I’ve always been curious about the life of Jesus, or what of it can be accounted for outside the New Testament. It’s a topic so burdened with sensitive beliefs and emotions, that it’s a little hard to approach with casual interest.
In Reza Aslan’s Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth, the author acknowledges that neither the Gospels nor their authors were contemporary to Jesus’s life, and that the Gospels were not meant to be historically literal accounts of it. But since there is little else to go by, he analyzes them against what is known about first century Palestine.
Aslan’s thesis is that the historical Jesus led one of a succession of Jewish rebellions and movements against Roman occupiers and corrupt Temple priests. To Jesus, being the messiah would have meant re-establishing the kingdom of David, and ridding his homeland of these malign influences. The fact of his crucifixion meant, in the eyes of contemporaries who weren’t his devotees, that he was not really the messiah. It wasn’t until after the Romans finally crushed the Jewish revolts and destroyed both Jerusalem and the Temple that Jesus’s martyrdom was reinterpreted as “messianic,” and then mostly among non-Jews influenced by Paul of Tarsus.
Aslan dismisses the magical (or miraculous, if you like) stuff, including the resurrection, as a matter of faith and beyond the bounds of historical analysis. So, except to say that magicians weren’t unusual in that place and time, but were considered subversive, he doesn’t take a position on any of it.
I read through Aslan’s extensive endnotes. They are rendered in essay form— something I don’t usually like— but he’s pretty thorough and summarizes opposing viewpoints. I’d love to see this guy’s library.
In the notes Aslan frequently refers to scholarship suggesting that the lack of contemporary references means that in his lifetime Jesus was basically a nobody special; just another zealot from the boondocks. It was the Christians of the early church who made him into Christ, an orthodoxy that was only enforced as Christianity became a state religion. Christian beliefs that Jesus was not God were exterminated soon after.