When religious scholar Reza Aslan was 15, he went to an evangelical Christian camp. For the first time, he heard the gospel story — the story of Jesus. It was a profound experience for him, and he immediately converted. But later, when Aslan went to college and began working toward a degree in the New Testament, he found he had doubts.
“The more I started studying the historical Jesus, the man who lived 2,000 years ago … the more I started to realize that there was this chasm between the historical Jesus and the Jesus that I had been taught about in church,” he tells NPR’s Rachel Martin.
Aslan became more interested in Jesus the man than Jesus the Messiah, and that’s now the subject of his new book, Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth. “That person became so much more real to me than the celestial spirit that I had been introduced to in church,” Alsan says.
On the different ways to think about Jesus
“There are billions of Christians in the world who believe that Jesus of Nazareth is the living incarnation of God. And that’s a perfectly fine belief, but whatever else he was — whether he was the Messiah, or God, or what have you — he was also a man, he was a human being. And he was a man who lived in a specific time, an era that was marked by the slow burn of a Jewish revolt against the Roman Empire.”
On understanding the context of the Gospels
“In the year 66 [common era], [a Jewish revolt resulted in] actually throwing Rome out of the Holy Land and keeping them at bay for three and a half [to] four long years. Of course, in 70 CE the Romans returned and ended up destroying Jerusalem, burning the temple to the ground, slaughtering hundreds of thousands of Jews and scattering the rest to the winds. …
“What I think is important for Christians to understand is that every Gospel story written about Jesus of Nazareth was written after that event, this apocalyptic event which for Jews signaled the end of the world as they knew it.”
On Jesus as a political figure
“[In one story,] Jesus walks into the temple, and he begins to cleanse it. He turns over the tables of the money-changers, who are exchanging the foul foreign currency of the Roman Empire with the Hebrew shekel, which was the only currency that the temple would accept. And then, of course, in a loud, booming voice, he says, ‘It is written that my house shall be a house of prayer for all nations, and you have made it a den of thieves.’
“Now, as all historians recognize, this was the action that precipitated his arrest, his torture and his execution by the state. And there’s a very simple reason for that: The temple was not just the center of the Jewish cult; it was, in many ways, the representation of the power and the presence of the Roman Empire.”
On using The Bible as a source
“I see the scriptures of the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament very much the same way that I see the scriptures of the Quran or the Gathas or the Vedas or what have you. I think that these scriptures are inspired by individuals who, in a moment of metaphysical contact with the divine spirit, have been able to communicate something about God to us.
“But I also recognize as a historian that this is sacred history. … They are valuable in the sense that they reveal certain truths to us, but that the facts that they reveal are not as valuable as the truths are.”
On Jesus as the Messiah
“The first Gospel, the Gospel of Mark, which was written in around 70 or 71 CE, is unusual in that there is actually no statement of Messianic identity from Jesus in it. From the beginning of the Gospel to the end of the Gospel, at no point does Jesus ever actually say, ‘I am the Messiah.’ On the contrary, he keeps denying it when other people claim the Messiah for him.
“This is a phenomenon that scholars refer to as the ‘Messianic secret’ … We know how Jesus’ followers viewed him, we know how Jesus’ enemies viewed him, but we don’t know how Jesus viewed himself. And I think that within this Messianic secret is a clue that whether Jesus actually thought that he was the Messiah or not, he understood something profound, which is that in first-century Palestine, simply saying the words, ‘I am the Messiah,’ is a treasonable offense. Saying that ‘I am here to establish God’s rule on earth’ is equivalent to saying, ‘I am here to remove Caesar from power.’ “
On his religious affiliation
“I wouldn’t call myself a Christian because I do not believe that Jesus is God, nor do I believe that he ever thought that he was God, or that he ever said that he was God. But I am a follower of Jesus, and I think that sometimes, unfortunately — I think even Christians would recognize this and admit it — those two things aren’t always the same, being a Christian and being a follower of Jesus.”