Reza Aslan’s Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth – A Deeper Look at Paul
Before reading the New Testament, I knew very little about Paul. I quickly realized that he was rather important to the Church, given the amount of space and content devoted to him and his story. As I read the Bible, I learned that he was born Saul and, after taking it upon himself to hunt down early followers of the Christian faith, he encounters the spirit of Jesus on the road to Damascus. There, he sees the light, so to speak—which literally takes his sight, until he reaches his destination and is cured (see: Acts).
Then I reached Romans, which contains the New Testament’s most explicit denouncement of homosexuality. As I mentioned in a post devoted to Romans in 2013:
In setting up his case that people have strayed from God’s path, Paul states that people have caved to sexual “impurity” (1:24). In so doing, “they exchanged the truth of God for a lie, and worshipped and served created things rather than the Creator” (1:25). What having sex has to do with worshipping other Gods is unclear. Perhaps these “impure” acts were integral to the rituals associated with other Gods. If that’s so, then perhaps the issue is with the worshipping, not the act itself.
But before people indulge any doubt in Paul’s message here, he clarifies: Because God was pissed at this thumbing of noses to him, he allowed people to embrace this “shameful” lust. These people abandoned “natural” relations with the opposite sex and then women had sex with other women (1:26), men had sex with other men. Both “received in themselves the due penalty for their perversion” (1:27). This then lead people down a sinful slippery slope, where they became evil, wicked, greedy, and full of “envy, murder, strife, deceit, and malice” (1:29).
So I’m no fan of Paul, in part because I didn’t follow his logic. I was curious to see what, if anything, Aslan has to say about this important figure. In Zealot, he says plenty.
In the chapter he devotes entirely to a discussion of Paul’s role in the early Church, Aslan points out that Paul believed Jesus gave him special instructions, ones that trumped anything the 12 Apostles knew or understood. As such, he felt above them, the ones who actually walked with the flesh and blood Jesus (185). This proved problematic for a number of reasons, according to Aslan. The worst of which was his aversion to the Law of Moses, which he deemed a “ministry of death” (186). This is a problem, for the actual Jesus—whom Paul claimed to champion—actually believed that he had arrived to fulfill this very law.
As Aslan states, although Jesus tweaked some of these laws (such as working on the Sabbath), he never rejected them (187). This is perhaps why Paul never quoted Jesus in his Epistles. He does, as Aslan points out, however, often misquote him. For example, he claimed that Jesus said that every man who calls upon the lord will be saved” (Aslan 187; Romans 10:13). Jesus, in fact said that NOT everyone who did would enter heaven (Aslan 187; Matthew 7:21). He even went so far as to boast about his lack of knowledge of the real Jesus. In Galatians, he talks about verifying what Jesus said or did, to which he says, “I did not confer with anyone, nor did I go up to Jerusalem [to ask permission of] the Apostles before me” (Aslan 187-8; Galatians 1:15-17).
Aslan keeps going and suggests that much of what Paul preached not only troubled the people who were in charge of the early Church—and knew what Jesus ACTUALLY said—but also Jews in general, who took issue with his lack of knowledge.
Reading this chapter, I was waiting for Aslan to say: so we can throw out, or at least discount, all of Paul’s material. He doesn’t. He seems to be most concerned about what Paul’s presence in the early movement did and how he cast a long shadow within the faith. My problem is that what he preached was not actually what Jesus stood for. And if he’s afforded such a respected position within the Church, this causes people to follow the inaccurate message.
I take issue with Paul, namely because of how Romans in particular has been cited so often in anti-gay rhetoric. I’m not saying throw out the Bible, but I would suggest that people take a closer look at the material. I would argue that Jesus is more important than Paul—a point with which I think many Christians would agree. And if he’s speaking for Jesus—who speaks for himself plenty in the Gospels—and was called out for misrepresenting this man’s ideals back in the day, why don’t we do the same now?
Next up: Aslan takes a closer look at Jesus’ brother James