Reza Aslan on Jesus the Zealot
Author with UCSB Ties Discusses the Political Messiah and Why Academia Hates Popularity
No stranger to controversy since writing his first best-seller, No god but God: The Origins, Evolution, and Future of Islam, author, religious scholar, and UCSB graduate Reza Aslan decided to again dive headfirst into another one of the world’s touchiest topics earlier this year with the release of Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth. Though it begins with a description of Aslan’s own strong-yet-brief connection with Christianity, the book unfolds as an easy-reading, colorful, and research-based account of what Palestine was like in the first century, where this man named Jesus fit into the picture, and how his message of social justice and political upheaval managed to survive the centuries.
Although Zealot doesn’t posit much that other scholars haven’t already suggested, the backlash Aslan received for daring to tackle Jesus was immediate. It came quickest from far-right commentators who questioned why a Muslim would ever explore the origins of Christianity (not surprisingly), but also subsequently from more mainstream critics and the academic world itself, which called Aslan’s own credentials into question. Though the breadth of the latter attacks was unexpected, Aslan wasn’t entirely surprised by the academic uproar, as he has come to understand that popularity doesn’t often mix well with professorial pursuits.
In anticipation of his visit to UCSB on Saturday, November 2, we spoke over the telephone earlier this month about Jesus, conservative Christians, and academics. What follows is an edited version of our conversation.
A central theme in Zealot is that Jesus was really a political activist, right? Sort of. The important thing to understand is that, in Jesus’s time, there was absolutely no difference whatsoever between religion and politics. They were one in the same thing in every way, shape, and form. So it’s not that I’m trying to present a political view of Jesus. I’m just reminding people of something they should already know: that every seemingly religious thing that Jesus said had deep political implications.
Is there a disconnect between delivering a message of compassion while being an antiestablishment revolutionary? When we are talking about a historical Jesus, what we are talking about is a Jew preaching Judaism to Jews. We’re not talking about Christianity. So Jesus makes this very clear distinction between relations among Jews and relations between Jews and non-Jews. His teachings that have a social message, including his message of peace and forgiveness, are quite clearly to be read in the context of the Law of Moses, which is a law that Jesus himself said he had come to fulfill. When he is preaching this message, it’s a model of behavior among Jews.
But when it comes to relations among Jews and non-Jews, and in particular the relations between Jews and the pagan occupying power over the Holy Land, the scripture that Jesus would be familiar with and materialized as the message of God couldn’t be clearer. As Deuteronomy says, “You shall annihilate them all.”
Wow, that’s pretty harsh. Given your Islamic expertise, what do you think Jesus would have thought about the concept of jihad? They are completely different notions. But both sentiments are very much a part of the same widespread idea that when your religion, your identity, and your national homeland is occupied, God commands that you respond. Deuteronomy makes that very clear, and so does the Qur’an.
It must be tough to write a book about someone so famous but with very little primary source material. It’s an extraordinarily difficult enterprise, because there’s almost no information about Jesus outside of the gospels. Nevertheless, research on the historical Jesus has been taking place for a really long time, and there’s an enormous amount of scholarship to draw upon, because there’s been 200 years of discussion and debate. So we know a lot about Jesus’s world, first century Palestine, and second temple Judaism, and that allows us to place Jesus within the context of his time and makes it somewhat easier to get a fuller, more historically accurate picture of who Jesus was.
He was one of many self-proclaimed prophets of the era, but what made his message rise above the rest? Was it good timing or luck, or did he offer something different? I think a little bit of everything. But Jesus’s teachings were extraordinary, especially this message about the reversal of the social order where the rich will be poor and the poor will be rich and the first shall be last and the last shall be first. That was a particularly appealing message for those at the bottom and particularly threatening for those at the top. That has a lot to do with it.
But in the end, the reason that Jesus is still called the messiah and those others are not has far less to do with whatever Jesus said or did than it does with what his disciples said about him. If you call yourself messiah and you die without doing what the messiah is supposed to do, you are not the messiah. For all of the other guys, that was quite clear.
