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In IndiaFacts: Review – Zealot by Reza Aslan

(The original version was published at IndiaFacts)

In 66 C.E., fed up with the Roman occupation of their land, the Jews declared war on the Roman Empire. Soldiers patrolled even in the temple of this supposedly inconsequential part of the empire. Imagine the anger Malayalis would have felt if Communists administered their temples and the state looted its wealth. Wait. Wrong example. Though Rome was a powerful empire, the Jews were confident that their God would take them to victory. Motivated by what looked like a possible victory, the rebels attacked Jews who colluded with the Romans. Many messiahs also appeared on the scene, prophesying the end of Jerusalem. Finally, the miracle happened; they liberated Jerusalem.

If any Carthaginians were around, they would have told the Jews that this was a bad idea. In 70 C.E., the empire struck back. They razed the city to the ground, slaughtered the Jews and exiled the survivors. They also renamed the city and erased all mention of it from the record. Unlike Hindus, the Jews did not have temples all over the country. There was one temple — The Temple at Jerusalem — the center of their worship and that was gone. It was not just the Jews who were affected; the followers of a man named Yeshua were affected dramatically. It was after these events that the first Gospels were written.

Due to these sequence of events, Aslan argues that the Jesus of the Gospels is not the same as the historical man named Yeshua. For Aslan, the Gospels were written by believers for a specific purpose and are not historical documents. He ignores them and presents a picture of Yeshua by looking at the social, political and theological context of that period. Aslan himself is a former evangelical, who gave up that life as he became a religious scholar. Besides painting a portrait of Yeshua, he also reveals how the modern Jesus was invented.

If Jesus was not the person whom the Gospels claim to be — the good shepherd, the peacenik, the one who turned the other cheek — then who was he? According to Aslan, two things we can be sure are

  1. He was a Jew who led a popular movement like many others
  2. He was crucified by the Romans like many others.

To those who believe Yeshua was a child prodigy, who at a young age, stunned the priests of the Temple and to those Indians who are fascinated by the tale of Jesus learning in India, Aslan, who has been a Biblical scholar for two decades, sets the record straight. Yeshua was a woodworker or craftsman who never ventured far away. All Jewish peasants of the time were illiterate; Yeshua could not have been any different. (On a side note, the theory that he died in Tibet has been debunked as well)

Once baptized by his guru, John the Baptist, Yeshua took on a career of preaching. He wandered around as a professional exorcist, curing the ill of their sickness. Another common profession during that period, it paid more than being a woodworker. He was not the only miracle worker of that period, “it was quite common to see diviners, dream interpreters, magicians and medicine men wandering around the region”. But Aslan says Jesus did something different from the rest: he never charged for his work. We know that because the pagan and Jewish critics of Christianity agree on this as well.

Yeshua was not stoned to death for blasphemy, but crucified, which was the Roman punishment for treason. Anyone who proclaimed he was a messiah was crucified for striving to overthrow the Roman empire. Disrupting the activities of the temple, Yeshua proclaimed that the Kingdom of God was coming soon and this occurred during the time of when rebels were working to overthrow the Romans and bring the land under Jewish control. The main thesis of Aslan’s book is that Jesus was not someone who was talking about abstract ideas during this time, but was a zealot, actively involved in this movement like others of that period. Yeshua proclaimed that the present order would be replaced by a new political, religious and economic system and for advocating such a revolutionary idea, he was executed by crucifixion.

Another point Aslan makes is that the crucifixion of Jesus was not one of those stop the world events that happened in Jerusalem. Pilate, the Roman governor, who sent Jesus to the cross had utter disregard for Jewish customs and had crucified many others. He would not even have met Jesus. Terrorized by Pilate’s hobby, the people of Jerusalem complained to the Roman emperor. Even then he did not lose his job. Nothing happened to the temple priest as well. It was much later, after Pilate sent soldiers to butcher the followers of another messiah, that both he and the temple priest lost their jobs.

