“Zealot” Author Reza Aslan State of Belief Radio Interview: July 20, 2013

“Zealot” Author Reza Aslan State of Belief Radio Interview: July 20, 2013


[REV. DR. C. WELTON GADDY, HOST]: Reza Aslan
is a respected religion scholar, a popular commentator, best-selling author and University
professor. His first book, “No god but God: The Origins, Evolution, and Future of Islam,”
has been translated into thirteen languages, and named one of the 100 most important books
of the last decade. This week, Random House released his latest, “Zealot: the Life and
Times of Jesus of Nazareth,” and I’m very pleased that it brings Reza Aslan to State
of Belief Radio. Dr. Aslan, welcome back to State of Belief
Radio! [DR. REZA ASLAN, GUEST]: Thanks for having
me back! [WG]: You know, I was remembering today – looking
forward to this interview – I recall vividly when we talked about “No god but God,” just
after it came out, and what a great book that was – and here you’ve written another great
book in the Fundamentalism book, and how you win a cosmic war – I can’t quite figure out
the sequence. How did you get Jesus of Nazareth falling after those two? [RA]: Well, believe it or not, this Jesus
book, “Zealot,” was the first book that I started working on. I’ve actually been working
on this book, really, I would say for about two decades – ever since my undergraduate
degree in the New Testament. And I did a thesis then on something called the “messianic secret”
in the Gospel of Mark, and that really began to turn some screws in my mind about examining
not just the historical Jesus, but the world in which he lived, and how that world impacted
who he was; the things that he said; the decisions that he made – and, ultimately, his tragic
end. [WG]: Yeah. Reza, are you putting Jesus in
the Zealot Party, or are you just calling him a zealot? [RA]: Very good question! Yes, so, there is
something called the Zealot Party that arises in the year 66 CE – that’s the year in which
the Jews rise up against the Roman Empire, manage, miraculously, to throw the Romans
out of the Holy Land, and then keep them at bay for about 3, 3 1/2 years, until the year
70 CE, when the Romans return under General Titus and end up destroying Jerusalem: burning
it to the ground, razing the Temple of God, defiling its ashes, murdering some hundred
thousand Jews who had holed themselves up in the walls of Jerusalem, and then scattering
the survivors out of the Holy Land for the next, well, about 2,000 years, actually. But
the Zealot Party did not arise out of nowhere. They formed out of this sentiment that had
been a part of the general apocalyptic fervor of First Century Palestine for most of the
century. Zealotism was less a political affiliation than it was a mode of activism; a spirituality;
a sense of devout nationalism that called for an end to the Roman occupation, a liberation
of the Jews from heathen control, and an establishment of God’s rule over the Holy Land. And the
argument that I make in the book is that if you look at Jesus’ words and actions within
the historical context of the time in which he lived, he most definitely shared those
sentiments of Zealotism that were so widespread in his time. [WG]: Would you argue that the Zealotism of
Jesus was one of the reasons that the people around him were very reticent to recognize
him as the Messiah? [RA]: Excellent point. Yes, that’s right,
and that’s where this concept of the messianic secret comes from. You have to understand
that in First Century Palestine, simply saying the words, “I am the Messiah,” is a treasonable
offense, punishable by crucifixion. “The Messiah” means “the anointed one.” According to the
Jews, the whole purpose of the Messiah was to – as the descendant of King David – was
to re-establish the kingdom of David on earth; to re-create the kingdom of God, to establish
the reign of God as the sole sovereign over the Holy Land. Well, there’s a problem with
that sentiment, because there’s already a sovereign over the Holy Land in First Century
Palestine: it’s Caesar Augustus. This is all Roman military occupation territory. And so
for someone to say that “I am the Messiah,” and that God’s reign is about to be fulfilled,
is tantamount to saying the reign of Caesar is about to come to an end. And so Jesus was
not the only person with these zealot tendencies who claimed to be the Messiah, who was ultimately
crucified as a state criminal. There were, as a matter of fact, some dozen or so other
messiahs who lived just before and just after Jesus, who made similar claims, and who claimed
a similar end as Jesus did. [WG]: I want to jump forward now from First
Century to right now. Reza, you were raised Muslim, converted to Evangelical Christianity
