When the nail sticks out

rants, raves and randomness

Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth by Reza Aslan

Disclaimers : Contents are offensive to practicing believers. Quick! Exit now!

Still here?

Before we proceed, there are some things you as a reader must remember in order to make the most of this article.

1) This article is not meant to insult, attack or defame Christians or Christianity as a whole.

2) The purpose of this blog entry is to share some knowledge about the historical Jesus based on the book by Reza Aslan. My target audience are people who are all of the below  :

  1. open-minded
  2. have a healthy curiosity about the historical Jesus
  3. reasonable

3)  There are behaviors that are just unacceptable. Attacking me or the author is one.

4) Although I will give a background of myself and how I ended up reading this book, please remember that when discussing the book itself, my faith/religion is irrelevant. Neither is Aslan’s being Muslim relevant. Please watch the Fox interview on Aslan and see how not to act.

5)Arguing logically is the key. Please see my post about arguing logically here.  Quotes from the Bible, the Qu’ran, the Torah or some holy book are not enough to convince a reasonable agnostic.

6) I’d like to quote Aslan on this : “For every well-attested, heavily researched and eminently authoritative argument made about the historical Jesus, there is an equally well-attested, equally researched and equally authoritative argument opposing it.

7) If you like what you read, please support the author and purchase his book.

Why the blasphemy? 

Before you start accusing me of blasphemy, let me begin by introducing myself a bit.

Like majority of the Filipinos born and raised in the Philippines, I was a Catholic. I used to go church on Sundays. I learned my catechisms and took the holy communion. I celebrate Christmas (yes, I still do!). I professed to love Jesus. But as I grew older, I started thinking. Some things didn’t make sense. This thinking was further encouraged by my some of professors in the university. Contrary to the stereotypes, however, not all my professors were hardcore atheists. It wasn’t as “unbalanced” and “manipulative” as outsiders like to believe. No, they didn’t brainwash us. But they equipped us. My philosophy professor quoted Kolak and Martin in his syllabus. I’ll never forget it.

There is a frozen sea within us. Philosophy is an axe.

Everything you believe is questionable. How deeply have you questioned it? The uncritical acceptance of beliefs handed down to you by parents, teachers, politicians, and religious leaders is dangerous. Many of these beliefs are simply false. Some of them are lies, designed to control you. Even when what has been handed down is true, it is not your truth. To merely accept anything without questioning it is to be somebody else’s puppet, a second-hand person.

Beliefs can be handed down. Knowledge can perhaps be handed down. Wisdom can never be handed down. The goal of philosophy is wisdom. Trying to hand down philosophy is unphilosophical.

Wisdom requires questioning what is questionable. Since everything is questionable, wisdom requires questioning everything. That is what philosophy is: the art of questioning everything.

Kolak, Daniel. Martin, Raymond. Oxford University Press, 2002. Web. October 28, 2013.

Finding your own truth. You can’t just devour what was handed down to you on a plate!  But this is what I learned : your truth may be different from mine. That doesn’t make mine any more true or false than yours. Our truths can contradict. Crazy, but that’s how I understood Rashomon.

As Democritus said, 

Nothing exists except atoms and empty space; everything else is just opinion.

True objectivity, some would argue, doesn’t exist. Your choice of topic for small talks – whether you talk about the weather – is still ultimately your choice, a subjective choice. While that is true- and let me contradict what I just said by saying that it is still possible to discuss our personally chosen topics with a dose of objectivity. How?  We have facts. We have researches and studies, surveys and stats. I personally like to reinforce my arguments by quoting what I deem as a credible source. I’m not just swayed or convinced by “This is my opinion. End of story.” I may sound incredibly pretentious. Contrary to some commenters claim, I am not pretending to be a “stuffy academic.” That’s just me – I need facts. I need logical arguments. I f you can’t stand it, then just please go away. Again, as what I said, subjectivity is playing a role here : after all, what may be a source of conflict between us are my sources, the books I choose to discuss. It is important to remember what Aslan himself had said: for any given,well-researched data, there is a wealth of contradicting data available elsewhere.  But which one do you devour? Which one do you spit out? That is entirely up to you.

The great thing about many truths is that they don’t necessarily have to be popular. We don’t have to like them – and it doesn’t make it any less true.

There were just so many things I found ridiculous about the church. At some point, I was convinced it was some sort of a Truman show – everyone in collective, silent agreement to pretend and play-act we believe in this holy book whose credibility is debatable. I thought everybody was just pretending to believe in Jesus, the Holy Trinity, in Adam and Eve, in heaven and hell. Eventually, I met a boy who similarly talked about how as a kid, he thought everything – this reality, not just the religion, no less – was nothing but a joke, some sort of prank played continuously on him. He was convinced there was a hidden door somewhere, where he’d find people laughing at us who was taking this reality seriously. I was amazed. So here was someone who doubted, not only the religion, but this reality as real.  Matrix? Inception? Truman show? Surely, if we could doubt this reality then it is no less crime to doubt the holy book.

I was also disillusioned with the church and lamented at how screwed up everything was- from the dogma it perpetrates, the blind faith it requires, the abuses of its leaders and the wrong doings of its followers. I’ve had enough of the bs. Then I met my husband, who, like me came from a very religious family : a very religious Buddhist family. Like me, he’d had enough of all the bs his own religion was feeding its followers. Similarly, like our own Catholic church in the Philippines, their Buddhist sect is also very political in Japan (though not a majority). In fact, they have a party in all levels of the government (DIET and Local govt), they endorse their candidates and they WIN. My mother-in-law would always call on election day- though she doesn’t call on his birthday- to remind him of which candidates to vote for. (He knows better, of course). What I find amazing is how religions still succeed in manipulating people everywhere, even at this age where information is freely available to anyone who seeks. Why? Well, maybe because they don’t seek? Or maybe because they are selective of the information they devour: information that doesn’t challenge the status quo or their own handed-down beliefs?

