Reza Aslan is an Iranian American scholar of religions, whose internationally acclaimed books include No god But God and Beyond Fundamentalism. His most recent book, Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth, was at the center of a media firestorm after he appeared on Fox News and was asked, “You’re a Muslim, so why did you write a book about the founder of Christianity?” Aslan talks to Moment about Fox News, the historical roots of anti-Semitism and whether Jesus ever intended to start a new religion.
How do you respond to the Fox News interview?
I’m somewhat embarrassed by it, but a little bit excited that it’s launched this public discussion about very important issues, like journalistic integrity, religion and society, faith and politics and scholarship. These are all issues that academics are talking about all the time, but it’s rare that we get to have them take place in public discourse. So I’m very pleased with that part of it.
What about the Islamophobic aspect of it?
On the one hand, of course, this kind of anti-Muslim sentiment has been a part of the fringe group in the U.S. for a very long time, even before September 11th. Fox News has done a brilliant job of turning fear of Muslims into ratings gold. They have been trying to convince Americans to fear Islam for much of the last 10 years. So that’s not much of a surprise.
What I think I am surprised at, however, is the way that more mainstream outlets have begun to go after me. It’s less about anything that I write in the book—which again, even my fellow scholars of the Bible have said is not all that revolutionary, but it might be revolutionary for a popular audience—instead, they focused on me, my credentials and my agenda in writing it. That’s something I did not expect. I expected it from the far-right fringes; I didn’t expect it from more mainstream sources.
Turning toward the book, why do you call Jesus a zealot?
Zealotism was a widespread phenomenon in Jesus’ term. Many Jews would have proudly referred to themselves as zealous for the Lord. Zeal is actually a Biblical concept—all the great Jews and prophets of the Hebrew Bible were known for being zealous for the Lord. Zeal implies an unwavering commitment to establishing the sole sovereignty of God on earth—in other words, a refusal to serve any master except God and a devotion to the Torah. In Jesus’ time, this was widespread Biblical doctrine.
Some zealots, however, took that to its logical extreme. If you believe that God is the sole sovereign, you cannot abide by living under the boot of an imperial, Roman pagan occupation. And so throughout the first century, many prophets, bandits, preachers and even messiahs spurred by the zeal for the Lord rose up against the Roman Empire and were crushed as a result. The argument of the book is that if you put Jesus in his time and place, what you discover is that those same zealous sentiments are present in his teachings and in his actions.
In describing the world Jesus was born into, you say that there were many people claiming to be the messiah. What was it about Jesus that eventually won him a global following?
It wasn’t so much anything that Jesus himself said or did—though the things that he did were remarkable—it was what his followers said about him after he died. According to Jewish law, a dead messiah is a failed messiah, so the followers of all the other so-called failed messiahs all abandoned their movements and returned to their farms and their fields—those that managed to escape the wrath of Rome, at least.
In Jesus’ case, his followers, spurred by this ecstatic experience that they had—what they claimed to be the risen Jesus—decided rather than abandon the cause, to instead re-define what Messiah means, to re-cast Jesus’ life to make him not an earthly leader, but a spiritual leader, too make the Kingdom of God not an earthly thing, but a heavenly thing. It was that re-interpretation of Jesus’ ministry, and most importantly, the decision to begin to preach that interpretation to the Romans and not to fellow Jews, that transformed this Jewish movement started by a revolutionary peasant into a Roman religion that would become ultimately the largest religion in the world.
If Jesus was such a zealot, why is he now portrayed as an apolitical, peaceful spiritual leader?
It’s important to understand that every word every written about Jesus in the Gospels was written after 70 A.D. In 70 A.D., in response to a Jewish revolt led by a band of zealots, the Romans returned to Jerusalem, destroyed the city, burned the Temple to the ground, slaughtered up to 100,000 Jews and exiled the remaining Jews from the Holy Land. Every Gospel was written after that event, so it became very important for the Gospel writers to remove as much of Jesus’ revolutionary, zealous sentiment as possible. After all, you can’t convince Rome to worship a figure that represents the very same ideals that led to the war in the first place.
It should also be noted that Christianity as we know it was spread, mostly, not by Jesus’ original followers—who were farmers and fishermen, illiterate peasants just like him—but by another generation of followers who did not actually ever know Jesus, and who were Greek-speaking educated Jews from the Diaspora for whom the idea of the messiah as a kind of God-man was more easily absorbable into their religion than it would have been for the Jews living in Palestine.
The idea that the Jews killed Jesus has been the basis for Christian anti-Semitism for a long time. Can you explain where this claim came from, and why it’s not historically accurate?
After the destruction of Jerusalem, Judaism became a pariah religion. When the Christians wanted to begin preaching this Gospel to Romans, they had to do three very important things. Number One, they had to make Jesus a little bit less Jewish than he actually was. It was very difficult to convince Romans to worship a Jewish peasant, so they took away the religious and political context of his teaching and instead turned them into abstract ethical principles that all people can abide by, regardless of their ethnicity or religion. Number Two, they had to make Jesus less revolutionary. As I’ve said, they had to take away some of the revolutionary sentiment that was so obvious in his teachings.
And Number Three, they had to remove all blame on Rome for Jesus’ death. They couldn’t say that Rome was responsible for the death of the Messiah—so instead it was the Jews. You had this steady progression from the first Gospel, Mark, to the last Gospel, John, where the responsibility for killing Jesus is removed from the hands of Pontius Pilate and put into the hands of Jews. So in the Gospel of John—the last to be written—Jesus himself forgives Pontius Pilate for the crucifixion, and lays the blame squarely on the Jews. He says that the blood of Jesus will be on their head, their children’s heads, and their children’s children’s heads. This, of course, is pure fantasy. First of all, the Jews had no power to execute criminals, and second of all, the idea that Pontius Pilate, a brutal, blood-thirsty governor, who on a regular basis sent his troops into the streets of Jerusalem to slaughter Jews when they disagreed with even the slightest of his decisions, would be strong-armed by the Jews into killing yet another rabble-rouser is, frankly, pure fantasy.
Was it Jesus’ intention to start an entirely new religion?
I don’t think so. The best witness to that is Jesus’ brother, James, who quite clearly understands Jesus’ movement as part of Judaism and not a new religion. Jesus’ brother was the person who led the movement after Jesus’ death, and he was very clear that this was not meant to be a new religion. This was simply Judaism, in that you had to become a Jew if you wanted to be a follower of Jesus.
What do you hope readers who aren’t Christian can take away from the book?
The historical Jesus, who was an illiterate Jewish peasant who walked the earth 2,000 years ago, who on behalf of the poor and the weak, the marginalized and the dispossessed, fought against the most powerful empire the world had ever known, was an incredibly compelling figure worth knowing regardless of whether you think he’s God or not. This is a man whose example is worth following. I wrote this book to argue that you could be a follower of Jesus without being a Christian.