Reza Aslan on Zealotry

ZEALOT
ZEALOT

One of my favorite programs to catch in the car is Fresh Air on NPR, with Terry Gross. Sure, I doubt we'd see eye to eye on much of anything socio-political, but I can easily set that aside to appreciate someone's professionalism and in this, I think Terry is simply one of the best professional interviewers ever. She always demonstrates her meticulous preparation and brings out the best in her guests.

So the other day I caught part of this interview with author Reza Aslan: Christ In Context: 'Zealot' Explores The Life Of Jesus. I found it interesting on a whole lot of levels, not the least of which is some parallels between the author's life and mine in terms of being seduced by "The Story of Jesus" in the fundamentalist, "born-again" sense at a young age and being rather, well, zealous about it.

In Aslan's case, he was a Muslim immigrant from Iran. You'll also learn in the interview that he induced his mother to convert to Christianity, a faith she retains to this day.

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.

There's a good bit of interview highlights at the show page, and here's the transcript. There's also an abbreviated, 9-minute interview by Rachel Martin: 'Zealot' Tells The Story Of Jesus The Man, Not The Messiah (and transcript). A final quote from the highlights.

"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."

Alright, there you have it ... Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth. Here's a book excerpt as well. I just may have to check out the book. I enjoyed the interview and his insights into finding what people term as "truth," as as opposed to fact. I've said it many times that what I find irritating about religion is not the struggle for morality and meaning, but the literal interpretation of it, which in 2013 I can only see as anything but.

Comments

  1. Kevin Flesch says:

    Thanks for posting this. I’m looking forward to listening to the episode of Fresh Air and I agree 100% regarding Terry’s interview skills.

    Regarding Reza’s line that no one who wrote about Jesus actually walked with him. Well…you could say that about almost every figure in the ancient world. Listen to this agnostic ancient historian critical of the same things you are talk to this atheist. It’s very short and please ignore the stupid written comments.

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JPvbQsJHY-w

    When it comes to your work in the paleo community, your willingness to take back things you were previously adamant about is a testament to your quest for the truth. Previous religious posts you have written seemed to be very patronizing toward those of us who are religious so I’m glad for the clarification:

    I’ve said it many times that what I find irritating about religion is not the struggle for morality and meaning, but the literal interpretation of it which in 2013 I cannot see as anything but.

    • Kevin

      Ha, well I must be honest and report that I left off an intended last word in that quote: ignorant. However, I saw that how it was as it was, it was taken to mean that literalism is anything but the struggle for morality and meaning. But the structure was awkward, is I did a little edit on that last sentence.

  2. Rob Pugh says:

    Recently read Bart Ehrman’s ‘Did Jesus Exist?: The Historical Argument for Jesus of Nazareth’ which, as an agnostic/atheist, I quite enjoyed. Seems to cover similar ground. You might dig it as well.

  3. Whether Jesus existed or not shines zero light on the occurrence of the supernatural, of whether there is god or not. I find that a lot of people fail to understand this.

    I get religion in the overall evolutionary context, but the “struggle for morality” bit I never understood. Just don’t be a dick, honor your contracts, show a little consideration. The Golden Rule pretty much covers it all (unless your a glutton for the perverse). What use is there for religion after that?

  4. Beans Mcgrady says:

    Just a Note, pretty good interview with Reza Aslan was on the daily show on Wednesday. Interesting stuff.

  5. Dr. Curmudgeon Gee says:

    i also recommend Dr. Ehrman’s work.
    i have read a few books of his. (“Jesus:
    Apocalyptic Prophet of the New Millenium”). is another one

    i dont’ know if Reza Aslan can shed new light on the historicity of Yeshua, unless there’s new evidence.

    anyway, thanks. i may check out Aslan’s book.

  6. Remnant says:

    One of the most disingenuous things (or to put a less judgmental spin on it, one of the most misleading things) about the New Testament is the order in which the documents are presented: gospels, then acts, then epistles. The impression given is that this is the order of composition.
    In fact, the presentation couldn’t be any more misleading. The true chronological order of composition is: epistles, acts, gospels. And that is the chronological order accepted by the church itself; it is uncontroversial. Yet, in my experience, few Christians are aware of this.
    The fact is, Christianity is Paul’s project. No Paul, no Christianity. I continue to be amazed at how few Christians are aware that Paul’s epistles are the EARLIEST extant Christian documents in existence. I don’t think this fact changes many minds but it certainly edifying to realize that Paul’s prostelization PRECEDED the composition of the gospels.

