Separating Jesus the Man From the Myth

Reza Aslan Finds the Person Beneath Centuries of Dogma

The Gospel According to Reza: Reza Aslan, in his new book, “Zealot,” maintains that it was unlikely Jesus was able to read or write.
Getty Images/Hulton Archive
The Gospel According to Reza: Reza Aslan, in his new book, “Zealot,” maintains that it was unlikely Jesus was able to read or write.

By Naomi Alderman

Published July 29, 2013, issue of August 02, 2013.
  • Print
  • Share Share
  • Single Page

(page 2 of 2)

It is “in a word, preposterous” that Jesus was born in Bethlehem. A census was indeed taken in the year 6 BCE in Judea, but Aslan demolishes in a few swift sentences the idea that the never-inefficient Romans would have had people tramping over the country to their place of birth to be counted.

This, along with several other provable falsehoods in the Gospels, is explicable because they were written largely for a non-Jewish audience that wouldn’t have known it was inaccurate.

It is unlikely, Aslan points out, that Jesus would have been able to read or write. He was a follower of John the Baptist, who took over that man’s ministry after he was executed. Aslan shows how each chronologically succeeding Gospel downplays the role of John a little more, trying to make the case for Jesus’ uniquely divine status.

But Jesus’ followers begin to follow him only after John was arrested. It was John who spoke first of the Kingdom of God. Jesus’ message about a God who cares most of all how we treat others comes from Jewish tradition and from John. “Jesus even addresses his enemies… with the same distinct phrase John uses for them: ‘You brood of vipers,’” Aslan writes. Jesus, in Aslan’s convincing reading, is a disciple himself, who carries his master’s message and expands it into “a movement of liberation for the afflicted and oppressed… founded on the promise that God would soon intervene.”

One of the greatest challenges of researching this period is separating the lies, which have been inserted because they would have been expedient at the time, from the elements, which are probably true. Since Jesus repeatedly denies being the chosen Messiah — where it would have been more convenient for the Gospel writers, many of whom never met Jesus, for him to have accepted the title enthusiastically — we can presume that the historical man really did reject the title of Messiah. He calls himself instead the “son of man.” Aslan convincingly suggests that Jesus very strongly associates himself with the phrase “son of man,” meaning that he is a human king, not a godly Messiah.

And why, Aslan asks, was Jesus crucified? “If one knew nothing else about Jesus of Nazareth save that he was crucified by Rome, one would know practically all that was needed to uncover who he was and why he ended up nailed to a cross…. His offence… was etched upon a plaque and placed above his head for all to see: Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews. His crime was daring to assume kingly ambitions.”

In the closing chapters of “Zealot,” Aslan focuses on how the Jesus movement grew after the death of Jesus. Jesus’ brother James leads a group of followers who obey the Jewish laws and see no conflict between being a follower of Jesus and a Jew. But it’s Paul — a man who almost certainly never met Jesus and had persecuted his followers — who triumphs. He takes his idea of Jesus, a divine incarnation, more God than man, to a non-Jewish audience and there finds the converts to Christianity. And thus begins the modern age.

Nothing in “Zealot” will come as a surprise to anyone who has studied the period in any detail. Aslan’s triumph is not in original research or speculation. This is a deft, concise, respectful and accessible summary of — dare I say it? — the truth. It’s a summer afternoon’s read that explains, essentially, how Western civilization came to take the pattern we see today. And it’s hard to think of anyone, really, who wouldn’t benefit from reading it, if willing to accept its message. What’s most surprising is that a story so well accepted by scholars should still come as such a shock to us.

Naomi Alderman is a prize-winning novelist. Her most recent novel, “The Liars’ Gospel,” is published by Little, Brown.


The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.





Find us on Facebook!
  • This is what the rockets over Israel and Gaza look like from space:
  • "Israel should not let captives languish or corpses rot. It should do everything in its power to recover people and bodies. Jewish law places a premium on pidyon shvuyim, “the redemption of captives,” and proper burial. But not when the price will lead to more death and more kidnappings." Do you agree?
  • Slate.com's Allison Benedikt wrote that Taglit-Birthright Israel is partly to blame for the death of American IDF volunteer Max Steinberg. This is why she's wrong:
  • Israeli soldiers want you to buy them socks. And snacks. And backpacks. And underwear. And pizza. So claim dozens of fundraising campaigns launched by American Jewish and Israeli charities since the start of the current wave of crisis and conflict in Israel and Gaza.
  • The sign reads: “Dogs are allowed in this establishment but Zionists are not under any circumstances.”
  • Is Twitter Israel's new worst enemy?
  • More than 50 former Israeli soldiers have refused to serve in the current ground operation in #Gaza.
  • "My wife and I are both half-Jewish. Both of us very much felt and feel American first and Jewish second. We are currently debating whether we should send our daughter to a Jewish pre-K and kindergarten program or to a public one. Pros? Give her a Jewish community and identity that she could build on throughout her life. Cons? Costs a lot of money; She will enter school with the idea that being Jewish makes her different somehow instead of something that you do after or in addition to regular school. Maybe a Shabbat sing-along would be enough?"
  • Undeterred by the conflict, 24 Jews participated in the first ever Jewish National Fund— JDate singles trip to Israel. Translation: Jews age 30 to 45 travelled to Israel to get it on in the sun, with a side of hummus.
  • "It pains and shocks me to say this, but here goes: My father was right all along. He always told me, as I spouted liberal talking points at the Shabbos table and challenged his hawkish views on Israel and the Palestinians to his unending chagrin, that I would one day change my tune." Have you had a similar experience?
  • "'What’s this, mommy?' she asked, while pulling at the purple sleeve to unwrap this mysterious little gift mom keeps hidden in the inside pocket of her bag. Oh boy, how do I answer?"
  • "I fear that we are witnessing the end of politics in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. I see no possibility for resolution right now. I look into the future and see only a void." What do you think?
  • Not a gazillionaire? Take the "poor door."
  • "We will do what we must to protect our people. We have that right. We are not less deserving of life and quiet than anyone else. No more apologies."
  • "Woody Allen should have quit while he was ahead." Ezra Glinter's review of "Magic in the Moonlight": http://jd.fo/f4Q1Q
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?




















We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.