of myth who appears in the New Testament. He is mentioned by the 1st-century historian Flavius Josephus in reference to his brother, James, who led Jesus’ followers after his death. Two second-century Roman historians, Tacitus and Pliny, also refer to Jesus’ arrest and execution in discussing the movement he founded. Other than that, we have to rely on biblical writings, particularly the gospels — the earliest of which (Mark) was written down almost 40 years after Jesus’ death. None of the gospels were written by eyewitnesses to the events described; they’re based on oral and perhaps some written traditions. Much of contemporary biblical scholarship involves parsing and triangulating the various accounts to surmise which bits are the oldest and most likely to represent some real event or statement by Jesus himself.

This, of course, hasn’t stopped anyone from trying to reconstruct a historical account of Jesus’ life, however speculative it must necessarily be. The latest to try is Reza Aslan, a professor of creative writing with a background in religious studies, which seems like just about the right configuration of skills. Aslan is best known for “No god but God: The Origins, Evolution and Future of Islam” and his appearances on “The Daily Show,” but his literary talent is as essential to the effect of “Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth” as are his scholarly and journalistic chops. This book, he explains in an author’s note, is the result of “two decades of rigorous academic research into the origins of Christianity.” It’s also a vivid, persuasive portrait of the world and societies in which Jesus lived and the role he most likely played in both.

Any account of the historical Jesus has to be more argument than fact, but some arguments are sounder than others. Aslan wants to “purge” the scriptural accounts of “their literary and theological flourishes and forge a far more accurate picture of the Jesus of history.” The picture he uncovers is very different from the now-common view of an unworldly pacifist preaching a creed of universal love and forgiveness. Instead, Aslan’s Jesus is a provincial peasant turned roving preacher and insurrectionist, a “revolutionary Jewish nationalist” calling for the expulsion of Roman occupiers and the overthrow of a wealthy and corrupt Jewish priestly caste. Furthermore, once this overthrow was achieved, Jesus probably expected to become king.

The most fascinating aspect of “Zealot” is its portrait of the political and social climate of Jesus’ day, 70 years or so after the conquest of Judea by Rome, an event that ended a century of Jewish self-rule. The Romans replaced the last in a series of Jewish client-kings with a Roman governor, Pontius Pilate, when Jesus was in his 20s, but even Pilate ruled by working closely with the aristocratic priestly families that controlled the Temple in Jerusalem and thereby all of Jewish politics. This elite reaped great wealth from the sacrifices the faithful were required to offer in the Temple, as well as taxes and tributes. In the provinces, noble families used the tax and loan systems to seize and consolidate the lands of subsistence farmers. They also began to adopt the customs of the pagan occupiers.

The dispossessed migrated to cities in search of work or roamed the countryside causing trouble. Some of them, called “bandits” by the Romans, robbed the wealthy (who were often seen as impious) and rallied the poor and discontented. They invariably offered religious justifications for their activities; many claimed to be the messiah, the prophesied figure who would eject the foreigners, raise up the oppressed, punish the venal rich and restore the Jews to supremacy in their promised land. Although Jesus himself wasn’t such a “bandit,” he definitely fit the well-known type of apocalyptic Jewish holy man, so commonplace in the countryside that the Greek philosopher Celsus wrote a parody version, a wild-eyed character running around shouting, “I am God, or the servant of God, or a divine spirit. But I am coming, for the world is already in the throes of destruction. And you will soon see me coming with the power of heaven.”

The legitimacy of all of these figures was founded on zeal, which Aslan characterizes as “a strict adherence to the Torah and the Law, a refusal to serve any foreign master — to serve any human master at all — and an uncompromising devotion to the sovereignty of God,” just like “the prophets and heroes of old.” Although the Zealot Party would not exist for a few more decades, most insurrectionists of the time — including Jesus — could be rightly called zealots. They revered the Torah and honored its many rules and regulations. The most fanatical of such groups, such as the Sicarii, practiced a form of terrorism, attacking members of the Jewish ruling class, even assassinating the high priest within the precincts of the Temple itself, “shouting their slogan ‘No lord but God!’”

Aslan points out that crucifixion was a punishment the Romans reserved for political criminals, and that the men hung on crosses next to Jesus’ are described with a word often mistranslated as “thieves” but that in fact indicates “rebel-bandit.” The placard “King of the Jews” hung on Jesus’ cross was meant not to mock his ambitions but to name his offense; using that title or claiming to be the messiah amounted to a treasonous declaration against the authority of Rome and the Temple.

