Reza Aslan: Jesus the Political Revolutionary

Every so often a new book comes out on the historical Jesus which captures the popular imagination.  The Jesus presented, of course, must be a Jesus that is shocking to Christians, and the book must present some novel way to view him.  There really are a lot of different ways you can go with the texts depending on how you want to slice them up.  One could claim that Jesus was primarily a magician, looking solely at the healing, miracle, and exorcism texts, ignoring the rest of the gospels as unhistorical or inconsequential.  Perhaps Jesus the Magician faked his death and resurrection so that the apostles could collect tithes.  Or maybe Jesus was a cult leader, his primary aim to gather a large following who worshiped him, including many women. Perhaps he took a harem off to Egypt, started a commune, and never returned.  

Zealot is, to me, such a book.  In it, Reza Aslan presents a political Jesus who aspired to inaugurate the earthly Kingdom of God, possibly by use of force.  Jesus, according to Aslan, pictured himself as the earthly king who would replace the corrupt temple elite as well as Roman rule.  When Jesus announced that "the kingdom of God is at hand," he meant that a new government was immanent, he himself taking the throne.

To open his historical analysis, Aslan states that there are only two things we can be sure of regarding the historical Jesus – that he led a Jewish movement and that he was crucified by Rome:

"In the end, there are only two hard historical facts about Jesus of Nazareth upon which we can confidently rely: the first is that Jesus was a Jew who led a popular Jewish movement in Palestine at the beginning of the first century C.E.; the second is that Rome crucified him for doing so. By themselves these two facts cannot provide a complete portrait of the life of a man who lived two thousand years ago. But when combined with all we know about the tumultuous era in which Jesus lived—and thanks to the Romans, we know a great deal—these two facts can help paint a picture of Jesus of Nazareth that may be more historically accurate than the one painted by the gospels. Indeed, the Jesus that emerges from this historical exercise—a zealous revolutionary swept up, as all Jews of the era were, in the religious and political turmoil of first-century Palestine—bears little resemblance to the image of the gentle shepherd cultivated by the early Christian community. Jesus’s crime, in the eyes of Rome, was striving for kingly rule (i.e., treason), the same crime for which nearly every other messianic aspirant of the time was killed. Nor did Jesus die alone. The gospels claim that on either side of Jesus hung men who in Greek are called lestai, a word often rendered into English as “thieves” but which actually means “bandits” and was the most common Roman designation for an insurrectionist or rebel. Three rebels on a hill covered in crosses, each cross bearing the racked and bloodied body of a man who dared defy the will of Rome. That image alone should cast doubt upon the gospels’ portrayal of Jesus as a man of unconditional peace almost wholly insulated from the political upheavals of his time. The notion that the leader of a popular messianic movement calling for the imposition of the 'Kingdom of God'—a term that would have been understood by Jew and gentile alike as implying revolt against Rome—could have remained uninvolved in the revolutionary fervor that had gripped nearly every Jew in Judea is simply ridiculous."

It's an odd claim Aslan makes that there are the only two facts about Jesus we can know, considering he also argues that other events from the gospels are historically accurate.  For instance, Aslan say this about the cleansing of the Temple:

