Reza Aslan’s book on Jesus, that Viral and the Origins of Anti-Semitism.

Reza Aslan on Fox News.

Reza Aslan on Fox News.

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.

Aslan's brilliant "Zealot: the life and times of Jesus of Nazareth".

Aslan’s bril­liant “Zealot: the life and times of Jesus of Nazareth”.

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.

The looted Menorah displayed in the Roman Forum.

The loot­ed Meno­rah dis­played in the Roman Forum.

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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