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The Zealot
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The Real Reason The Romans Crucified Jesus

By James Donahue

A controversial book, “Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth” by Dr. Reza Aslan, religious sociologist at University of California, paints a more realistic picture of just who Jesus was, what he was attempting to accomplish, and why he was executed by the Roman government.

Aslan’s report, based on the Hebrew and Roman politics of that time, on the published words of Jesus, and known details of the crucifixion, has obviously stirred the wrath of the Christian church.
Aslan claims Jesus was a religious zealot that was attempting to restore Judaism to its fundamental state. He consequently created many religious and political enemies, and was arrested and executed by Rome for the crime of sedition against the state.

In an interview with Truthout writer Mark Karlin, Aslan noted that “crucifixion was a punishment that Rome reserved almost exclusively for crimes against the state. Jesus’ crucifixion is proof that the Roman Empire saw him as a legitimate threat to the stability of the state.”

He said the “thieves” who were crucified with Jesus were not thieves. “The Greek word used is lestai, which does not mean thieves but bandits.” Aslan said the word bandit was a common Roman term in that day for a rebel or insurrectionist.

So why would the Romans think of an itinerate religious leader of a small group of followers as a threat to government stability? It was because Jesus was a religious zealot. That is he taught an uncompromising commitment to the sole sovereignty of God and a refusal to serve any master but God. Roman rulers thus found themselves in competition with this invisible god since they declared themselves sovereign rulers over the people.

The Jews of Israel were living under Roman occupation. Some zealots of that period hated the Romans so much they were launching armed rebellions. While Jesus never practiced this kind of zealotry, Aslan noted that he shared what all zealots had in common during that period, “a loathing for the heathen empire in occupation of the holy land and their priestly collaborators in Jerusalem.

“When you look at Jesus’ teachings and actions in the light of the history of his time, you cannot fail to see his zealot tendencies,” Aslan said.

He said Jesus never intended to establish a new religion, but to lead the Jewish people back to the law of Moses. “The historical Jesus was a Jew preaching Judaism to other Jews.” The problem was that Judaism, like Christianity today, was a fractured religion in Jesus’ time. “The historican Josephus says there were 24 sects of Judaism in the holy land alone. You can see the multiple ways in which Judaism was defined in the arguments that Jesus has with the Pharisees and Sadducees. But those were not arguments against Judaism. They were arguments about Judaism – about how to interpret it.”

When asked about the many miracles reportedly performed by Jesus and his resurrection following his death, Aslan noted that the gospels were written many years after Jesus died. And they were just four gospel messages chosen from dozens to be included in the New Testament.

“The gospels are not meant to be read as biography. They are testimonies of faith written by communities of faith many years after the events they describe. . . the gospel writers already believed something about Jesus and they wrote their gospels to prove that belief.”