"Of all the stories told about the life of Jesus of Nazareth, there is one—depicted in countless plays, films, paintings, and Sunday sermons—that, more than any other word or deed, helps reveal who Jesus was and what Jesus meant. It is one of only a handful of events in Jesus’s ministry attested to by all four canonized gospels—Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John—adding some measure of weight to its historicity. Yet all four evangelists present this monumental moment in a casual, almost fleeting manner, as though they were either oblivious to its meaning or, more likely, deliberately downplaying an episode whose radical implications would have been immediately recognized by all who witnessed it. So revelatory is this single moment in Jesus’s brief life that it alone can be used to clarify his mission, his theology, his politics, his relationship to the Jewish authorities, his relationship to Judaism in general, and his attitude toward the Roman occupation. Above all, this singular event explains why a simple peasant from the low hills of Galilee was seen as such a threat to the established system that he was hunted down, arrested, tortured, and executed. The year is approximately 30 C.E. Jesus has just entered Jerusalem, riding a donkey and flanked by a frenzied multitude shouting, 'Hosanna! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord! Blessed be the coming kingdom of our father David!' The ecstatic crowd sings hymns of praise to God. Some spread cloaks on the road for Jesus to ride over, just as the Israelites did for Jehu when he was declared king (2 Kings 9:12–13). Others saw off palm branches and wave them in the air, in remembrance of the heroic Maccabees who liberated Israel from foreign rule two centuries earlier (1 Maccabees 13:49–53). The entire pageant has been meticulously orchestrated by Jesus and his followers in fulfillment of Zechariah’s prophecy: 'Rejoice greatly, daughter of Zion! Cry out, daughter of Jerusalem! Behold, your king is coming to you; righteous and victorious is he, humble and riding upon an ass, upon a colt, the son of a donkey' (Zechariah 9:9). The message conveyed to the city’s inhabitants is unmistakable: the long-awaited messiah—the true King of the Jews—has come to free Israel from its bondage. As provocative as his entrance into Jerusalem may be, it pales in comparison to what Jesus does the following day. With his disciples and, one assumes, the praiseful multitude in tow, Jesus enters the Temple’s public courtyard—the Court of Gentiles—and sets about 'cleansing' it. In a rage, he overturns the tables of the money changers and drives out the vendors hawking cheap food and souvenirs. He releases the sheep and cattle ready to be sold for sacrifice and breaks open the cages of the doves and pigeons, setting the birds to flight. 'Take these things out of here!' he shouts. With the help of his disciples he blocks the entrance to the courtyard, forbidding anyone carrying goods for sale or trade from entering the Temple. Then, as the crowd of vendors, worshippers, priests, and curious onlookers scramble over the scattered detritus, as a stampede of frightened animals, chased by their panicked owners, rushes headlong out of the Temple gates and into the choked streets of Jerusalem, as a corps of Roman guards and heavily armed Temple police blitz through the courtyard looking to arrest whoever is responsible for the mayhem, there stands Jesus, according to the gospels, aloof, seemingly unperturbed, crying out over the din: 'It is written: My house shall be called a house of prayer for all nations. But you have made it a den of thieves.'“

These three realities – the Jewish political hopes of the times (i.e. Jesus started a "Jewish movement"), the fact that the crucifixion was performed by Romans for sedition, and the incident of the cleansing of the Temple form the backbone of Alsan's argument that Jesus was a political revolutionary.  

The Kingdom of God

Drawing on these historical lynchpins, Aslan has a unique interpretation of Jesus' message that "the kingdom of God is at hand":

"When Jesus said, 'the Kingdom of God has drawn near' (Mark 1:15) or 'the Kingdom of God is in your midst' (Luke 17:21), he was pointing to God’s saving action in his present age, at his present time. True, Jesus spoke of wars and uprisings, earthquakes and famine, false messiahs and prophets who would presage the establishment of the Kingdom of God on earth (Mark 13:5–37). But far from auguring some future apocalypse, Jesus’s words were in reality a perfectly apt description of the era in which he lived: an era of wars, famines, and false messiahs. In fact, Jesus seemed to expect the Kingdom of God to be established at any moment: 'I tell you, there are those here who will not taste death until they have seen the Kingdom of God come with power' (Mark 9:1). If the Kingdom of God is neither purely celestial nor wholly eschatological, then what Jesus was proposing must have been a physical and present kingdom: a real kingdom, with an actual king that was about to be established on earth. That is certainly how the Jews would have understood it. Jesus’s particular conception of the Kingdom of God may have been distinctive and somewhat unique, but its connotations would not have been unfamiliar to his audience. Jesus was merely reiterating what the zealots had been preaching for years. Simply put, the Kingdom of God was shorthand for belief in God as the sole sovereign, the one and only king, not just over Israel, but over all the world. 'Everything in heaven and earth belongs to you,' the Bible states of God. 'Yours is the kingdom … You rule over everything' (1 Chronicles 29:11–12; see also Numbers 23:21; Deuteronomy 33:5). In fact, the concept of the sole sovereignty of God lay behind the message of all the great prophets of old. Elijah, Elisha, Micah, Amos, Isaiah, Jeremiah—these men vowed that God would deliver the Jews from bondage and liberate Israel from foreign rule if only they refused to serve any earthly master or bow to any king save the one and only king of the universe. The same belief formed the foundation of nearly every Jewish resistance movement, from the Maccabees who threw off the yoke of Seleucid rule in 164 B.C.E., after the mad Greek king Antiochus Epiphanes demanded that the Jews worship him like a god, to the radicals and revolutionaries who resisted the Roman occupation—the bandits, the Sicarii, the zealots, and the martyrs at Masada—all the way to the last of the great failed messiahs, Simon son of Kochba, whose rebellion in 132 C.E. invoked the exact phrase 'Kingdom of God' as a call for freedom from foreign rule. Jesus’s view of the sole sovereignty of God was not all that different from the view of the prophets, bandits, zealots, and messiahs who came before and after him, as evidenced by his answer to the question about paying tribute to Caesar. Actually, his view of God’s reign was not so different from that of his master, John the Baptist, from whom he likely picked up the phrase 'Kingdom of God.' What made Jesus’s interpretation of the Kingdom of God different from John’s, however, was his agreement with the zealots that God’s reign required not just an internal transformation toward justice and righteousness, but a complete reversal of the present political, religious, and economic system. 'Blessed are you who are poor, for the Kingdom of God is yours. Blessed are you who are hungry, for you shall be fed. Blessed are you who mourn, for you shall soon be laughing' (Luke 6:20–21). These abiding words of the Beatitudes are, more than anything else, a promise of impending deliverance from subservience and foreign rule. They predict a radically new world order wherein the meek inherit the earth, the sick are healed, the weak become strong, the hungry are fed, and the poor are made rich. In the Kingdom of God, wealth will be redistributed and debts canceled. 'The first shall be last and the last shall be first' (Matthew 5:3–12 | Luke 6:20–24). But that also means that when the Kingdom of God is established on earth, the rich will be made poor, the strong will become weak, and the powerful will be displaced by the powerless. 'How hard it will be for the wealthy to enter the Kingdom of God!' (Mark 10:23). The Kingdom of God is not some utopian fantasy wherein God vindicates the poor and the dispossessed. It is a chilling new reality in which God’s wrath rains down upon the rich, the strong, and the powerful. 'Woe to you who are rich, for you have received your consolation. Woe to you who are full, for you shall hunger. Woe to you laughing now, for soon you will mourn' (Luke 6:24–25). The implications of Jesus’s words are clear: The Kingdom of God is about to be established on earth; God is on the verge of restoring Israel to glory. But God’s restoration cannot happen without the destruction of the present order. God’s rule cannot be established without the annihilation of the present leaders. Saying 'the Kingdom of God is at hand,' therefore, is akin to saying the end of the Roman Empire is at hand. It means God is going to replace Caesar as ruler of the land. The Temple priests, the wealthy Jewish aristocracy, the Herodian elite, and the heathen usurper in distant Rome—all of these were about to feel the wrath of God. The Kingdom of God is a call to revolution, plain and simple."


