Reza Aslan defends controversial new book on Jesus

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Reza Aslan said he wants to show the power of Jesus as a flesh-and-blood human being, rather than the savior of the world. Photo courtesy Malin Fezahai

Reza Aslan said he wants to show the power of Jesus as a flesh-and-blood human being, rather than the savior of the world. Photo courtesy Malin Fezahai

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (RNS)  For the third time, Jesus is about to change Reza Aslan’s life.

As a teenager, Aslan turned to Jesus in an evangelical youth group, where becoming a Christian made him feel like a real American.

Reza Aslan said he wants to show the power of Jesus as a flesh-and-blood human being, rather than the savior of the world. Photo courtesy Malin Fezahai

Reza Aslan said he wants to show the power of Jesus as a flesh-and-blood human being, rather than the savior of the world. Photo courtesy Malin Fezahai

He later studied Jesus of Nazareth in college, which led Aslan to a doctorate in the sociology of religion.

Now Aslan’s controversial new book about Jesus is about to make him a best-selling author. “Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth” has already reached No. 1 on It’s expected to debut this weekend on The New York Times’ best-seller list, becoming the latest in a long line of controversial and profitable books about the so-called historical Jesus.

Aslan said he wants to show the power of Jesus as a flesh-and-blood human being, rather than the savior of the world. That Jesus has gotten lost in 2,000 years of church history, he said.

But critics say that Aslan has simply created his own version of Jesus. And they question whether the author, a practicing Muslim and creative writing professor, is qualified to write about Jesus.

Aslan said his interest in Jesus started at age 15, when he joined a Young Life group in his home state of California. But over time he began to feel that the Jesus he learned about in church wasn’t as interesting as the actual Jesus of Nazareth.

“He seemed more real to me,” said Aslan. “I wanted to have the kind of relationship with this man that I felt I could never have with the celestial Christ.”

For Aslan, the defining moment of Jesus’ life takes place not on Easter but a week earlier, on Palm Sunday, when Jesus rode into Jerusalem to the cheers of thousands. Then he drove the moneylenders out of the temple, according to the New Testament Gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke.

Those two acts were meant to spark a revolution, Aslan said.

“He took on the religious and political powers of his day on behalf of the poor and the dispossessed, the marginalized and the weak,” he said.

Aslan believes that Jesus was a hero even though his revolution failed, at least for the moment. Jesus knew he’d probably be crucified for his actions, Aslan said, but that didn’t stop him. Like the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. or Abraham Lincoln, Jesus’ death turned him into a larger-than-life figure.

“That is the fundamental difference between Jesus of Nazareth and the Christ of faith,” he said. “Jesus the Christ is defined by his resurrection. Jesus the man is defined by his death.”

After his death and the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem some years later, Aslan argues, Jesus’ followers reinvented him as a gentle spiritual teacher who taught love rather than revolution.

Reza Aslan's controversial new book about Jesus is about to make him a bestselling author. “Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth” has already reached No. 1 on Photo courtesy Random House

Reza Aslan’s controversial new book about Jesus is about to make him a bestselling author. “Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth” has already reached No. 1 on Photo courtesy Random House

That kind of spiritual teacher was more appealing than a Jewish revolutionary. The redefining helped spread Christianity around the world. But Jesus the man got lost along the way, said Aslan, who says that most of the accounts of Jesus in the Bible aren’t historically accurate.

“His words and his teaching have been stripped of their context and transformed into abstract ethical principles that all people can abide by,” he said. “If you want to know who Jesus himself was, you have to start with the fundamental fact that he was a product of his world.”

The Rev. John Ortberg, pastor of Menlo Park Presbyterian Church in California, agrees that understanding Jesus’ context is important. A good place to start, he said, is by actually reading the New Testament.

Ortberg, whose book “Who is this Man?” also depicts the life of Jesus, said that Jesus’ first followers were attracted by how he lived and what he taught. Then they came to see him as the Son of God, he said.

“There’s very little evidence that Jesus has a radically different teaching than what the early church believed,” he said. “I think it is difficult to argue that Jesus saw himself as a political zealot messiah.”

Understanding Jesus’ historical context makes sense, said Josh Graves, the preaching minister at Otter Creek Church in Brentwood, Tenn.

Graves rejects Aslan’s claim that the Bible’s depiction of Jesus is inaccurate. But he does think Aslan has done Christians a favor by writing about the world Jesus lived in.