My husband is an atheist. I respect that. I like to think of myself as a reasonable agnostic. The keyword here is – I warn y’all – reasonable. God? Ghosts? Aliens? Present me with evidences, facts, logical arguments, and maybe you can win me over.

The key to reading the following article is by being reasonable.

If you choose to leave now, I won’t hold it against you.

Bible Jesus vs Historical Jesus

Whether you are an atheist or not, a Christian or not, there is much to be said about Jesus. For one, there is a wealth of evidence that supports his existence. Whether he is, indeed divine or not, is well, subject to speculations, debate and pretty much depends on your faith. One thing that I want to make clear now is that the Jesus I will be talking about- that is the Aslan’s Jesus- is the Historical Jesus. Disclaimers AGAIN :  Historical Jesus is not necessarily parallel with the Biblical Jesus. If you take the Biblical Jesus in the most historical, literal sense then please,  consider exiting this page now. My goal is not to insult believers or to persuade you to believe otherwise, but to present the usual misconceptions, inconsistencies, half-truths about the Jesus that I knew (and the characters surrounding him)- that scholars such as Aslan found in contradiction with the Historical Jesus. After all, the truth will set us free, right?

As much as I’d like to, I cannot discuss the whole book. If you find them interesting, please purchase his book and support Aslan. Note that, as with Aslan’s quotes, I will also be citing other sources. I will not be citing Aslan’s page numbers because I have the Kindle version and the page is dependent on the size of the font (I like mine very large).

Here is a list of Historical Jesus data from Zealot that contradicts what I knew about Jesus:

Zealot Jesus Data#1 : Jesus was crucified because he was an enemy of the state. (And the plaque on the cross wasn’t sarcastic, but a title)

Zealot Jesus Data#2: Jesus was born in Nazareth, not in Bethlehem

Zealot Jesus Data#3 : Jesus was possibly an illegitimate child 

Zealot Jesus Data#4: Herod’s  Massacre of Innocents is historically questionable 

Zealot Jesus Data#5: Jesus wasn’t the only child. He had brothers and sisters

 Zealot Jesus Data#6: Pontius Pilate wasn’t a weakling. 

Zealot Jesus Data#7: (Related to Data#6) The Jews didn’t kill Jesus. The Romans did. 

Zealot Jesus Data#1 : Jesus was crucified because he was an enemy of the state. (And the plaque on the cross wasn’t sarcastic, but a title)

According to Aslan, the best place to start studying about Jesus is not when he was born, but when he was crucified.

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. 

Aslan, Reza. Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth. Random House; First Edition edition. July 16, 2013. Kindle file.

Because of the circumstances of his death, Aslan deduced that Jesus wasn’t being punished for blasphemy, of which the punishment was stoning.

There’s only one reason to be crucified under the Roman Empire and that is for treason or sedition.

Aslan, Reza. Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth. Random House; First Edition edition. July 16, 2013. Kindle file.

What is sedition? From Google :

  1. conduct or speech inciting people to rebel against the authority of a state or monarch.

If you go with historical data, it appears that Jesus was crucified for rebellion against the Roman empire.  Contrary to what the gospels say, he wasn’t the peace-loving, apolitical, loving, Son of Man who turned his other cheek.

Professor Matt J. Rossano of Southeastern Louisiana University writes in his article in Huffington post :

Under Roman law, three offenders were most likely to be crucified: pirates, rebellious slaves and enemies of the state. Note well what all these have in common: a direct challenge to Roman authority. Crucifixion was public torture designed to pound home an unambiguous message: Don’t mess with Rome.

Rossano, Matt J. The Huffington Post. Why Was Jesus Crucified?  April 2, 2011. Web. October 30, 2013. <http://www.huffingtonpost.com/matt-j-rossano/why-was-jesus-crucified_b_842509.html >

According to this website, crucifixion was

Seale, Natalie Seale. Crime and Punishment in the Roman Empire December 4, 2012.Web.  October 30, 2013.

Seale, Natalie. Crime and Punishment in the Roman Empire. December 4, 2012.Web. October 30, 2013.

Jesus wasn’t a slave. He wasn’t a pirate either. That means he must have been an enemy of the state.

Aslan explains :

Crucifixion, we have to understand, was not actually a form of capital punishment for Rome. In fact, it was often the case that the criminal would be killed first and then crucified. Crucifixion was, in reality, a deterrent; it was an obvious symbol to subject peoples of what happens when you defy the will of Rome. Which is why crucifixions always had to happen in public places: at crossroads, on hills, at the entrance of cities. So for that reason, crucifixion was a punishment reserved solely for the most extreme crimes, crimes against the state.

“And so, that’s why if we really want to know who Jesus was and what he meant, we should start not at the beginning of the story — with him in a manger — but at the end of the story, with him on a cross. Because if Jesus was in fact crucified by Rome, he was crucified for sedition. He was crucified because he challenged the Roman occupation.”

Christ In Context: ‘Zealot’ Explores The Life Of Jesus. July 15, 2013. Web. October 30, 2013 <http://www.npr.org/2013/07/15/198040928/christ-in-context-zealot-explores-the-life-of-jesus >

And unlike the common perception, the Romans weren’t mocking him when they placed a title on top of the cross, above his head.

The plaque the Romans placed above Jesus’s head as he writhed in pain – “King of the Jews” – was called a titulus and, despite common perception, was not meant to be sarcastic. Every criminal who hung on the cross received a plaque declaring the specific crime for which he was being executed. 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.