    • Dr. Curmudgeon Gee says:

      yes, they should probably be called “Paulists” XD

      Maccoby (maybe some other scholars as well) hypothesizes that the earliest followers of Yeshua may have been Ebionites. but we’ll never know for sure

      Bart Ehrman has a book on the early Christianities (plural).

  7. Contemplationist says:

    “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 very same could be said of Mohammad of Islam and I’m willing to bet if someone ever asked Mr. Aslan if this was so, you’d find him quite tongue-tied.

  8. Bruce C says:

    This is not really a new take on Jesus, it’s a theory that has been around for some time as others have pointed out, e.g. Ehrman, as well as others, Marcus Borg. There are plenty of other legitimate scholars, N.T. Wright, Luke Timothy Johnson, who affirm the continuity between Jesus and Paul.

    Author also makes sweeping assumptions about the nature of the witnesses (“illiterates”) based on broad brushstrokes rather than specific evidence.

    This statement…

    “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.”

    good for “lafs.” Christianity was not “Romanized” until much closer to 300’s. Look it up.

    The similarity between “gospels” of Caesar and Jesus were intentional…Jesus was a direct challenge to who really is “Lord.” His followers proclaimed a different way to live (“kingdom of God”) rather than Caesar’s way.

  9. “Christianity was not “Romanized” until much closer to 300′s.”

    I guess you didn’t listen to the interview, then.

    By the way? Whenever someone leads off with “this is nothing new,” I pretty much know I’m in for a bunch of distinctions without much differences.

  10. Bruce C says:

    I read the transcript. And responded specifically to a quote in the conclusion. The idea that the identity of Jesus being reinterpreted as a Roman religion a mere 20 years after his death is absurd–historically and factually–And pointed to specific, accomplished scholars that see continuity and coherence between Jesus and so-called “Pauline” Christianity.

    If something is not new, it’s not new. Hasty generalization.

  11. I didn’t get that out of it at all, but that it was a transition that began then. It’s a big Duh that it became the official Roman religion in about 300AD.

  12. Bruce C says:

    Interesting you heard it that way, because the author says that “transformed” (past tense) “in these twenty years” …am I reading that wrong? Jewish followers of Jesus functioned almost fully within Judaism in those first twenty years, the real split doesn’t really even start at closer to 100 years. The significance of 300AD is pointing toward a much later transition than the author contends. The exact timing is somewhat debated, but the evidence that even the seeds of that transition begins that early just doesn’t seem to be there.

    I have no doubts about the authors use of “truth” vs. “fact” e.g. the gospels weren’t written to give a blow by blow historical account, but to present the “truth” about Jesus vis-a-vis symbols such as Exodus and Moses, I just don’t think that necessitates the conclusion that something is not based on factual historical events just because it’s “truth.”

    I also have very strong reservations about what specific historic evidence the author is using to come to the conclusion that Jesus was significantly reinterpreted beyond his original thoughts about his identity. By far the majority of extant documentation about Jesus comes from those who viewed the claims of Jesus to be both factual and true, that he did in fact rise from the dead, and was in fact Lord.

    I guess I would have to read the book, but I haven’t seen from the interview anything new or challenging that hasn’t already been put forward by the likes of Borg and others on the chase for the “historical” Jesus.

  13. There is no historical evidence whatever that the Jesus of Christianity was an historical person.

    For example, these writers, who lived at the time that Jesus supposedly lived, left a library of Jewish and Pagan literature, in which not one mention of Jesus or of his apostles or his disciples appears: Arrian, Plutarch, Apollonius, Hermogones, Appian, Damis, Aulus Gellius, Appion of Alexandria, Philo Judaeus, Petronius, Juvenal, Quintilian, Silius Italicus, Phlegon, Pausanias, Dio Chrysostom, Favorinus, Seneca, Dion Pruseus, Martial, Lucanus, Statius, Phaedrus, Florus Lucius, Columella, Lysias, Theon of Myrna, Pliny the Elder, Paterculus, Persius, Justus of Tiberius, Epictetus, Ptolemy, Valerius Maximus, Quintius Curtius, Valerius Flaccus, and Pomponius Mela.

  14. “The significance of 300AD is pointing toward a much later transition than the author contends. The exact timing is somewhat debated, but the evidence that even the seeds of that transition begins that early just doesn’t seem to be there.”

    I haven’t read the book, so this is probably a lot of bla bla from both of us. I like to put stuff out there so that those who want to dig, can.

    I’ve always thought the narrative that the Romans, 300 years later, dug up this nobody and created a religion out of it to be far fetched. Considering how long it takes socio-cultural movements to root even today, it seems plausible that there were undercurrents going on way way back and it should not be surprising that none of it was documented.

