Reza Aslan, author of the best-selling “Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth,” spoke with Jewish Journal book editor Jonathan Kirsch by phone from Portland, Ore., where Aslan was part of a national book tour. This interview took place just a few days after Aslan’s attention-getting appearance on Fox News.
Jonathan Kirsch: Did you feel some trepidation, not only as a Muslim, but as a public figure who has taken on the role of explaining the Islamic world to Westerners, in writing a book about Jesus?
Reza Aslan: Honestly, not in the slightest. It’s true that I have made a name for myself in writing and talking about Islam. That’s the religion that people most want to talk about nowadays, but that’s not my educational background. My background is in the study of religions, and especially Western religions — Judaism, Christianity and Islam. “Zealot” is a book that I had intended to write all along. I understood that some people would regard it as an attack on Christianity. But I had already written a book about Islam that overturns a lot of orthodoxies, “No god But God,” and I was prepared.
JK: The Fox News interviewer seemed to assume Christian readers would resent the fact that a Muslim writer has dared to point out the difference between, as you put it, “the Jesus of the Gospels and the Jesus of history.” Has that turned out to be true?
RA: One of the very interesting things that has happened as a result of this book is the response I have gotten from Christian readers who, for the first time, realized what it meant to say, as orthodox Christianity does, that Jesus is fully God and fully human. When you go to church, all you hear about is the “fully God” part. To think about the Gospel story as though it was written about a person, rather than a god, is to open up a whole new level of spiritual understanding. I have had numerous e-mails and conversations with Christian readers that this book on Jesus the man has actually strengthened their faith in Jesus Christ.
[Related: Reza Aslan on Jesus, the Jew]
JK: What has been the response from Jewish readers?
RA: Pretty positive so far. After all, this is a book whose fundamental premise is that Jesus was a Jew, first and foremost, and that everything he said and did has to be understood solely within a Jewish context, that his teachings were simply a form of Judaism that then became what we now call Christianity. He was a fervent, zealous, law-abiding Jew. I would think that Jews who have spent two millennia being demonized as Christ-killers would be interested.
JK: “Zealot” is set in biblical antiquity, but I found several passages that help us understand the role of religion in our own time and place, including the Islamic revolution that started with the overthrow of the shah in Iran and the competing nationalisms that make it so painful to achieve peace between Israelis and Palestinians. Did you intend to comment on the contemporary Middle East by way of subtext when you write about what happened there 2,000 years ago?
RA: I really didn’t. I was very careful in not trying to make any overt political point with this book. It’s a historical biography about a man who lived 2,000 years ago, and nothing else. But a lot of people have brought it up, because nothing much has changed. The politico-religious context of our world is something that Jesus would have understood. The arguments that Jesus made against authority are being made today on the streets of Cairo and Jerusalem. And the role of religion in providing a sense of dignity to marginalized and oppressed people, regardless of their religious background, is a universal that exists in all places and all religions.
JK: Some people believe that the current tensions in the Islamic world make it difficult for Muslim scholars to write with the same candor about Muhammad that you bring to the life and teachings of Jesus out of fear of how their work would be received by Islamic fundamentalists. Do you agree? Do you feel that way?
RA: Many Muslim scholars feel that way. Obviously, I don’t, because I have already written candidly about Islam in “No god But God.” For some strange reason, I have gotten a lot of messages from people who say: “You should write a book about Muhammad and see what happens.” I did, and it was a best-seller.
JK: The interview on Fox News has gone viral, and I venture to say that you are the hero of the piece for most YouTube viewers. But do you believe you changed any hearts or minds within the Fox News audience?
RA: There are millions of people in this country who believe that Islam is an evil, wicked religion; that Muslims are out to destroy civilization as they know it; and that anything that comes out of a Muslim’s mouth is not to be trusted. That audience is beyond my reach. However, I am grateful for the fact that the interview provided a different audience than the one that would normally pick up this book. The interview has become a kind of jump-the-shark moment for that audience. I’ve gotten a lot of e-mail from Fox News watchers who say that they were appalled by the interview and that it has made them rethink how they watch Fox. And, let’s be honest — if it were not for the debacle on Fox, I would not have caught up with J.K. Rowling!