Aslan, Reza. Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth. Random House; First Edition edition. July 16, 2013. Kindle file.

If that was the case – if only pirates, rebellious slaves and enemies of the state were crucified, well what about Barabbas, the “thief” who was tried with Jesus? Ex-Pope Benedict has something to say to that, affirming what Aslan said : 

Officially, Jesus was crucified for “sedition” against the Roman Empire. In other words, challenging its power. Pope Benedict XVI has even claimed that Barabbas — the “robber” who was tried in parallel with Jesus — was not a petty thief, as is popularly believed, but that the specific connotation of “robber” during this period of the Roman Empire was one who aimed to take away the Empire’s power; the only way to do it was to “rob” them of this power, as the empire would not willfully give it over to anyone. Barabbas had actually been a well known “resistance fighter”, as Benedict reports, and in fact was probably the leader of an armed uprising against Rome.

Rouillard,Meghan and Ogden,Matthew.Larouche Pac.The Roman Empire and Jesus of Nazareth. December 25. Web. October 30, 2013 <http://larouchepac.com/node/20936 >

Wikipedia states :

Matthew refers to Barabbas only as a “notorious prisoner“.Mark and Luke further refer to Barabbas as one involved in a stasis, a riot. John 18:40 refers to Barabbas as a lēstēs(“bandit”), “the word Josephus always employs when talking about Revolutionaries”, Robert Eisenman observes.

Aha. So there’s a term : bandit. Barabbas was a bandit, mistranslated to mean thief.  Aslan explains   :

From their hiding places in the caves and grottoes of the Galilean countryside, these peasant-warriors launched a wave of attacks against Jewish aristocracy and the agents of the Roman Republic. they roamed through the provinces, gathering to themselves those in distress, those who were dispossessed and mired in debt. Like Jewish Robin Hoods, they robbed the rich and, on occasion, gave to the poor. To the faithful, these peasant gangs were nothing less than the physical emobidment of the anger and suffering of the poor. They were heroes : symbols of righteous zeal against Roman aggression, dispenser of divine justice to the traitorous Jews. The Romans had a different word for them. They call them lestai. Bandits.

Bandits” was the generic term of any rebel or insurrectionist who employed armed violence against Rome or the Jewish collaborators. To the Romans, the word “bandit” was synonymous with “thief” or “rabble-rouser.” But these were no common criminals. The bandits represented the first stirrings of what would become a nationalist resistance movement against the Roman occupation. This may have been a peasant revolt; the bandit gangs hailed from impoverished villages like Emmaus, Beth-horon, and Bethlehem. But it was something else, too. The bandits claimed to be agents of God’s retribution.

Aslan, Reza. Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth. Random House; First Edition edition. July 16, 2013. Kindle file.

Professor Rossano writes :

The problem with Jesus (from Rome’s perspective) was that he didn’t just preach loving kindness. He also preached justice — and it wasn’t Rome’s justice; it was God’s justice.

Rossano, Matt J. The Huffington Post. Why Was Jesus Crucified?  April 2, 2011. Web. October 30, 2013. <http://www.huffingtonpost.com/matt-j-rossano/why-was-jesus-crucified_b_842509.html >

Zealot Jesus Data#2:Jesus was born in Nazareth, not in Bethlehem

Aslan writes :

The hillside hamlet of Nazareth is so mall, so obscure, that its name does not appear in any ancient Jewish sources before the third century C.E – not in the Hebrew Bible, not in the Talmud,not in the Midrash, not in Josephus. It is, in short, an inconsequential and utterly forgettable place. It is also the city in which Jesus was likely born and raised. That he came from this tightly enclosed village of a few hundred impoverished Jews may very well be the only fact concerning Jesus’ childhood about which we can be fairly confident. So identified was Jesus with Nazareth that he was known throughout his life simply as the “the Nazarean“. Considering how common a first name Jesus was, the city of his birth became his principal sobriquet. It was the one thing about which everyone who knew him – his friends and hsi enemies alike – seemed to agree.

Aslan, Reza. Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth. Random House; First Edition edition. July 16, 2013. Kindle file.

But why in the world are we lead to believe that he was born in Bethlehem?

Why, then, do Matthew and Luke – and only Matthew (2:1-9) and Luke (2:1-21)- claim that Jesus was born not in Nazareth but Bethlehem, even though the name Bethlehem doesn’t appear anywhere else in the entire New Testament (not even anywhere else in Matthew or Luke, both of which repeatedly refer to Jesus as the “the Nazarean”), save for a single verse in the gospel of John (7:42)

Aslan, Reza. Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth. Random House; First Edition edition. July 16, 2013. Kindle file.

From this site :

In many other places we read that the people of his time called him “Jesus of Nazareth” (Matthew 26:70-72; Mark 1:23-25; Mark 10:46-48; Luke 4:34; Luke 18:37; Luke 24:20; John 1:45; John 18:6-8; John 19:19; Acts 2:22; Acts 6:14; Acts 10:38; Acts 22:9; Acts 26:9), so scholars conclude it’s more likely that Jesus was born and raised in Nazareth.

Loftus, John. Debunking Christianity. Was Jesus Born in Bethlehem? December 24, 2010. Web.  October 30, 2013 <http://debunkingchristianity.blogspot.jp/2006/12/was-jesus-born-in-bethlehem.html >

But why would the gospels make up stories about his place of birth? Was it that significant?

Yes, it was important. Jesus’s credibility was at stake. There was a general belief about the lineage of the messiah, such as : he was supposed to be the descendant of King David. If he were from an insignificant place such as Nazareth, then he wouldn’t have been of King David’s line, and he would have been in the same lot as the rest of the failed messiahs before him.  