“The more that mainline and evangelical Christians get into the New Testament and the history of that world, the better,” he said. “There’s too many American versions of Jesus walking around that don’t work.”

Aslan’s faith as a practicing Muslim caused controversy during a recent interview on the Fox News online program “Spirited Debate.” The show’s host asked the author why he, as a Muslim, wanted to write about Jesus. The interview video went viral and led to accusations that Fox was Islamophobic.

It also boosted book sales. Random House, Aslan’s publisher, reportedly added a second printing of 50,000 additional copies after the interview aired.

Boston University religion professor Stephen Prothero said that Aslan’s perspective as a Muslim may have influenced his writing. He said that the picture of Jesus in “Zealot” seems more like a failed version of the Prophet Muhammad than the figure depicted in the Bible.

Prothero also said that outside of the Bible, there’s not enough historical evidence to write about a modern biography of Jesus.

“We just don’t know enough about Jesus,” he said.

So it’s no wonder that Aslan’s book is controversial.

“Even people who were present in the life of Jesus couldn’t make up their minds about who he was,” said Darrell Gwaltney, dean of the School of Religion at Belmont University. “And they were eyewitnesses.”

  • Frank

    Thankfully Jesus tells us who He is.

    “Whoever comes to me I will never drive away. For I have come down from heaven not to do my will but to do the will of him who sent me. And this is the will of him who sent me, that I shall loose none of all that he has given me, but raise them up at the last day. For my Father’s will is that everyone who looks to the Son and believes in him shall have eternal life and I will raise him up at the last day.” —John 6:37-39

    “They all asked, ‘Are you then the Son of God?’ He replied,‘You are right in saying I am’.” —Luke 22:70

    “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I will be with you always, to the very end of the age.” —Matthew 28:18-20

  • Daniel Berry, NYC

    Frank – The texts you cite, without exception were written decades after Jesus died. The first one you’ve quoted–from the Fourth Gospel–dates from at least 70 years after his death. Mr Aslan’s book will help anyone – believer or not – to understand the times in which Jesus lived and how they shaped Jesus the person and the material written about him. I’m a believer and found the book to be a wonderful, insightful synthesis of material gleaned from religious, historical, and archeological sources. In my experience, reading the NT with those perspectives at my back (after getting past the notation that the gospels are history or biographies as we understand them) is much more exciting and rewarding.

  • Ademola oladosu

    Reza showed jesus as a fake terriost man with no peaceful purposes. why will I believe an islamist author trying to fake the bible

  • Frank

    So what! Are you suggesting that something written 40 years after the event by eyewitnesses is untrustworthy? If so doesn’t that mean that Aslan’s work, a non eye witness, is 500 times less trustworthy since it was written 2000 years later?

    Thanks for confirming that Aslan’s work can’t be trusted.

  • Fran

    Jesus himself said that his kingdom was no part of this world, and thus it is a heavenly kingdom or government. That kingdom was also foretold, long before Jesus was born on earth, to put an end to all human governments, uttered by the prophet, Daniel (Daniel 2:44), and said government would bring true peace and security to mankind on earth (Psalm 37:10,11). We can look forward to that happening in the near future.

  • duffymoon

    be very carefull when a muslim says he is interested in jesus, yet he claims the bible is corrupted. He wants to put jesus on the same level as his lord and master, mohammad.

  • mike

    This ridiculous argument is simply more evidence that our inherited religions are out of date and out of touch. We need to refashion traditional religion to be relevant in today’s world or abandon them altogether.

  • Danny Berry, NYC

    that wasn’t what I got from the book at all.

  • Danny Berry, NYC

    the accounts were passed by word of mouth during that period. Anybody who’s ever played the gossip game or knows the stories of lore passed down in families – or countries – knows how that goes. You and I think of the bible in different ways, that’s all.

  • Frank

    Nice dodge! So why should we trust Aslan over the eyewitnesses whose testimony was written down within a generation?

    You are right, we don’t look at the Word of God in the same way. I trust it and it has proven itself trustworthy over and over. Aslan? Not so much.

    This book will soon be gathering dust.

  • ralph ellis

    Mr Aslan’s book is actually very tame, considering the spectrum of opinions on New Testament historicity. Perhaps Aslan, being a Muslim, thinks he is being provocative because he would never dare to say the same about Muhummad, but most of his observations are actually mainstream or banal.

    If you want a really provocative account of the discovery of the real historical Jesus, you should read ‘Jesus, the King of Edessa’.

