Man looking pensive
"Christians tell me that the book has empowered their faith" (Photo: Bret Hartman for The Washington Post/Getty Images)

Topics: Spirituality | Society

Reza Aslan, scholar, translates Bible scholarship into easy reading

His bestselling book, Zealot, has been called groundbreaking for separating the myth of Jesus from the historical man

The renowned writer Reza Aslan topped the New York Times bestseller list last August with his controversial new book, Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth. He spoke to Julie McGonegal on the phone from his home in Los Angeles.

Julie McGonegal: You begin Zealot with a personal anecdote about your conversion to evangelical Christianity as a 15-year-old Muslim kid at a summer youth camp in North Carolina. How did that early conversion experience shape your academic and spiritual journey? 

Reza Aslan: It had a profound impact on my research and spirituality. I’d always been deeply interested in religion and spirituality, but I’d never had an opportunity to express that in any meaningful way.

I did not come from a very religious family. So hearing the Gospel stories was the first time that I was ever given a framework, a language, to express the deep sense of spiritual longing I’ve always had. Even though I’ve left Christianity, I still feel deeply indebted to it for introducing me to a sense of spirituality and what it means to express the ineffable experience of faith. Most of my colleagues in the study of religion tend to look at faith the way that a biologist looks at a microbe; it’s something to be studied from afar but not taken seriously.

JM: What is it about the language of Christianity that appeals to you? 

RA: Christianity says that the principal metaphor for God is man. After all, if you want to know who God is, then you look at Jesus, who was a man. That’s an enormously appealing idea. In fact, it’s why Christianity is the largest religion in the world; there aren’t any other religions that think that way. 

JM: In your book, you try to separate the historical Jesus from the mythic Jesus. It seems like an impossible task. Is it?

RA: It does seem impossible, and there is no way you can ever be certain. But it is not impossible. The methodologies of textual interpretation that have been in place when it comes to the scriptures — the exegetical tools at our disposal — have been around for a while. Certainly scholars will disagree with each other, and there will be arguments as to whether this particular verse is more accurate than that particular verse, etc. But there is a fair bit of consensus among biblical scholars, even though there’s still a lot of debate. 

JM: Your book has been described as original and groundbreaking. Yet the distinction between the historical Jesus and the Jesus of faith has been around for a while.

RA: If you’re a Bible scholar, there is not a single thing in my book that is going to sound unfamiliar to you. The claims you refer to are coming from non-experts, and mostly from believers who are not conditioned in the exegetical process and believe that the Gospels are eye-witness accounts written all at the same time by people who were walking around with Jesus with pens and paper in hand.

JM: So would it be fair to say that the importance of your book — and the reason for its popularity as a New York Times bestseller — lies more in its ability to translate biblical scholarship into everyday language?

RA: That is what I have always done. That is true of every one of my books, whether it’s No god but God or How to Win a Cosmic War or Zealot. My goal as a scholar has always been to translate these kinds of heady academic debates taking place in universities around the world into an appealing, accessible, easy-to-follow narrative. 

JM: Some of your ideas are bound to make people uncomfortable, as when a Fox News interviewer demanded to know how a Muslim could write a book about Christianity. Has there been a popular backlash to your book? Have you experienced personal attacks?

RA: Certainly, yes, but when you write about religion and politics for a living, you get used to those kinds of attacks. There’s this impression that there’s been a huge Christian backlash to this book. Nothing could be further from the truth. Yes, of course, there have been fundamentalist Christians who have attacked the book either because it’s written by someone who happens to be a Muslim or because it even dares to try to make a distinction between the Jesus of history and the Christ of faith. For many conservative Christians, just that idea itself is offensive and blasphemous. The interesting thing is that the overwhelming majority of responses from Christians have been positive. Christians tell me that the book has empowered their faith — that although they believe the man I’m writing about is also God, this is the first time they’ve ever understood what it means as a Christian to say that Jesus is also a man. Most Christians spend very little time diving deeply into the consequences of that belief, but if Jesus was also a man, then he lived in a specific time and place that shaped who he was. 

JM: You situate Jesus in his time and place, but much of the power of your book comes from your ability to make him speak to the 21st century. What does Jesus have to say to us today? 

RA: It’s interesting, because we are in a position right now where we are having this debate, thanks to the new pope. In his quite radical teachings about the poor, [Pope] Francis is reflecting the foundation of Jesus’ radical teachings about the poor. Jesus never preached equality. Jesus preached the reversal of the social order. He wanted a world, a Kingdom of God, in which the first would be last and the last would be first. That message was as frightening and threatening to Jesus’ world as it is to ours. And so when the pope makes a similar argument, Catholics start to call him a Marxist and say that he is too radical for his position. The resonance of that profoundly revolutionary teaching of Jesus is something we are still struggling with today. 

JM: How do we meet the challenge of your book to become careful readers of the Bible? How do Christians avoid approaching the Bible with blind faith when faith demands that we do away with at least some of our skepticism?

RA: I hope what I have done is given readers the tools to decide for themselves. Many times I decide for them by explaining why a particular Gospel story could not have happened the way that the Gospel says that it does. But in order to lay the groundwork, I go through more than a hundred pages before Jesus even shows up. I do that on purpose. I wanted the reader to be dropped into this world, to experience its meaning, so that when you read a claim that the Gospel makes, it becomes much easier to realize, “Wait, that doesn’t fit what I just read.” 

JM: You write in Zealot, “Scholars tend to see the Jesus they want to see. Too often they see themselves.” Who is the Jesus you want to see? 

RA: I was introduced to the historical Jesus at Santa Clara University [in California] by a group of brilliant, academically trained Jesuits. The Jesuits see Jesus through the lens of his preferential option for the poor. Now I also tend to believe that there is really no way to read the Gospels either as a person of faith or as a historian without recognizing Jesus’ preferential option for the poor. But some people — for example, [megachurch pastors] Joel Olsteen and T.D. Jakes, and frankly a great many Republicans in the U.S. Congress — would disagree because they are using the Gospel in an attempt to do away with food stamps and welfare, which blows my mind. I don’t understand how you can arrive at that interpretation, but people do. So my first introduction to the Jesus of history was through the Jesuit school of thought, which is about social justice — standing up for the poor, the dispossessed, the marginalized. I would confidently argue that from an objective perspective, this vision of Jesus makes the most historical sense.

This interview has been condensed and edited.


This story first appeared in The United Church Observer’s April 2014 issue with the title “Jesus never preached equality. Jesus preached the reversal of the social order.”


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