The past few weeks have been busy ones for Reza Aslan. When we spoke with the author, he was driving from Seattle to Portland with his one-and-a-half year old twins in the backseat, on his way to another book signing. The international bestselling author who wrote No God But God (we interviewed him in 2010 about the book) is no stranger to the time and energy a book tour takes. This time around though, things are a little crazier.
In his new book, Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth, Aslan traces the life of Jesus using historic writings from first century Palestine. But the controversy around it has taken on a life of its own. A few days ago, a FOX interview in which Lauren Green resolutely ignores the content of the book and hamfistedly attempts to “expose” the fact that a Muslim (gasp!) has writen about Jesus went viral. In the approximately nine-minute interview, the unfailingly polite Aslan attempts to explain, slowly and with far less condescension than Green deserves, that he is an accomplished religious scholar who has never hidden his religious background. (Aslan mentions it on the second page of Zealot and, as he points out, he has never done an interview where it wasn’t mentioned.)
The aphorism that any publicity is good publicity proved true in this case. Thanks to the FOX clip, Zealot has risen to #1 on the New York Times bestseller list. For many, it has also sparked a conversation on religion and journalism. We caught up with Aslan to talk to him about the book that’s caused such an uproar.
When did you come up with the title for Zealot and why?
I was doing a lot of research into the first century of Palestine, especially the Jewish extremism that ultimately led to the Jewish revolt in 66 A.D. and the creation of Jerusalem. When I was doing this was the first time I came across this term “zeal,” which was a widespread phenomenon in Jesus’ time. Zeal is essentially a compromising devotion to god, a commitment to cleansing the holy land of all foreign and pagan presences and to re-establish the kingdom of David as god had intended. All the great heroes and kings in the Hebrew bible or the old Testament were called “Zealots for the Lord,” so this was really the animating religious doctrine that fueled the apocalyptic fervor of the Jews throughout the first century. That resulted in the Jewish rebellion of 66 and it’s the same doctrine that you can find in the heart of Jesus’ teaching and action when you place that in the historic context of the time.
Zealot is about understanding Jesus from a historic rather than a religious perspective. Based on what you’ve learned, how would you describe him and his impact?
I am not a Christian, but I am a more devoted follower of this man Jesus who 2,000 years ago took on the religious and political authority of his time on behalf the marginalized and dispossessed, the outcasts of his society, those that were unworthy of notice and, in fact, even unworthy of salvation. That man is more real to me than Christ ever was. And I have truly fashioned my life after the example he has set. After my wife, he is my biggest hero. I think the purpose of writing this book is to tell people you can be a follower of Jesus without being a Christian.
In Zealot you make a point of emphasizing a common misconception that when Jesus was speaking about the Kingdom of God he meant it to be something of earth, rather than unearthly. Could you expand on that distinction?
The key to recognizing who Jesus was is to recognize this fundamental truth: He was a Jew. While that seems obvious to some people, we have to recognize that everything he said and did must be placed squarely within a Jewish context. So when he says, “I am the messiah,” he means the Jewish messiah. The primary function of the Jewish messiah as intended by King David was to re-establish David’s kingdom on Earth, to usher in the rule of god. It makes sense to me that after his death Jesus’ followers were confronted with the fundamental problem: According to every deposition of the Jewish messiah, Jesus failed his messianic duty. He did not establish a Kingdom of God. To reconcile that fact into their belief, they transformed his message about a real earthly kingdom into a heavenly kingdom, the kingdom that is to come.
Although many people identify Jesus as the messiah, you write that he himself never adopted that title. Yet through his actions, he seemed to take on the prophesied role. What does that tell us about Jesus as a historic figure?
People forget that saying the words “I am the messiah” in first century Palestine was a treasonable offense. If you are truly the messiah whose job it is to establish the Kingdom of David, then you are claiming you will get rid of the kingdom of Caesar. That is treason against the state and everybody who claimed to be the messiah was ultimately killed for it. It makes sense that he would want to keep his messianic identity a secret, that he would want to cloak it in the incomprehensible parable, although he certainly didn’t know where his journey was going to end. Nevertheless, he was perhaps savvy enough to try and keep a lid on his messianic identity until he finally entered Jerusalem and could present himself to the Jewish authority.
Did anything surprise you about Jesus during the writing process?
For me, I knew who James the brother of Jesus was; he’s a very prominent figure, but his story has been more or less excised from Christian history. When I was a Christian, I never heard of James. So getting back into the intrigue and discovering this question of who the brother of Jesus was--because after Jesus he’s the most important person in the formation of the early Christian movement; he was Jesus’ successor and the leader of the group that he left behind--was surprising to me. It’s the thing that is perhaps most surprising to the people who I talk to about the book.
Your first book, No God But God was about the history of Islam. Your second book, Zealot looks at Jesus from a historic perspective. If you plan to write another book, will you tackle another religion?
My next book is most likely going to be a novel of fiction. I really want to go back to novel writing and I think I’m going to take this opportunity to do so. But I think that for my next religious book, I would like to pursue something a little bigger than a simple religious figure. I’m interested in the origins of the religious experience, how the history of religion has evolved over the last umpteen thousand years, and where religiosity is going in the future. I think that’s a topic I’ve been chewing on for a few years; I would love to eventually work on and produce a book out of it.
After your FOX interview, your book hit #1 on Amazon. Do you find it ironic?
I think it’s important to note that this book was already a bestseller before the FOX News interview; it was #2 on the New York Times bestseller list when it debuted because I think people are interested in the topic. What was remarkable about the FOX feature was that not only did it push it into the top spot, which I am thankful for--there’s no way I ever would have caught up to J.K. Rowling without FOX--but it also introduces the book to a much wider audience that might not have heard about it otherwise. I’ve received a lot of comments like, “Normally I would not be interested in a book about Jesus but I find this book fascinating.”
Since you did the interview, there’s been an outpouring of articles, tweets, and you even did a Reddit "Ask Me Anything." Did the feedback after the interview surprise you?
It’s remarkable, I’m getting emails from Singapore, from India, from Brazil. I think it has launched a much needed public discussion in the country about media and journalism. These are questions that go way beyond me, the interview, or the book. I couldn’t be more pleased that we’re actually having a conversation like this.
What was also interesting about the feedback was to see how many younger people have been writing you personal questions in regard to faith, religion, and atheism. Why do you think that is?
The majority of the so-called millennial generation sees themselves as not affiliated and in a sense this book is perfect for that kind of audience. They’ve heard of Jesus, they understand the claims made about him by people who don’t always abide by the principles and values that Jesus preaches or have been turned off by the way people talk about Jesus. This is an opportunity for them to get to know who Jesus was, the human being who lived two thousand years ago, and perhaps recognize him as worthy of being emulated as he is seen now through the Christian church.
There are people that will agree and disagree with points in Zealot. Can you share one of the more interesting insights you’ve gained by hearing readers’ responses to the book?
I’ve had conversations with people who have told me that this book has renewed their faith in Christianity, which is a remarkable thing for a writer writing about a historical person. That makes me incredibly happy. Far from this book being seen as some kind of an attack on Christianity, I’m getting the opposite thoughts from Christians who are really thanking me for helping them understand the world and personality of the man they believe is also God.