KIM LAWTON, correspondent: Bestselling author Reza Aslan claims he didn’t set out to challenge anyone’s faith in Jesus Christ. He says the intention of his provocative book Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth, was to explore who Jesus was, apart from what theology and tradition have said.

REZA ASLAN (Author, Zealot): This attempt to dig through as much as possible the layers of legend and mythology, of interpretation and faith that have arisen around Jesus the Christ, and to get to Jesus the man, is I think important, not just for the historian but I think also for the person of faith.

LAWTON: Many believers have been offended at Aslan’s portrait of Jesus as a zealous revolutionary who ultimately failed at his mission to liberate the Jews from Roman occupation. Aslan says the historical context can’t be ignored.

ASLAN: The foundation of Christianity is that Jesus is both fully God and fully man. Well, if that is true, then to really understand who the fully man part was, you have to understand the world in which he lived, because that world affected who he was.


LAWTON: Aslan has a Ph.D. in the sociology of religion and teaches creative writing at the University of California, Riverside. He is a practicing Muslim, who also wrote No god but God, a bestselling book about Islam. In Zealot, Aslan describes being a 15-year-old immigrant from Iran and attending an evangelical youth camp in California where Jesus was hailed as the savior.

ASLAN: (in talk) I immediately gave my life to Jesus, had a deep encounter with Christ, spent the next four or five years preaching the Gospel as I had learned it from this very conservative evangelical community, preaching it to everyone whether they wanted to hear it or not, frankly.

LAWTON: But then, Aslan says, studying religion at university disillusioned him, and he left Christianity.

ASLAN: When I went to university and began studying the New Testament in an academic environment and discovered immediately as everyone who does so discovers, that far from being literal and inerrant, the Scriptures are figurative and full of the most obvious and blatant errors and contradictions, that notion of Evangelical Christianity no longer made sense to me.

LAWTON: Aslan’s book places Jesus in a long line of nationalists and would-be messiahs who wanted to end Roman oppression and establish the kingdom of God on earth.

ASLAN: There were many zealots in Jesus’ time. It was a phenomenon that was quite widespread, and that led to a number of rebellions and insurgencies throughout the first century. And the argument of the book is that those zealot ideals and principles are at the heart of Jesus’ teachings and actions.

LAWTON: In one particularly disputed assertion, Aslan suggests Jesus may have sanctioned violence to throw off Roman occupation.

ASLAN: Jesus understood that the kingdom of God, the removal of the Roman Empire could not be done except through force. And so, I think that the general impression of Jesus as some kind of pacifistic preacher of good works with no interest in the cares of this world is incomplete at best.

LAWTON: He describes Jesus as an illiterate peasant who took on the political and religious establishment.

ASLAN: His message was extraordinary, this notion of the reversal of the social order, that the first shall become last and the last shall become first, that the rich will be made poor and the poor will be made rich, the hungry fed and the fed go hungry, this was, as you can imagine, an enormously appealing message for the hungry and the poor, and it was an enormously threatening message for the well-fed and the wealthy.

LAWTON: He says Jesus’ death by crucifixion proves the authorities saw him as a revolutionary. And after the crucifixion and the destruction of the Jewish Temple, Aslan contends that Jesus’s followers began redefining his message, assigning him spiritual, not political, intentions.

ASLAN: And so begins this attempt to temper Jesus’ revolutionary impulse as much as possible, to claim that the kingdom of God that he espoused was not an earthly kingdom but a heavenly kingdom. It made this message far more appealing to Romans and indeed paved the way for the Roman adoption of Christianity and began the process of utterly divorcing Christianity from its parent religion, Judaism.

LAWTON: Zealot has generated controversy on multiple fronts. The search for the historical Jesus has been going on for decades, and many say Aslan contributed nothing new.


ASLAN: My attempt wasn’t necessarily to blaze new ground in the study of the historical Jesus; at this point, frankly, there isn’t all that much new to say. But my attempt was to make that research appealing and accessible to a broad, general audience.

LAWTON: There have been questions about Aslan’s qualifications for writing the book. Some prominent scholars say his work contains errors, and they dispute his conclusions.

ASLAN: Wow, newsflash: scholars disagree! There are ten thousand different arguments about the historical Jesus in the scholarly world. And ten thousand refutations of them. I think that for the non-scholar, the non-academic, it might come as a shock or be somewhat newsworthy that there are scholars who disagree with my scholarly analysis. But amongst we scholars, that’s called Thursday.

LAWTON: Some readers take issue with how Aslan uses New Testament passages to validate his assertions at certain points, but then appears to dismiss the Bible when it doesn’t backup his thesis. He concedes that looking at history can never fully answer questions about Jesus.

ASLAN: Is it possible that unlike 98% of his fellow Jews, he could read and write? Yes, it’s possible, but it’s not very likely. Is it possible that he was born of a virgin and that he was resurrected again? Yes, it’s possible. But it’s not very likely. And the historian is interested in not what is possible, but what is likely.

