Two millennia after his execution, Jesus remains an enigma.
Precious little is known about arguably the most influential figure in Western civilization. The gospels, written decades after his death, vary widely in their accounts.
Religious scholar Reza Aslan contends historical context offers the best chance at filling in the blanks; his controversial bestseller, Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth, looks to first-century Palestine for clues.
“We know very little about the man, Jesus,” Reza told a large and inquisitive audience at the Presbyterian Church in Morristown on Sunday morning. “We know everything about Palestine. The Romans were very good at documenting things…and killing people.”
Scholars generally agree on three counts, he said:
- Jesus was a Jew
- He started a Jewish movement in Galilee
- As a result, the Romans crucified him as criminal and enemy of the state
Viewed through this lens, Reza said, the historical Jesus appears to be more revolutionary, more ethno-nationalist and “frankly, more of a troublemaker” than the pacifist deity portrayed in Sunday school.
The author doubts Jesus would have made Messianic claims; it’s more likely that a Jew in those days of Roman persecution would have spoken about re-claiming David’s throne as king of the Jews.
Beliefs in Jesus as God incarnate began with Paul, who never knew Jesus, according to Reza. James, the brother of Jesus, stuck to a strict interpretation of Jesus as leader of a “Jewish movement, for Jews.”
Paul appealed to Gentiles and was a more prolific writer, however, and his views became the foundation of Christianity, Reza said.
Fox News attempted to take the scholar to the woodshed for having the audacity, as a Muslim, to challenge basic tenets of the Christian faith. But the Iranian immigrant has personal experience with that faith. As a teenager during the 1980s in the San Francisco Bay Area (where he tried to hide his Iranian roots by “pretending to be Mexican”), he joined an evangelical Christian group, and even converted his mother to Christianity.
Eventually, he had difficulty accepting literal interpretations of Biblical texts that he asserts were never meant to be read as history. He decided to make religious studies his career. Zealot represents “my secret Muslim agenda to destroy Christianity,” he joked, to ripples of laughter.
Our video interview, recorded as the author walked to his car, discusses:
- Who was Jesus
- How the historical Jesus measures up to the deity
- Was Jesus a pacifist
- Why has Jesus captivated the imagination for so long
- Christianity’s impact on civilization
- Public reaction to the book
- Private reaction to the book–including the reaction of Reza’s wife, Jessica Jackley, a Christian who co-founded the micro-lending site Kiva
- What’s next for Reza
Gospel music wafting from the Morristown Green adds an atmospheric touch to our conversation.
If you couldn’t make Sunday’s presentation, you have another chance. Reza’s book tour takes him to Drew University in Madison on Sept. 25, 2013. He’s speaking at the Dorothy Young Arts Building at 7:30 pm. Admission is free, but seating is limited. The doors open at 7 pm.
A former Drew professor, Reza now is an associate professor at the University of California, Riverside. He also is an adjunct senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations and a trustee of the Ploughshares Fund, which gives grants for peace and security issues. As a member of PEN USA, he advocates for writers under siege; with the Levantine Cultural Center, he uses the arts to promote understanding between Americans and the Arab world.
Reza holds degrees in religious studies from Santa Clara University, Harvard and the University of California, Santa Barbara.