The day after Reza Aslan was interviewed by Lauren Green on Fox News last July, Buzzfeed posted the 10 minute clip under the headline, Is this the Most Embarrassing Interview Fox News has ever done? here. So far it’s got over 4 million hits.
His book, Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth was already a best seller, and there were some who suggested that Aslan was all too willing to go head to head with the intellectual giants at Fox to further fuel those sales. And that the 35% increase in sales that followed was all part of a carefully contrived plan.
All of which is to miss the point. It’s a brilliant book. The extensive and all-encompassing research that Aslan has done has all been distilled into a wonderfully accessible, page-turning narrative. We follow the people of Judea decade by decade, as they pass through a series of insurrections which produce a steady succession of Messiahs, all bent on wresting the promised land from greedy Roman hands.
The story he tells gets especially interesting when the Christian faction of Judaism splits after Jesus’ death.
On the one hand, there was Paul who sought to open up Christianity to allow gentiles join by insisting that faith was all you needed to be a follower of Christ. You were not in other words required to follow Jewish law.
And on the other there was Jesus’ brother James, who was head of the Jewish Christians based around the all important Temple in Jerusalem. They (continued to) define themselves by their strict adherence to the Law.
Paul’s indifference to Jewish Law quickly developed into outright hostility, and eventually he was summoned to Jerusalem and forced to humiliatingly recant. And that would have been that.
Except that it was precisely at this moment in time that the Romans finally tired of their constant insurrections, and the newly crowned emperor Vespasian sent his son, the future emperor Titus, to quash the Judeans once and for all.
Father and son were determined to make an example of the Judeans, and understood all too well that the Judeans and their peculiar, singular religion were one and the same. By the time their campaign was over in 74AD, the people and their religion were in tatters. And suddenly, Paul’s Hellenistic brand of Christianity became the only Jewish game in town.
Hence, as the gospels came to be written over the next few decades, Mark in 70s, Matthew and Luke in the 90s and John between 100-120AD, the blame for Christ’s death shifted from the Romans to the Jewish priests of the temple.
As understandably, Christians tried to distance themselves from any suggestion of Jewishness, which could easily be met with execution. And equally, the people that Paul and his followers were now trying to convert, in their very un-Jewish way, were of course the Romans.
So for the next few centuries, Jews and Christians defined themselves in terms of the Other. The few Jews who had survived were living in exile in Babylon. And they defined themselves as those who continued to rigorously obey the (Jewish) Law. Whilst all around them, throughout the rest of the Roman Empire, Christians defined themselves as they who did not have to obey the Law. But could worship through faith alone.
So being Christian was expressed in your anti-Jewishness. And being Jewish, by your anti-Christian-ness.
Over time, they each came to denounce one another with increasing vitriol. And that very probably would have been that. But something extraordinary happened.
In 312 Constantine converted to Christianity. Incredibly, within barely a few decades, the whole of the Roman Empire had followed suit. It’s worth remembering that when Akhenaten tried something similar in 14th century BC Egypt, the priests there very nearly succeeded in erasing his name or any evidence of his existence from memory within a few years of his death.
Not only did the Roman Empire convert to Christianity almost over night (the Council of Nicea took place after all in 325), but the rest of the Western world to the North and East of the Roman Empire also converted. And so the whole of Christendom, that is the whole of the Western world, were practicing a religion that had begun by being defined by its anti-Jewishness.
When Islam then rose up in the East, it was all too easy for the West to lump the few Jews that there were with the new Other, and to continue vilifying them accordingly.
All of which, as Aslan’s book so brilliantly illustrates, begins with that split in the very early church, between the Hellenistic followers of Christ under Paul, and the Jewish branch under James, in the soon to be sacked Jerusalem.
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