LAWTON: In the end, Christians will likely still rely on faith, but Aslan says even as a Muslim, he found himself profoundly drawn to the Jesus of his research.

ASLAN: That man that seems so much more real to me than the sort of celestial spirit that I, I was taught in church, that’s a man that I want to follow. That’s a man that I want to be like. How to confront powers, how to stand up for social justice. I learned all that from the historical Jesus, not from the Christ of faith.

LAWTON: I’m Kim Lawton reporting.

Reza Aslan’s Zealot

A new book by religion scholar Reza Aslan portrays Jesus as a Jewish revolutionary and just one of many in a line of “failed messiahs.” “It was a phenomenon quite widespread that led to a number of rebellions and insurgencies throughout the first century,” says Aslan.

  • Peter

    Considering Jesus was found teaching at the temple as a child and amazed the teachers of the day with answers to their questions that could not be disputed and the fact that today even the most respected scholars cannot dismiss his wisdom,I hardly believe he was illiterate as Aslan tries to portray him,and there are no contradictions to be found unless those that cannot distinguish the words meant for the soul and the ones meant for the earthly realm. Might write a book about Mohammad portraying him in a similar light as Aslan portrayed Christ but probably couldn’t find enough interesting content to compete with the greatest selling book of all time,the “BIBLE”.

  • ibradleyallen2

    yes I agree, the hit piece against all people on the earth is a disgrace to be published without any challenge as to its lack of credibility. This is what the article is about, attacking the people world wide who want to have faith in Christ, the article seeks to break their faith apart hoping to send them to hell and eternal destruction. the fact that it goes unchallenged by a group claiming to be journalistic and ethics minded only shows their involvement on display.

    Years ago i did study the bible and a few Christian religions or church groups trying to find errors and prove the bible wrong. but the difference is i was trying to find the truth, i found Christ and his story to be without contradiction, his message is that each person is responsible to ask for redemption. but the article here? its not from an angle of truth its from an adversarial attack against Christ using any information available, modified any way needed to make the attack.

    If one person in isolation, whether in the middle of the desert, in an igloo during a snowstorm or at the peak of a mountain where no one else can hear, if such a person says what the article does who gets insulted?

    if the article goes out to people suffering and seeking their faith and they hear that its all a lie, Jesus wont help them and then details of a claim of fraud what happens then? people lose faith in Christ they give up, they give in they lose hope, they stumble in life and possibly lose eternity. Jesus taught about the damnation such a person will suffer for making his followers stumble this way, better to have a millstone is part of that passage.

    The article is an attack upon the faith, because its not based on facts or evidence

  • LloydG

    Wonderful review of Aslan’s book here… … incredible that after being panned he still made it to Religion and Ethics…

  • Humanist3000

    1- There is no evidence God exists.
    2- All religions and religious books were/are created by people, predominantly men.
    3- Jesus was a good man who has been dead for more than 2000 years and is not coming back.
    4- Be good and do good until you die.
    5- Keep your religion separate from your government.

  • Humanist3000

    Mohammad was a violent con artist, not the first one and not the last one.

  • Humanist3000

    All religions should be freely studied, analyzed and criticized. Faith by its very nature is NOT based on facts.

  • bob

    You can’t possibly be serious about all that Jesus/faith stuff, are you? I hope you are a troll, because no one can possibly be that stupid.

    “Religion was born the day the first con-man met the first fool”
    -Mark Twain

  • joe

    Was that a verifiable fact from mr twain? Or is it conjecture meant to discredit those of faith .hebrews 11:1 defines faith as the substance of things hoped for the evidence of things unseen . Please explain to me how a secular world view uses only verifiable facts not reling on any type of faith of the unseen . You can not do this , sience can not even do this . You chose to put your faith in the percieved works of man I chose to put my faith in God .

  • bob

    I don’t care what your Iron Age book describes faith as, the DICTIONARY describes is as this : ” firm belief in something for which there is no proof”

    It’s not a virtue, it’s the willful suspension of logic and critical thinking and you should be ashamed of yourself.

    Please, list something in life that requires faith, besides religion.

  • Watchman 316

    Oh my God!….are you kidding me? I thought this book was absolutely absurd and, just for the record, incorrect in many places; for a historian, that’s bad news. He is a Muslim; thinks like a Muslim. He reeks of Islam. Just because one has a “degree” or two does not him a scholar make. Just because your on the NY Times Best Sellers list doesn’t make you a good writer, either. It must have taken him months to write in a manner he considers acceptable to readers. Another typical false and fake prophet.

  • zifau

    all in the universe is God’s face

    The true God is behind it

    between God and the creature was not two separate things distance and time

    but united as body and spirit

    the situation is like a fish in the ocean

    everything in the Lord’s coverage

    none apart

  • Marcus_Aurelius5

    I think this book was actually written around 12 years ago…… but much better in terms of content, depth and scholoarship…… but it was called ” Jesus: Apocalyptic Prohpet of the New Millennium”.. by Bart Ehrman…..sorry………..was that too harsh?