3:04pm

Mon July 15, 2013
Author Interviews

Christ In Context: 'Zealot' Explores The Life Of Jesus

Originally published on Mon July 15, 2013 5:13 pm

Writer and scholar Reza Aslan was 15 years old when he found Jesus. His secular Muslim family had fled to the U.S. from Iran, and Aslan's conversion was, in a sense, an adolescent's attempt to fit into American life and culture. "My parents were certainly surprised," Aslan tells Fresh Air's Terry Gross.

As Aslan got older, he began his studies in the history of Christianity, and he started to lose faith. He came to the realization that Jesus of Nazareth was quite different from the Messiah he'd been introduced to at church. "I became very angry," he says. "I became resentful. I turned away from Christianity. I began to really reject the concept of Christ."

But Aslan continued his Christian scholarship, and he found that he was increasingly interested in Jesus as a historical figure. The result is his new book, Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth — a historical look at Jesus in the context of his time and Jewish religion, and against the backdrop of the Roman Empire.


Interview Highlights

On taking the Bible literally

"The idea of literalism in the Bible is a very new phenomenon. In many ways, it's a product of the scientific revolution. When we sort of decided that, 'That which is true is that which can be scientifically verified.' Well, that put into doubt the stories of the Bible. And what we now refer to as 'fundamentalism' — this belief in the literal and inherent nature of the Bible — arose out of the scientific revolution."

On Jesus being just one of many "Messiahs"

"There were dozens of people who walked through the Holy Land claiming to be the Messiah, curing the sick, exorcising demons, challenging Rome, gathering followers. In a way, there's nothing unique about what Jesus did. In fact, many of these so-called false Messiahs we know by name. Some of them were even more famous in their own lifetimes than Jesus was. They had more followers than Jesus did. What I'm fascinated by is that out of that dozen or so so-called Messiahs in first-century Palestine, only one of them is still called 'Messiah.' "

On the Crucifixion

"There's only one reason to be crucified under the Roman Empire and that is for treason or sedition. Crucifixion, we have to understand, was not actually a form of capital punishment for Rome. In fact, it was often the case that the criminal would be killed first and then crucified. Crucifixion was, in reality, a deterrent; it was an obvious symbol to subject peoples of what happens when you defy the will of Rome. Which is why crucifixions always had to happen in public places: at crossroads, on hills, at the entrance of cities. So for that reason, crucifixion was a punishment reserved ... solely for the most extreme crimes, crimes against the state. ...

"And so, that's why if we really want to know who Jesus was and what he meant, we should start not at the beginning of the story — with him in a manger — but at the end of the story, with him on a cross. Because if Jesus was in fact crucified by Rome, he was crucified for sedition. He was crucified because he challenged the Roman occupation."

On the Roman destruction of Jerusalem

"They murdered tens, if not hundreds of thousands of Jews in the city. The survivors were scattered to the winds. [The Romans] renamed Jerusalem, in a sense. They wanted to create the impression that there were never any Jews to begin with in the city. This was a moment of deep psychic trauma for the Jews. What made it worse, however, is that as a result of the revolt, Judaism in the Roman Empire became a pariah. It became almost an illegal religion. Jews were not seen as a legitimate cult among the many, many other cults that existed within the Roman Empire.

"So for the Christians, they had a very obvious choice here: They could maintain their connections to their Jewish parent religion and experience the same wrath of Rome that the Jews were experiencing — of course the Christians' experience of the wrath of Rome would come a little bit later — or they could refashion the story of Jesus [and] make him, frankly, less Jewish — make responsibility for his death on the shoulders of the Jews, and not on the Roman Empire."

On how Jesus saw himself

"If you're asking if whether Jesus expected to be seen as God made flesh, as the living embodiment, the incarnation of God, then the answer to that is absolutely no. Such a thing did not exist in Judaism. In the 5,000-year history of Jewish thought, the notion of a God-man is completely anathema to everything Judaism stands for. The idea that Jesus could've conceived of himself — or that even his followers could've conceived of him — as divine, contradicts everything that has ever been said about Judaism as a religion."

On an "uncomfortable fact"

"Almost every word ever written about Jesus was written by people who didn't actually know Jesus when he was alive. These were not people who walked with Jesus or talked with Jesus. These were not people who ate with him or prayed with him.