for a time, and then returned to Islam. How do you think your unique perspective is helpful
in writing this book? Because I think it’s valuable. [RA]: That’s a very good question. Yes, when
I was 15 years old, I heard the Gospel story for the very first time, and whole-heartedly
accepted it; accepted Jesus into my heart, and actually began about a four- or five-year
process as a missionary. I went around the country preaching the Gospel, trying to convert
everyone that I met into this belief that I had. When I entered college and began to
study the New Testament in an academic environment, however, I began to notice a bit of a chasm
between what I was learning about the historical Jesus and the world in which he lived, and
the way the Jesus had been presented to me in the Evangelical church that I was going
to. And what was kind of strange to me, almost ironic, in a sense, is that the more I learned
about the historical Jesus, the more I was drawn to him. In fact, I became, as I often
say, a far more devoted follower of Jesus of Nazareth than I think I ever was of Jesus
the Christ. This man who lived 2,000 years ago who dared defy the greatest empire the
world had ever known – and lost; but who, in the process, presented a path for social
justice, the protection of the poor and the weak; speaking truth to power, whether it
be the political power – Rome, in his case – or the religious power – the temple priests
– is something that was profoundly activating in me. And to this day, when I returned to
my Muslim roots, I still see myself as following in the footsteps that, in my interpretation,
were blazed by Jesus as this unique and extraordinary man who really shaped who I am as an individual. [WG]: Would you lean toward Nietzsche who
said: “The last Christian died on the cross”? [RA]: Well, I would actually change it around,
and I would not call Jesus a Christian. Now this is, I think, a more philosophical/theological
viewpoint that I talk about a lot in my books, but we have to remember that prophets are
not inventors of religion. Jesus didn’t invent Christianity; Moses didn’t invent Judaism;
Siddhartha Gautama did not invent Buddhism; Muhammad did not invent Islam. Prophets are
reformers. Their task is to take the religious and social and political milieu in which they
live, and to reform it; to recast it; to renew it, in a sense. It’s often the case that it’s
left to the followers of the prophet, after the prophet has died, to then take this herculean
task of taking the words and the actions of the prophet that they knew and formulating
it into an institution – creating a religion – out of it. Which is, frankly, why we are
often met with this uncomfortable reality that there is often so much of a difference
between the values that are preached by the prophet and those that are espoused by the
institutions that arose from the teachings of the prophet. I think a lot of Christians
would say that there is a difference between the Christian Church or the Catholic Church
and the values preached by Jesus; I know a lot of Muslims, myself included, would say
that there is a huge difference between Islam in the way that it’s treated by so many Muslims
today and the values preached by the prophet Muhammad himself. [WG]: Oh, that’s so well said. I found it
interesting that you wanted readers to understand that what you’re writing in this book is not
the result of the kind of scientific explorations that were so popular a few decades ago, but
it’s something else. Tell us what that something else is. [RA]: Yes, you’re referring to, of course,
the whole “Quest for the Historical Jesus” phenomenon that was so much a popular undertaking
over the last hundred years or so, and really, in the last fifty years it became really,
really extraordinarily popular. But then, over the last few years, it has been abandoned,
because I think a lot of scholars have come to the realization that, frankly, the Jesus
of history is not accessible to us in the way that other historical characters are.
I mean, I say in the book that writing a biography of Jesus is not like writing a biography of
Napoleon Bonaparte; what we are mostly relying upon are the testimonies of faith written
by communities of faith, many, many years after the events which they describe, whether
we’re talking about the Gospels or the Letters of Paul or what have you. Outside of the New
Testament, in fact, there’s really only one reliable mention of Jesus in any other kind
of historical document, and this is a document called the Antiquities, written by a Roman-Jewish
historian named Flavius Josephus, who’s actually – interestingly enough – writing not so much
