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Reza Aslan’s ‘Zealot’ Aims to Better Understand Jesus by Understanding His World

September 24, 2013 at 12:00 AM EDT
In his new book, "Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth," author and scholar Reza Aslan sets out to dig through generations of interpretation to get to know Jesus, the real, historical figure and the world he lived in. Aslan sits down with Ray Suarez to discuss his research and why he wanted to write the book.
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TRANSCRIPT

GWEN IFILL: Finally tonight: separating the historical Jesus from the theological one.

Ray Suarez has our book conversation.

RAY SUAREZ: Was he a prophet, the son of God, or a revolutionary intent on overthrowing Israel’s Roman rulers? These are the questions at the hard of the new book “Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth” by religion scholar and writer Reza Aslan.

And, Reza, I’m glad the whole kerfuffle over whether a Muslim could or should write this book is over, because the more interesting question is why you would write it, what attracted you to the subject in the first place.

REZA ASLAN, “Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth”: I have been interested in Jesus for a very long time, both as a worshiper — when I was 15 years old, I converted to evangelical Christianity — and as a scholar.

In undergrad, I first was introduced to the historical Jesus. And I think having that perspective of coming at him from both of those viewpoints, one that was as a worshiper and one unburdened by dogma and doctrine, provided me with both a deep sense of respect for Christianity in the way that billions of people around the world understand Jesus, but at the same time gave me the impetus to try to dig through as much as possible all that layer of interpretation to try to get to who the man himself was, if for no other reason to just know him better.

RAY SUAREZ: Well, you came as boy from revolutionary Iran.

And you write: “Jesus, on the other hand, was America. He was the central figure in America’s national drama. Accepting him into my heart was as close as I could get to feeling truly American.”

Now, if you grow up in this culture, if you’re born into this culture, it may be like trying to describe water to a fish.

(LAUGHTER)

RAY SUAREZ: But the idea that Jesus is so suffused into the culture may not even be that apparent to a lot of people.

REZA ASLAN: I think you’re right.

I think, for a lot of people, frankly, the cross and the flag blend into a single icon. But, as an Iranian coming to the United States in the early 1980s, when anti-Iranian and anti-Muslim sentiment were at very high levels, it was important for me to distance myself from my culture and my religion as much as possible.

And I do not want to give the impression that this was some conversion of convenience. I burned with the fire of God. I went to school to study the New Testament from a position of belief. And although that position eventually disintegrated, I have made the study of Jesus and, frankly, have molded myself by the example that he provided 2,000 years ago. I have made that the purpose of my career.

RAY SUAREZ: The book has you drawing conclusions from a lot of the scholarship of the last half-century work on the historical Jesus. Is this really a compendium, a kind of guided tour, a map to what the best thinkers have been saying about the central figure in Christianity?

REZA ASLAN: I think that’s an excellent way of describing it.

To be perfectly honest, after 200 years of the quest for the historical Jesus, there isn’t all that much new to say any longer. And while there are some arguments in the book that are somewhat innovative, somewhat fresh, the fact of the matter is that the book is really a distillation of a century, if not more, of academic work on the historical Jesus.

But it’s put into an appealing, accessible form that would invite the lay audience, the general reader, to take part in a debate that’s been going on in academia for a very long time.

RAY SUAREZ: “The life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth” — I think, sometimes, we put so much emphasis on the life that we forget about the times.

And one of the best things the book does is take us to first century Palestine, take us to the Eastern Mediterranean of the Roman Empire. And it’s important to understand the soil that this new religion grows out of.

REZA ASLAN: This period that we’re talking about was probably the most tumultuous era of the Holy Land, which obviously is saying a lot.

You’re talking about a bloody, brutal Roman occupation that controlled every aspect of the life of the Jews. You’re talking about a continuous succession of insurrections and rebellions by the Jews against the Romans, many of which were brutally crushed by the empire, and you’re talking about a sense of apocalyptic expectation that really animated the Jews. It was like a virus that was going through the land.

Everyone expected something dramatic to happen. And there were a series of messianic aspirants, one after another, claiming to be the messiah, claiming to come to release the Jews from the bondage of the Roman occupation. And Jesus fits very much in the center of that movement.

There’s really no more important factor in understanding who Jesus was than this. He was a Jew. Now, obviously, everyone knows that Jesus was a Jew, and no one denies that he was a Jew, but few people actually stop and think about the consequences of that fact. The consequences are that everything that Jesus said or did, he said or did as a Jew.

It means that his audience were all Jews. It means that the only God that he knew was the God of the Hebrew Bible, or the Old Testament. The only scriptures that he knew were the Hebrew scriptures. The only religion that he had any real experience of was Second Temple Judaism.

So what that means is that we have to understand and place Jesus’ words and actions firmly and inextricably, I would say, within the Jewish context of the time. If he said, I am the messiah, he meant what every Jew meant when he said, I am the messiah. If he talked about the kingdom of God, he meant what every Jew meant when they heard the kingdom of God. 

RAY SUAREZ: And the tumult of those times is really the milieu, the atmosphere that a new religion grows out of. It can’t be pulled out of its context, can it?

REZA ASLAN: Whether you believe that Jesus is God or not, the son of God or not, the messiah or not, you believe that he was still a human being.

And if he was a human being, regardless of whatever else he was, he was a product of his time. And when you want to know who he was as a worshiper or as simply a person of interest, you must know the world in which he lived.

RAY SUAREZ: The book is “Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth.”

We have got to continue this conversation online.

Reza Aslan, thanks for joining us.

REZA ASLAN: My pleasure.