"[The Apostles] were farmers and fisherman. These were illiterates; they could neither read nor write, so they couldn't really espouse Christology, high-minded theology about who Jesus was. They certainly couldn't write anything down. Instead the task of spreading the Gospel message outside of Jerusalem, of really creating what we now know as Christianity, fell to a group of urbanized, Hellenized, educated Jews in the Diaspora; [and] for [the Romans], having grown up immersed in this Hellenized, Romanized world, the concept of a God-man was something quite familiar. Caesar Augustus was a God-man. What we really see in these 20 years after Jesus' death is this process whereby this Jewish religion based on a Jewish revolutionary becomes transformed into a Roman religion, where Jesus is transformed from a Jewish conception of a Messiah to a kind of Roman demigod."

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

TERRY GROSS, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. I want to thank Dave Davies for filling in for me while I enjoyed a week off last week. And now, on to today's interview. I was initially surprised to see there's a new book about the historical Jesus by Reza Aslan, surprised because I know him as the author of "No God But God," a book about the history of Islam.

I assumed that Islam was his primary focus as a scholar. He's from a Muslim country and a Muslim family. His family fled Iran when he was seven, after the revolution that brought the Ayatollah Khomeini to power. But the author's note which opens his book provided an explanation. He writes: When I was 15 years old, I found Jesus.

And then a couple of pages later, Aslan explains how he stopped being an unquestioning believer and returned to the Bible as an inquisitive scholar. His new book is called "Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth." Aslan says it's his attempt to reclaim the Jesus of history, the Jesus before Christianity, and to uncover how after Jesus' death his followers reinterpreted his mission and identity.

Aslan is also the author of "Beyond Fundamentalism." Reza Aslan, welcome back to FRESH AIR. It's a long time since we last spoke. So I was surprised to read that you found Jesus at the age of 15. You know, first of all, I know your book "No God But God," which is about Islam, and so also having fled the Iranian revolution and coming from a Muslim home, I was - I was just surprised. So how did you find Jesus?

REZA ASLAN: Yes, when I was 15 years old I went to a camp sponsored by an evangelical Christian youth group named Young Life. And in this camp it was the first time that I had heard the Gospel message, this incredible story about God who gave his only begotten son to humanity to die for our sins and that anyone who believed in him could have eternal life and not die.

It was just an incredible story, truly the greatest story I'd ever heard. And coming from a nominal Muslim background, I mean my family was Muslim in Iran, but it was very much a sense of identity than anything else. It was about who we were as people, how we understood our role in the world, how we understood our community.

I say in the book that my faith as a Muslim growing up was as familiar to me as my skin and just as disregardable. And I think that's true of a lot of people. And so when we came to the United States in 1979. I'm not sure how many of your listeners remember the 1980s, but it wasn't a great time to be Iranian in America.

(LAUGHTER)

ASLAN: I spent a lot of time just kind of backing away from my culture, my ethnicity, and certainly my religion. And really in my household, particularly from my father, there was an enormous amount of resentment against the ayatollahs, who had, in his view, taken over the country and destroyed it and forced him to flee his home.

And so most of our lives in the U.S. were kind of scrubbed of religion in general and Islam in particular. So by the time I entered high school, I didn't really have much of a religious background at all and in a way was primed for the Gospel message when I heard it.

GROSS: So why did your parents send you to an evangelical camp? I realize your father at this point had turned against Islam and had turned against religion in general, I think, considered himself, you know, an atheist, and your mother I think, remained, you know, Muslim in name but not really active. But still, sending you to a Christian camp, that's a surprise.

ASLAN: Well, you know, I went on my own accord. I mean as many children of immigrants will tell you, I mean my parents had thought that they had done their job right if I came home at the end of the day alive and in one piece.

(LAUGHTER)

ASLAN: They were so busy trying to just make it in this new country, and frankly, the people that I hung out with, these kind of church-going Christian kids, were in the eyes of my parents good kids, and they were precisely the kinds of kids that my parents wanted me to hang out with.

So they didn't really have much of a problem with it. They were certainly surprised when I returned home and explained that I had accepted Jesus into my heart, and I began to aggressively evangelize to them. My father, of course, wanted nothing to do with it. My mother actually a few years later converted to Christianity herself. She is still a Christian to this day.

GROSS: So did being part of this evangelical Christian group give you a sense of community, and was that really important to you as an immigrant from Iran, to feel like you were connected to a group in America?

