Listening to my pastor’s (typically excellent) homily this morning, I thought about how hard it is to pin Jesus down, and put him into a box that suits our desires. He is merciful and compassionate, but he is also angry and uncompromising. He is such an enigmatic figure, I thought, that if you think you’ve got him figured out, that’s almost a sure sign you haven’t. Whenever I hear someone, even someone I agree with theologically, start a sentence with, If Jesus were here today, he would…, I can fill in the rest myself: “… do what I would have him do in this situation.”

Later in the day, I read Ross Douthat’s (typically excellent) column. He writes about Reza Aslan’s controversial book Zealot, which portrays Jesus as a failed political revolutionary. Douthat observes that all these modern revisionist Jesuses tend to edit the Jesus of the Gospels to reduce the highly complex figure into a one-dimensional man. You can have Jesus the zealot, or Jesus the mystic, or many other kinds of Jesus that we find comprehensible today. But do you have the Jesus who was? Excerpt from Douthat:

There’s enough gospel material to make any of these portraits credible. But they also tend to be rather, well, boring, and to raise the question of how a pedestrian figure — one zealot among many, one mystic in a Mediterranean full of them — inspired a global faith.

That’s not a question such books are usually designed to answer. They’re better seen as laments for paths not taken, Christianities that might have been. The mystical Jesus is for readers who wish we had the parables without the creeds, the philosophical Jesus for readers who wish Christianity had developed like the Ethical Culture movement. And a political Jesus like Aslan’s is for readers who feel, as one of his reviewers put it, that “Jesus’ usefulness as a challenge to power was lost the moment Christians first believed he rose from the dead.”

This means that the best companion reading for “Zealot” probably isn’t an alternative portrayal of Jesus’s life and times. Rather, it’s a recent book like the classicist Sarah Ruden’s “Paul Among the People” or the theologian David Bentley Hart’s “Atheist Delusions: The Christian Revolution and Its Fashionable Enemies.”

Coming from different vantage points — Ruden is more theologically liberal, Hart more conservative — both authors explore just how radical the actual Christian revolution was, how it upended the ancient world’s violent, patriarchal, hierarchical norms, and how many liberal, modern and egalitarian attitudes are indebted to early Christian zeal.

In the end, these books are attempts to answer the question Jesus put to Peter: “Who do you say that I am?” It does not require a belief in the divinity of Jesus to suspect that if the people of the first, second, and third centuries had answered that question as some celebrated authors and theologians of the 19th, 20th, and 21st centuries do, there would be no such thing as Christianity today. There’s something about Jesus of Nazareth that defies our easy categories.

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