Reza Aslan, an author and scholar of religion, has established himself as a familiar face and voice on American television, the go-to guy for commentary on the Islamic world, and he embodies all the right stuff: youthful good looks, depth of knowledge and the kind of media savvy that enables him to answer even the most nuanced questions in measured sound bites. So it was no surprise when Aslan showed up on Fox News last month to talk about his new book, “Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth” (Random House, $27).
But the Fox interviewer, Lauren Green, was apparently unaware that Aslan does not suffer fools gladly.
“You’re a Muslim,” the network’s religion specialist said at the start of her very first question. “So why did you write a book about the founder of Christianity?”
“To be clear, I am a scholar of religions with four degrees, including one in the New Testament, with fluency in biblical Greek, who has been studying the origin of Christianity for two decades, who happens to be a Muslim,” Aslan admonished his inquisitor. “Anyone who thinks this book is an attack on Christianity hasn’t read it yet.” When Green pressed the point, Aslan deftly schooled her on the Islamophobia that suffused her questions: “I think it is a little strange that, rather than debating the arguments of the book, we are debating the right of the scholar to actually write it.”
The segment immediately went viral on the Internet, and follow-up interviews with the author by the mainstream media were not far behind. As a result, “Zealot” shot to the top of the Amazon and New York Times’ nonfiction best-seller lists and remains there today. But the No. l ranking of this book is not simply a freak of our superheated media culture. Rather, it is much deserved by the book in its own right — a critically acclaimed excursion into what scholarship has discovered about the historical Jesus, whom Aslan calls “Jesus of Nazareth” to distinguish him from “Jesus the Christ.”
To his credit, Aslan candidly discloses his own religious background at the very outset of his book, and it’s one of the most surprising moments therin. When, as a young boy, Aslan arrived in the United States as a refugee from the Islamic theocracy that Iran had become, he spent a summer at an Evangelical youth camp where he heard, for the first time, the teachings of Christianity. The experience was exalting, but not only because he found himself wholly won over by the Christians who witnessed to him.
“For a kid raised in a motley family of lukewarm Muslims and exuberant atheists, this was truly the greatest story ever told,” he writes in “Zealot.” “My faith was a bruise, the most obvious symbol of my otherness; it needed to be concealed. Jesus, on the other hand, was America. He was the central figure in America’s national drama. Accepting him into my heart was as close as I could get to feeling truly American.”
Aslan eventually reconnected with Islam as his faith, but he also approached Islam as one of the Western religions that he sought to study in an academic setting. He earned degrees from Santa Clara University, Harvard University and the University of California at Santa Barbara. He also completed a master of fine arts degree at the University of Iowa, and he is today an associate professor of creative writing at the University of California at Riverside, where he also holds a position in the affiliated faculty of the Department of Religious Studies.
His first book, the best-selling “No god But God,” thrust him into the media spotlight as someone capable of explaining the Islamic world to the West. He followed up with “How to Win a Cosmic War,” a study of religious violence that only starts with the Islamic word and includes examples from Jewish and Christian history, which was released in paperback under the rather less provocative title “Beyond Fundamentalism.” Last year, he edited a literature anthology for W.W. Norton titled “Tablet & Pen: Literary Landscapes From the Modern Middle East,” a collection that includes a rich array of writings by various Islamic authors (but, to the consternation of some Jewish readers, treats Israeli literature as something separate and apart from the rest).
Not coincidentally, the media-savvy Aslan also publishes an online journal for news and entertainment about the Middle East at AslanMedia.com and is the co-founder and chief creative officer of BoomGen Studios, which describes itself as “the premier entertainment brand for creative content from and about the Greater Middle East.” His curriculum vitae, in other words, marks him both as a scholar and a media entrepreneur, and he performs both roles with apparent enthusiasm.
