Zealot: the Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth by Reza Aslan, Allen& Unwin, 2013.

We live in challenging and often violent times, where major powers invade smaller nations and religious extremism is rife. Our current situation is not unlike the first century in Palestine, which is the subject of this new best-selling book by Reza Aslan who is also, not surprisingly, a specialist in religious extremism and fundamentalism. The author argues that to understand the development of Christianity, we must place Jesus in the context of his times and then move on to see what others have done with his original teachings.

What he has discovered is that, in fact, Jesus was a Jewish nationalist preacher who wanted independence from the Roman Empire and that later Jewish, Greek, and Roman converts turned him into a pacific preacher whose kingdom was not of this world. He points to St Paul as the principle proponent of what has become Christianity today being quite at odds with the original teachings of Jesus. He says that these original teachings were those of an obscure sect of Judaism and intended principally for Jewish followers. Jesus’s philosophy was carried forward by his brother, James, after Jesus execution on the cross for sedition by the Roman and Temple authorities in Jerusalem around 33AD. The author says that Jesus was merely one of many Jewish preachers who taught the sovereignty of the Jewish God and the imminent coming of a ‘messiah’ to liberate them from bondage to a variety of outside powers. This same belief formed the basis of every Jewish resistance movement from the Maccabees, who threw off the yoke of the Persian Seleucid rule in 164 BC, to the radicals and revolutionaries who resisted Roman occupation – the outright bandits, the Sicarii assassins, the religious  Zealots, and the martyrs of Masada following the Roman invasion and destruction of the second Jerusalem Temple in 70AD. The author paints a fascinating landscape of the turbulent times in which Jesus is believed by millions of Christians today to have walked the earth preaching his message.

However, from a theosophical perspective, as I understand it, this is a misunderstanding of the work of the great avatara or high spiritual teacher who in fact came to the Palestine region about one hundred years before the events mentioned in the New Testament. According to theosophical authors, the story of Jesus is merely an analogy of what occurred in the mystery schools as a kind of example or instruction manual for his followers of the qualities and aspirations required on the spiritual path. This fiction was based on the events of first century Palestine with Jesus as the type figure of the highly-evolved Initiate, in order to provide a meaningful analogy for the followers of this great master, and was certainly understood to be so by other early Christian groups such as the Gnostic Christians. It was only later, particularly after the first Council of Nicea in 325 AD, that our understanding of Jesus Christ as a God-Man based on the teachings of St Paul became widespread and eventually enforced by the Roman empire as the state religion towards the end of the fourth century AD giving us Christianity as we have it today.

To me, though, by restricting himself to social and political matters, the author completely misses the great depth and mystical significance of Christian teaching both in the Gospels included in the New Testament, but especially in those which never made it into the Bible and were found in the Nag Hammadi library of Christian (and other) manuscripts in 1945. Reza Aslan has done a great service by drawing our attention to the reality of the turbulent times in which Jesus was supposed to have lived and the possible influences on his teachings and followers of that time. Theosophists can also learn a lot from the example of Christianity how easily the original teachings of a spiritual teacher can be turned into a social and political force to control and dominate people. However, to me this is incidental to the majesty and power of those teachings to move Christian people to live a better life and show kindness to others right down through the centuries to the equally turbulent early years of our 21st century.   Andrew Rooke

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