Following the crucifixion of Yeshua, three major strands of events occurred. The followers of Yeshua — the ones who walked with him — were shocked. The messiah who promised to rebuild David’s Kingdom had not only failed but was crucified like a state criminal. What did that mean? What could they do now? For the Jews, it was curtains down. He was yet another failed messiah. But for members of the Jesus movement, they had to invent a new explanation. They also had to prove to others that he indeed was the messiah. One of the earliest beliefs they came up was the radically new resurrection narrative — that he arose on the third day. They stayed in Jerusalem, continuing his teaching.

The second chain of events was set off by Paul who was inspired by Jesus though he had never met him. Other writers claimed Paul had a vision; Paul himself never said so. For Paul, Jesus was divine. Paul’s target market was the urbanized elite who did not care for messianic concepts or Jewish rituals. For the original illiterate followers of Jesus, Paul’s teachings were all Greek (literally). It would be like Hindus reading the writings of Prof. Wendy Doniger. In fact, Paul’s teaching looked so radical that the head of the Hebrew followers, James, (the brother of Jesus), sent congregations to convert the followers of Paul back to the fold; James was quite successful.

As the Hebrews — the farmers and fishermen followers of Jesus — and the Hellenists — the urbanized Greek speaking Romans — were duking it out , 9/11 hit Jerusalem and the Romans wiped out the place from the map. This triggered the third sequence of events. The Gospels were written down in various cities in the empire — Rome, Damascus, Antioch, and Ephesus — by people who had never met Yeshua. By then four decades had passed since Yeshua’s crucifixion and the eyewitnesses to his life had perished. The teachings that were passed along were conveniently modified.

Also, after 70 C.E, it was clear to everyone, who had the power to chop off your head. The authors of the Gospels could either stick their neck out and write that Jesus was a man who wanted to overthrow the Roman empire or they could spin another tale. They chose the latter. A Jesus, who operated at a divine plane and had nothing to do with earthly matters became a convenient replacement.

The author of the first gospel, attributed to Mark, wanted to absolve the Romans of all the crime. Hence, the whole story of Pilate washing his hands of Jesus was invented. The Romans, who crucified Yeshua were sanitized and Jews who did not accept him as the messiah became the villains. That was the birth of anti-Semitism, the consequences of which can be seen even today. Another important point to note is that the gospels were not written in Hebrew or Aramaic, but in Greek. The evangelists’ goal was to convert the gentiles and so distancing themselves from Jewish “mumbo-jumbo” seemed right.

Aslan is not the first person to do this kind of analysis. He is one among many of a two centuries old line of scholarship trying to excavate the historical Jesus. Many years back, Prof. Thomas Sheehan of Stanford, taught a course called The Historical Jesus where he did similar analysis looking into the Gospels to find out what fits and what does not. Usually, historians go to primary sources to find the truth, but in this case, Sheehan says, the primary source are problematic. The Gospels which are now considered Canonical were ruled so by political forces. Whatever did not fit the template was considered heretic, a concept alien to dharmic traditions. Each blind scholar in this lineage found a different part of the elephant: using historical studies, literary analysis and sociology, they found Yeshua to be either a philosopher or an apocalyptic preacher or teacher or simply a magician.

With the destruction of Jerusalem, the original message was diluted and the urbanized, educated Greek-speaking diaspora Jews, immersed in Greek philosophy and Hellenistic culture Deepak Chopra-ed a new religion. This is like how American Buddhists are defining a new “scientific” religion by eradicating traces of Hinduism and mystical elements of Buddhism and retaining just mindfulness. The failed messiah, who did not set out to create Christianity, became the creator of heavens and earth and had nothing to do with the Roman occupation or the fight against it. This Neo-Jesus is the one to whom believers pray every weekend.

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Slaves Refuting Pro-Slavery Arguments

The inspection and sale of a slave

The inspection and sale of a slave, 1854

James Henry Hammond was a politician and planter from South Carolina who served as a United States Representative, the  Governor of South Carolina  and as a United States Senator. He owned several plantations, about 300 slaves and was one of the outspoken supporters of slavery before the American Civil War. In Letter to an English Abolitionist written in 1845, he argued that slavery was more humane than wage labor.