ASLAN: Yeah, I mean look, this was a time in which Islam and the Middle East was anathema to everything America stood for - by the way, not much has changed, I guess, 30 years later - whereas Christianity was deeply American. I mean I say Jesus was sort of the national icon of the United States. I mean you couldn't be more American than to accept Jesus into your heart.

And so yeah, I'll be honest, part of the conversion experience for me was trying to feel accepted in this new country, trying to feel as American as possible. And I don't mean to say that this was just a conversion of convenience. On the contrary, I mean I had a deep encounter with Christ, as Christians call it. I fully gave myself to this new faith and spent the next few years traveling the country preaching the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

But I would be lying if I said that part of it wasn't the feeling of belonging to something that was quintessentially American at a time in which my skin color, my culture, my nationality, my background, was seen as almost opposite of America.

GROSS: So what was your way of evangelizing? What did you say to people?

ASLAN: I shared with them the Gospel as I had heard it. I shared the notion that humanity is sinful, in need of salvation, that that salvation came in the form of a child who was born in Bethlehem 2,000 years ago, who was God made flesh, the living incarnation of the eternal God, and that all one had to do to be saved was to believe in him, to accept him into their hearts, and the result would be eternal and everlasting life.

GROSS: And is that what you told your mother?

ASLAN: Yes, that is exactly what I told my mother.

GROSS: So you not only became a devout Christian, you were evangelizing. You evangelized your own parents. But you remained a Christian for only a few years, and the reason why you left Christianity had to do with becoming a scholar of Christianity. So once you started studying Christianity from a historical and scholarly point of view, what changed your mind about being a believer?

ASLAN: Well, in a way it actually started before then. I mean part of the process of evangelizing the Gospel was to prepare myself for the doubts of the unbelievers that I would come across. So I began to really study the New Testament, study the Bible. I wanted to know this stuff inside and out.

And after a while I started noticing a bit of a distance between the Jesus that I was finding in the text and the Jesus that I was hearing about in church. Not everything seemed to jibe, in a sense. And it was not until college, when I began my formal education of the New Testament and early Christianity, that those doubts started to really form in my mind. And I began to find that the Jesus of history, that the man who walked 2,000 years ago, Jesus of Nazareth, was quite different than Jesus the Christ.

So in a way that really shook my faith, and like most people in my position, I became very angry, I became very resentful. I turned away from Christianity, began to really reject the concept of Christ. But I continued my education. I continued my scholarly work.

And then something remarkable happened. The more I learned about Jesus the man, Jesus of Nazareth, the historical figure, the more I became attracted to him. In fact, in a way Jesus of Nazareth became far more real to me than Jesus the Christ. The man who 2,000 years ago started a movement and defied the will of the greatest empire the world had ever known and lost was someone I wanted to know, someone I wanted to follow.

GROSS: What's an example of something that you had learned as an evangelical that you came to question that led you to become more committed to the historical Jesus than to the evangelical version?

ASLAN: I guess the best example of this would be the Nativity stories, the stories of Jesus' birth that one finds in the Gospels of Luke and Matthew, which are beautiful, wonderful stories. They have a deep moral truth to them, but historically speaking are frankly ridiculous, that they are unhistorical to the extreme and so have to be understood less for the facts that they are presenting than for the truths that they are espousing.

In fact, probably the one thing that we can be certain about, about Jesus' childhood, is that he was born and raised in the village of Nazareth. There are only two verses in the entire New Testament that talk about Jesus being born instead in Bethlehem. In fact, there are only three verses in the entire New Testament that use the word Bethlehem, and I'm talking specifically, of course, of Matthew and Luke, the Nativity stories.

So of course Luke creates this entire story of a census that the Roman Empire puts forth in the year 6 CE, and in this census all subject peoples of Rome have to go to the place of their father's birth and be counted. And in the case of Jesus' father, Joseph, that's Bethlehem. And so the great scene in which the pregnant Mary and Joseph go to Bethlehem and they find no room in the inn, and they ultimately end up giving birth in a manger, is a wonderful story, but of course the historical flaws of it are too numerous to count.

First and foremost, while there was a census that Rome did call at the time, the census had nothing to do with Galilee, which is where Jesus was from, and secondly, there is no documentation in any Roman source ever written, and the Romans were quite adept at documentation, particularly when it came to issues of taxation, which is after all what the census was for.

