I once wrote on this blog that if Jesus had not existed, we would have had to invent him. And according to Reza Aslan’s bestselling Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth, we did. That is, the Jesus we all know and love.
You might recall I bought the book on my birthday earlier this month when I was stuck for ten hours in the Cincinnati airport, diverted there for repairs to my plane. I heard about it via an offensive Fox news interview gone viral on the internet in which Aslan was asked repeatedly why a Muslim would write about Jesus.
The controversial thesis of the book is that the historical Jesus was in reality a revolutionary unopposed to violence, one whom early Christians transformed into a more agreeable and thus more acceptable (to Rome) figure of peace and love. Many of you know that Aslan is not the first to assert this, something Aslan confirms, as he considers his well-written and informative narrative the sum of biblical scholarship to date (others disagree).
A Christian Century review by professor Greg Carey serves as a corrective to this view of Jesus, explaining that “Jewish resistance did not always imply violence.” I would add that I think Jesus would have been far less memorable if he were a conventional revolutionary.
And Carey points out what I noted reading the book that “Aslan sometimes regards the Gospels critically, and he sometimes takes them at face value, but I cannot discern the criteria by which he makes such decisions.” Finally, Carey takes Aslan to task for “the played-out model that Paul ‘invented’ Christianity,” and for “posit[ing] a Jewish Jesus tradition that did without the idea of Jesus’ divinity.”
Which brings me back to inventing Jesus. What we have, I believe, are stories and teachings of one who had and has a transforming effect on people for the better, a transformation variously called healing, saving, liberating, redeeming, reconciling, forgiving, and atoning. Doesn’t mean that these people didn’t mess up—we have church history and our own lives to prove that. But we needed and need someone like Jesus to remind us that we are all children of God, with all the privileges and responsibilities. And that’s divine in my book.
What Henri Nouwen wrote about the Eucharist in Creative Ministry seems pertinent here:
We will never fully understand the meaning of the sacramental signs of bread and wine when they do not make us realize that the whole of nature is a sacrament pointing to a reality far beyond itself. The presence of Christ in the Eucharist becomes a “special problem” only when we have lost our sense of His presence in all that is, grows, lives, and dies. … Bread is more than bread; wine is more than wine: it is God with us—not as an isolated event once a week but as the concentration of a mystery about which all of nature speaks day and night (p 102-103).
The Jesus of faith reminds us that God is always with us. To paraphrase Henri, the presence of God in Jesus becomes a “special problem” only when we have lost our sense of God’s presence in all that is, grows, lives, and dies.
For a rabbi’s more extensive review of Zealot, click here.
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