By Erik Wemple
Fox News has done a great deal to promote Reza Aslanâ€™s new book, â€œZealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth.â€ How so? An interview conducted by Lauren Green on FoxNews.com managed to so thoroughly insult and trash Aslanâ€™s motives in writing the book that the whole world is clicking on the tete-a-tete.
This afternoon, the Erik Wemple Blog called Aslanâ€™s publishing house in search of an interview. No dice, we were told: Aslanâ€™s already busy interview schedule has doubled because of additional requests prompted by the FoxNews.com segment. (UPDATE: In a Q&A with Reddit users, Aslan hit back at Foxâ€™s treatment.)
It stands to reason. The Erik Wemple Blog over the years has accumulated a great deal of experience in abridging the horrors of cable-news segments and presenting them in this space. Sometimes, however, we have trouble one-upping the bare, untouched content of the interview itself. For that reason, we took a bit of post-lunch time today to do a full transcription of the Green-Aslan interview, the better to appreciate every last risible suggestion and nugget of innuendo. We couldnâ€™t resist a few footnoted annotations, however.
Green: Reza Aslan was a Christian but converted back to the faith of his forefathers, Islam. He has now written a book about Jesus. The book has become controversial, as it calls into question some of the core tenets of Christianity. The book is called â€œZealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth.â€ And Reza joins me now from Los Angeles. Welcome!
Aslan: Thank you for having me.
Green: This is an interesting book. Now, I want to clarify: You are a Muslim, so why did you write a book about the founder of Christianity?
Aslan: Well, to be clear, I am a scholar of religions with four degrees, including one in the New Testament, and fluency in biblical Greek, who has been studying the origins of Christianity for two decades, who also just happens to be a Muslim. So itâ€™s not that Iâ€™m just some Muslim writing about Jesus. I am an expert with a Ph.D. in the history of religions. I have been obsessed with Jesusâ€¦
Green: But it still begs the question: Why would you be interested in the founder of Christianity?
Aslan: Because itâ€™s my job as an academic. I am a professor of religion, including the New Testament. Thatâ€™s what I do for a living, actually. It would be like asking a Christian why they would write a book about Islam. Iâ€™m not sure about that. But honestly, Iâ€™ve been obsessed with Jesus for 20 years. Iâ€™ve been studying his life and his work and the origins of Christianity both in an academic environment and on a personal level for about two decades. Just to be clear, this is not some attack on Christianity. My mother is a Christian, my wife is a Christian, my brother-in-law is an evangelical pastor. Anyone who thinks this book is an attack on Christianity has not read it yet.
Green: I want to read you some quotes from some people who are criticizing you, one from John Dickerson, who has written an op-ed piece on FoxNews.com. And he says, Itâ€™s not an historianâ€™s report on Jesus. Itâ€™s an educated Muslimâ€™s opinion about Jesus. He says its conclusions are long-held Islamic claims â€” namely that Jesus was a zealous-prophet type who didnâ€™t claim to be God.
Aslan: Thatâ€™s actually not what Islam claims about Jesus. My book about Jesus overturns pretty much everything that Islam thinks about Jesus as well. And to be clear, I just want to emphasize this one more time. I am an historian, I am a Ph.D. in the history of religions. This isnâ€™t a Muslim opinion. This is an academic work of history, not about the Christ or about Christianity, for that matter. Itâ€™s about an historical man who walked the earth 2,000 years ago in a land that the Romans called Palestine.
Green: How are your findings different from what Islam actually believes about Jesus?
Aslan: Well, Islam doesnâ€™t believe that Jesus was crucified, first of all. Islam believes in the virgin birth. Jesus was most definitely crucified. And my book does question the historicity of the virgin birth. So again, I mean, I know that weâ€™ve mentioned this three times now. Iâ€™m not sure what my faith happens to do with my 20 years of academic study of the New Testament.
Green: Iâ€™m just trying to bring out what some others are claiming at this point. And I want you to answer to those claimsâ€¦
Aslan: Well, itâ€™s pretty clear that there are those that do not like the book, who are are unhappy with its general arguments. Thatâ€™s perfectly fine. Iâ€™m more than willing to talk about the arguments of the book itself, but I do think itâ€™s perhaps a little bit strange that rather than debating the arguments of the book, we are debating the right of the scholar to actually write it.
Green: Well, let me give you some other quotes from Dr. William Lane Craig, who is a Christian philosopher and theologian. Heâ€™s written a lot of books and done a lot of debates about science and religion. He said, Reza Aslan merely repeats bygone claims about the historical Jesus that have since been abandoned and refuted. What do you say to that?