Now, here's the important thing, Terry, and this is the most important fact about the Nativity stories that I want my readers to understand. Luke, the person who wrote this story, knew that what he was writing was technically false. Luke's readers, the people who read this story, the early Christian community, who were only a generation or two removed from the events that Luke is talking about, knew that this census never happened, that under Roman law no one had to go to the place of their father's birth to be counted.

In other words, they understood that the facts of this story were incorrect, but they didn't care because what we think about when we say history, or even what we think about when we say fact, would have made no sense to Luke's audience. For them, history was not a matter of uncovering verifiable facts. It was a matter of revealing truths, and the truth of this story that Jesus was born in the town of David because he is of the seed of David, and that makes him the Messiah, the legitimate heir to the kingdom of David, the truth of that story was more important than the facts of it.

GROSS: So you're saying that the Gospels were seen as metaphor then, and only many hundreds of years, thousands of years later that they've been seen as literal?

ASLAN: Well, the truth is, is that the idea of literalism in the Bible is a very new phenomenon. In many ways it's a product of the scientific revolution. You know, when we sort of decided that that which is true is that which can be scientifically verified, well, that put into doubt the stories of the Bible, and what we now refer to as fundamentalism, this belief in the literal and inerrant nature of the Bible, arose out of the scientific revolution.

It doesn't really trace itself back to the time of Jesus. On the contrary, the people in Jesus' time were steeped in mythology. They really did not make the same kind of differentiation between fact and myth that we do today. For them, stories of gods and goddesses and heroes were told not because of any facts that they revealed but because of the truths that they revealed.

GROSS: My guest is Reza Aslan. His new book is called "Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth." More after a break, this is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Reza Aslan, and he's the author of the new book "Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth." And he's also the author of the book "No God But God," which is a book about Islam and the Prophet Muhammad.

Your book is called "Zealot," and nowadays when we use the word zealot, it usually has a pretty negative connotation, that somebody is such a true believer that they've kind of shut out everything else, you know, shut out - all they're doing is pursuing with a zeal this kind of one thing.

And why did you call your book about the historical Jesus "Zealot"? And did you mean that to have a negative connotation?

ASLAN: No, it's true that in our modern parlance zealot does have negative connotations, but zealot meant something very specific in Jesus' time. These were followers of a widely recognized biblical doctrine called zeal. Zeal, according to the Bible, implied a strict adherence to the Torah and the law. It was a refusal to serve any foreign master, any human master at all. It implied an uncompromising devotion to the sovereignty of God.

All the great heroes of the Bible were referred to as those who were burning with zeal for God. And in a sense this was a biblical principle that all Jews adhered to, each in his or her own way, but in first century Palestine there were a group of deeply nationalistic Jews who took the biblical principle of zeal to its ultimate limit, who used it as a call to throw off the yoke of Roman occupation, to free the holy land of all foreign elements, and to rededicate it in the name of God as the sole sovereign.

And these Jews referred to themselves as zealots. Now, it would be much, much later, in the year 66 CE, that a group of zealots would form what's called the Zealot Party, and they would be the backbone to the revolt that would ultimately push Rome out of the holy land, but in the '20s and '30s, the era of Jesus, zealotism was just an idea. It was an aspiration.

In other words, it was a model of piety that was linked to this widespread sense of apocalyptic expectation that had seized the Jews in the wake of the Roman occupation. And the argument that I make in the book is that Jesus was deeply a part of this zealot movement, that he himself had these intense zealot tendencies, and that can be revealed in the words and in the actions that we see in the Gospels.

GROSS: Give us one example.

ASLAN: Well, I suppose the perfect example of this is the famous story of the cleansing of the temple. This is a story that of course is told in, you know, every Sunday sermon. Children read about this story in their kids' version of the Bible. It's an incredibly climactic moment in which Jesus is attacking not just the business of the temple but the temple authorities and indeed the Roman authorities, because the two are inextricably linked at the time.

And then something remarkable happens. The Jewish authorities come up to Jesus and they try to trick him, the Gospels say. They show him a coin, a denarius coin, and they say tell us, rabbi, is it lawful to pay tribute to Caesar or not.

