Who do you say I am?” This is perhaps the most pointed question Jesus of Nazareth is said to have asked his disciples. Teacher or saviour, man or deity? In the 2,000 years since, countless different responses have provoked everything from deep reflection to ruthless war.
But there’s only one conclusion open to the historian, according to author and scholar of religions Reza Aslan. His 2013 bestseller Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth (Random House) belongs to a long-standing, largely academic quest to reveal the human figure behind the miracle stories, altarpieces, and theological systems.
In this tradition, Zealot wants to return Jesus to the small stretch of earth he once walked. Here, he is re-embedded in the conflicts and upheaval of first-century Palestine, one among a horde of preachers and healers known to have roamed the country at the time. His humble background means he is illiterate and sets him squarely against the corruption of the occupying Romans and their allies in the Jewish temple priesthood. Far from a messenger of peace to all humankind, he is, Aslan writes, “concerned exclusively with the fate of his fellow Jews”, and with restoring—through violence, if necessary—a “Kingdom of God” that would purge the land of invaders.
It’s a portrait that has stirred anger in some defenders of Christian orthodoxy, most famously at Fox News, whose July 2013 interview with Aslan went viral when the host could barely contain herself over the fact that the Iranian-born author is a professed Muslim. But Aslan, an alumnus of Harvard Divinity School, wants it known that Zealot is in no way meant to undermine Christian tenets.
“I always say that the person of faith and the historian are asking fundamentally different questions—the historian is interested in what is likely, the person of faith is interested in what is possible,” Aslan tells the Straight when reached at his Los Angeles home. “I think they’re both misunderstanding the different avenues, the different pursuits, that each represent.”
The problem arises, he says, when one avenue gets mistaken for the other—when texts like the Gospels are read and treated as if they were historical documents bearing only facts. This is a category error, he argues, and a surprisingly recent one, wrongly setting up books such as Zealot as rivals for the truth.
“It’s just simply assumed—and again, not just by biblical literalists themselves but by everyone, by atheists—that Christians have always read the Bible literally,” he notes. “And it comes as a profound shock to learn that the very concept, the very idea, of biblical literalism can only be traced to the beginning of the 20th century. Of the 2,000 years in which the Gospels have been in existence, for 1,900 of those years Christians did not read them as literal and inerrant. They just didn’t. Literalness and inerrancy are a product of the scientific revolution, which told us that that which is true is that which can be factually verified.”
The verifiable and probable are what Zealot wants to portray, and in doing so it creates an image of Jesus that is often radically at odds with the Christ figure who later evolved in the writings of St. Paul and innumerable others. But what does this do to huge expanses of culture inspired by that figure over the centuries, from Chartres Cathedral to the work of Dante, Michelangelo, Bach, Tolstoy, Weil, Auden—a seemingly endless list? Does it rob them of weight, hollow them out?
“This is just simply an incorrect way of thinking about what sacred history means, what mythology means,” Aslan replies. “The denotation of myth is ‘stories about gods and goddesses’. And stories about gods and goddesses are by definition true—because, as I say, the truths of these stories have very little to do with the exigencies of historical fact. So it’s incorrect to say that there was this factual version of Christianity preached by Jesus which then over the years was corrupted, fabricated, and through propaganda turned into something else entirely.
“What you have,” he continues, “is centuries and centuries of people grappling with and interpreting the mythology of Jesus in a way that was meaningful to them. This isn’t fabrication—it’s not an insidious design. It’s just simply how the world works. There’s really nothing more to it than that. So I think that’s what I would really encourage people to think of when they think of religious history.”
Moreover, Aslan remarks, the historical traces and the sacred stories do intersect at important points. In his view, there’s nothing arbitrary about the fact that Jesus is remembered by billions, while most of the other messianic prophets and firebrands of his time have long been forgotten.
“Jesus’s social teachings were, I think, something quite new and revolutionary—a new world order that he envisioned wherein those on the top and those on the bottom would switch places,” the author says. “The example that he set in how to confront social injustice, how to confront the powers that be, is certainly as relevant today as it was 2,000 years ago.…So I think for him, it’s not about the faith that you profess, it’s about what you do for ‘the least of these’. That’s Jesus’s central message in a nutshell.”
The Indian Summer festival presents an evening with Reza Aslan on Friday (July 11) at SFU’s Goldcorp Centre for the Arts. See the Indian Summer Festival website for details.