Reza Aslan’s Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth – Understanding Your (Jewish) Audience
One of the oldest and most important pieces of advice you tell a writer is that you need to know your audience. This knowledge dictates how you frame your ideas, the words you choose, the type and number of details you provide, and the analogies/metaphors marshaled to develop your thoughts. These choices say a lot about the audience but also say a lot about the author, for they demonstrate what he or she thinks of who is reading or listening.
As far as Aslan is concerned in Zealot, this understanding is critical to reading how the New Testament discusses the life of Jesus. These Bible book authors were not writing for a Jewish audience; instead, they were writing for a Christian audience, and this audience was not equipped to challenge a number of holes in the details. For Aslan, this partly explains why the New Testament mis-represents facts or constructs patently false situations, which a Jewish audience would have recognized as false.
To illustrate his point, he discusses the famous scene of Jesus being brought before Pontius Pilate. During this “trial,” Jesus is asked to answer for his crimes. Later, when bringing Jesus before the public, Pilate asks the gathered crowd of Jews who they would like to have set free, as the described Passover custom dictates. The crowd votes against Jesus. First Aslan points out that Pilate despised Jews and was responsible for sending thousands to their deaths for a variety of serious transgressions. So why would he have been bothered with this “troublesome” Jew? Aslan says he would not have been. Furthermore, Aslan mentions that there is not a “shred” of documentation that discusses this supposed Passover tradition (148-9). Basically, this entire scene is fabricated. But its drama helps build a case for how persecuted Jesus was.
He devotes an entire chapter to this topic and it’s an interesting read on how the real Jesus was adapted by the early Christian church to better fit their new political “situation” (149).
So why put these type of fabricated details in the New Testament? Easy, a Jewish crowd would have dismissed them out of hand for being false; therefore, for Aslan, these details demonstrate that the intended audience was Christian, for they wouldn’t have known. Furthermore, Aslan points out that the above scenario with Jesus and Pilate demonstrates the early evangelists’ “extremely poor grasp of Jewish law and Sanhedrin practice” (157).
His point is not to use these factual gaffes to discredit Jesus specifically and the New Testament in general; no, he’s making a point that there was a conscious effort on behalf of the early church to shape Jesus’ story in a way that presented a particular picture of Jesus that suited their religious (i.e. political) purpose.
I would say that this means, basically, they’re lying, or if not lying, at least not being completely honest. And if they’ve misrepresented these details, what else have they misrepresented? What other scenes, ideas, and thoughts have they attributed—inaccurately—to Jesus? I wouldn’t say that the content that Aslan analyzes means we should care about Jesus. In general, the ministry of Jesus appears to carry a lot of useful, positive thought behind it. He cared about people and appeared to do unselfishly. There’s much good that comes from this attitude.
That said, a very miniscule part of what he preached—one line, actually—addresses sexuality in general, and not even homosexuality specifically. Yet this line is often seized upon as evidence that gays are wrong for living a “gay lifestyle.” Perhaps people who devote so much negative energy to advocating against the LGBT community—whether actively or passively, through their voting—need to investigate how valid the book they support is. That doesn’t mean throw it out or stop caring. I don’t think they should. I am saying that if they’re going to adhere to a flicker of an idea, that’s wrong. That doesn’t honor the spirit of the Jesus in the New Testament. Furthermore, what if they’re honoring something the man himself never believed.
Next up: Aslan takes a closer look at Paul’s place in the early Church.