Now, this is not a simple question. This is in fact the quintessential test of zealotry in Jesus' time. The zealots being deeply anti-Roman refuse to pay tribute to Rome. The tribute was seen as an abomination. It was sort of proof that the land belonged to Rome instead of God. And so by asking Jesus this question, should we pay the tribute or not, what they were really saying is, are you or are you not a zealot.

Jesus' answer, of course, has been famously understood throughout the centuries as render unto Caesar what is Caesar's and render unto God what is God's, and this has been interpreted as this kind of milquetoast compromise on Jesus' part, neither the priestly position of yes, we should pay tribute, nor the zealot position of no, we shouldn't pay tribute.

But you know, an attempt to say don't worry about the things of this world, focus on the things that matter: worship and obedience to God. But historically speaking, that's not at all what's taking place here. The word that Jesus uses - (speaking foreign language) - doesn't mean render, it means give back. And it's used in Greek as a means of paying someone back that which they owe.

In other words, what Jesus is saying when he looks at the coin and he sees the image of Caesar on here, is perhaps the most obvious example of precisely where Jesus falls in this question of whether it is lawful or not to pay tribute. He deeply is in the zealot camp.

GROSS: Reza Aslan will be back in the second half of the show. His new book is called "Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth." I'm Terry Gross and this is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Let's get back to our interview with Reza Aslan, who is best known for his book, "No god but God," about the history of Islam. He's also immersed in Christian scholarship. His new book is called "Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth."

When we left off, he was talking about Jesus' rebellion against the leadership of the Temple of Jerusalem, which was at the center of Jewish life, and how that rebellion was actually part of his larger conflict with the Roman Empire - which at the time controlled Jerusalem.

ASLAN: Almost every teaching of Jesus, almost every action of Jesus as presented in the Gospels and seen through the lens of historical analysis, leads to Jesus pushing against the Roman occupation. One of the things that Rome did that made it so successful, as it stretched its empire ever deeper into Africa and into the Middle East, is that rather than trying to rule over these lands directly, they would form a partnership with the landed aristocracy in all of the lands they occupied. They would make sure that the local aristocrats would be responsible for maintaining order, for collecting taxes, for collecting the tribute and they would reward them handsomely for that. So in other words, what they would do is they would make sure that the aristocracy was deeply vested in maintaining the imperial system.

Now, of course, in Israel and in Palestine, in the Holy land, the landed aristocracy meant the priestly aristocracy - the people who actually controlled the temple. This created this collusion between the temple and Rome, between the priestly authorities and the Roman authorities that really in the eyes of Jesus and the zealots made them one in the same. They were equally responsible. The attacks that Jesus has against the priests and against the temple would certainly in the eyes of Rome be tantamount to an attack on the empire.

GROSS: So, in comparing your, you know, evangelical understanding of Christianity and of Christ to your historical understanding of Christ, let's jump ahead to the crucifixion of Christ. So in your historical understanding of the Jesus story, why do you think he was crucified?

ASLAN: Well, there's only one reason to be crucified under the Roman Empire, and that is for treason or sedition. Crucifixion - we have to understand - was not actually a form of capital punishment for Rome. In fact, it was often the case that the criminal would be killed first and then crucified. Crucifixion was in reality a deterrent. It was an obvious symbol to subject peoples of what happens when you defy the will of Rome - which is why crucifixions always had to happen in public places, at crossroads, on hills, at the entrance of cities. And so for that reason, crucifixion was a punishment that was reserved solely for the most extreme crimes, crimes against the state - insurrection, rebellion, treason, sedition. That was the only crime for which you could be crucified. And so that's why if we really want to know who Jesus was and what he meant, we should start not at the beginning of the story with him in a manger, but at the end of the story with him on a cross. Because if Jesus was in fact crucified by Rome, he was crucified for sedition; he was crucified because he challenged the Roman occupation.

GROSS: Before Jesus is crucified, Pontius Pilate asked him, are you the king of the Jews? What's the significance of that question?

ASLAN: Well, it is the crime for which he is being accused. In other words, it's the only reason that Jesus would be standing in front of the Roman governor in Jerusalem to begin with. He's there simply to answer the charge made against him, which in this case is striving for kingly rule.

GROSS: And he says? And Jesus says?