Aslan: Well, I would disagree. I have 100 pages of notes and about a thousand books that I use in my discussions, and of course, in any scholarly discussion of Jesus, as with any discussion of any ancient figure, there are going to be widespread differences, but my 100 pages of endnotes cites every scholar who disagrees with me and every scholar who agrees with me. And I would suggest that anyone who actually wants to comment on the argument of the book read not just the book but also the endnotes to figure out where my scholarly argument about Jesus comes from. And Iâ€™m sure youâ€™re going to find people who disagree with me.
Green: Weâ€™re not just talking about just people who disagree with you; Scholars â€” many scholars â€” disagree with you as well.
Green: I want to get to the heart ofâ€¦What are your conclusions about Jesus?
Aslan: Well, my conclusions about Jesus start by placing him in the world in which he lived. So I start with one fundamental truth that everyone agrees on with Jesus and that was that he was crucified. You have to understand that crucifixion in first-century Palestine was a punishment that Rome reserved exclusively for crimes against the state, like sedition or rebellion or treason or insurrection. The thieves who were crucified alongside Jesus were not thieves. The Greek word â€œlestisâ€ means â€œbandit.â€ And â€œbanditâ€ was the most common term in Jesusâ€™s time for an insurrectionist. What I say is that if you know nothing else about Jesus except that he was crucified, you know enough to understand what a troublemaker this guy must have been. The movement that he started was such a threat to the political stability of the empire that they actually had him arrested, tortured and killed for it. So I start with that fundamental fact, and then I take the claims of the gospels, as every single biblical scholar for 200 years has done, and look at them in light of the history of this world that we know. And whatâ€™s interesting about Jesusâ€™s world is that we know a lot about it, thanks to the Romans, who were very good at documentation. And the picture that arises from this is a real political revolutionary who took on the religious and political powers of his time on behalf of the poor and the meek, the dispossessed, the marginalized, who sacrificed himself in his cause for those who couldnâ€™t stand up for themselves and whose death ultimately launched the greatest religion in the world.
Green: My question, yeah, I wanted to ask â€” actually thereâ€™s another chat coming, and I wanted to get this on before we end this interview. [A critic] just says so your book is written with clear bias and youâ€™re trying to say itâ€™s academic. Thatâ€™s like having a Democrat writing a book about why Reagan wasnâ€™t a good Republican. It just doesnâ€™t work. What do you say to that?
Aslan: It would be like a Democrat with a PhD in Reagan who has been studying his life and history for two decades writing a book about Reagan. Again, I think that itâ€™s unfair.
Green: Why would a Democrat want to promote democracy by writing about a Republican?
Aslan: Maâ€™am, may I just finish my sentence for a moment, please? I think that the fundamental problem here is that youâ€™re assuming that I have some sort of faith-based bias in this work that I write. I write about Judaism, I write about Hinduism, I write about Christianity, I write about Islam. My job as a scholar of religions with a PhD in the subject is to write about religions and one of the religions and one of the religions Iâ€™ve written about is the one that was launched by Jesus.
Green: Youâ€™re not just writing about a religion from a point of view of an observer. I mean, the thing about it is thatâ€¦
Aslan: Why would you say that?
Green: â€¦youâ€™re promoting yourself as a scholar and Iâ€™ve interviewed scholars who have written books on the resurrection, on the real Jesus and who are looking at the same information that youâ€™re saying. To say that your information is somehow different from theirs is really not being honest here.
Aslan: Maâ€™am, my information is not different from theirs at all. Iâ€™m afraid it sounds like you havenâ€™t actually read my book or seen what Iâ€™ve said about the resurrection or about Jesus or about his claims. I think you might be surprised in what I say. And there have been thousands of scholars who have written about this very same topic. Many who disagree with me, many who agree with me. Thatâ€™s the thing about scholarship, is that itâ€™s a debate about ancient history and I am one of those people making that debate. I think itâ€™s unfair to just simply assume because of my particular faith background that there is some agenda on this book. That would be like saying that a Christian who writes about Muhammad is by definition not able to do so because he has some bias against it. And frankly every book, almost every book thatâ€™s out there is by Christiansâ€¦
Green: He can do so but I believe that youâ€™ve been on several programs and never disclosed that youâ€™re a Muslim, and I think thatâ€™s an interest in full disclosure.
Aslan: Maâ€™am, the second page of my book says Iâ€™m a Muslim. Every single interview I have ever done on TV or on print says Iâ€™m a Muslim. You may not be familiar with me, but Iâ€™m actually quite a prominent Muslim thinker in the United States. Iâ€™ve written a number of books about Islam. Itâ€™s just simply incorrect to say that media isnâ€™t saying that Iâ€™m a Muslim. I would actually encourage you to actually try to find media that doesnâ€™t mention my biography, which by the way, again, is on the second page of the book.
Green: All right, Reza, I want to thank you very much for coming on. The book is called â€œZealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth.â€ I want to thank you for coming on â€œSpirited Debate.â€ Thank you.
Aslan: Thank you.