Last summer, the host of a Fox News webcast wondered why a Muslim religious scholar would write a book about Jesus. And she kept wondering even after the flabbergasted professor tried to explain the eternal academic quest for knowledge and understanding.
The video went viral as viewers mocked the host's obliviousness, transforming the author of Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth into a publishing sensation and his book into a No. 1 New York Times bestseller.
Aslan's portrait of Jesus as an assertive challenger of the status quo isn't new, nor is his portrayal of Jesus as a real historical figure who saw an apocalypse around the corner. And he's hardly the first religious scholar to describe the stories of Jesus as myth.
Unlike some other books of its kind, however, "Zealot" is lively and engaging with an uncommon you-are-there flair for describing life in the time of Jesus. It's clearly introducing new concepts of Jesus to readers, some of whom seem to be deeply offended by the idea of a non-believer daring to write about their faith.
In an interview this month, I asked Aslan – an associate professor at the University of California at Riverside – about misconceptions regarding Jesus and the ways his research surprised him. We also talked about matters of faith and his own personal religious beliefs.
Q: What surprised you as you did research for the book?
A: I always knew Jesus lived in an era of messianic fervor. But I was most surprised by how many other people in Jesus's time claimed to be the messiah – made declarations, gathered followers and performed miracles, healed the sick and cast out demons – and were ultimately executed.
Q: There was even at least another one named Jesus, correct?
A: Jesus was a common name at the time. That's why Jesus was referred to as the Nazarean most often. Nazareth was such a small and unknown place that if you said "the Nazarean" you meant only one person.
Q: What meaning can we glean from the fact that there were many would-be messiahs in the time of Jesus?
A: This was an era of apocalyptic expectation. The Roman occupation was so intolerable to so many Jews that it resulted in countless insurrections and rebellions. There was a real thirst for a divine liberation from this yoke of occupation.
Q: Did they expect the end times would come immediately, even in their own lifetimes?
A: Yes, and Jesus did too. There was a sense that the end was near, that prophecies were being fulfilled. You can see this in Jesus's teachings: "Truly I tell you, some who are standing here will not taste death before they see the Son of Man coming in his kingdom."
Q: Why did Jesus have fairly few followers in his life compared to others who claimed to be messiahs?
A: Partly it had to do with the fact that Jesus was a poor Galilean peasant, and the vast majority of his followers were poor Galilean peasants. He spent almost all of his ministry, save for the last few days, traveling from poor village to poor village in the back woods of Galilee. He avoided big cities, and the first time he enters Jerusalem, he claims to be king and is almost immediately crucified as a state criminal.
Q: Why didn't the Jewish establishment warm to the idea of Jesus as the messiah?
A: The principal task of the messiah, as the descendant of King David, is to reestablish the Kingdom of David on earth and usher in the rule of God. That does away with the entire priestly establishment, so it's quite clear why the priestly aristocracy would not in any way support any of these messianic aspirants. It's a simple matter of self preservation.
Q: What do you mean when you describe Jesus as a zealot?
A: It implies a radical commitment to the sole sovereignty to God, a refusal to serve any other master other than the master of the universe. It means he's not this pacifist preacher of good works with no concern for the cares of this world. But I don't think that he was some violent revolutionary bent on violence against the state. It's a little more complicated.
Q: It's almost Christmas, and millions upon millions of people will be reflecting on the stories of Jesus's birth. You write that the gospel stories of Jesus's childhood are legend. What do you mean by that?
A: No one knows anything about Jesus's childhood because the childhood of a marginal Jewish peasant from the backwoods of Galilee is of no interest to anybody until he becomes God incarnate.
The purpose of the gospels is to make a theological argument about his status as a descendent of David. They were not written for their factual nature. They were written because they were expressing a deeper truth, one that goes beyond their facts.
Q: Many people reading this will take issue with you because they believe the gospel stories are literally true. What do you say to them?
A: There does not need to be any inherent conflict between faith and history. These are concerned with two totally different issues. The person of faith is interested in what is possible; the historian is interested in what is likely.
Is it possible that Jesus was born in Bethlehem? Yes. Likely? No. Is it possible that he fled the massacre by King Herod? Yes. Is it likely? No.
My book is about what is likely about the historical Jesus, and the person of faith can easily absorb a historical interpretation and still maintain adherence to his faith. Myth is necessarily true, because of the truth that is conveys is far more important than the fact that it portrays.
Q: You note that the Bible is full of contradictions and factual problems, an issue that has turned some people like best-selling biblical scholar Bart Ehrman away from Christianity. But you are Muslim yourself. How do you reconcile your own faith with these kinds of issues with scripture?
A: All religions are based on mythologies that shouldn't be confused with history.
My faith is not with Islam. It's with God. Islam is just the language of symbols and metaphors that I use to express my faith to myself and my community.
I don't believe in Islam. It's just a path to a destination, not the destination itself.
Q: How has writing the book changed your own perception of Jesus?
A: It's given me a new appreciation of how remarkable he was. Some people think I'm saying he's ordinary because I'm treating him as a man in his time and place. It's the exact opposite.
If you look at his actions as a man and not a divine being, it makes him more extraordinary and even more compelling, and it makes his sacrifice that much more meaningful. He becomes inspirational in a way that Jesus as God cannot be by definition because he's God.
Randy Dotinga is a regular Monitor contributor. He has also interviewed Bart Ehrman ("Did Jesus Exist?"), Jon M. Sweeney ("The Pope Who Quit"), Elaine Pagels ("Revelations"), and Adam C. English ("The Saint Who Would Be Santa Claus").