ASLAN: Well, Jesus' answer changes, depending on which Gospel you read. And partly that has to do with who the Gospels were written for. Remember, all of these Gospels were written after the destruction of Jerusalem, after the Jewish revolt had made the Jewish religion pariah in the Roman Empire. So it's very important for these early Christians, who were after all writing about a Jew - and by the way, a Jew who shared the same revolutionary zealot tendencies as the insurrectionists who started the revolt against Rome in the first place - to make him sort of more manageable for a non-Jewish audience.

And so as a result, Pilate in the Gospels slowly transforms into this deeply sympathetic character, right up to the point where in the last Gospel, in John, he is deeply pained at the idea of having to put Jesus to death. He's forced to do it by the crowd of Jews who are demanding his blood. He literally washes his hands of the entire event and then reluctantly hands Jesus over to be crucified by the masses.

This story is, of course, complete fantasy. I mean, what we know about Pilate - the historical Pilate - is that he was a deeply cruel and hard man who had absolutely no sympathy for the Jewish sensibilities at all, routinely sent his soldiers into the streets to slaughter Jews whenever they disagreed with any of his decisions. The idea that he would be strong-armed by the crowd into handing over yet another Jewish rabble-rouser, one of probably hundreds that he had sent to the cross that month alone, it really begs the imagination. But in the Pilate story, we get a sense of precisely who the audience for the Gospels was. The audience wasn't the fellow Jews of the Gospel writers. The audience was the Romans - and particularly, the Roman elite. They became the primary focus of Christian evangelism after the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 CE.

GROSS: Why after the destruction of Jerusalem did the subjects of the evangelism change to the Romans?

ASLAN: The destruction of Jerusalem was the consequence of the Jewish revolt, this moment in which a group of zealots took up arms against the Jewish occupation and miraculously managed to free themselves from Roman control and managed to also stay independent for about three or four years until the Romans finally returned in 70 CE. When they returned they razed Jerusalem to the ground. They destroyed the temple of God, this sort of this living repository of the spirit of God. They murdered tens, if not hundreds of thousands of Jews in the city. The survivors were scattered to the winds. They renamed Jerusalem. In a sense they wanted to create the impression that there were never any Jews to begin with in the city. This was a moment of deep psychic trauma for the Jews. What made it worse however, is that as a result of the revolt, Judaism in the Roman Empire became, as I say, a pariah. It became almost an illegal religion. Jews were not seen as a legitimate cult among the many, many other cults that existed within the Roman Empire.

So for the Christians, you know, they had a very obvious choice here. They could maintain their connections to their Jewish parent religion and experience the same wrath of Rome that the Jews were experiencing - of course, the Christian experience of the wrath of Rome would come a little bit later - or they could refashion the story of Jesus. Make him, well, frankly, less Jewish. Make responsibility for his death on the shoulders of the Jews and not on the Roman Empire. This was a I think a very important, clever way of refashioning the Gospel story to make it more palatable to the kind of audience that the early Christian community wanted to convert - not Jews but Romans.

GROSS: So let me reintroduce you here and then we'll continue our conversation. My guest is Reza Aslan and his new book is called "Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth," and it's about the historical Jesus. And he is also the author of "No god but God," which is about the history of Islam.

Let's take a short break here and then we'll talk some more. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GROSS: My guest is Reza Aslan. His new book is called "Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth." I know you can't answer this but do you think Jesus ever intended to start a new religion, and ever intended to break completely from Judaism?

ASLAN: Actually, I can answer this.

GROSS: OK.

(LAUGHTER)

ASLAN: I don't want to be hubristic, but I mean I think when you read the Gospels and you read them again through a historical lens it's very clear, Jesus repeatedly says that he has not come to abolish the law but to fulfill it. In fact, in those times in which he espouses on the law, when he talks about how the law says thou shalt not commit adultery, but I say that if you look with lust upon a woman then you have committed adultery, in fact, he is creating a more extreme version of the law than even the priests would allow for.

I think the key to understanding Jesus of Nazareth is to recognize him for what he was - which was a Jew. His context was first-century Palestine. The God that he worshiped was the God of the Hebrew Bible. He knew no other God. He knew no other means of religious expression. You know, he was an illiterate peasant from the backwoods of Galilee. He was not by any means a sophisticated or urbanized, educated person. And so if you want to know what Jesus the man actually thought, what Jesus the man actually said, then you have to place every word that comes out of his mouth, every action that he performs in a Jewish context.

GROSS: Do you think he intended to be worshiped himself and therefore, start a new religion?

