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A Review of Zealot, by Reza Aslan, (Random House, 2013) and Christian Beginnings, by Geza Vermes (Yale, 2013)
In 1956, L. Festinger, H. W.Rieckin and S. Schlacter co-authored a book titled, When Prophecy Fails: A Sociological and Psychological Study of a Modern Group That Predicted the Destruction of the World. Summarizing its conclusions, John Gager noted: "Under certain conditions a religious community whose fundamental beliefs are disconfirmed by events in the world will not necessarily collapse and disband. Instead it may undertake zealous missionary activity as a response to its sense of cognitive dissonance, i.e., a condition of distress and doubt stemming from the disconfirmation of an important belief." (Reza Aslan, Zealot, Notes: Chapter Thirteen)
Didn't the Jews in the Jesus movement suffer precisely such cognitive dissonance? After all, as Professor Reza Aslan notes in his best-selling book, Zealot, "To the Jews, a crucified messiah was nothing less than a contradiction in terms." Even worse, Deuteronomy 21:23 says, "Anyone hung on a tree [that is, crucified] is under God's curse."
Thus, in Aslan's interpretation, "The very fact of Jesus' crucifixion annulled his messianic claims. Even the disciples recognized this problem. That is why they so desperately tried to deflect their dashed hopes by arguing that the Kingdom of God they had hoped to establish was in actuality a celestial kingdom not an earthly one; that the messianic prophecies had been misconstrued; that the scriptures, properly interpreted, said the opposite of what everyone thought they did; that embedded deep in the texts was a secret truth about the dying and rising messiah that only they could uncover."
Professor Aslan maintains that it was Paul "who solved the disciples dilemma of reconciling Jesus' shameful death on the cross with the messianic expectation of the Jews, by simply discarding those expectations and transforming Jesus into a completely new creature, one that seems almost totally of his own making: Christ."
Without suggesting any role played by Paul, the late Professor Geza Vermes, writing in his recent book, Christian Beginnings: From Nazareth to Nicaea, notes: "After the crucifixion of Jesus, a small number of Jewish Christians emerged in Palestine. They believed that the Messiah promised by the prophets had already revealed himself in the person of Jesus of Nazareth," who "rose from the dead, was exalted to heaven and would soon return to inaugurate the eschatological Kingdom of God." This small group displayed contagious ecstatic behavior that permeated the community." (pp. 81-82)
The problem plaguing members of the Jesus movement, however, was their inability to persuade many Jews living in Palestine to believe in a crucified messiah. These Jews simply knew their Hebrew Scriptures too well.
Greater success, however, was to be found among the less knowledgeable Hellenized Jews living in the diaspora. And, thanks to the proselytizing of Paul -- who achieved significant success among "lower-class, unsophisticated Greeks" (Vermes, p. 97) by his preaching and by exempting them "from the ceremonial and dietary regulations of Mosaic Law" (p. 94) -- many Gentiles were converted to Christianity.
As a consequence, however, a serious rift developed between Paul, the self-proclaimed apostle who never met the historical Jesus, and Jesus's actual brother, James, who had become the titular head and favorite of the Jewish Christians in Jerusalem.
Sometime around 50 C.E., Paul was summoned to Jerusalem to "answer for his deviant teachings" to the Apostolic Council. Moreover, "almost immediately after Paul left Jerusalem, James began sending his own missionaries to Paul's congregations in Galatia, Corinth, Philippi, and most other places where Paul had built a following, in order to correct Paul's unorthodox teachings about Jesus."
According to Professor Aslan, "Paul was incensed by the delegations, which he viewed, correctly, as a threat to his authority." In response, Paul wrote many of the epistles now in the New Testament and addressed them to congregations that had been visited by the representatives from Jerusalem.
It took acts of violence to resolve the dispute between the outsider Paul and the Jewish Christians led by James. James was executed in 62 C.E. and the Romans destroyed the great Temple in Jerusalem in 70 C.E. As Professor Aslan puts it, "After the Temple was destroyed, the holy city burned to the ground, and the remnants of the Jerusalem assembly dispersed, Paul underwent a stunning rehabilitation in the Christian community."
Why? Because, "with the possible exception of the Q document (which is, after all, a hypothetical text), the only writings about Jesus that existed in 70 C.E., were the letters of Paul."
Today "more than half of the twenty-seven books that make up the New Testament are either by or about Paul." Moreover, all of the gospels were influenced by Paul's letters.