In a recent interview heard around the world (or at least, around influential Twitter feeds), the Fox News host Lauren Green spoke to Reza Aslan about his new book, Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth. Green's focus on why Aslan, a Muslim, would write about Jesus created a stir. Zealot argues that the historical Jesus was a Jewish revolutionary interested in overthrowing Roman rule in Palestine, not in establishing a celestial kingdom, and that he would not have understood the idea of being God incarnate. In a recent interview, Aslan discusses the strong reactions to his book.
How does your account differ from previous examinations of the historical Jesus?
This is a debate that's been raging in academia for centuries. Much of what I argue in the book has been argued by my predecessors and colleagues: John Dominic Crossan, Johann Maier, Marcus Borg, N.T. Wright. To be perfectly frank, if you're a biblical scholar, you're not going to find much that's new in my book. What I've done is take this debate that scholars are immersed in and simply made it accessible to a nonscholarly audience. It's something I wish more scholars would do, in various fields.
You write in the introduction: "Scholars tend to see the Jesus they want to see. Too often they see themselves - their own reflection - in the image of Jesus they have constructed." Are you at all guilty of that?
Absolutely. Anyone who deals in ancient history is not playing with a full deck of cards. We have to figure out a way to fill in the holes that the historical evidence doesn't provide for us. All scholarship is based on filling in those holes with the best, most educated guess possible. I'm perfectly willing to defend my educated guesses. There's no such thing as objective history, which is why two scholars of the Bible can look at the same information and come up with absolutely opposing interpretations of it.
Were you surprised by the tone of the interview on Fox? Were you prepared in general for a lot of backlash given how passionately people feel about the subject?
What excites me is that it has launched this public conversation about topics such as journalistic integrity and the role of religion in society.
When you write about religion and politics for a living, you get used to this kind of response. Of course, I knew that there were going to be people who would be upset at some of the conclusions in the book. I also understood that some of those people would attack me, rather than the arguments in the book, because of my Muslim background. But maybe I'm ignorant, but I did not realise I was going to become such a lightning rod in this country for these kinds of questions.
Do you hope to reach fundamentalist Christians? Or do you just accept that they won't agree with your approach and conclusions?
I want Christians to read this book. I think one of the reasons it was a success long before the Fox interview is because it was adopted by a Christian audience. Many Christians are enormously positive about the book, even when they disagree with me. I'm not afraid to engage Christians, because I don't think there's anything in the book that needs to be seen as an attack on them.
Do you see legitimate arguments sparked by the book, where you look at a critic and think, "Yes, I see where you're coming from"?
Numerous. My argument pivots on the cleansing-of-the-temple scene and Jesus's answer to whether we should pay tribute or not to Caesar. To me, and many scholars who agree with me, it's the moment that Jesus' zealotry rises to the surface, is recognised by the authorities, and leads to his arrest and execution. Many scholars see it as a more pacifist response - that the cleansing of the temple is a religious action rather than a political action. Those are absolutely valid interpretations, but I disagree with them.
And when it comes to Paul, there are basically two interpretations. One is that he was a devout Jew who was expressing an innovative version of Judaism in his letters that, while unique, was still deeply immersed in Jewish tradition and thought. The other school, which I belong to, is that Paul is espousing an absolute divorce from Jewish tradition, and this innovation is so unique that it is nothing less than a wholly new religion. That is an argument that's going to be had for another century.
Is there a particular scholar who is eloquent about the other side of that argument?
Yes, in fact, there's a wonderful review by Greg Carey, who is a biblical scholar, and in that review he really took me to task for my arguments about Paul, which I appreciated. That's the kind of argument I want to have.
You write that Jesus was almost certainly illiterate because most people were at the time. I can imagine believers saying it's impossible to assume even something like that because of how singular Jesus was in other ways.
The job of the historian is to say not what's possible, but what's likely. By most estimates, 98 per cent of the population was illiterate. Jesus grew up in a village, Nazareth, that was so poor, so small, that it didn't even have a road. What's more likely, that he didn't know how to read or write, or by some circumstance he was somehow educated? But if you're a Christian who believes there's something remarkable and extraordinary about this individual that made him different, that's a perfectly fine thing to believe.
Have any of the reactions during your book tour surprised you?
I've started to notice that I'm getting strong reactions from both Christians and atheists, who both tell me that this book proves what they knew about Jesus. Christians tell me that this man was so extraordinary, that his message of the reversals of the social order was so revolutionary, that regardless of his low position in life, he was able to take on these religious and political powers and, in his defeat, attain victory. It also happens to be true whether or not you think he's the messiah.