Some kind of creative solution to  push back against this criticism, some means to get Jesus’ parents to Bethlehem so that he could be born in the same city as David.

For Luke, the answer lies in the a census. “In those days,” he writes, “there came a decree from Caesar Augustus that the entire Roman world should be registered. This was the first registration to take place while Quirinius was governor of Syria.Everyone went to his own town to be registered. Joseph also went up from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to Bethlehem, the city of David.”  Then, in case his readers may have missed the point, Luke adds, “because Joseph belonged to the house and the lineage of David” (Luke2:1-4)

Aslan, Reza. Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth. Random House; First Edition edition. July 16, 2013. Kindle file.

Mary, according to Luke, gave birth to Jesus in Bethlehem, a place they traveled to to register for the census. According to Aslan, Luke did say one true thing : ten years after the death of Herod the Great, in the year 6 C.E,. Quirinius did order for a census to be taken of all everyone, including the slaves and properties in Judea, Samaria and Idumea for tax purposes. However, he didn’t require the whole “Roman world” as Luke had claimed, and most definitely not Galilee, where Jesus was from. Wikipedia states:

The Census of Quirinius refers to the enrollment of the Roman provinces of Syria and Judaea for tax purposes taken in the year 6/7. The Census was taken during the reign of Augustus (27 BCE – CE 14), when Publius Sulpicius Quirinius was appointed governor of Syria, after the banishment of Herod Archelaus from the Tetrarchy of Judea and the imposition of direct Roman rule. The Gospel of Luke account of the birth of Jesus connects it to this census.

Aslan is not the only one claiming that Luke’s version of the census is problematic. Serious Problems with Luke’s census states :

There is no record of Caesar Augustus’ decree that “all the world should be enrolled” (Lk. 2:1).  The Romans kept extremely detailed records of such events.  Not only is Luke’s census not in these records, it goes against all that we know of Roman economic history.  Roman documents show that taxation was done by the various governors at the provincial level.  As we shall see later, the property tax was collected on site by travelling assessors, thus making unnecessary Joseph’s journey away from what little property he must have owned.  Gleason Archer quotes a census expert who claims, without documentation, that “every five years the Romans enumerated citizens and their property to determine their liabilities.  This practice was extended to include the entire Roman Empire in 5 B.C.E.”1  This goes against the fourteen-year cycle which Archer himself uses to argue that Quirinius was pulled from his busy duties in Asia Minor to do a Syrian census in 7 B.C.E., fourteen years earlier than the one recorded in Josephus and Acts 5:37.

Gier NF. University of Idaho. Serious Problems with Luke’s Census. Web. October 30, 2013 <http://www.webpages.uidaho.edu/ngier/census.htm >

In defense of Luke, he was probably not interested in facts. He didn’t write the gospel to be taken as an accurate account of history. Who cared about history during that apocalyptic time? Who cared about accuracy?

Zealot Jesus Data#3 : Jesus was possibly an illegitimate child

Aslan starts with other stories circulating about Jesus’s biological father.

The second-century writer Celsus recounts a scurrilous story he claims to have heard from a Palestinian Jew that Jesus’s mother was impregnated by a soldier named Panthera.

Aslan, Reza. Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth. Random House; First Edition edition. July 16, 2013. Kindle file.

Some do state the veracity of this claim. Aslan disregards this. However, according to him, it proves that  even people of those times considered Jesus’s birth as questionable. Less than a century after Jesus’s death, “rumors about his illegitimate birth were already circulating throughout Palestine.”

When Jesus first begins preaching in his hometown of Nazareth, he is confronted with the murmuring of neighbors, one of whom bluntly asks, “Is this not Mary’s son?” (Mark 6:3)

This is an astonishing statement, one that cannot be easily dismissed. Calling a first-born Jewish male in Palestine by his mother’s name – that is, Jesus bar Mary, instead of Jesus bar Joseph – is not just unusual, it is egregious. At the very least it is a deliberate slur with implications so obvious that later redactions of Mark were compelled to insert the phrase “son of the carpenter, and Mary” into the verse.

Aslan, Reza. Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth. Random House; First Edition edition. July 16, 2013. Kindle file.

Simply put, according to Jewish traditions, a man is always addressed as the “son of his father” – even if his father is dead. When Jesus was called “son of Mary”, there was a serious implication on Jesus’ birth. If he were indeed an illegitimate child, then all his trust-worthiness and credibility would go down the drain.  But what is wrong with being a bastard, you may ask? You know what, I agree. Surely, we cannot fault the child for the sins of his parents! Unfortunately, many people then didn’t think that way. Remember, Jesus was Jewish and they have their own laws.  This site states:

According to Jewish Law, these children of unwed mothers are called mamzerim (Hebrew for bastards), and are subject to a variety of restrictions and discrimination; thus, do not share the privileges of God’s children. For example, In the Jewish text Deuteronomy 23:2 it states, 鄭 bastard shall not enter into the congregation of the Lord; even to his tenth generation shall he not enter into the congregation of the Lord.

Monroe, Irene. Witness Magazine. Embracing the Bastard Jesus. Web.  October 30, 2013  <http://www.thewitness.org/agw/monroe010305.html >

Aslan claims that Luke, who, as we’ve seen, didn’t really write accurately, cooked up an infancy narrative to make Jesus’s birth spectacular.

Jesus was the superior figure : John’s birth to a barren woman, Elizabeth, may have been miraculous, but it was not nearly as miraculous as Jesus’s birth to a virgin. This is all part of Luke’s concerted effort, which the evangelist carries forth into his gospel’s sequel, the book of Acts, to persuade John’s disciples to abandon their prophet and follow Jesus instead.