about Jesus, but writing about Jesus’ brother James, and he mentions Jesus as he is talking
about what happened to James, who was quite a prominent figure in the 60’s in Jerusalem.
So, unfortunately, what we are left with is very little historical evidence of this character
named Jesus. But what I’m doing is something different.
What I’m saying is, if we take what little we know about Jesus: that he was a Jew, which
may seem obvious, but I think people need to be reminded of that; that he formed a Jewish
movement, the purpose of which was to establish the Kingdom of God on earth; and that as a
result of that movement, he was crucified by Rome as a state criminal. Those three things
– most scholars are more or less unanimous upon. My argument is, if you take those three
things, and you plug them into the world in which Jesus lived – First Century Palestine,
an era that we know a lot about, thanks to the Romans, who were quite adept at documentation;
an era that was marked by this slow burn of a revolution, the Jewish revolt against the
Roman occupation; an era that was awash in apocalyptic energy – if you take what little
we know about Jesus, and place him in this world, then, in a way, his biography writes
itself. What do I mean by that? Let me just explain
one aspect of this. Crucifixion was a punishment that Rome reserved exclusively for the crime
of sedition. Now, people often say, well, wasn’t Jesus crucified alongside two thieves?
Not exactly. The Greek word that’s used there for “thief” is “listis.” “Listis” doesn’t
actually mean “thief;” it means “bandit.” And “bandit” was the most common term in the
Roman Empire for a rebel or an insurrectionist. Anyone who challenged Roman rule was called
a “bandit.” And so, Jesus was a bandit in the eyes of Rome. The crime for which he was
crucified was etched in a block above his head: “Jesus, king of the Jews.” This thing
called the “titulus” is not, as I think a lot of Christians have come to see it, some
bit of cynical irony, some attempt at humor by the Romans. It wasn’t sarcastic; it was
quite literally a documentation of Jesus’ crime, which was, in the eyes of Rome, striving
for kingly rule. If you knew nothing else about Jesus except that he was crucified by
Rome for the crime of sedition, then my argument is, you know enough to get a sense of, really,
what kind of a radical revolutionary this man was; what a threat to the social and political
and religious order he was. So threatening, in fact, that he was captured, tortured, and
executed for his words, for the movement that he founded. [WG]: Reza, do you think your book offers
more to Christians or to non-Christians, in terms of a better understanding of both the
historical Jesus and his continuing influence in our world? [RA]: That’s a fantastic question. I mean,
obviously, I want this book for a general audience, for an audience that maybe knows
very little about Jesus, or maybe went to Sunday School when they were kids. But most
definitely, my primary audience for this book are those people of faith who are familiar
with the Gospel stories in a, you know, a surface way, but who are unfamiliar about
the world in which Jesus lived, and how that world impacted him – how it shaped his words,
how it motivated his actions. I mean, it’s a fundamental and undeniable fact that there
are billions of Christians in the world who believe that Jesus was God incarnate – God
made flesh. And that’s a perfectly valid, perfectly reasonable interpretation of this
man who lived 2,000 years ago. But whatever else Jesus was – whether he was the Messiah,
or God incarnate – he was also a man. And as a man, he lived in a very specific time;
a specific context. And so I think that for Christians, if you truly want to know who
this man was – this man who would become known as the Christ, the Messiah, the living incarnate
presence of God – you should also know the world in which he lived. Because that world
defined who Jesus was as a man. He did not live in a vacuum; he lived in a specific time.
He dealt with specific problems. He confronted specific powers. And so I really believe that
to have a full impression of Jesus, both as Christ as a man, you must know about the world
that gave shape to him – the world out of which he arose. [WG]: If you stayed with this book as long
as you’ve said, writing on it, I know, then, how important it was. What were the surprises
in your research – or did you have any? [RA]: There were two surprises, actually.
Very good question. The first surprise – as I sort of mentioned briefly before – is just
how many other people there were in First Century Palestine who called themselves “Messiah;”
who gathered followers to them; who healed the sick and the lame; who exorcized demons;