For Aslan, Jesus pictures the overthrow of Rome and an earthly kingdom to take its place.  It is unclear, in Aslan's reconstruction, how Jesus expects this to happen.  He seems to make something of the fact that Jesus's disciples, at one point, have a few swords.  Does Aslan think Jesus went up to Jerusalem prepared for armed conflict?  Does he envision an actual war?  Jesus and the Twelve against the world?  Does Jesus expect God to do something supernaturally to drive out the Romans?  As far as I can tell, Aslan never says.  Thus we are left with a picture of Jesus who comes to Jerusalem with no military plan, but who nevertheless expects to take the land for the true Israel.

Aslans's conception of the Kingdom of God here counters the dominant eschatological understanding promoted by Schweitzer and his line (Dale Allison, EP Sanders, Ehrman, etc.).  Whereas Schweitzer sees the proclamation of the Kingdom of God as a truly eschatological event – a final judgment, end of the world, and a new utopian reality – Aslan sees it as political overthrow.  The Kingdom of God, for Aslan, is roughly equivalent to the kingdom of David – a golden age where Israel has control of the holy land and is "ruled by God."  


Aslan starts with a hypothesis (one in the extreme minority among scholars) – that Jesus was a political revolutionary set on the overthrow of the corrupt Jewish elite and the Roman Empire.  He then gives primacy to a select few texts which confirm his picture, cutting out, reinterpreting, or ignoring any text which doesn't work.  This is a classic example of what the "criteria of authenticity" allow one to do, and why the historical Jesus enterprise has not reached any type of consensus.  

Aslan also tends towards hyperbole and exaggeration throughout and is extremely confident in his historical conclusions, using rhetoric implying that it is "ridiculous" or "absurd" to think otherwise.  

Aslan's position is relatively novel (although a handful of scholars have offered similar reconstructions in the past).  His conclusions wouldn't find much support at an SBL (Society of Biblical Literature) conference.  Nevertheless, as I write this, Zealot has 4,927 reviews on Amazon.  The works of the other scholars in the series have 262 (Wright), 146 (Borg), 130 (Crossan), and 25 (!) (Allison).  Perhaps this is a sign of the times.  Aslan sure knows how to sell a book.

I will say this; it was an entertaining read which brought Roman and Jewish history to life.