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A Distorted Depiction of Judaism,
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This review is from: Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth (Hardcover)
My main problem with "Zealot" is that, though the whole point of his book is to depict the Jewishness of Jesus, the author seems to know so little about Judaism.
This is apparent in the Prologue, in which Aslan writes of the Holy of Holies in the Temple: "This is where the glory of God physically dwells....It is a vast empty space that serves as a conduit for the presence of God, channelling his divine spirit from the heavens, flowing it out in concentric waves across the Temple's chambers.....down into the city of Jerusalem, over the Judean countryside to Samaria and Idumea, Peraea and Galilee, through the boundless empire of mighty Rome and on to the rest of the world....." (pp.6-7). Compare this with the Biblical account of Solomon's prayer when the Temple was completed: "Behold, the heaven and heaven of heavens cannot contain thee; how much less this house I have builded! Yet have thou respect unto the prayer of thy servant....that thine eyes may be open toward this house night and day, even toward the place of which thou hast said, My name shall be there; that thou mayst hearken unto the prayer which thy servant shall make toward this place...."(I Kings 8:27-29 Authorised Version) It is clear from this that the Temple is a symbol - a place on earth where God's name finds a representation, not a home for God's physical presence. Earlier in the Prologue, Aslan writes of the animal sacrifices made in the Temple: "The sacrifice is the Temple's purpose. It is the very reason for the Temple's being....the blood libation not only wipes away your sins, it cleanses the earth. It feeds the earth, renewing and sustaining it...." (pp.4-5). The pagan idea of feeding the earth is never found in the Hebrew Bible, nor, as Solomon's prayer makes clear, are the sacrifices "the very reason for the Temple's being". Moreover, nowhere in "Zealot" does Aslan mention the many passages in the books of the Prophets that inveigh against the ritual sacrificial cult that arose in the Temple, to the detriment of moral concerns - for instance, the words of Isaiah: "To what purpose is the multitude of your sacrifices unto me, saith the Lord: I am full of the burnt offerings of rams, and the fat of fed beasts; and I delight not in the blood of bullocks or of rams or of he-goats....Learn to do well; relieve the oppressed, judge the fatherless, plead for the widow" (1:11-17) or Amos: "Though you offer me burnt offerings and your meat offerings, I will not accept them....But let judgement run down as waters and righteousness as a mighty stream" (5: 224) or Micah: "Will the Lord be pleased with thousands of rams...he has shewed thee, O man, what is good; and what doth the Lord require of thee but to do justly, and to love mercy, and to walk humbly with thy God?" (6:6-8).
In pursuing his argument in defence of the Jewishness of Jesus, Aslan presents a monolithic and distorted view of Judaism, leaving out almost entirely the dialectic in the Bible and throughout Jewish history between nationalism and universalism, ritual and morality - thus the conflict in Jesus's time between the Pharisees and the Sadducees is hardly touched upon.
Aslan claims that, after the destruction of the Temple, Judaism changed from a nationalistic, ritualistic and bloodthirsty religion to a more peaceful and universalist creed - but in fact during and even before Jesus's lifetime the Pharisees, as the heirs of the Prophets, had developed the rabbinate and the synagogue as the central focus of Judaism, behind the imposing facade of the Temple and the quisling High Priest. This was why Judaism was able to survive the destruction of the Temple. There is a strong likelihood that Jesus himself was a Pharisee rabbi, many of whom worked in ordinary trades such as shoe-making or carpentry. (I have to declare a family interest here, as one of the main proponents of this view was my father, Hyam Maccoby, in his book "Revolution in Judaea: Jesus and the Jewish Resistance".)
The main thesis of "Zealot" can be summed up in this paragraph on page 122:
"For those who view Jesus as the literally begotten son of God, Jesus's Jewishness is immaterial. If Christ is divine, then he stands above any particular law or custom. But for those seeking the simple Jewish peasant and charismatic preacher who lived in Palestine two thousand years ago, there is nothing more important than this one undeniable truth: the same God whom the Bible calls 'a man of war' (Exodus 15:3), the God who repeatedly commands the wholesale slaughter of every foreign man, woman and child who occupies the land of the Jews, the 'blood-spattered God' of Abraham, and Moses, and Jacob and Joshua (Isaiah 63:3), the God who 'shatters the heads of his enemies', bids his warriors to bathe their feet in their blood and leave their corpses to be eaten by dogs (Psalms 68: 21-23) - that is the ONLY God that Jesus knew and the SOLE God that he worshipped" (Aslan's emphasis)
Of course there are many bloodthirsty and nationalistic passages in the Hebrew Bible, but there are also numerous passages about peace and universalism. Aslan, however, selects only the very worst passages - in particular the genocidal passages in the Book of Joshua - and claims they are the whole of Biblical and first century Judaism. In discussing the concept of the "chosen people" he nowhere mentions the idea - articulated throughout the Hebrew Bible - that this means chosen to teach the other nations about God's universal morality and to set a moral example to the rest of the world; instead he explains the phrase in this way:
"For the Jews...this sense of exceptionalism was not a matter of arrogance or pride. It was a direct commandment from a jealous God who tolerated no foreign presence in the land he had set aside for his chosen people. That is why, when the Jews first came to this land a thousand years earlier, God had decreed that they massacre every man, woman and child they encountered.....and yet, a thousand years later, this same tribe that had shed so much blood to cleanse the Promised Land of every foreign element so as to rule it in the name of its God now found itself labouring under the boot of an imperial power....how would the heroes of old respond to such humiliation and degradation?....They would drench the land in blood. They would smash the heads of the heathens and gentiles, burn their idols to the ground, slaughter their wives and their children....."(pp.15-16).
No mention of the many passages in the Hebrew Bible that contradict the Book of Joshua (which archaeologists have shown had no basis in historical fact and which seems to have been composed at a time of fanatical opposition to idols in the reign of King Josiah in the seventh century BCE) - for instance the commandment to "love the stranger" in Deuteronomy (10:19), or the famine that God brought on the land because Saul had massacred the Gibeonites (II Samuel 21: 1-2). Indeed, by depicting Jesus's "zealous" Jewish hatred of Rome as primarily hatred of any non-Jewish presence in the Holy Land. Aslan obscures the revolutionary nature of Jesus's message: his revolt against occupation and oppression by a mighty Empire, in the name not just of national but universal freedom and the inauguration of a worldwide Messianic age of freedom,peace, justice and righteousness. Aslan distorts this Messianic vision into a nationalistic hope of Jewish rule over the whole world in the name of its bloodthirsty warrior God.
In terms of Jesus himself, the uniqueness of his personality is again obscured by Aslan's insistence on seeing him as just like any other Jewish peasant of his time. Surely the one thing we can be certain about in relation to Jesus is that he was a very unusual person - so remarkable a man that his disciples could not accept that he had died and his memory formed the basis of a great world-religion, however distorted that memory became. Yet Aslan argues that he must have been illiterate because most people in the land at that time were illiterate and ignores all the indications to the contrary in the Gospels.
To conclude; Aslan's argument (convincing in itself) that Jesus the man was a very Jewish figure who became distorted by Paul and the editors of the Gospels into the divine Jesus the Christ is a) not new, as many reviewers have pointed out; b) spoilt by Aslan's own distortion of what this Jewishness actually meant.