Aslan, Reza. Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth. Random House; First Edition edition. July 16, 2013. Kindle file.

Other people claim that the word “virgin” was, again, not correctly translated.  Science has proven that “virgin” birth naturally occurs in the animal kingdom by doing an embryonic diapause ( technically not a virgin, however). I will not dwell on this argument as I don’t want to go off-track. Before you attack me, please remember that this isn’t even my own findings and that, as I said, I have nothing against bastards.

Zealot Jesus Data#4: Herod’s  Massacre of Innocents is historically questionable

There was a Bible story told to me as a kid. If you are a born into a religious Christian/Catholic family, you must have heard of this too. Herod, the King of the Jews, ordered the assassination of all the sons born around Bethlehem.

Hence, Matthew’s equally fanciful account of Jesus’s flight into Egypt, ostensibly to escape Herod’s massacre of all the sons born in and around Bethlehem in fruitless search for the baby Jesus, an event for which there exists not a shred of corroborating evidence in any chronicle or history of the time, whether Jewish, Christian or Roman – a remarkable fact considering that many chronicles and narratives written about Herod the great, who was, after all, the most famous Jew in the whole of Roman Empire (the King of the Jews, no less!).

Aslan, Reza. Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth. Random House; First Edition edition. July 16, 2013. Kindle file.

In the first place, Jesus was born in Nazareth, not in Bethlehem, so even if the order was true, Jesus would have been spared. No? From Wikipedia :

Although consistent with other documented actions of King Herod the massacre cannot be positively verified outside of the biblical source. Based on the sole Biblical source, it could be estimated that the number of infants killed at the time in Bethlehem, a town with a total population of about 1000, would be about twenty.The single account of the Massacre comes in the Gospel of Matthew: it is not mentioned elsewhere in the gospels or by the well-known Roman Jewish historian, Josephus (37 – c. 100). Jesus’s childhood home of Nazareth may have been subjected to a Roman raid near the time of Herod’s death; the much larger nearby city of Tzippori was crushed by the Romans at about the same time, but no such account exists for Bethlehem.

Aslan didn’t really dwell on this. In fact, the quote mentioned above was only in passing. The more I look at this as well as other sources, the more I can’t help think that there may have been a collective effort spent in “adjusting” Jesus real life to make it fit into the profile of the Messiah. Virgin Birth, check! Line of David, check! Escaping Herod’s massacre, check! Add more drama here and there, and you get a man so fantastic, he must indeed be the Son of God. Others claim that, while there may be no historical corroboration,that doesn’t mean it wasn’t real.  After all, Herod was a man capable of unthinkable monstrosity. He had his own family members executed : three sons, a wife, a brother-in-law. He also massacred many members of the Sanhedrin. Nevertheless, others argue that the Massacre of Innocents cannot be literally true.

Zealot Jesus Data#5: Jesus wasn’t the only child. He had brothers and sisters

I, for one, believed that Jesus was the only child in the very literal sense. However, dissecting historical texts and analyzing the gospels in the original language it was written, many scholars, including Aslan have concluded that  Jesus had siblings.

The Jesus has brothers is, despite Catholic doctrine of his mother Mary’s perpetual virginity, virtually indisputable. It is a fact attested to repeatedly both by the gospels and the letters of Paul. Even Josephus references Jesus’s brother James, who would become the most important leader of the early Christian church after Jesus’s death. There is no rational argument that can be made against the notion that Jesus was part of a large family that included at least four brothers who are named in the gospels – James, Joseph, Simon, and Judas – and an unknown number of sisters who, while mentioned in the gospels, are unfortunately not named.

Aslan, Reza. Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth. Random House; First Edition edition. July 16, 2013. Kindle file.

From the site, Bible Answers :

Mary and Joseph did have children, therefore they were Jesus’ half-brothers and-sisters. Matthew 13:56 reads: “Isn’t his mother’s name Mary, and aren’t his brothers James, Joseph, Simon and Judas? Aren’t all his sisters with us?

So we know he had 4 brothers and at least 3 sisters (if there had been only 2, the word ‘both’ would have been used instead of ‘all’) who are accepted as half brothers and sisters. Because of this, it follows that Joseph and Mary were husband and wife, and that all those mentioned were alive when Jesus was.

Matthew 12:46 also refers to Jesus’ mother and brothers: “While Jesus was still talking to the crowd, his mother and brothers stood outside, wanting to speak to him.”

Bible Answers. Where can I find the scripture that proves Jesus had brothers and sisters? Web.  October 30, 2013 <http://www.bible.org.nz/common-qa/where-can-i-find-the-scripture-that-proves-jesus-had-brothers-and-sisters.html >

The three most common arguments about this are  :

1. Helvidius (a.d. 370s): Mary had other children, namely the brothers and sisters of Jesus mentioned in the gospels.
2. Jerome (a.d. 382): The “brothers” and “sisters” of Jesus are Jesus’ cousins, children of a sister of Mary.
3. Epiphanius (a.d. 377): The “brothers” and “sisters” are children of Joseph by a previous marriage.

Leverin, Matthew. First Things. The Brothers and Sisters of Jesus. November 30, 2007. Web. October 30, 2013 <http://www.firstthings.com/onthesquare/2007/11/the-brothers-and-sisters-of-je >

Well, so what? So what if he had siblings? Seriously, was Jesus any less admirable because he had brothers and sisters?

The first time it was suggested that the “kinsmen” of Jesus were the other children of Joseph and Mary was by a theologian named Helvidius in the fourth century. This idea was opposed adamantly by St Jerome. The simple fact is that the gospel is not clear on who the “brothers and sisters” are and whether you think they are Jesus’ extended family members or other children of Joseph and Mary really depends on your underlying assumption about the perpetual virginity of the Blessed Virgin.

