(Article changed on October 7, 2013 at 23:56)
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A Review of Zealot, by Reza Aslan, (Random House, 2013) and Christian Beginnings, by Geza Vermes (Yale, 2013)
In his best-selling book Zealot, Professor Reza Aslan asserts that there are "only two hard historical facts about Jesus of Nazareth upon which we can confidently rely: the first is that Jesus was a Jew who led a popular Jewish movement in Palestine at the beginning of the first century C.E.; the second is that Rome crucified him for doing so." "Crucifixion was a punishment reserved almost exclusively for sedition."
(Even the two individuals allegedly crucified with Jesus were called lestai, "the most common Roman designation for an insurrectionist or rebel.")
Thus, given the paucity of reliable historical evidence about Jesus, the author of Zealot places him in the social, religious and political life of first-century Palestine and uses solid historical evidence from that period to expose the many errors contained in the New Testament.
He begins by demolishing the claims, made in the gospels of Luke at (2:1-21) and in Matthew at (2:1-9), that Jesus was born in Bethlehem. First, Luke's account of Quirinius' census is "factually inaccurate." Second, it is "preposterous" to believe "the entire Roman economy would periodically be placed on hold as every Roman subject was forced to uproot himself and his entire family in order to travel great distances to the place of his father's birth, and then wait there patiently, perhaps for months, for an official to take stock of his family and his possessions, which, in any case, he would have left behind in his place of residence."
Third, there is not "a shred of corroborating evidence" in any of the many chronicles or histories of the time," whether Jewish, Christian, or Roman, to support Matthew's claim that Jesus fled into Egypt in order to escape the massacre ordered by Herod of sons born in and around Bethlehem. Consequently, Professor Aslan concludes that Jesus was born in the "inconsequential and utterly forgettable" hamlet of Nazareth.
In Zealot, we are told that early first-century Nazareth had no roads, no school, no public buildings and no synagogue. Because approximately 97 percent of all early first-century Jews were illiterate, Jesus probably was illiterate. Thus, it follows that Luke wrote theologically inspired rubbish, both when he placed Jesus in a nonexistent synagogue in Nazareth and when he had him reading from the Isaiah scroll. See Luke 4:16-22.
Jesus probably spoke Aramaic and, perhaps, some Greek. Perhaps, he was a carpenter. Unfortunately, there's only one verse in the entire New Testament -- Mark 6:3 -- that claims Jesus was a tekton, an artisan in the building trades.
Like many other New Testament scholars, Professor Aslan believes the gospel of Mark (who probably resided in Rome, whoever he was) is the most reliable of the gospels, because it was written first. Nevertheless, it was written anonymously some 40 years after Jesus' death by a person whose "coarse, elementary Greek"betrays the author's limited education." But, if Mark 6:3 is accurate, "then as an artisan and a day laborer, Jesus would have belonged to the lowest class of peasants in first-century Palestine, just above the indigent, the beggar, and the slave. The Romans used the word tekton as slang for any uneducated or illiterate peasant, and Jesus was very likely both."
Consequently, "Peasants like Jesus would have had enormous difficulty communicating in Hebrew, even in colloquial form." Thus, Luke probably wrote theologically fanciful rubbish when he described twelve-year old Jesus standing in the Temple in Jerusalem and debating the Hebrew Scriptures with rabbis and scribes. (Luke 2:42-52)
According to the New Testament, Jesus had at least four brothers and an unknown number of sisters. If correct, such biblical claims pose immense problems for the Catholic doctrine of Mary's perpetual virginity. Nevertheless, Professor Aslan believes that "the tradition of the virgin birth was an early one, perhaps predating the first gospel, Mark," which fails to mention it. Matthew and Luke wrote about it, but only decades later.
Matthew's gospel, which probably was written in Damascus some 60 to 70 years after Jesus' crucifixion, contains theologically embellished rubbish intended to demonstrate how the life and death of Jesus fulfilled the prophecies of the Hebrew Scriptures. Two previously mentioned examples are: (1) Jesus was born in Bethlehem and (2) Jesus came out of Egypt.
Matthew also claimed that Jesus' birth fulfilled the prediction of the prophet Isaiah, who at 7:14 in the Septuagint (a Greek translation of the Hebrew Scriptures) proclaimed: "Behold a virgin shall conceive and bear a son," Apparently Matthew could not read Hebrew. For, had he mastered that language, he would have known that the Septuagint actually mangled Isaiah 7:14 by mistranslating the Hebrew word ('almah (which means young woman) into the Greek word parthenos (which means virgin). The Hebrew word for virgin, betulah, is nowhere to be found in Isaiah 7:14 of the Hebrew Scriptures.
Luke is equally unreliable. For example, when Luke quotes Jesus to say, "Thus it is written that the messiah would suffer and rise again on the third day," he probably put false words into Jesus' mouth in order to fulfill the law of Moses, the prophets and the psalms (Luke 42:44-46).