  15. Bruce C says:

    “There is no historical evidence whatever that the Jesus of Christianity was an historical person.”
    @josef — there is not one academic scholar, of whom this period is their field, that could affirm your statement. Not. One.

  16. “there is not one academic scholar, of whom this period is their field, that could affirm your statement. Not. One.”

    Lafs. OK, Bruce C. Zealot you are. Thanks for exposing yourself. Coulda just come out with it, y’know.

    You just believe. I get it. Fear of death does that to some people incapable of facing reality.

  17. Bruce C says:

    Well then, lets see that scholar. I don’t care if he’s a Satan worshipping Pagan. There is no such scholar of that period who could affirm that statement.

    Exposing myself? Never hid in the first place.

    Ad Hominem.

  18. It’s not ad hominem, Bruce. It’s material that you believe absent evidence, and indeed, in spite of it.

  19. …and by the way, I could have a begrudging half ounce of respect for you if you were honest and just came out and said “I just have faith” as the scriptures admonish you to do. But you ignore that because it makes you look like a proper idiot, less than a retard, and so you machinate over undocumented history because some people get PhDs and are called scholars for similar wanking.

  20. Bruce C says:

    I’ve discussed on the basis of facts the whole time. We had discussion around those facts, a reasonable exchange. THEN you suddenly at the end discount everything I say on the basis that I’m a so called one of those people (“zealot”), sure looks like ad Hominem to me. Or perhaps genetic fallacy. Lets stick to the actual, specific, facts of the discussion.

    • Absolutely not. I don’t waste any time on people of faith other than the sport or ridicule, Because facts do not ultimately matter, so it’s a shell game I’m intimately familiar with engaging in myself back in Bible college.

      Just go with faith, be honest and let people know from the start that you operate on faith and that there is nothing they can say that wont get some obscure counter couched as though its anything but fodder for the faithful to feel comfort in their ignorance and fear.

  21. Bruce C says:

    Thanks for your kindness to me in the past. Sincerely wishing you all the best.

  22. Robert M. Price, Richard Carrier, Earl Doherty, Thomas L. Thompson. http://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Christ_myth_theory

  23. Dr. Curmudgeon Gee says:

    methink “believer” is a more accurate than “zealot”.

    regards,

  24. I was disappointed to learn that Aslan reconverted back to Islam.

  25. GrzeTor says:

    Richard Carrier is in the process of publishing a book about the historicity of Jesus. It is a peer-reviewed publication and it is supposed to be available by February 2013. As a rare breed of a historian that is also good at mathematics he applies Bayes Theorem to the accumulated knowlege about Jesus to estimate probability of his existance as a historical person (that is as a real-world religious leader, rather than a miracle maker). The word is that probability that Jesus was not a historical person is around 2/3.

    How the Jesus myth then arrived? That’s explained in the following presentations:

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XORm2QtR-os&list=PLEA4C4DC4E530394B
    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mwUZOZN-9dc
    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ILldt2XHZw0

    Left-wing warning: Richard Carrier is on the left side of political issues, promoter of so called “Atheism+” which is an artificial joining of atheism and left wing political ideology. Nevertheless he is not a bad person, tries to be a good person, although he suffers from periodic attacks of bad attitude, like his infamous personal attack on a blogger Thunderfoot and first reaction to Atheism+. His previous work in the realm of history was related to the ancient science. Appropriate poresentations are below:

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=C5B-fOp3k1k
    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2otjniHgMPk

  26. Dr. Curmudgeon Gee says:

    @GrzeTor

    i have never read Richard Carrier’s work. the probability can be quantified?
    pretty novel, will check him out. thanks

  27. Thanks to your mention of this, I went off on an uncharacteristic tangent and plunged into this book. To say that it was thought-provoking is quite an understatement. It has fueled several days of breakroom discussions and deeper investigations of facets of Christianity that I am shamed to admit I was so unaware of.

    Of course, some of my staunch Believer friends who take offense at even the notion of investigating – questioning – the historical Jesus have dismissed the book offhandedly as an attempt to tear down Christianity, but I certainly didn’t interpret it that way. And for those who question the validity of the opinion of any one author, I’d remind them that they’ve adopted wholesale beliefs built similarly upon writings of single authors who wrote their material decades and even centuries after the events.

    And I’ve gotta admit, the timelines of the events and the chronicling of said are some of what really sticks with me. I have trouble remembering 1 or 2 key events from 2010, yet these guys wrote authoritatively about things that happened decades before they were even born and had not previously existed in any non-verbal form. Consider the way information is easily, unintentionally distorted in kids’ “telephone game” and then consider how similar that could be to the source material as what we take for granted as factual Christian information.

    Anyway, thanks Richard for giving me lots of food for thought!

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