Aslan also insists that the parable of the Good Samaritan is less concerned with the Samaritan’s compassion than it is with the “baseness of the two priests” who passed by the injured man in the road before the Samaritan stopped to help him. It was a class critique as much as an exhortation to help one’s neighbors. He also dismisses the gospels’ depiction of Jesus’ trial, with its reluctant magistrate, as “absurd to the point of comedy,” given that the historical Pilate never showed anything but contempt for the Jews and sentenced hundreds of politically troublesome people to the cross without a second thought.

How was Jesus, this “zealous Galilean peasant and Jewish nationalist who donned the mantle of the messiah and launched a foolhardy rebellion against the corrupt Temple priesthood and the vicious Roman occupation,” transformed into the incarnation of God, a being who sacrificed his life to mystically redeem the souls of all mankind? This new Jesus, Aslan asserts, was largely the invention of Paul, who never met the man he would celebrate as his savior (though he claimed to speak often with the “risen Christ”), and Paul’s theological heirs.

Paul clashed with James, John and Peter, who led the core of Jesus’ following after his death. Theirs was a deeply Jewish community centered in Jerusalem, where it awaited its founder’s return and the restoration of God’s kingdom on earth. Paul instead opted to convert and minister to gentiles as well as Jews in Rome and beyond. In the year 70, the ferment in Palestine finally erupted in a full-fledged revolt and then Roman reprisals. Ultimately, the Temple, Jerusalem and the holy city’s occupants were destroyed, and with these the Jewish core of Jesus’ followers. By default, it was Paul’s version of Jesus’ teachings — Christianity — that survived, splintering off from Judaism and incorporating many ideas from Hellenistic philosophy.

This is a credible account, and one that raises a provocative question: Just how much of Christianity has anything to do with Jesus? In many respects, Paul seems to have been the more visionary leader. Somewhat bafflingly, Aslan remarks in his author’s note that he finds Jesus the man “every bit as compelling, charismatic and praiseworthy as Jesus the Christ” — by which he means the divine figure who presides over Christian theology. I suppose that “the man” is more human and accessible, but he is also not especially exceptional, original or innovative.

Although Aslan never explicitly states as much, the parallels to today — to certain deeply religious and nationalist Muslims who zealously strive to cast out foreign occupiers and corrupt clerics — are hard to ignore, especially when Aslan describes Sicarii shouting, “No lord but God!” Perhaps “Zealot” is partly intended to make today’s zealots seem less alien and scary, or perhaps it’s meant to suggest that all religions go through a process of maturation that simply takes time. If so, I’m not sure it works. The historical Jesus’ call for justice is stirring, but the xenophobic and theocratic society he allegedly advocated is not — in fact, it sounds a lot like what the worst of (so-called) Christians seek today. I may not be a Christian myself, but even I can see that Jesus the Christ stands for something better than that.

Laura Miller is a senior writer for Salon. She is the author of “The Magician’s Book: A Skeptic’s Adventures in Narnia” and has a Web site,magiciansbook.com.

Emphasis Mine

see:http://www.alternet.org/jesus?akid=10695.123424.mA4UE3&rd=1&src=newsletter869119&t=7

 

Equality for Women Is Clearly Not on the New Pope’s Agenda

Source: Al Jazeera  English

Author: Marwan Bishara

“In light of the historic resignation of one pope and the election of another, my Al Jazeera show Empire  [3]has travelled to Rome [4] asking after the future of the Catholic Church as it bleeds worshipers and loses influence. As we take stock of the new Pope‘s priorities, it’s clear that the role of the women in Church isn’t one of them.

Ever since the 4th century Christianisation of the Roman Empire, which gave birth to an imperial Vatican, the Church has had a global reach like no other.

The Vatican has enjoyed religious authority worldwide, directly controlling more than a million bishops and nuns who are followed by 1.2 billion worshipers: more than any other Christian sect.

However, in recent decades, the Church has been losing the faithful at an alarming rate.

In Latin America, the home of half a billion Catholics, the Church has been losing more than a million adherents each year.

And in North America, US bishops closed down 1,373 churches from 1995 to 2010, according to Jason Berry, author of Render unto Rome: The Secret Life of Money in the Catholic Church [5] – that’s more than one parish per week for fifteen years.

While there’s been a surge of believers in Africa and Asia [6], the Church has lost even more in Europe, including in Italy, which has witnessed a two thirds-drop among churchgoers over the last several decades.