ASLAN: If you're asking whether Jesus expected to be seen as God-made-flesh, as the living embodiment, the Incarnation of God, then the answer to that is absolutely no. Such a thing did not exist in Judaism. In the 5,000-year history of Jewish thought, the notion of a God-man is completely anathema to everything Judaism stands for. The idea that Jesus could have conceived of himself, or that even his followers could have conceived of him as divine contradicts everything that has ever been written or said about Judaism as a religion.

GROSS: So to sum up, I think what you're saying in your book is that Christianity as we know it is revisionism of what Jesus stood for in his time and what he preached in his time.

ASLAN: I think to truly understand how Christianity arose, how it was that this peasant and day laborer from the low hills of Galilee who took on the greatest empire the world had ever known and lost, who was ultimately executed as a state criminal, how that person in the span of two decades all of a sudden became called by his disciples as God, to understand that remarkable unprecedented transformation, you have to understand this one rather uncomfortable fact, which is that almost every word ever written about Jesus was written by people who didn't actually know Jesus when he was alive. These were not people who walked with Jesus or talked with Jesus. These were not people who ate with him or prayed with him. I mean, certainly, his family played an important role in the Christian community after Jesus' death. But they were sort of limited by the fact that they more or less remained ensconced in Jerusalem, and, in fact, stayed in Jerusalem until the year 70 when the Roman armies came and destroyed the cities and the early Christian church in Jerusalem with it.

The apostles certainly spread around the known world at the time preaching the message of Jesus. But you have to understand that the apostles were farmers and fishermen. These were illiterates. They could neither read nor write. So they couldn't really espouse sort of Christology - high-minded theology - about who Jesus was. And they certainly couldn't write anything down.

Instead, the task of spreading the Gospel message outside of Jerusalem, of really creating what we now know as Christianity, fell to a group of urbanized Hellenized, educated Jews in the Diaspora. These were deeply Greek-influenced Jews, who by the way, their primary language was Greek. They wrote in Greek. They spoke in Greek. They thought in Greek. And for them having sort of grown up immersed in this kind of Hellenized Romanized world, the concept of a God-man was something quite familiar. I mean, Caesar Augustus was a God-man. And what we really see in these 20 years after Jesus' death - 20, 25 years after Jesus' death - is this process whereby this Jewish religion, based on a Jewish revolutionary becomes transformed into a Roman religion where Jesus is transformed from a Jewish conception of a Messiah to a kind of Roman demigod.

GROSS: Now, when we started our conversation we were talking about how you became a devoted evangelical Christian at the age of 15 after moving to America at the age of seven from Iran where, you know, your family fled the revolution after the ayatollah took over. Your family was Muslim although your father just kind of really turned against Islam, became an atheist. Your mother remained Muslim but after you became a Christian she eventually became a Christian.

You became a scholar of Christianity, but lost your religion. You really are deeply interested in the historical Jesus but don't have the kind of religious faith. However, at some point you did return to Islam. So what was that point? We've been spending this interview talking about Christianity and about your comprehension of the historical Jesus. At what point did you return to Islam, and why?

ASLAN: Well, ironically, it happened while I was in college. I went to a Jesuit Catholic university called Santa Clara University. Wonderful, incredible learning institution with a really wonderful religious studies program. And it was, you know, speaking to the Jesuits that I became very close to, talking about the New Testament, the doubts that I had about Jesus and the things that I was learning about the historical Jesus.

My advisor at the time, who was a Catholic priest, just sort of offhandedly said, you know, what happened? Why did you abandon Islam? Why did you abandon the faith and culture of your forefathers? And aren't you interested in learning more about that, especially now that you seem to be kind of spiritually unmoored by the academic work that you're doing?

And it's funny. I had never really thought about that issue. I was never really all that serious of a Muslim. It was just kind of something that I grew up with and something that, as you say, was removed from my household after we moved to the United States. And so, at the encouragement of these Catholic priests, no less, I began to go back and study Islam, study Islamic culture, Islamic theology.

And something remarkable happened. What I discovered in the teachings of the Prophet Mohammed and what I read in the Quran and particularly the great works of the Sufis, was what I already believed. It was as though I was being told something I already knew. I already felt it.

GROSS: But like what? Like what?

