In my view, he was a kind of religious genius born in a fertile place and time: on the Silk Road, when Hellenistic ideas about body and soul had begun to take root in the Middle East, and when the winds of eastern mysticism—with the idea of karma, for instance—blew in from Persia and farther afield. Jesus grasped these concepts, and weaved them into his teaching, overturning traditional Jewish assumptions though building on some of them as well. The Sermon on the Mount offers a unique blend of western and eastern thought, summarizing his ideas. Here he puts forward his radical notions about nonviolent resistance to evil. In the gospels, he spoke in challenging aphorisms and parables. As he walked and taught in Galilee, he modeled behavior that shocked those in who met him.
By his death and crucifixion, he modeled suffering and death as well as life. He understood that his life was symbolic, even mythical. And by his resurrection—which was not the Great Resuscitation but a kind of magical transformation into a new form of life, eternal life, he offered humanity hope.
In an excerpt from his book, Parini elaborates on the significance of the resurrection, noting that when Jesus first appeared to Mary Magdalene, she didn’t recognize him:
Nobody recognized Jesus at first — a point of huge significance, as it underscores the difficult and mysterious nature of the Resurrection, which defies all norms and defeats rationalization.
The embodied spirit of the Messiah returning from the dead was not exactly the same person who died but some altered version of Jesus, transmogrified more than restored to his former state. In reality, the manifestation of Jesus after his death beggars the imagination: he acquired a spiritual body, as we read in I Corinthians 15:44: “It is sown a natural body; it is raised a spiritual body.” There is a subtle teaching here: We should not expect to recognize Jesus at first, even as he wakens within us.
While expressing admiration for Aslan as a writer, Parini takes issue with Aslan’s thesis in “Zealot” that Jesus was a “politically conscious Jewish revolutionary” who advocated overthrowing the Roman Empire. “The core of the Jesus message is what has made him relevant for 20 centuries,” Parini said. “That message — embodied in the Sermon on the Mount — is one of passive resistance to violence. Turn the other cheek. It’s the essence of Christianity. One has to cherry-pick a few odd remarks by Jesus, then read them out of context while ignoring the vast bulk of the Gospels to think Jesus was a zealot, and then — if he were — would anyone care about yet another violent rebel from Galilee, most of whom are now forgotten?”
(Image of Persian Jesus (Isa) miniature of the Sermon on the Mount, date unknown, via Wikimedia Commons)