“You think it is a great ‘crime’ that we do not pay our slaves ‘wages,’ and on this account pronounce us ‘robbers.’  In my former letter I showed that the labor of our slaves was not without great cost to us and that in fact they themselves receive more in return for it than your hirelings do for theirs. . . It is altogether praiseworthy to pay the laborer a shilling a day and let him starve on it.  To supply all his wants abundantly, and at all times, yet withhold from his money, is among ‘the most reprobated crimes.”

This outrageous claim was challenged by narratives written by the slaves, published with the help of anti-slavery and abolitionist allies. A perfect rebuttal is this passage from Twelve Years a Slave by Solomon Northrup.

“The existence of slavery in its most cruel form among them has a tendency to brutalize the humane and finer feelings of their nature. Daily witnesses of human suffering—listening to the agonizing screeches of the slave—beholding him writhing beneath the merciless lash—bitten and torn by dogs—dying without attention, and buried without shroud or coffin—it cannot otherwise be expected, than that they should become brutified and reckless of human life.”

When Hammond tried to present the image of a benevolent overlord, who provides for his slaves, as opposed to people who just paid wages to laborers, he just washed away the humanity that was taken away from the slaves. The above passage mentions all that Hammond did not acknowledge.  The slaves lived in perpetual fear of punishment and hardship. The master, by law, owned the blood and flesh and had the freedom to enforce tyranny. For example, during the cotton picking time, the slaves were expected to rise early in the morning, take a break for ten to fifteen minutes at noon to eat a cold meal and then slave away till dark. Once the cotton was picked, they were weighed and if the quota was not met, the floggings started.

When an impurity was found in the picked cotton or a branch was broken, the penalty was twenty five lashes. For crimes above this, they got fifty lashes. If you stood idle, the penalty was a hundred lashes and two hundred, if you fought with other slaves. Runaway slaves got five hundred lashes  and Northrup mentions an incident where a slave named Patsy was almost flogged to death. For some incidents, they were put down like animals or hanged. Northrup writes that  for some slave owners “…. whose chief delight was in dancing with his “niggers,” or lashing them about the yard with his long whip, just for the pleasure of hearing them screech and scream“ were not paternalistic as Hammond claimed, but just sadistic.

Slave Market in Atlanta, 1864

Slave Market in Atlanta, 1864

While daily laborers sold their labor and not themselves, that was not the case with the slaves. Since they had no ability to read, write or swim, they had to endure the torture. Floggings were the not cruelty they had to endure. Overseers, whose sole motive was to ensure the maximum crop without any concern for the suffering went around with dogs to overhaul fleeing fugitives and even used the gun sometimes. If a slave fell down, tired from his cotton picking, he was dragged to the shade and buckets of water poured on him to wake him up. Once he woke up, he was sent back to labor.

In the quoted passage, Northrup mentions the “ tendency to brutalize the humane and finer feelings of their nature.” Slaves were treated like animals. In the slave market, customers would examine their body, look at their teeth, ask about their skills, like how “a jockey examines a horse.” In some cases, they were stripped and examined more carefully. Once a purchase was finalized, the purchasers did not care if a family was separated. One of the heart wrenching incidents in the book is when a mother and her children are separated without any remorse by the slave trader. Charles Ball, in his account, Fifty Years in Chains, wrote about the painful separation of the family as the most traumatic experience, “ …I was now a slave in South Carolina, and had no hope of ever again seeing my wife and children. I had at times serious thoughts of suicide so great was my anguish.”

“Slavery is terrible for men; but it is far more terrible for women. Superadded to the burden common to all, they have wrongs, and sufferings, and mortifications peculiarly their own”, wrote Harriet Jacobs, a slave woman in Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl , upon the birth of her daughter. Besides the physical and mental torture, female slaves also faced sexual harassment. When she was 15, her 55 year old master Mr. Flint was after her. Her mistress knew what was going on, but in patriarchal system, she was helpless and  vented her anger on the female slaves. To find a way out from Mr. Flint, she entered into a relationship with a lawyer with whom she had children. Mr. Flint still did not leave her alone and threatened to separate her from her children.

All these narratives reinforce the view that the slave was the master’s property and he could do whatever he wished with them. In his book, Northrup rightly notes that all of this was happening in the country which proclaimed, “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.”