Sex abuse scandals

There is little doubt that the latest sex abuse scandals have played a major role in shrinking the Church’s membership and undermining its credibility.

In a recent New York Times article “Beyond the Bedroom [7]”, columnist Frank Bruni argued that “It’s on matters of sexual morality that the church has lost much of its authority. And it’s on matters of sexual morality that it largely wastes its breath.”

And that’s true to a large degree, Ending mandatory celibacy would go a long way to deal with much of the hypocrisy witnessed over the years. It would also confirm the Church’s pronounced commitment to the family and so-called “family values”.

However, sexual matters in all forms – abusive, excessive, “sinful” – are symptoms of a greater problem facing not only the Vatican but also the other organised Abrahamic faiths.

The problem is the monopolisation of power among old men who are unwilling to change any aspect of religion or matter of faith.

Indeed, it’s the absence of women from the all decisive and leadership roles that sets up the antiquated Vatican and other organised religions against progress.

Keeping the women down

Within the church, it’s the hundreds of thousands of nuns that are the true global foot soldiers for the Catholic empire.

They staff and “man” healthcare centres, hospitals, schools, and orphanages in mostly impoverished Catholic societies around the world where people earn on average less than $2 a day.

But women can’t ever reach senior positions in the church. They can’t become priests, let alone cardinals or popes: positions that determine the governance of the church and the articulation of its doctrines.

The Vatican has rejected pleas [8] by one umbrella group that represents most American nuns to include women “in all ministries of our church”, including the priesthood.

Instead, the Vatican accused [9] the “Leadership Conference of Women Religious” last year of numerous grave breaches of doctrine and decorum.

According to news reports, The Vatican has rebuked the organised nuns for spending extra time “promoting issues of social justice” and not enough time speaking about “issues of crucial importance to the life of the church and society”, such as abortion and gay marriage.

The new, conservative Pope Francis has thus far shown himself to be more humble and open than his predecessor. But avid observers I spoke with in Rome don’t see in him as an advocate of equality for women in the Church.

It’s no coincidence then that American nuns are also leaving the church in record numbers, according to Catholic World News. Their number has dropped [10] from 180,000 nuns in 1965 to 75,000 in 2002, and to 56,000 today. They are expected to drop to well below 40,000 by 2020.

Democratising the Church

The Church has long made humanitarianism, at least in theory, a hallmark of its Christian mission. But the humanitarian surely begins with fairness and equality to half of humanity: women.

It is common sense that women who make up the majority of the Church’s worshipers, should have equal influence over a church in crisis and incapable of truly reforming itself.

Strangely, the Church recognises hundreds of women as “Saints” for their “great deeds or meritorious conduct”, yet won’t recognise them as priests or cardinals.

Many women have lost their lives in defence of the faith, but they aren’t entrusted with the bureaucracy of the Church.

Just as women are breaking the glass ceiling everywhere to become ever more influential in most fields, the Vatican is lowering the ceiling on its own.

But Pope Francis who comes from a predominantly Catholic country knows all too well that Argentina and its neighbours Brazil and Chile – all influential Latin American nations – have been led by democratically elected women, Kirchner, Dilma, and Bachelet, respectively.

Why not the Vatican? Why should it remain an exclusive club for men?

It’s hardly revolutionary to argue that progressive and feminist voices are ever more needed – on all levels of authority – to undo the terrible imbalances and abuses of power in the church.

In fact, only such infusion could truly save the church from its own excesses and better prepare it to deal with modernity. And I don’t mean dealing with issues limited to women such as contraception, but rather the broader challenges facing the church in the 21st century.

And this is a bottom-up struggle as it is a top-down necessity.

While I am not sure that nuns can or even want to liberalise the church, I am certain women are more likely to be progressive and fair than the men currently controlling and, in some cases, abusing the power of Vatican’s bureaucracy, the Curia.

Alas, lack of fairness and equality isn’t limited only to the Vatican. After all, a woman cannot become Pontiff for the same reason that she can’t become an Ayatollah, a Chief Rabbi, head of Al Azhar, or a Patriarch: it’s about old men controlling powerful institutions in the name of god.

Remember, power has no religion.”

Emphasis Mine

See: http://www.alternet.org/belief/equality-women-clearly-not-new-popes-agenda?akid=10489.123424.Fhj55M&rd=1&src=newsletter846370&t=7&paging=off