Iranian-American scholar Reza Aslan has grabbed a fair amount of headlines the past 10 days since his contentious interview with Fox News Channel religion correspondent Lauren Green. The fact that trying to discuss a complex subject via remote video connection — Mr. Aslan was not in the studio with Ms. Green — can yield problems was, sadly, demonstrated in a clip that “went viral,” as is often said about Internet-based miscellany.
Aside the furious back-and-forth over how the interview was conducted and the author’s Muslim faith, Mr. Aslan’s actual claims deserve some attention and consideration, however. Thanks to the Fox News interview, “Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth,” (Random House, 2013) has rocketed to the top of Amazon.com’s best-seller lists. Whether Christians would actually recognize the “Jesus” Mr. Aslan describes is another matter entirely.
He writes: “The problem with pinning down the historical Jesus is that, outside of the New Testament, there is almost no trace of the man who would so permanently alter the course of human history.” Mr. Aslan then goes on to cite Josephus’ writings as a credible-but-skimpy source, and slams the New Testament accounts as highly questionable: “With the possible exception of the Gospel of Luke, none of the gospels we have were written by the person after whom they are named,” he declares.
Mr. Aslan continues, “The gospels are not, nor were they ever meant to be, a historical documentation of Jesus’ life. These are not eyewitness accounts of Jesus’ words and deeds.”
These statements are not by any stretch new, or, for that matter, particularly startling. Thomas Jefferson “edited” the Gospels, cutting out portions, to create in 1804 “The Life and Morals of Jesus of Nazareth,” eliminating any trace of the miraculous in Jesus’ birth, life and resurrection.
Albert Schweitzer, the Swiss physician, humanitarian and theologian, in 1910 published “The Quest of the Historical Jesus,” declaring, “The Jesus of Nazareth who came forward publicly as the Messiah, who preached the ethic of the kingdom of God, who founded the kingdom of heaven upon earth, and died to give his work its final consecration never existed.”
In the 1990s, the “Jesus Seminar” gathered a group of rather theologically liberal scholars to discuss and “vote” on which of Jesus’ sayings were real and which were invented. Those aligned with such a view rejoiced, while those opposed bypassed the seminar’s end product.
Mr. Aslan doesn’t go nearly as far as Schweitzer; he acknowledges Jesus’ existence. But, he adds, “there are only two hard historical facts about Jesus of Nazareth upon which we can confidently rely. The first is that Jesus was a Jew who led a popular Jewish movement in Palestine at the beginning of the first century C.E. The second is that Rome crucified him for doing so.”
The “Jesus” of “Zealot” isn’t a messiah at all, but rather a “politically conscious Jewish revolutionary who, two thousand years ago, walked across the Galilean countryside, gathering followers for a messianic movement with the goal of establishing the Kingdom of God but whose mission failed when, after a provocative entry into Jerusalem and a brazen attack on the Temple, he was arrested and executed by Rome for the crime of sedition,” Mr. Aslan writes. This Jesus was “reimagined” by his post-crucifixion followers as a “peaceful spiritual leader with no interest in any earthly matter,” the author adds, making for “a Jesus the Romans could accept.”
Mr. Aslan admits his own issues with the traditional Christian understanding of Jesus and the Scriptures: “The Bible is replete with the most blatant and obvious errors and contradictions — just as one would expect from a document written by hundreds of hands across thousands of years,” he argues, after telling how, as a teen, he responded to having heard “the voice of God” at an “evangelical youth camp in Northern California.”
He writes: “Jesus … 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.” Later experiences apparently disabused Mr. Aslan of that association, and of his newfound faith.
All this, of course, Mr. Aslan has every right to assert, as it is his privilege to write and publish a book promoting his view of Jesus. Among the many problems I have with “Zealot” is not only its historical perspective, but also the avoidance of the fact that in the 2,000 years since Jesus walked the Earth, millions of people claimed their lives have been changed by an encounter with the Jesus of Scripture.
It’s also worth noting that, from the martyrs of the early church to present-day disciples such as Saeed Abedini, an American Christian pastor imprisoned in Iran, millions of others have willingly faced deprivation and death in order to share the Christian message. How many of these millions would willingly surrender their lives for an obvious fraud? Not many, I’d imagine.
These are, as Mr. Aslan notes, matters of faith that all are free to believe or ignore. It is a bit sad, however, that the boomlet for this book seems to come not from an appreciation for Reza Aslan’s thesis, but rather from antagonism toward those who might reject it.
• Mark A. Kellner can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.