The title “Zealot” is not without a certain sizzle of its own, as Fox News certainly understood, but the book is a work of authentic scholarship that seeks to explain to a lay readership the conclusions that Aslan has reached after “my two decades of scholarly research into the New Testament and early Christian history.” Aslan may put himself at the cutting edge of New Testament studies, but both of his feet are planted on solid academic ground. At the same time, however, he writes with the clarity and luminosity that are his trademarks as an author, which makes “Zealot” a wholly compelling and highly illuminating book.
What makes “Zealot” controversial, at least among Christian true believers, is Aslan’s insistence on distinguishing between “Jesus the Christ” — a figure weighted with religious significance — and what he calls “the Jesus of history, the Jesus before Christianity.” He expertly reprises the geopolitical and religious history of Judea in the years leading up to the Roman destruction of the Jerusalem Temple and the aftermath of the so-called Jewish War, and he insists on showing us the embattled Jewish world in which Jesus lived and preached. Aslan’s bottom line is that the historical Jesus never sought to start a new religion; rather, Jesus was a “politically conscious Jewish revolutionary” who addressed his rousing words to his fellow Jews alone.
“[L]ook closely at Jesus’s words and actions at the Temple in Jerusalem,” Aslan writes, “and this one fact becomes difficult to deny: Jesus was crucified by Rome because his messianic aspirations threatened the occupation of Palestine, and his zealotry endangered the Temple authorities.”
The notion that Jesus was a revolutionary is not new or unique to Aslan, but he paints an especially vivid picture of how Jesus struggled to win the hearts and minds of his fellow Jews, the majority of whom probably regarded him at first as “just another traveling miracle worker and professional exorcist roaming through the Galilee performing tricks.” And he makes an especially convincing argument that history comes to a full stop with the death of Jesus. Jesus himself, who lived and died as a Jew, would have been surprised at what Paul later made of him: “Christianity after the destruction of Jerusalem was almost exclusively a gentile religion,” Aslan insists. “Two thousand years later, the Christ of Paul’s creation has utterly subsumed the Jesus of history.”
Jesus, as Aslan emphasized, lived in Judea at a time when the land was under Roman occupation, and a Jewish resistance movement — branded as bandits by the Roman authorities but proudly identifying themselves as Zealots — was willing to spill the blood of both Romans and collaborationist Jews. The notion that the Jews had been sent into the Promised Land by God himself provided a theological rationale for the violence of the Zealots. “For the Jews, this sense of exceptionalism was not a matter of arrogance or pride,” Aslan explains. “It was a direct commandment from a jealous God who tolerated no foreign presence in the land he had set aside for his chosen people.” And, for the followers of Jesus, he was “the long-awaited messiah — the true King of the Jews — [who] has come to free Israel from its bondage.”
In passages such as this one, I detected a certain oblique and ironic commentary on the plight of the Jews and the Palestinian Arabs in the modern Middle East, although Aslan himself denied any such intent in an interview with The Journal (see sidebar). No one who follows the agonies of the modern Middle East, however, can fail to see how the zealotry Aslan attributes to Jesus of Nazareth is still creating facts on the ground throughout that region. In that sense, “Zealotry” explains not only the origins of Christianity, but also the focal point at which Judaism, Christianity and Islam continue to collide, with tragic results.
Aslan, however, issues a far gentler charge to his readers in the last lines of “Zealot,” which the Fox News interviewer and Aslan’s other self-righteous critics apparently have never read far enough to reach: “Jesus of Nazareth — Jesus the man — is every bit as compelling, charismatic, and praiseworthy as Jesus the Christ,” Aslan concludes. “He is, in short, someone worth believing in.”
Jonathan Kirsch, author and publishing attorney, is the book editor of the Jewish Journal. His latest book is “The Short, Strange Life of Herschel Grynszpan: A Boy Avenger, a Nazi Diplomat, and a Murder in Paris” (W.W. Norton/Liveright), published in 2013 to coincide with the 75th anniversary of Kristallnacht. Kirsch can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.