But Jesus’s followers had this mystical experience, and decided that the problem wasn’t with Jesus, it was with the definition of messiah. They changed the definition to fit the Jesus story, and in doing so, they created what’s now known as Christianity.
You’ve gotten a lot of attention for the interview on FOX News where the host attacked you for being a Muslim who wrote a book about Jesus. Do you find it funny that, the more you hear from conservative Christian right, the less it sounds like anything Jesus would be saying? You’re hitting on something very important there, which is those people, in particular those on the far right who most loudly claim to speak for Jesus, are in effect preaching the exact opposite of everything that Jesus stood for. Jesus was a man whose history was vindicated on the reversal of the social order. That is the quintessential socialist. This is a man who did not just advocate for the poor, but advocated for the poor at the expense of the rich. If Jesus were alive today, the same people who claim to be guardians of his message are the ones that Jesus would attack first and foremost. This notion they espouse, this kind of radical individualism, is the exact opposite of what Jesus espoused.
And doesn’t it also seem that right-wing Christianity is eerily similar to fundamentalist Islam? Yes. Fundamentalism, regardless of what kind of religion it is, shares a lot in common. It’s based on this notion that somehow you are in sole possession of the truth, and that those who disagree with you are not just wrong — they’re evil; they’re demonic. Let’s face it: These Christian, Muslim, and Jewish fundamentalists have far more in common with each other than they have in common with others of their own faith.
That interview also triggered scrutiny of your own scholarly background, so you can see why, as you claim, academics are reluctant to write popular books. It’s more than that. It’s not just about being open to these levels of scrutiny. The fact of the matter is that academia actively discourages and even punishes you for writing popular books. The best way to make sure you never get tenure is to write a popular book. It’s just how academia works. Every academic will tell you the same thing.
Why is that? Because it’s like this secret society. We speak in our own private language. We reward people not for generalizing, but for becoming more and more specialized. The ideal academic is the man who spends all day in some dusty library poring over the vowel markings of some ancient Acadian text. It’s all about super-specialization. When you write something for a larger audience that people will enjoy, taking a 200-year-old debate and making it accessible for a wider audience, everyone comes after you. They say you are being amateur and unserious. I’ve experienced that my entire career. It’s something I’m used to.
What I’m not used to is having my academic credentials questioned. That I did not expect. No one questioned my credentials when I wrote about Judaism or Islam. What’s funny is that it started our as a far right attack, which I didn’t take seriously, and just laughed about. Then all of the sudden, the mainstream journals started picking it up. I was shocked to see things you would see on Front Page Magazine or Newsbusters or Glenn Beck being reported in places like The Nation and in the Washington Post. That blew my mind.
Do you think the confusion about your background has to do with the interdisciplinary nature of UCSB, where you got one of your degrees? Absolutely. Part of it had to do with the fact that, from a lay perspective, people don’t understand academia. But even those who do don’t understand how it works at UCSB. We’re not just interdisciplinary; that’s a too-simple way of putting it. We are fully immersive. If you want to get a degree in the study of religion, you have to be adept at anthropology and theology and sociology and history. Those things all come together. That’s why I chose Santa Barbara. It’s the kind of university that allows precisely for this cross-disciplinary focus.
I did not want to become the academic who spends his entire lifetime working on some obscure text. There are so many academics like that, people who spend their entire life studying the first half of the Gospel of Mark. That’s it. If you do other things, you are not serious.
That’s a problem with academics. Super-specialization has rendered so much of academia irrelevant, and that’s not how we do things at Santa Barbara. We, as academics, have very interesting things to add to the larger discussion about religions and politics. We have something to contribute, and, until we realize that, we’re going to continue to be seen in weird, distrustful ways.
So who is today’s Jesus? I’m asked this question all the time. The easiest way to put it — and this isn’t even my analogy, I stole it from someone — is that if you want a contemporary model of Jesus, you should think less about Martin Luther King Jr. and more about Malcolm X. That’s the way I think about it, but really these are all just fun associations. They don’t mean much.
Reza Aslan will discuss Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth at UCSB’s Campbell Hall on Saturday, November 2 at 3 p.m. Visit rezaaslan.com for info.