who called for the Kingdom of God; and who were ultimately arrested and executed for
their words. In a sense, many of these people – we know their names; some of them are actually
mentioned in the New Testament A few of them actually had more followers than Jesus did,
in their lifetime. Many were even more famous and more well-known than Jesus was in their
lifetime. That’s the first surprise. The second surprise is linked to that, which
is that out of those dozen or so people who claimed to be the Messiah, only one of them
is still called “Messiah,” and that’s Jesus of Nazareth. And my question – and the question
that I try to tackle in the book – is: why? Why is it that out of all those, Jesus – who,
actually, when compared to these other figures, was, in his lifetime, not nearly as successful
and not nearly as significant – why is Jesus the one that we still call “Messiah”? And
to me, the answer lies in what happened after Jesus’ death. Obviously, the resurrection
is a very difficult topic for historians to talk about – it is the quintessential expression
of faith in the Christian world. But regardless of whether you believe in the resurrection
or not, what you cannot deny is what I refer to as the resurrection experience: the fact
that the followers of Jesus said that they experienced something miraculous and extraordinary.
And again, even if you don’t believe in what they experienced, you can’t deny that that
experience resulted in these followers not doing what the followers of all the other
“messiahs” who were killed did, which was to just simply go home and abandon the movement.
But these followers decided to keep going. They decided to continue preaching Jesus despite
the fact that, according to Jewish tradition, his death as a common criminal annulled his
messianic claims. After all, what the Jews were awaiting was a messiah who would recreate
the kingdom of David on earth. Jesus didn’t do that. And so by the definition of the Hebrew
Bible, he was no longer the Messiah. And yet his followers refused to acknowledge that,
and they kept going. And perhaps the biggest reason not to just simply dismiss their experiences
out of hand – whether you’re a believer or not – is the fact that 2,000 years later,
this is the largest religion in the world. [WG]: This has to be a rather succinct answer,
but what did writing this book do to you, and your already appreciation for the historical
Jesus? [RA]: It’s a very good question. I think,
really, what it did was embed into my mind the importance that those who claim to walk
in the footsteps of Jesus must maintain to this concept of justice; the idea of social
justice. If you strip Jesus of his divinity – and a lot of people reject him as divine,
and that’s fine; a lot of people accept him as divine, and that’s fine – but if you reject
Jesus as divine, what you cannot reject is the power of his teachings: that the weak,
the meek, the poor, the downtrodden, the iniquitous, have to be the focus of all of our attentions,
all of our actions, our words, our efforts. And that means everyone! It may mean people
that you disagree with; it may mean people whose sexual orientations you disagree with,
or whose ethnic background or even whose religious identities you clash with – it doesn’t matter.
Every single human being who is downtrodden, who is oppressed, who does not have access
to social justice, would, in the eyes, in the teachings of Jesus, be worthy of being
stood up for. And that’s the reminder that we all have to sort of have clogged in our
minds forever, if we want to truly say that we are followers of Jesus – whether Jesus
the Christ, or Jesus of Nazareth. [WG]: Reza, it’s a brilliant treatment. The
book is a great book; I hope it does well – it deserves to do well. And I have to tell
you – I didn’t want to say it ’til the end – but the messianic secret theme in Mark has
always been one of my greatest fascinations with the Gospels… [RA]: Me, too! [WG]: …Because I happen to think that it
says to us some things about Jesus that Christianity failed to get and embrace. So thank you so
much. Reza Aslan is the author of the international
best-seller “No god but God: The Origins, Evolution, and Future of Islam,” as well as
of “Beyond Fundamentalism: Confronting Religious Extremism in a Globalized Age.” His brand-new book is titled “Zealot: the
Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth,” just out from Random House. I guarantee you, this
is one of those books you ought to sell your shirt if you have to and go buy it. Dr. Aslan, thanks. It’s a compelling work,
I really appreciate you giving us so much time on State of Belief Radio. [RA]: My pleasure. Thank you for having me.

