Jesus not only saves; it turns out he also sells.
UC Riverside professor Reza Aslan's new book, "Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth," currently occupies the No. 1 spot on Amazon's bestseller list. The Iranian-born Aslan, who converted from Islam to evangelical Christianity as a teenager, then converted back to Islam, has also received the kind of publicity that every liberal author craves: getting dissed on Fox News.
In a July 26 interview, Fox religion correspondent Lauren Green peppered him with questions about why he, a Muslim, had written "a book about the founder of Christianity." Progressive columnists and bloggers all over America stuck pins into their Fox News dolls, using words like "atrocious," "embarrassing" and "Islamophobic."
In fact, Green's questions weren't so much appalling as they were irrelevant. As Aslan explained to her, "Zealot" does not present a Muslim view of Jesus. According to the Koran, Jesus was a prophet, born of a virgin (although he wasn't the son of God), but he was never crucified, instead ascending directly into heaven.
So Aslan's book, which portrays Jesus as a Jewish-nationalist revolutionary with no divine self-conception, departs from the doctrine of both Islam and Christianity. Aslan may or may not be a devout Muslim in his private life, but his book is actually the latest installment in a vast body of literature reflecting the beliefs of a completely different religion: the Church of the Historical Jesus.
The aim of this church, which has been around since the Enlightenment and its worship of rationalism, is to peel away the Gospel stories, with their virgin birth, their miracles and their walking on water, to uncover the "real" Jesus, a demythologized, strictly human figure who didn't found Christianity and who stayed dead when he died. Its adherents tend to be non-Christians fascinated by Jesus, secular intellectuals in general and liberal Christians, including many clergymen and New Testament scholars, whose sensibilities are embarrassed by traditional Christianity's claim to supernatural origins and its extravagant assertions about Jesus' divinity, his atonement on the cross for human sin and his resurrection from the dead on Easter morning.
Like other religions, the Church of the Historical Jesus has developed its own orthodoxy, with its own doctrines and dogmas. One of its central tenets is assigning a late date to the composition of the Gospels, anywhere from 40 to 70 years after Jesus' death in about 30 A.D. In truth, no one knows exactly when the Gospels were written. But since three of the four Gospels have Jesus prophesying the destruction of the Jerusalem Temple, which occurred after a Roman siege in 70 A.D., the idea is that the Gospels couldn't have been composed until the end of the 1st century. (The traditional Christian response is that Jesus just knew what was coming.) The late dating is convenient because it implies that, far from being eyewitness-based accounts of Jesus' ministry, the Gospels are mostly fanciful tales spun by early Christian "communities" that reflect not so much the events of Jesus' life as the communities' own theological preoccupations and internal disputes.
The problem is that outside of a few stray references in non-Christian texts of that era, the Gospels and other New Testament writings constitute everything that we know about what Jesus said and did. So the members of the Church of the Historical Jesus cherry-pick the Gospels to find passages supporting their position that Jesus was essentially a radical reformer who performed few to no miracles — how could he? — and was transformed into a deity after his death by his wishful-thinking followers.
In this respect, what is most interesting about "Zealot" is how unoriginal it is. If you have read or seen, say, Jewish scholar Geza Vermes' "Jesus the Jew" (1973), or John Dominic Crossan's bestselling "The Historical Jesus: The Life of a Mediterranean Jewish Peasant" (1992), or the PBS series "From Jesus to Christ: The First Christians" (1998), or Bruce Chilton's "Rabbi Jesus: An Intimate Biography" (2002), or anything from the Jesus Seminar, you won't find much new in Aslan's book.
To be sure, all of the historical-Jesus people put their own idiosyncratic spins onto the basic narrative. Jesus is variously presented as a love-your-neighbor moralist (the Enlightenment view); a cynic philosopher (Crossan); a balding, overweight rabbi (Chilton); or a secular sage who hated organized religion (the Jesus Seminar's late founder, Robert Funk).
Aslan's take is that Jesus was a fanatic Jewish ideologue and would-be messiah whose "Kingdom of God" was a "call to revolution" against the occupying Romans, and who envisioned "blood-soaked streets" once the revolution got underway. Naturally the Romans dispatched Jesus, via crucifixion, as soon as they could, as they did with other self-proclaimed messiahs. Later, according to Aslan, the early Christians turned Jesus into a more pacific figure ("my kingdom is not of this world") in an effort to butter up the Romans. (It must have been the Stockholm syndrome, since the Romans couldn't stand Christians.)
Aslan, like many of his confreres, scours New Testament scholarship for the most minimalist reading of Jesus he can find, and then presents his findings as historical fact. In his view, Jesus wasn't just a "peasant" (a la Crossan), but an "illiterate … day laborer." At least Aslan hasn't made him a fatso with a receding hairline the way Chilton did. And while Aslan describes the Gospels and other New Testament narratives as "propagandistic legend" in which "factual accuracy was irrelevant," he quotes from them — when it serves his purposes — as often as any fundamentalist preacher.
What it all boils down to is faith. The Christian New Testament is a document of faith, and for better or worse, it is nearly the only lens we have for viewing the historical figure Jesus of Nazareth. It is understandable that people who don't share that faith but are intrigued by Jesus might hope to detach him from the only context in which he exists. But that effort too involves an act of faith — faith that there was such a thing as the Historical Jesus.
Charlotte Allen has a doctorate in medieval and Byzantine studies and is the author of "The Human Christ: The Search for the Historical Jesus."