ASLAN: Well, partly it had to do with the way that Muslims and Islam thinks about God. This - the problem that I always had with Christianity, and would ultimately push me away from it, was the notion of the Trinity, was the notion of the Incarnation. The idea of Jesus as the literally begotten son of God as fully god and fully man. It never made sense to me.

The God that I sort of deeply and intimately felt in my heart was a being of divine unity, was a being that sort of encompassed all of creation, in a sense. And that's how Islam talked about God. You know, in Islam, particularly the Sufi tradition, which is the tradition that I most adhere to, there is this notion that God is all of creation.

That in other words, that his very substance is existence. Which means that everything that exists - from me to you to this book to this table to this microphone - everything that exists, exists only insofar as it shares in the existence of God. It creates this sense of divine unity amongst all of creation without this separation between creator and creation. That was profoundly moving to me and spiritually speaking, it's what I gravitated towards.

GROSS: You know, it's funny. What you're describing sounds to me like my understanding - my very shallow understanding, my very semi-informed understanding - of the more mystical branch of Judaism.

ASLAN: Indeed, it's sort of the understanding of the more mystical branch of all religions. Even Christian mystics.

GROSS: Mm-hmm.

ASLAN: You know, people like Meister Eckhart professed this kind of understanding of the relationship between God and humanity, the relationship between creator and created. The purpose of the mystics, whether they're Sufis or Jewish mystics or Christian mystics or what have you, the purpose is to break down the wall that separates us from God to have an intimate divine union with God. And so that's why some of this language would sound familiar to a lot of people of different faiths.

GROSS: My guest is Reza Aslan. His new book is called "Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth." We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GROSS: My guest is Reza Aslan. His new book is called "Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth." He's also the author of "No god but God: A History of Islam." He's from a secular Muslim family that fled Iran after the revolution. He became an evangelical Christian at age 15, left the faith when he became a religion scholar, and now adheres to Sufi Islam.

My impression is that you are a person who requires some kind of spiritual comprehension. You know, whether it's Christianity or Islam it's something that you need and that you seek.

ASLAN: I think that if you believe that our experience of the world goes beyond just the material realm, that there is something beyond, that there is a transcendent presence that one can commune with, then it's only natural to want to reach out to this transcendent presence, to want to experience it in some way. That's what religion does.

I mean, you have to understand that religion is nothing more than just a language made up of symbols and metaphors that allow us to describe to each other and to ourselves the ineffable experience of faith. I mean, when we talk about God we're talking about something that is, by definition, indescribable, indefinable. You need a way to talk about God and so what religion does is it provides a readymade language that allows you to be understood when you're talking to your own community.

GROSS: So I have one more question for you. When we spoke in 2005 after the publication of your book "No god but God," about the history of Islam, we were talking about how your family fled Iran after the revolution. And I guess this was in '80, 1980, and it was a mob scene at the airport. You know, everybody knew this was, like, their last chance to get out.

So there's a mob scene at the airport and your mother says to you hold tight to your younger sister's hand. She was four, you were seven. And you said you knew that if you let go of her hand or if you lost sight of your mother, you'd all be separated forever. And so you held tight. You kept your eye on your - you held tight to your sister's hand. You kept your eye on your mother.

The family stayed together. You made it out of Iran, first to London and then to America. Are you close to your sister now, after having held tight to her hand in that moment of crisis, in that moment of escape?

ASLAN: I am. I love my sister deeply. We have a wonderful relationship and actually, you know, when we grew up we grew up in very difficult circumstances. We came to the United States with nothing. No money. We basically had a suitcase each. My parents didn't have a job. We lived for the first year or so in a one-room motel in which my sister and I were not even allowed to leave the room during the daylight hours because my parents said that there were only two people living in the room.

And so, you know, we formed a very close bond at that time, but at the same time, the incredible stress of being an immigrant family in the United States, particularly in the 1980s and particularly having come from Iran, created enormous troubles in my family, let's just say. It really tore us apart rather than bring us together. And my sister and I really did not get along very much as we grew up.

But I am happy to say that now that we are both adults with our children, our relationship is as close as ever.

GROSS: Good. It makes me happy to hear that.

(LAUGHTER)

GROSS: Reza Aslan, it's great to talk with you again. Thank you so much.

ASLAN: It was such a pleasure, Terry. Thank you.

GROSS: Reza Aslan is the author of the new book "Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth." You can read an excerpt on our website, freshair.npr.org where you can also download podcasts of our show. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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