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Muslim portrays Jesus as Jewish liberator

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The high priest Jonathan, an open ally of Rome, has just left the Holy of Holies in the Temple of Jerusalem when an assassin whips out a dagger and slits his throat.

It's a dramatic opening for a book, but the assassination took place more than 30 years after the crucifixion. What does it have to do with Jesus?

Everything, according to Reza Aslan's hypothesis in his controversial work of Christian scholarship, Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth.

The retribution unleashed by Rome for the Jewish revolt against its occupation -- razing Jerusalem, killing most of the Jews and driving the rest from their land -- changed the way we know Jesus, he says.

The human being who walked the earth a few years earlier claimed he was a Jewish messiah who had been sent to overthrow Roman rule. He was not the divine pacifist portrayed in most of the New Testament.

The human, revolutionary part of Jesus was deliberately obscured and downplayed by the early fathers of the church as they made their religion more acceptable to Romans.

Aslan, an Iranian-born Muslim, has written two previous books, No god but God: The Origins, Evolution and Future of Islam and Beyond Fundamentalism, and edited a literary collection.

His family fled Iran after the Islamic Revolution. He converted to evangelical Christianity as a young man but began questioning his faith when he entered university.

Upon Zealot's release in August, Aslan was interviewed on Fox TV by a host who implied that he was unqualified to write about Christianity because he was a Muslim. The interview went viral and the book shot up bestseller charts.

Aslan concedes that he has no new sources about Jesus beyond those already well-known to scholars. In fact, most of Aslan's evidence is drawn from Jesus's own words as written in the four Gospels.

What he brings to the table is a thorough reading of other historical sources about the religion and traditions of the Jews and their relationship with the Roman Empire.

His reading of the New Testament is that it represents a chronological record of the early church acknowledging its Jewish roots and Jesus' role as Jewish messiah in Mark, the earliest gospel.

That message becomes increasingly weaker in subsequent gospels and then is displaced by the message of Paul, formerly Saul of Tarsus, persecutor of Christians.

Aslan gets to pick and choose among the New Testament writings as they fit his purpose while acknowledging other interpretations in his lengthy Notes section.

The trial of Jesus before Pontius Pilate, especially the crowd of Jews calling for his crucifixion -- the Biblical basis for anti-Semitism for the last 2,000 years -- is a complete fabrication, he says.

The early church fathers made up the story to win favour with the Romans by portraying Pilate as a genuinely decent human being forced to execute Jesus against his will.

In fact, Pilate executed people like Jesus -- there were lots of prophets in those days -- and anyone else he wanted without a pretense of a trial. The notion that he would give his subject people any say is laughable, the author says.

Aslan has put Jesus back on the public agenda with a book that challenges old assumptions and encourages deeper thought.

Donald Benham is director of hunger and poverty awareness at Winnipeg Harvest.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition September 7, 2013 A1

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