His followers heard Jesus preach a last-shall-be-first populism and a revolutionary nationalism that he called the Kingdom of God. Professor Aslan asserts that "the central theme and unifying message of Jesus' brief three-year ministry was the promise of the Kingdom of God."
Jesus preached the imminent arrival of the Kingdom of God. As Mark, Matthew and Luke all generally attest, Jesus said: "Truly I tell you, there are some standing here who will not taste death until they see that the Kingdom of God has come with power." In Luke, Jesus even claims: "The Kingdom of God is in the midst of you."
According to Aslan, "The Kingdom of God is a call to revolution, plain and simple" -- and Jesus intended to become the king of that earthly kingdom.
Not true, claimed Professor Vermes. "According to Jesus, this largely hidden reality of the Kingdom, like water accumulated underground, burst into the open through charismatic phenomena. He announced that victory over evil, the fruit of exorcism performed through the spirit or the finger of God, proved that the [earthly] Kingdom had already arrived." (p. 45)
Thus, unlike Professor Aslan, who believes Jesus used miracles to advance a social and political revolution called the Kingdom of God, Professor Vermes maintains that, in Jesus' mind, his very charismatic ability to perform miracles proved that a spiritual revolution called the Kingdom of God had arrived on earth, or would arrive soon.
For Professor Aslan, the abysmal failure of Jesus' revolt was no different than the abysmal failure of the revolts led by Judas the Galilean in 4 B.C.E., by the Samaritan in 33 C.E., Theudas in 44 C.E., Jacob and Simon in 46 C.E. and the Egyptian in 57 C.E. Worse, the Jewish Revolt of 66 C.E. led to the wholesale slaughter of Jewish men, women, and children and the complete destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem in 70 C.E.
Consequently, Aslan claims, "the Jews would begin to distance themselves as much as possible from the revolutionary idealism that had led to the war with Rome." Similarly and more significantly for the emergence of Christianity, the followers of Jesus "began the long process of transforming Jesus from a revolutionary Jewish nationalist into a peaceful spiritual leader with no interest in any earthly matter."
Professor Vermes disputes the notion of a long transformation, asserting: "In effect, Jesus' expectation of the instant arrival of the Kingdom of God was immediately replaced by the prospect of his impending Second Coming." (p. 79) But, how did that happen?
Obviously, it was caused by fervent belief in Jesus' resurrection. Yet, "nowhere in the New Testament is there a description of the Resurrection" (Diarmaid MacCulloch, Christianity: The First Three Thousand Years , p. 94).
Moreover, notes Professor Vermes, "We know that Jesus did not greatly care about being called the Messiah, and neither his death nor his resurrection and second coming were announced by him or correspond to the expectations of his apostles and disciples. Instead they caused surprise, shock and astonishment." (Vermes, pp. 76-77) Nevertheless, as Aslan admits, "something extraordinary happened."
Extraordinary was the fact that, although Jesus' disciples "were beaten, whipped, stoned and crucified "they would not cease proclaiming the risen Jesus." "It was precisely the fervor with which the followers of Jesus believed in his resurrection that transformed this tiny Jewish sect into the largest religion in the world."
Finally, before turning to how Professors Aslan and Vermes interpret the work of Paul and John in Part Two of this essay, a few words need to be said about the details of final three days that culminated in Jesus' crucifixion.
First, Professor Aslan destroys the assertion, found in Mark, that Pontius Pilate asked the crowd which prisoner should be released. "Never mind that outside the gospels there exists not a shred of historical evidence for any Passover custom on the part of any Roman governor. What is truly beyond belief is the portrayal of Pontius Pilate -- a man renowned for his loathing of the Jews, his total disregard for Jewish rituals and customs, and his penchant for absentmindedly signing so many execution orders that a formal complaint was lodged against him in Rome""
And, although he doesn't explicitly say so, Professor Aslan also believes that the story found in the gospels concerning Jesus' trial before the Sanhedrin is rubbish. Why? Because, "the trial before the Sanhedrin violates nearly every requirement laid down by Jewish law for a legal proceeding. The Mishnah is adamant on this subject. The Sanhedrin is not permitted to meet at night. It is not permitted to meet during Passover. It is not permitted to meet on the eve of the Sabbath. It is certainly not permitted to meet so casually in the courtyard (aule) of the high priest, as Matthew and Mark claim. And it must begin with a detailed list of why the accused is innocent before any witnesses are allowed to come forth." Thus, the gospel writers demonstrate an "extremely poor grasp of Jewish law and Sanhedrin practice."
Aslan doesn't doubt that Jesus was crucified, but he notes that "the crucified were almost never buried. Because the entire point of the crucifixion was to humiliate the victim and frighten the witnesses, the corpse would be left where it hung to be eaten by dogs and picked clean by birds of prey. The bones would then be thrown onto a heap of trash, which is how Golgotha, the place of Jesus' crucifixion, earned its name: the place of skulls."
John Dominic Crossan also doubts that Jesus was buried. Speaking about Joseph of Aritmathia, he notes, "If Joseph was in the council [Sanhedrin], he was against Jesus; if he was for Jesus, he was not in the council. Second, if Joseph buried Jesus from piety or duty, he would have done the same for the two other crucified criminals, yet if he did that, there could be no empty tomb sequence." (p.555)