The question of whether Mary and Joseph had sexual relations and the implications of that question are complex, and it lead us to consider the dogma of the perpetual virginity of the Blessed Virgin. What does the dogma mean and why does it matter?

Longenecker, Dwight. Patheos.  Did Jesus Have Brothers and Sisters? may 16, 2012. Web.  October 30, 2013 <http://www.patheos.com/blogs/standingonmyhead/2012/05/did-jesus-have-brothers-and-sisters.html >

The problem with Jesus’s having brothers is that, if he did, then how could Mary have remained a virgin in the most literal sense through out her life?  Again, the problem with dealing with this question is that it depends on the religious affiliation/faith of your source. Besides, almost anything can be blamed on the “mistranslation”, such as, in this case, the word adelphos to mean, not only brothers, but kinsman. This Catholic Education Resource Center clarifies the usage of the word in the gospels to mean “relatives”, not necessarily of the same mother and father:

Nevertheless, other Gospel passages clarify these relationships. James and Joses were the sons of Mary of Clophas (Mk 15:40). Judas was the son of James (not either of the Apostles) (Lk 6:16). James the Lesser was the son of Alphaeus (Lk 6:15). James the Greater and John were the sons of Zebedee with a mother other than our Blessed Mother Mary (Mt 20:20).

Saunders, William. Catholic Education Resource Center. Did Jesus have Brothers and Sisters? Web.  October 30, 2013  <http://www.catholiceducation.org/articles/religion/re0090.html >

However, Historian.net begs to differ :

The Old Testament passages that are referenced in this doctrine were written in Hebrew prior to the 6th century B.C E. and then translated to Greek for the Septuagint in the 4th century B.C.E. The New Testament was written in Greek as its ORIGINAL language. The difficulties of stiff and often inaccurate translational Greek from Hebrew is not found as much in New Testament writings. The Greek ADELPHOS is not contextually like the Hebrew ACH, meaning “brother” or “blood relation.” ADELPHOS as used to describe Jesus’ brothers, is very precise Greek and means “from the same womb.” The Greek word for “cousin” ANEPSIOS and is used clearly in Colossians 4:10. Perpetual Virginity proponents confuse the Greek concept with the Hebrew concept by citing these Septuagint sources. In spite of this, “cousin” is clearly translated to ANEPSIOS in the Septuagint in Numbers 36:11 and Tobit 7:2. The Hebrew idiom is not related to the New Testament Koine usage of ADELPHOS for “brother” in the context of Jesus siblings. The use of ADELPHOS for those of “mutual bond,” countrymen, or associates is not uncommon but is clearly suggested by context. This is not the case in both the canon and histories regarding Jesus’ brothers. Additionally, there is not one case where ADELPHOS is used for “cousin” in the New Testament.

Historian.net. Web.  October 30, 2013  <http://www.historian.net/jesfam.html >

The previous site, Historian.net, also mentioned its own views on why it was necessary to assassinate Jesus’s siblings

There is no scriptural, historical, theological or doctrinal necessity for the life-long virginity of Mary in the practice of Christianity other than in the biases and prejudices of 3rd and 4th century “Church Fathers.” There is overwhelming evidence that Y’shua, Ya’akov, Yosef, Yehuda and Simon and at least two sisters (and perhaps the unmentioned third) were all children of Miriam and Yosef ben Ya’akov ha Notzri and that father Yosef died before Jesus’ ministry began leaving those mentioned in scripture as the surviving Nazarene family. In fact, good interpretive evidence for something very dramatic happening after Jesus’ crucifixion lies in the very fact that Jesus’ brothers didn’t believe who He was (would your brothers?) until the resurrection (which would convince anyone!). Suddenly, the oldest surviving sibling is the head of the Jerusalem Assembly of Jesus Movement Jews. It is also very probable that Jesus’ brothers were with him all along and that Jesus himself chose his brother James to succeed him as leader of his followers. This is suggested by Logion 12 of the Gospel of Thomas.

Historian.net. Web.  October 30, 2013  <http://www.historian.net/jesfam.html >

Here’s a question to ponder on :  does the act of having sex, even within the bounds of marriage, tarnish the meaning of “purity”? Isn’t that, I don’t know, a bit shallow and immature?  This writer claims that while Mary never had sex, she was more than a physical virgin :

It is difficult in our sex obsessed age to understand what the early Christians meant by perpetual virginity. This was not simply a negative definition. We tend to define this as “Mary never had sex.” The first Christians meant more than that, but not less. For them Mary’s perpetual virginity meant a fullness of goodness–an abundance of natural, simple wholeness and holiness. Mary was a virgin like a primitive forest is “virgin”. She was full and overflowing of natural, simple innocence and purity as a Spring morning or a mountaintop at sunset. The church has always tried to convey this sense of fullness of purity in this definition–not simply the fact that “Mary never had sex.” This is an adolescent, shallow and simplistic understanding.

Longenecker, Dwight. Patheos. The Perpetual Virginity of the Blessed Virgin. Web. October 30, 2013 <http://www.patheos.com/blogs/standingonmyhead/the-perpetual-virginity-of-the-blessed-virgin >

Personally, what is wrong with having sex with your husband? If the wives and husbands didn’t have sex, then we wouldn’t be here now, debating about this. We’d all have ceased to exist. It is thanks to sex that we are here!

Zealot Jesus Data#6 and Data#7: Pontius Pilate wasn’t a weakling. The Jews didn’t kill Jesus. The Romans did.