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Camels and ashva, Hebrew Bible and Rig Veda

(by Martin Allen)

(by Martin Allen)

Archaeologists from Tel Aviv university, who were investigating the date when camels first appeared in Israel discovered something interesting. Here is the gist:

Now Dr. Erez Ben-Yosef and Dr. Lidar Sapir-Hen of Tel Aviv University’sDepartment of Archaeology and Near Eastern Cultures have used radiocarbon dating to pinpoint the moment when domesticated camels arrived in the southern Levant, pushing the estimate from the 12th to the 9th century BCE. The findings, published recently in the journal Tel Aviv, further emphasize the disagreements between Biblical texts and verifiable history, and define a turning point in Israel’s engagement with the rest of the world.[Finding Israel’s First Camels]

This is interesting because the Genesis mentions the camels but those events in the Genesis, according to this new evidence happened before the camels arrived on the scene. For example, among the living beings that Abraham acquired, there were  sheep and cattle, male and female donkeys, male and female servants, and camels. There are further mentions of a servant going from Northwest Mesopotamia to the town of Nahor on camels, providing water and food to the camels and an explanation of why one should not eat a camel.

If camels were not present in Israel while these events supposedly happened, then how did it appear in the text? There are two possible explanations: (1) The events happened not in an earlier period, but later after the camels appeared or (2) The events happened in the earlier period, but was written down in a much later period by scribes when camels were also present and camels were back projected to earlier events.

The New York Times had an exchange with an expert who suggested this answer

“One should be careful not to rush to the conclusion that the new archaeological findings automatically deny any historical value from the biblical stories,” Dr. Mizrahi said in an email. “Rather, they established that these traditions were indeed reformulated in relatively late periods after camels had been integrated into the Near Eastern economic system. But this does not mean that these very traditions cannot capture other details that have an older historical background.”

Moreover, for anyone who grew up with Sunday school images of the Three Wise Men from the East arriving astride camels at the manger in Bethlehem, whatever uncertainties there may be of that story, at least one thing is clear: By then the camel in the service of human life was no longer an anachronism.

There was no dissenting voice here; there was no scholar arguing against the historicity of the events. Compare that with the response in The Guardian. This also has to be contrasted with the relation between another animal and another text. The Rig Veda uses the word ashva over two hundred times, and according to some, horses arrived with the invading Aryans following the decline of the Indus-Saraswati civilization. Thus the Vedic culture could have occurred only after the arrival of the Indo-European speakers to North-West India. According to Wendy Doniger in The Hindus, “No Indus horse whinnied in the night. Knowing how important horses are in the Vedas, we may deduce that there was little or no Vedic input into the civilization of the Indus Valley or, correspondingly, that there was little input from the IVC into the civilization of the Rig Veda.”

Most of this argument has been analyzed by Michel Danino and found to be suspect. Various scholars — linguists, archaeologists and historians — are proposing a higher chronology now. That debate is one with no end in sight. But will any scholar stick out his head and say that based on the evidence from Saraswati, the Vedas were composed much earlier than we thought when ashva was not around, but it may have been altered later and the ashva was added. If you do that the Wendytva proponents will be up in arms.

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Why Christianity spread through Europe

Since it is Christmas time, the celebration of two important pagan festivals appropriated by Christianity, it is interesting to read Bernard Cornwells’s article at Omnivoracious on how Christianity spread through Europe.

One answer is that Christianity proved more profitable. There is a telling story about King Edwin of Northumbria, a powerful pagan who ruled what is now northern England and southern Scotland in the 7th Century. He probably worshipped the Norse gods like Thor and Woden, but at some point he encountered a Christian missionary who suggested that success in war and material prosperity would follow a conversion. Edwin put that to the test and god came through with a battlefield triumph and massive amounts of plunder. The king’s chief pagan priest told Edwin that the old gods had never shown such favor and that Northumbria should therefore convert, which it duly did. The story echoes the experience of Constantine, the Roman Emperor who converted because the Christian god gave him victory over Maxentius. It is a common enough tale. In the early 10th Century a Viking named Hrolf took land in what is now Normandy and the treaty confirming his possession insisted he became a Christian. ‘Paris,’ Henry IV of France declared when he changed from Protestant to Catholic, ‘is worth a mass.’ The Duchy of Normandy (which led to the throne of England) proved well worth a mass too.[Bernard Cornwell, Author of “The Pagan Lord,” Muses on the Path to Christianity]

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Missionaries, Businessmen and the Annexation of Hawaii

Ship's landing force at the time of the overthrow of the Hawaiian monarchy, January 1893.

