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Indrajit Hazra is a writer and journalist. His latest book is 'Grand Delusions: A Short Biography of Kolkata' (Aleph)

Not the Christ but the Nazarene

Head of Christ, 1650, Museum of Modern Art, New York. Rembrandt used a Sephardic Jew expelled from Spain as a model instead of depicting a more standardised ‘European’ Jesus

was introduced to the character of Jesus of Nazareth in St Xavier›s, Kolkata, some 1,944 years after his death. Let me rephrase that. The character I got acquainted to was not Jesus of Nazareth — Nazareth being an obscure hillside hamlet whose name doesn›t appear in any ancient Jewish source before the 3rd century CE and is now the largest city in the North District of Israel being predominantly populated by Arab (Muslims and Christian) Israelis — but Jesus Christ, ‹the lord and saviour› to those belonging to the Christian faith.

Ours being a Jesuit school, a framed portrait of the man-god hung above the blackboard in every class. Which isn›t as intrusive as some folks might think it to be. For what most of us saw was not some subtle tool of proselytisation but a White, blue-eyed hippie dude with light streaming from his heart and his hands slightly outstretched like an introverted Sri Chaitanya. He looked like a blonde, European-American backpacking tourist, closer to one of those extras in the ‹Dum Maro Dum› scene in Hare Rama Krishna Hare than to the Lord's Prayer.

For the curious, there was a regular four-pager pamphlet publication, 'Soldiers of God', which could be bought for some 25 paise that described, through illustrations and captions, some big-ticket moments of Jesus. Like him multiplying loaves and fishes among a crowd, saving a woman from being stoned to death, bringing a dead man to life — the kind of neat PC Sorcar Jr tricks that made him a sub-superhero. I veered farther away from this Jesus via disinterest when I discovered, thanks to my books-gobbling uncle, the King James Bible, the 1611 English translation of the biblical texts. The beauty and sinewy strength of its language won me over, and not the hero of the New Testament.

ut Jesus of Nazareth, as opposed to Christ, came cropping up from time to time in fiction and in movies. The hilariously absurd and satirical film, The Life of Brian (1979), by the British comedic act Monty Python, followed the trials and tribulations of a fictional contemporary of Jesus. Around the same time in the late-80s, I read Michael Moorcock's equally subversive science fiction novel Behold the Man, in which a time-traveller finds Jesus to be a drooling congenital idiot in a carpenter's shop in Nazareth and ultimately decides to take his place as the messiah.

More recently, Mel Gibson's mystical-historical film, The Passion of the Christ (2004), as well as Philip Pullman's fantastic retelling of the life of Jesus in The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ, made me want to know about the historical Jesus. But that was the problem. Unlike, say, Muhammad, Harshavardhana or the Mayan ruler Pakal, all of whom lived into the 7th century, Jesus lived in a historically murkier time and part of the world. Which is why Iranian-American scholar of religions Reza Aslan's Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth is such a thrill to read. (This is the same guy who in the by-now infamous Fox News interview was continuously asked by the anchor why, as a Muslim, he thought himself to be qualified to write on Christ!)

Aslan points out, early on in the book, the paucity of facts that can throw light on the historical Jesus. Almost all of what we know of Jesus are legends (read: spin) by later 'image consultant-follower' chroniclers. What Aslan does is provide the context — political, geographical, economic and social — and forms a firm silhouette of the man from Nazareth. (The 'birth in Bethlehem' was a later concoction introduced to make his identity as a messiah according to Jewish prophecies 'match'.)

Aslan provides startling historical clues to make us come to the following hypothetical conclusions about Jesus of Nazareth: 1) that he was just one of the many self-styled 'messiahs' in a region occupied by the Roman Empire awash with apocalyptic zeal 2) that he was a political radical leading a rebellion in Judea against Rome and its Jewish proxies 3) that he almost certainly was executed as a seditionist since death by crucifixion was standard punishment for such political prisoners 4) that his message of 'non-violence' and 'brotherhood of man' applied to fellow Jews alone and was retro-fitted much later by Christians living after a vicious crackdown by Rome to make their leader more palatable and for their own lives to be less at risk.

The Jesus that emerges from this historical version of a 'police sketch' is fascinating. It increases, rather than reduces, the appeal of this West Asian man from the 1st century for me. In our old house in Kolkata, between two framed portraits of Subhas Chandra Bose and Swami Vivekananda, a clay Christ on the crucifix (with one of his outstretched arms missing) would hang from a nail. With Aslan's book, I've come closer to relating that man on the cross with the other two 'flesh and blood' men from history next to him than ever before. And for that I say, 'Amen'.

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