Let’s begin by citing a bit of background of  Pontius Pilate, the governor who allegedly allowed the Jews to vote on the fate of Jesus.

Prefect Pontius Pilate arrived in Jerusalem in the year 26 C.E. He was the fifth prefect, or governor, Rome had sent to oversee the occupation of Judea. After the death of Herod the Great and the dismissal of his son Archelaus as ethnarch in Jerusalem, Rome decided it would be best to govern the province directly, rather than through yet another Jewish client-king.

The Pontii were Samnites, descended from the mountainous domain of Samnium in southern Rome, a hard country of stone and blood and brutal men that had been broken and forcible absorbed in the Roman Empire in the third century B.C.E. The surname Pilatus meant “skilled with a javelin,” a tribute perhaps to Pilate’s father, whose glory as a Roman soldier under Julius Caesar had allowed the Pontii to advance from their humble origins into the Roman knightly class. Pilate, like all Roman knights, performed his expected military service to the empire. But he was not a  soldier like his father; he was an administrator; more comfortable with accounts and tallies than with sowrds and spears. Yet Pilate was no less hard a man. The sources describe him as cruel, coldhearted, and rigid: a proudly imperious Roman with little regard for the sensitivities of subject peoples.

Pilate’s disdain for the Jews was obvious from the very first day he arrived in Jerusalem, bedecked in a white tunic and golden breastplate, a red cape draped over his shoulders. The new governor announces his presence in the holy city by marching through Jerusalem’s gates trailed by a legion of Roman soldiers carrying standards bearing the emperor’s image – an ostentatious display of contempt for Jewish sensibilities. Later, he introduced a set of gilded Roman shields dedicated to Tiberius, “son of divine Augustus,” into the temple of Jerusalem. The shields were an offering on behalf of the Roman gods, their presence in the Jewish Temple a deliberate act of blasphemy. Informed by his engineers that Jerusalem needed to rebuilt its aging aqueducts, Pilate simply took the money to pay for the project from the Temple’s treasury. When the Jews protested, Pilate sent his troops to slaughter them in the streets.

Aslan, Reza. Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth. Random House; First Edition edition. July 16, 2013. Kindle file.

The BBC page on religion paints a similar picture of Pilate, which is contrary to the Christian literature Pilate’s portrayal as a righteous man who had no direct role in the execution of Jesus:

The Jewish historians Josephus and Philo describe Pontius Pilate as a stubborn, inflexible, and cruel man who had no respect for the Jewish people. Perhaps because of his military background, he may have sometimes used force when it wasn’t necessary. On one occasion he told his soldiers to disguise themselves in civilian clothes, with their swords hidden under their cloaks, and mingle with a crowd of demonstrators. After they were in position, he signaled for them to pull out their weapons and attack. In the ensuing bloodbath, hundreds of people were killed.

BBC. Who killed Jesus? September 18, 2013. Web. October 30, 2013 <http://www.bbc.co.uk/religion/religions/christianity/history/whokilledjesus_1.shtml >

Trial of Jesus  affirms Pilate’s brutality :

During his ten-year tenure as prefect, Pilate had numerous confrontations with his Jewish subjects. According to Jewish historian Josephus, Pilate’s decision to bring into the holy city of Jerusalem “by night and under cover effigies of Caesar” outraged Jews who considered the images idolatrous. Jews carried their protest to Pilate’s base in Caesaria. Pilate threatened the protesters with death, but when they appeared willing to accept martyrdom he relented and removed the offending images. Again according to Josephus, Pilate provoked another outcry from his Jewish subjects when he used Temple funds to build an aqueduct. It seems likely that at the time of the trial of Jesus, civil unrest had again broken out in Jerusalem.

Pilate’s lack of concern for Jewish sensibilities was accompanied, according to Philo writing in 41 C.E, by corruption and brutality. Philo wrote that Pilate’s tenure was associated with “briberies, insults, robberies, outrages, wanton injustices, constantly repeated executions without trial, and ceaseless and grievous cruelty.”

Linder, Douglas. The Trial of Jesus. The Trial of Jesus: Key Figures. Web.  October 30, 2013  <http://law2.umkc.edu/faculty/projects/ftrials/jesus/jesuskeyfigures.html >

But who cares, you may ask? Who cares who killed him? What he died for – isn’t that more important? I beg to differ.  Whoever murdered Jesus is very important because, for the longest time, the belief that the Jews killed Jesus is the main root of Catholic antisemitism. Jews have been blamed and persecuted by far too long already. My Jewish learning states :

Indeed, according to most historians, it would be more logical to blame the Romans for Jesus’ death. Crucifixion was a customary punishment among Romans, not Jews. At the time of Jesus’ death, the Romans were imposing a harsh and brutal occupation on the Land of Israel, and the Jews were occasionally unruly. The Romans would have had reason to want to silence Jesus, who had been called by some of his followers “King of the Jews,” and was known as a Jewish upstart miracle-worker.

Jews, on the other hand, lacked a motive for killing Jesus. The different factions of the Jewish community at the time–Pharisees, Sadducees, Essenes, and others–had many disagreements with each other, but that did not lead any of the groups to arrange the execution of the other allegedly heretical groups’ leaders. It is therefore unlikely they would have targeted Jesus.

Lockshin, Martin. My Jewish Learning. Who killed Jesus? Web. October 30, 2013 < http://www.myjewishlearning.com/beliefs/Issues/Jews_and_Non-Jews/Attitudes_Toward_Non-Jews/Christianity/who-killed-jesus.shtml&gt;

Contrary to what we were told,  

Philo may have overstated the case, but there is little to suggest that Pilate would have any serious reservations about executing a Jewish rabble-rouser such as Jesus.