Ship’s landing force at the time of the overthrow of the Hawaiian monarchy, January 1893.

In the 19th century, the private sector consisting of missionaries and businessmen helped project American power to rest of the world. This pattern, where the NGOs intervened in the affairs of a nation, proved to be quite detrimental to the existence of Hawaii. Their culture was transformed, their economy was tied to United States and due to both, in a century their freedom was lost.

In her book, Sugar in the Blood: A Family’s Story of Slavery and Empire,Andrea Stuart writes about the motivation for Puritans and non-Puritans to migrate to North America from Europe in the 17th century. While the Puritans settled in New England to escape persecution, for others the Bible served as the recruiter for colonization. Anglican priests like Robert Gray, John Donne and Puritan teachers like Thomas Hooker and John Cotton seeded the dream of building a City on the Hill as well as spreading the word. Captain John Smith,  an adventurer, planter and the hero of the Pocahontas story wrote at that time about the need to “seeke to convert those poore Savages to know Christ and humanity”. But this urgency to take Christianity to the savages, which was used by the Spanish conquistadors just a century earlier, was just a smokescreen for advancing their business ventures.

In Hawaii, the same pattern followed two centuries later when Baptists, Congregationalists and Methodists arrived by the boatloads to convert the heathens as well as to counter the Roman Catholics who had already set up shop there. These missionaries established good relations with King Kamehameha and opened up the islands to the Americans. Soon they were followed by American businessmen who were involved in whaling and the cultivation of bananas, pineapples and sugarcane.

As American capital and Christianity started flowing to the islands, the Government started taking notice. During that time, the Democrats were interested in expanding to the South, where slavery existed, while the Whigs were interested in expansion to the West. Secretary of State, William Webster, was interested in developing a special relation with the King because Hawaii would serve as a gateway to the riches of Japan and China. He was also interested in limiting the influence of France and Britain, who were interested in the islands. In 1851, the King and Webster agreed that if Hawaii was threatened by European powers, the King would transfer his power to the United States Government.

William Seward, the Secretary of State under Lincoln, and an expansionist wanted a reciprocal treaty to be passed which would give special preference to Hawaiian goods. With this treaty, Hawaiian fruits and sugar would not be subject to American tariffs and in return Hawaii would be open for American manufactured goods. But then the Southern sugar producers did not want to compete with Hawaii and the treaty was defeated in the Senate. During the time of Ulysses S. Grant in 1875, the treaty was passed. American money flowed into Hawaii resulting in a surge of sugar and pineapple farming. The Americans got Pearl Harbor which they developed as a naval base and coaling station.

 A photo of the young crown princess Liliuokalani.

A photo of the young crown princess Liliuokalani.(via Wikipedia)

Queen Lili’uokalani’ meanwhile was worried about the influence of American economics and politics on Hawaiian independence. As she started putting some limitations,  the US Department of State Minister to the Kingdom of Hawaii, John Stevens plotted a coup to overthrow the Queen. Following a coup, John Stevens recognized the new administration led by Sanford Dole and asked requested President Benjamin Harrison to annex the islands to the nation. But Harrison had only a month left as President and the Senate did not act. The next President, Grover Cleveland (the only President to have served  non consecutive terms), was not interested in expansion due to the cost and also because he believed that it would betray the ideals of the American revolution.

But that did not mean that Hawaii got its independence back. Hawaii  remained as a territory for almost six decades before they were given a choice to either join the Union or remain as a territory without an option for independence. Finally, a saga which started in the 18th century came to an end in 1959, when it became a state.


  1. America & World/Revolution, Lecture 21 by Professor Michael Parrish at University of California, San Diego
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