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Updated: November 30, 2013 21:08 IST

The historical Jesus

ZIYA US SALAM
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Reza Aslan: looking for Jesus, the man. Photo: Malin Fezehai
Reza Aslan: looking for Jesus, the man. Photo: Malin Fezehai

Reza Aslan talks about the writing of his best-selling book Zealot.

When he wrote No god but God, the believers took note. The book was translated into 13 languages. Now Reza Aslan has penned the story of Jesus, not as the Christ, but Jesus of Nazareth. Simply called Zealot, it is already a bestseller. Excerpts from an interview:

Having authored two books on two major religions, would you say that the faithful, whatever their denomination, are more open to a discourse/debate on messengers, their times, their frailties?

While statistics show that people are becoming more likely, rather than less likely, to identify with one of the five major world religions — Hinduism, Buddhism, Christianity, Islam, and Judaism — they also show a radical change in the ways in which people define their religious experience.

Mass migration and easy travel have created far more pluralistic societies. The Internet and new communication technologies have made it easier to learn about other cultures and religions. Scientific advance has changed the way we understand the world. All this has had an impact on the way religion is interpreted and understood. It has created more room for debate and dialogue.

Are you disappointed with the attacks on your background?

There is, of course, a great deal of anti-Muslim sentiment both in the U.S. and in large parts of India. But my faith plays no role in my academic scholarship. Indeed, this book challenges most of the Muslim assumptions about Jesus, too.

People need to understand that the academic study of religion is a scientific enterprise. I am an academic, not a theologian. This is a book about the historical Jesus, not a book about Christianity.

Jesus Christ of the Bible versus Jesus of Nazareth, which one attracts you more?

In my youth, when I was an evangelical Christian, it was Jesus the Christ who first attracted me. But when I entered university and began to study the Jesus of history, I became obsessed with the historical Jesus. This was an uneducated, illiterate, poor, pious peasant from the backwoods of Galilee who started a movement on behalf of the poor and dispossessed, the outcasts and the marginalised, and who challenged the most powerful empire in the world. To me, that seems like a man worth knowing, regardless of whatever theological claims made about him.

Most prophets are often only seen from the eyes of the faithful. Why do our historians and authors fail to see them in the context of their time and geography?

It’s not historians who fail to see the prophets in context; it is the faithful who fail to do so. The primary difference between the Jesus of history and the Christ of faith is that the former has a specific context and the latter none at all. Context is what defines the historical Jesus. Who is Jesus in context? He is a Jew preaching Judaism to other Jews.

You have talked of Jesus as a complex man with seemingly contradictory traits. What is the lasting image of Jesus?

The most lasting image of Jesus is as a preacher of social justice. Jesus did not preach income equality between the rich and the poor. He preached the complete reversal of the social order, where the rich and the poor would switch places.

Such a radical vision would have been both profoundly appealing for those at the bottom rungs of Jesus’ society, and incredibly threatening for those at the top. Not much has changed. If Jesus were to preach today what he preached 2000 years ago, many of the same politicians who claim to promote his values, would be the first to call for him to be silenced.

Finally, what is it about Jesus that lends itself easily to literary works while writings on Muhammad are usually confined to hagiographies?

I don’t think that is true. I wrote a literary biography of Muhammad that challenged some fundamental beliefs about his life and the origins of Islam and it was a bestseller. I think the key to writing about religious figures is to do so with respect, even when you are overturning major tenets of faith.

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