Pilate’s repeated difficulties with his Jewish subjects was the apparent cause of his removal from office in 36 C.E. by Syrian governor Vitellius.  Following his removal from office, Pilate was ordered to Rome to face complaints of excessive cruelty.  He was exiled in Vienne, France.

Linder, Douglas. The Trial of Jesus. The Trial of Jesus: Key Figures. Web.  October 30, 2013  <http://law2.umkc.edu/faculty/projects/ftrials/jesus/jesuskeyfigures.html >

Aslan writes :

“Why?” Pilate asks, pained at the thought of having to put an innocent Jewish peasant to death. “What evil has he done?”

But the crowd shouts all the louder for Jesus’s death. Crucify him! Crucify him!” (Mark 15:1-20)

The scene makes no sense at all. Never mind that outside the gospels there exists not a shred of historical evidence for any such Passover custom on the part of any Roman governor. What is truly beyond belief is the portrayal of Pontius Pilate – a man renowned for his loathing of the Jews, his total disregard for Jewish rituals and customs, and his penchant for absentmindedly signing so many execution orders that a formal complaint was lodged against him in Rome – spending even a moment of his time pondering the fate of yet another Jewish rabble-rouser.

Aslan, Reza. Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth. Random House; First Edition edition. July 16, 2013. Kindle file.

Another writer, Frank K Flinn, states a similar claim. Again, we go back to Zealot Jesus Data#1 : Jesus was crucified because he was an enemy of the state. (And the INRI on the cross wasn’t sarcastic, but a title) 

Romans killed Jesus as a political threat, as they had killed many other prophets, brigands, rebels during the first century. Josephus the Jewish historian recounts many examples in his Jewish War and Jewish Antiquities. Had the Jewish authorities been directly involved, Jesus would have been stoned, as Stephen was in Acts 7. Only Roman authorities could authorize crucifixions and they often did so on a gruesome, massive scale. The rebellion and crucifixion of Sparticus’ army is witness to their ruthless power.

Flinn, Frank K. Washington University in St. Louis. Who Killed Jesus? A Guide to Viewing Mel Gibson’s Movie. Febraury 18, 20014. Web. October 30, 2013 <http://news.wustl.edu/news/Pages/711.aspx >

If it’s not true, why would Mark write such a thing?!

The answer is simple : Mark was not writing for a Jewish audience. Mark’s audience was in Rome, where he himself resided. His account of the life and death of Jesus of Nazareth was written mere months after the Jewish Revolt had been crushed and Jerusalem destroyed.

Like the Jews, the early Christians struggled to make sense of the traume of the Jewish Revolt and its aftermath. More to the point, they had to reinterpret Jesus’s revolutionary message and his self-identity as the kingly Son of man in light of the fact that the Kingdom of God they were awaiting never materialized. Scattered across the Roman empire, it was only natural for the gospel writers to distance themselves from the Jewish independence movement by erasing, as much as possible, any hint of radicalism or violence, revolution or zealotry, from the story of Jesus, and to adapt Jesus’s words and actions to the new political situation in which they found themselves in.

Aslan, Reza. Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth. Random House; First Edition edition. July 16, 2013. Kindle file.

In short, Mark wanted Jesus to be acceptable to the Romans. It was a question of making Jesus palatable to his audience. Contrary to what Mark wrote, historical evidence suggests that

(a) Pilate didn’t give a sh*t  about appeasing Jews

(b) His character was consistent with a man who had no qualms about having another trouble maker such as Jesus executed

(c) There was no reason to be democratic towards the Jews whom he hated

(d) There was no motive for the Jews to have one of their own murdered

So there you have it. This will give you an idea on why Aslan’s book is so controversial – blasphemous if you may – that it threatens to shake the very foundations of our beliefs. How dare he suggest that the  historical Jesus be very different from the Biblical Jesus? How dare he suggest that Jesus was nothing more than a failed messiah? After all, he didn’t succeed in overthrowing the Romans and freeing Israel. On the other hand, some people complain that he didn’t really bring “anything new to the table.” It did – at least on my table! True, I smelled something fishy about the biblical accounts- I wasn’t one to take it literally, for one- but I more or less ignored it until the controversy erupted with Fox’s anchor handling the interview. Whatever the anchor’s intents were against Aslan, it backfired. My curiosity was aroused- I bought the book and I thought it worthy to write a blog entry about it. I hope this was as insightful for you as it was for me. Peace.

2 comments on “Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth by Reza Aslan

  1. Joe America
    October 30, 2013

    To be fair, only one half of the interview was stupid, the other amazingly calm and persistent, and quite intelligent.

    Thanks for writing this article. I wonder if I can find the book in National Bookstore here, you think?

    I belong to the Church of Man, where each of us individually lives our faith outside of any organization or priestly guru, and my own faith is a concoction of unfounded superstitions that provides both spiritual enjoyment of cathedrals or temples and the intellectual growth that comes with not buying into other people’s stories, but enjoying the fictions as allegory teaching important lessons. Wha?

    I’m fluid, able to fit any shoe and wearing none. heh heh

    Positively great reading. Thanks.

  2. ikalwewe
    October 30, 2013

    Thanks for reading. I’m glad you liked it.
    I’m not sure if it’s available in National. If it isn’t, then maybe you’d consider to switching ebooks? More titles, bigger fonts?
    I hope people make the best use of the information we have. After all, books like aslan’s can be read -and not at any risks of being persecuted. Maximise this freedom,which in our history is relatively new. Weigh and judge for ourselvesand not necessarily conform to one group’s belief. If after that they still believe what they do- congratulations. If not, then congratulations again. There is nothing to lose.thinking for yourself is a win-win situation.

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