Dr. Reza Aslan on why he wrote his new book, Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth.
Dr. Reza Aslan, an internationally acclaimed writer and scholar of religions, is the author of Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth, which was in the news a few months ago and also reached the number one slot on The New York Times Bestseller List.
He is the founder of AslanMedia.com, an online journal and co-founder and Chief Creative Officer of BoomGen Studios, an entertainment brand for creative content from and about the Greater Middle East. His first book No god but God: The Origins, Evolution, and Future of Islam, was translated into 13 languages. His other works include How to Win a Cosmic War (published in paperback as Beyond Fundamentalism: Confronting Religious Extremism in a Globalized Age) and Tablet and Pen: Literary Landscapes from the Modern Middle East and Muslims and Jews in America: Commonalties, Contentions, and Complexities.
Excerpts from an interview:
How long did it take you to write this book?
I have been researching for more than two decades, ever since I began my academic work on the New Testament as an undergraduate at Santa Clara University in California. Of course the quest for the historical Jesus has been going on for 200 years. Countless scholars and academics have written about the Jesus of history. The methodology for that is more or less written in stone by this point. I have distilled these two centuries of debate and analysis and rendered it in an appealing and accessible way for a general audience.
What was the target audience you had in mind?
I wanted to give those who worship Jesus as God a different perspective of him as a man. Of course, Christians believe that Jesus was both God and man, yet they rarely understand the implications of that belief. If Jesus was also a man, it means he lived in a specific time and place, and that time and place shaped who he was. This book is an introduction to that time and place. But I also wanted to write to a non-Christian audience to help explain why, 2000 years later, this man and his teachings and actions are still so significant.
Has your upbringing influenced your thinking?
My upbringing taught me to take faith seriously, to respect it and not denigrate it, even when I am questioning some of the most fundamental tenets of that faith.
What was the most surprising thing that you discovered?
I suppose the most surprising thing about Jesus and his time was just how many other messiahs there were around the first century, many of whom were far more popular and far more successful in their lifetime than Jesus was.
What is the difference, if any, between the men who claimed to be messiahs in Jesus’ time and the many god men (across religions) today?
I suppose if you believe that all religious experience is a matter of the psyche, then there is not much of a difference.
In the “Author’s Note, you state that you “have chosen not to delve too deeply into the so-called Gnostic gospels... they do not shed much light on the historical Jesus himself”. But did not the Gnostic gospels actually reveal much more about the man we know as Christ, including that he probably belonged to the Essene sect? So would not a close reading have helped you “reclaim” the historical Jesus before he became synonymous with Christianity?
The Gnostic Gospels were written in the second and third centuries. While they shed light on the enormous diversity of Christianity in the years following the death of Jesus, they do not give us much information about the historical Jesus himself. Neither does the Gospel of John, which by the way was written between 100 and 120 A.D. These texts are simply too late to be of much use to those looking for the Jesus of history.
The Jews attached great importance to writing things down. Yet the testaments were written only some 70 years after Jesus’ death. Muhammad knew the importance of writing things down, yet the Quran ended up being a careful reconstruction of his words. In your opinion, why isn’t there a Book of Jesus?
Mostly because nobody could have written it. Jesus and his disciples were Galilean peasants. None of them could read or write.
Was your choice of Christ as a subject a natural result of being a scholar of religion or did it have something to do with the number of books on the topic, including Philip Pullman’s The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ and Colm Toibin’s The Testament of Mary?
I think Jesus has always been an interesting character and always will be. While some argue that there has been a sudden flood of books about Jesus recently, the truth is that such books have been appearing every few years for some time.
Do you think that the days when men could start major world religions are over?
On the contrary, take Mormonism, which is only 150 years old and already a major world religion. I think the same could be said about Scientology one day. Religions are born all the time. Who knows which one will be seen as “great” one day?