  • I think that when the experts study the mysterious boat trip that Jesus’ metal trading uncle made to England with an empty boat at the time when Jesus disappeared as is said to be recorded by a well-known historian, a trip I believe Jesus made with him as men do not just fly away into the heavens and if there is no body no death is proven, Christians will have to face some hard facts. Both Christianity and Islam are marginal successes but are unable to reach completions because both are lacking the finishing component, the Messiah to fulfill his mission as he obviously was not Jesus nor will he come from the House of Ishmael neither Christianity nor Islam will be able to reach Sabbath.

  • Frank

    I have no idea what you are saying. I guess that puts you in company with Aslan.

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  • Frank

    Well I looked at your website and found this in the About Us section:

    Ansel is the genuine Elect of God to whom his divine identity has been revealed by God himself and is in communication with the Creator and the holy angels of the heavens. I have now started my work of opening the Western Gate of Paradise and hereby invite men to enter and be a part of the Sacred Republic, firstly as an online community.

    Yeah ok.

  • Too complicated for you? Take some time and learn to analyze, that show understanding is reached.

  • Frank

    Not complicated at all. Just foolish.

  • My words should read, “, that is how understanding is reached”.

  • If I were a stone presented by a person who claimed that I were a diamond, the first thing a wise person would do is look to see if I resemble a diamond and if I did then that person would proceed to do other tests to see if I fulfilled those other characteristics of a diamond and if I did then that wise person if also honest would declare his findings confirming that I am in fact a diamond. Are you qualified to identify the Messiah? You can get some help on my site. If the Messiah is not a myth it means that he will have to be here one day and all eyes will be able to see him.

  • I think that it is foolish to say that Jesus walked on water, turned water into wine, that we will be saved by his blood and that he created the heavens and the Earth even though he was born here in the Earth 2000 years ago. You can ask the police, no body found no death is proven and what is so foolish about a man escaping in a boat to save his life?

  • How did he tell us, in writing or others have told us for him, because if so , it is not true that he told us? I would love to see Jesus’ signature or his authenticated handwritings.

  • Frank

    Based on what I know of you from your two posts and your website I think its safe to say you can be ignored completely and should seek some professional help.

  • Frank

    I have looked into the stone and found just more stone.

  • Who are you to judge me Frank? Based on your reaction to my two posts you have confirmed that you are a very hostile and aggressive person who reject reason and logics and are enslaved to religious fantasies, it is you who needs professional help. Let us step away from your vaguery and insults Frank, tell the public what you found so desperately wrong with my posts so that I should be ignored and just what kind of help do I need because I see you as what is wrong with the world, persons who have lost their sense of reason and seek to convert us all into religious fanatics. Why do you think that only Jesus has the right to claim that authority has been given to him? I have been told that the reigns have been given me and that I should take them, how can you prove that my claims are false or true. We must be responsible in our relationship with each other Frank, don’t treat me like dirt.

  • I have been reading the bible seriously since I was a young man and must say that my conclusion is that the New Testament with the exception of Revelations is highly fraudulent scriptures and it is very clear how it was produced. Some very clever persons after reading the Old Testament and its prophecies falsified the fulfillments of messianic prophecies in the name of Jesus but they have made a lot of mistakes. The claim that Jesus was seen with the two prophets by his disciples who offered to make altars for them was completely false as Jesus himself was one of the two prophets and could not have been with them since he was one. One of the biggest problems in Christianity is that Christians are enslaved in false pride which does not allow them to accept Jesus as a simple prophet and for them to understand certain scriptures they will have to treat him as a simple prophet to be able to identify him, to know his place and to understand the scriptures that refer to him. The extent of the frauds of the New Testament cannot be contained in my comment here. My web site and I who Frank irresponsibly said should be ignored, will give the world the chance to see in real time how God fulfills his major prophecy.

  • mekel

    No matter what that Aslan guy thinks of Jesus, he is never qualified to write about Jesus. Aslan is just but of ‘the grand scheme’ to turn christians away from the truth. Jesus is lord. he is the way, the truth and the life. Aslan Reza or whoever he thins he is should stop wasting his time writing about Jesus. I think he is a disappointment.

  • Bob

    So the Bible teaches us that all we have to do is claim to be God and that makes it so? Cool!


    Jesus God

  • If Jesus said those words Frank it would show that he did not know as much as we believe, I tell you truly that Jesus was and is one of the two prophets of the Messiah and belong to the republican faculty order and not the royal family son of god as we have been deceived into believing. The right title is Son of the Lord and belongs to a son of Noah.