Jesus Christ, Super-Zealot?


Adam Kirsch reviews Reza Aslan’s new biography of Jesus, Zealot, which revisits key moments in the Gospels to cast the Nazarene as a staunch Jewish nationalist:

Take, for instance, the moment when Jesus is asked, “Is it lawful to pay the tribute to Caesar or not?” In response, he takes a coin and asks whose picture is on it. “It is Caesar’s,” comes the reply; to which Jesus says, “Render therefore unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and unto God the things that are God’s.” At least, that is how the King James Bible translates his words; and in this form, their message seems to be a kind of political quietism. Keep paying taxes, Jesus seems to advise, and obey the government, since money and worldly affairs are the government’s concern. But entrust your soul, which is what really counts, to God.

Aslan, however, shows that the same passage can be translated quite differently: “Well, then, give back to Caesar the property that belongs to Caesar, and give back to God the property that belongs to God.” Read this way, Jesus sounds much more like a zealot, demanding that the land and people of Israel—which are God’s property—be returned to God and freed from Roman control. It is sayings like this, Aslan writes, that led Jesus to be labeled a “bandit”—a term that was used for all sorts of popular revolutionaries in Judea. When Jesus was crucified next to two “bandits,” then, we should not understand this to mean thieves, as though the Romans were devising an insult to Jesus. Rather, he was crucified next to fellow rebels, whose crime, like his, was agitating for Jewish independence.

I haven’t read the book, but it sounds fascinating, and I hope to soon. But, as so often in his criticism, Kirsch penetrates to the weakness of the thesis. If Jesus were merely a political zealot, why did his message and example endure while those of hundreds of other such figures didn’t? Could it be, as the Gospels tell us, that he actually was life-changingly different, other-worldly, strictly non-violent, up-ending expectations of a political messiah by, say, riding on a donkey into Jerusalem, or consorting with the marginalized and stigmatized, and telling stories that invert the entire paradigm of power that lies behind actual politics?

Jesus, one might say, radicalized the language of Jewish messianism in such a way that it could be turned against Judaism itself. This act of religious creativity, more than his zeal, is what turned a minor Jewish preacher and miracle-worker into the Christian son of God.

And to miss that is to miss almost everything.

(Painting: A beardless Jesus, after his Resurrection, at supper at Emmaus, by Caravaggio)