35 thoughts on ““Zealot” Author Reza Aslan State of Belief Radio Interview: July 20, 2013

  1. I'm very impressed with this interview. Rev. Gaddy asks intelligent and interesting questions, and I've learned more about the book and its author in this clip than in any other. Thank you for an informed, vibrant discussion!

  2. Now, this is what I call a fantastic interview. Hats off to the interviewer. Ms. Green should watch this interview.

  3. Interviewing style is not the issue. We want to know what Reza Aslan has in his bag of deceptions propped up by Random House.I don't hear anyone asking him whether it is him or Geneve Abdo is the real author of No god but God. His views are anti-Islamic & yet him & his handlers insist he is a Muslim .Its really bizarre .This guy is not helping in building bridges between Muslims & the West but making it more complicated.

  4. Since Rev. Gaddy has read both books, and now conducted interviews on both books, we're pretty happy with the content as well as the style of the interviews, thanks all the same. An arbitrary claim that Dr. Aslan is anti-Islamic in a random youtube comment merits about as much regard as the endless accusations that he is anti-Christian. Ad hominem critiques of a scholarly work don't really advance the discussion.

  5. That means a lot, Betsy! Working in the world of interreligious cooperation, it felt important to address some of the real questions raised in the book, not just superficial chattering.

  6. Adambrown Hussein you have aptly described the deception that Reza is trying to spring upon unsuspecting folks. You said it right it is truly bizarre that a man with his intelligence will follow Mohammed a man with a bag chockful of moral failures. After doing this research on Jesus you would have thought it would have made a meaninful impact on Reza but apparently it did not as he maintains that he is a moslem with Mohammed as his role model. Truly bizarre indeed.

  7. Taomeano, Reza Aslan is not following Mohamed(pbuh). He is as anti- Islamic as he is anti-Christian. He has not yet shown us that he is anti-Jewish but he is definitely anti-religion.

  8. Stateofbelief, The claim that Reza Aslan was once a Christian needs verification as it smells like a ploy to minimize harsh criticisms from Christians & boost sales.

  9. Taomeano, State of Belief Radio is not produced by "unsuspecting folks." Also, if you had taken the time to listen to the actual interview, you would have heard Dr. Aslan identify Jesus as a leading role model for himself. Reductionist thinking is the enemy of scholarship.

  10. Adambrown Hussein, you are running around casting aspersions on EVERY interview video with Dr. Aslan that's on Youtube. Crusade much? Unproven ad hominem charges are not welcome here.

  11. Adambrown Hussein, you are running around casting aspersions on EVERY interview video with Dr. Aslan that's on Youtube. Crusade much? And what qualifies you to assume we don't verify our guests' claims?

  12. stateofbelief i did not say that your program is being produced by "unsuspecting folks". I was really talking about your listening audience. I apologize to you if that phrase offended you, i did not mean it that way. My issue was that Reza was saying some things that misrepresented some christian beliefs and by the way if he loves Jesus as he says why is he not following Him instead of following a religion whose leader has a chockful of moral failures ?

  13. Taomeano, A piece of advice. For your personal integrity avoid maligning God's(Allah's) prophets. Leave that to Reza Aslan & his ilk.

  14. The fact that Fox News has learned that Reza Aslan is an anti-Islamic bigot albeit from the left, should not appease them but give them courage to curb those within their right wing ranks .

  15. I get it. Reza Aslan converted to Christianity because he fell in love with the man Jesus and his teachings. Then, he discovered that Christianity is not the religion of Jesus, but a religion about Jesus. The original religion of Jesus got covered over and twisted beyond recognition by the bureaucracy that sprang up claiming to be his church. Aslan realized he could follow Jesus better as a Muslim. Fascinating!

  16. He could have loved Jesus(Issa-pbuh) even as a Muslim. Muslims love Jesus(pbuh) as God's(Allah's) messenger.

  17. To instruct people to live righteous lifestyles according to God's laws. No murders, rapes, incests, stealing, usury, formication, adultery,idol worshipping,black magic & superstitions etc; etc. and to remember the Almighty more often as prescribed in prayers & supplications.

  18. Well said: "I would not call Jesus a Christian… Prophets do are not inventors of religion…. there is often so much of a difference between the values that are preached by the prophet and those that are espoused by the institutions that arose from the teachings of the prophet.”

  19. Also well said: "Every single human being who is downtrodden, who is oppressed, who does not have access to social justice, would in the eyes and the teachings of Jesus, [is] worthy of being stood up for, and that’s the reminder that we all have to have clogged in our minds forever if we want to truly say that we are followers of Jesus, whether Jesus the Christ, or the Jesus of Nazareth.”

  20. Aslan is simply a Muslim power pawn to keep people in the system of slavery, power and overthrow of the world.

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