Author Reza Aslan believes that Jesus probably lacked the education to read a book like the Bible. Or the Torah, or any other written text for that matter, no matter the language.
Aslan's new book "Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth" is a revisionist take on the life of Jesus, arguing that his message of love was aimed more at a Jewish audience than a global one, that his attitude toward violence was "far more complex" than is generally thought, and that he was "very likely" illiterate.
All of these claims appear to be directly contradicted by passages in the New Testament, but Aslan argues those lines are mistaken, misinterpreted, or deliberately misleading.
Aslan, the author of the bestselling book "No god but God: The Origins, Evolution, and Future of Islam," was born in Iran and grew up a Muslim before converting to Christianity and then returning to Islam. His background has prompted some critics to focus on Aslan's personal history instead of directly grappling with the historical and theological points raised in his work.
"Zealot" has landed with a splash, sparking debates on television, and rocketing up the book charts. Speakeasy talked with Aslan about some of the claims in his book. Here's one excerpt from that longer interview.
You've said that you were obsessed with Jesus. Why?
Reza Aslan: I converted to evangelical Christianity. I began preaching the gospel to everyone I met. I was told [Jesus] was fully God and fully man. Well I became more interested in the man part. The illiterate, uneducated, poor peasant from the backwoods of Galilee, who in the name of the poor and the dispossessed and the outcast, took on the religious and political powers of his time and became far more real and far more accessible to me than the Christ of the evangelical church was. And so although I left Christianity, ironically, I became more interested and more devoted to finding out who Jesus really was.
In the book you say that Jesus was "very likely" illiterate, and there's "no reason to think" he could read or write. But a lot of Biblical scholars disagree. In Luke 4:16, we see Jesus reading. ["And he came to Nazareth, where he had been brought up: and, as his custom was, he went into the synagogue on the sabbath day, and stood up for to read."] So where do you get that from, saying Jesus is illiterate when in the Bible he is seen reading?
Well, first of all, it may sound shocking to some people, but just because the gospels say something doesn't mean it's actually factual. The Gospel of Luke was written 60-70 years after Jesus had died, when Christianity was quintessentially a Roman religion and no longer a Jewish religion and the gospel writers were very interested in making Jesus someone who would appeal to a non-Jewish audience. But the facts of history speak for themselves. And I would say the vast majority of Biblical scholars would agree that the illiteracy rates in Jesus's world were somewhere around 98 percent. 98 percent of Jesus's fellow Jews could neither read nor write. The notion that a tekton, as Jesus is referred to in the Bible, a woodworker, which would make him the second-lowest rung on the social ladder in his time just above the slave and the indigent and the beggar, the notion that he would have had any sort of formal education, let alone the kind of education necessary to debate theological points with the scribes and the Pharisees, is difficult to reconcile with what we know of the history of the time.
But examining the broad sweep of historical trends of a particular time doesn't necessarily tell you anything about an individual person.
It tells you everything about an individual.
It doesn't necessarily tell you anything about an individual person. More than 99.999 percent of human beings can't run as fast as Usain Bolt. You might conclude, given those trends, we couldn't have a Usain Bolt. And yet we do.
What you are asking me is, is it conceivable that as a poor peasant from the backwoods of Galilee, who grew up a woodworker, a day laborer really, an artisan, in a village that was so small and so poor that it didn't have any roads, or bathhouses or synagogues, and its name did not appear on any maps, could he have nevertheless been so well educated that he could not only read and write but debate the scriptures, is that possible? Sure. But is it likely? No. It's the job of the historian to talk about what is most likely.