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The time and place of Jesus’ birth was turbulent. Judea had recently been captured by a Roman army under the command of the General Pompey the Great in 63 BC and forcibly brought into the Roman Republic as a client kingdom. Soon, “Countless prophets, preachers, and messiahs tramped through the Holy Land delivering messages of God’s imminent judgment.” (page xxiii) The Romans were careful to prevent what they regarded as troublemakers from challenging their authority, and quickly killed them and their followers.

There are only three non-biblical mentions of Jesus. The Jewish historian Josephus in his Antiquities, written 94 C.E. states, “James, the brother of Jesus, the one they call messiah,” was sentenced to stoning for transgression of the law. Another is the mention of Jesus of Nazareth by Pliny the Younger, and another by Tacitus about the same time, and each of those gives a similarly brief mention of him. Thus to make any sense of Jesus it is necessary to go to the Christian sources and compare them to known facts about the period, and that is what Reza Aslan does in Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth.

For a neutral timeline go to the Wikipedia Chronology of Jesus.

Here is an example of how Aslan describes in vivid detail how a person convicted of sedition against the Roman Empire was treated. “That is how, on a bald hill covered in crosses, beset by the cries and moans of agony from hundreds of dying criminals, as a murder or crows circled eagerly over his head waiting for him to breathe his last, the messiah known as Jesus of Nazareth would have met the same ignominious end as every other messiah who came before or after him. Except that unlike those other messiahs, this one would not be forgotten.” (p. 159) The function of the vicious treatment was to set an example to those still living not to challenge the state’s authority. That is why they left the corpses hanging until there was nothing left for the birds to eat, and then let the skeletons drop to the ground so the dogs could further desecrate those convicted, and then abandoned them in a heap of bones and skulls. The pile of unburied skulls is why the hill was named Golgotha, which means hill of skulls. At the crucifixion, “Jesus was given a titulus detailing the crime for which he was being crucified. Jesus’s titulus reads KING OF THE JEWS. His crime: striving for kingly rule; sedition. … like Hezekiah and Judas, Theudas and Athronges, the Egyptian and the Samaritan, Simon son of Giora and Simon son of Kochba—Jesus of Nazareth is executed for daring to claim the mantle of king and messiah.” (p. 78-79) None of these seditionists would have been taken down and buried in a rich man’s tomb; quite the opposite, they would have been placed in a conspicuous place as a clear warning to the living.

It wasn’t enough, and the Jews continued to rebel against Roman rule. So in 70 AD the Roman army returned and after recapturing the countryside laid siege to Jerusalem. And when it fell they killed everyone and burned what was flammable and tumbled down the stones. That was standard procedure for disobedience. As terrible as that sounds to us moderns, Steven Pinker in his book The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined demonstrates that life under Roman law was ten times less deadly than life outside of their rule. The next century was known as the Pax Romana – the Roman Peace.

Reza Aslan gives many other examples of where the traditional stories don’t jibe with the probable historical facts, and the reasons why there is a problem. The stories written down for us were created to illustrate moral teachings, not historical facts. Most stories were created by people who did not know Jesus, and they  varied throughout the Roman empire until 325 AD when Emperor Constantine called together representatives to standardize the teaching. Note this Nicene Council was three centuries after Jesus’ death, and it determined what was codified into the Christian religion and into the Roman state religion. It was the beginning of the Dark Ages that lasted a millennium.

Zealot is a fine book for Christians and others to read to gain historical perspective.