The name Jesus conjures up any number of images in people’s minds: a Biblical prophet striding across water; the white-robed shepherd of church windows; the beatific, doomed host of Da Vinci’s “The Last Supper.”
In a new book, Reza Aslan suggests that all of those miss something basic about who the historical Jesus would really have been: a Jewish revolutionary figure, one among many, striking back against the Roman Empire and the religious leaders of his day.
Aslan is a writing teacher at University of California Riverside and a religious scholar, and his new book, “Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth,” launched him into the news last week when a Fox interviewer repeatedly challenged him on whether his Muslim faith disqualified him to write a biography of Jesus. (Aslan’s answer, in short: no.)
Lost in the controversy was the book’s actual subject. “Zealot” is a vivid portrait of life in the Holy Land as a man with Jesus’ humble background would have lived it. Historians of the period generally agree that an itinerant preacher named Jesus lived in first-century Roman Palestine, an environment that Aslan portrays as seething with discontent over the Roman occupation and extreme social inequality.
Based on what we know, he says, Jesus would have been one of dozens of “magician” healers and self-proclaimed messiahs trying to rally their followers to revolt against Roman rule. Many had far larger reputations and followings than Jesus. Almost all died on the cross during the roiling decades between Jesus’ death and 70 AD, when the Romans razed Jerusalem and decreed no Jew would ever live there again.
Aslan, whose previous book, “No god but God,” explained Islam for Americans, was an Iranian secular Muslim who moved to America, became an evangelical Christian, and as an adult returned to the faith of his youth. To him, appreciating Jesus in his historical milieu gives us a way to separate the man—and what was exceptional about him—from the religion that developed after his death, and which diverged in important ways from who Jesus was. As Aslan describes it, the real Jesus primarily wanted the poor treated justly, tried despite his low social status to undermine both the Roman and Jewish power structures, and shied away from being called messiah.
Aslan spoke with Ideas by phone; this interview was edited from two conversations.
IDEAS: What’s the thumbnail you want people to know about Jesus the man?
ASLAN: My hope is this image of a celestial detached spirit with no interest in the world that has arisen about Jesus over the last 2,000 years will be seen as incomplete. We will instead look at Jesus in the world as a deeply political revolutionary figure, radically so, who took on the powers of his time and lost.
IDEAS: There’ve been a lot of books that aim to separate the “historical Jesus” from the figure deified in the New Testament. Why another now?
ASLAN: Often what you see is an attempt to add a layer of history to the Gospels. I’m starting with the history and sprinkling the Gospels and the claims of the Gospels into the historical world we know.
IDEAS: For the title you chose this very strong word, zealot.
ASLAN: Zealotry has negative connotations in our modern parlance. It didn’t have those in first century Palestine. Zeal means something very specific: It refers to an unconditional devotion to the sole sovereignty of God, a refusal to serve any human master, to serve only God.
IDEAS: You paint Palestine as even more of a tinderbox than it is now, with street preachers calling down destruction on the Jewish temple authorities.
ASLAN: This was an era that was awash in apocalyptic fervor. Josephus talks about zealotism as a kind of virus coursing through the people. Repeatedly throughout the first century there are these uprisings that get quashed over and over again.
IDEAS: So did Monty Python have it right in “Life of Brian”—bearded guys in robes on every street corner, seeking followers?
ASLAN: [laughs] One thing I realized in writing this book was that Monty Python had some very good researchers!
IDEAS: Why do we remember Jesus and not his more popular rivals?
ASLAN: It had less to do with anything Jesus himself said or did, though his words and actions were extraordinary, than it did with what his followers claimed about him after his death....A crucified messiah is no longer the messiah. So the followers of Jesus should have done what the followers of every other failed messiah did, which is to go home. But they didn’t. Spurred by this mystical experience of the risen Jesus, they stayed in Jerusalem. They continued preaching Jesus as the messiah, and they began to redefine what messiah means, to divorce the concept of messiah from its Jewish roots and to transform it into a kind of Hellenistic notion of a god-man.
IDEAS: How does your book change our understanding of Jesus or Christianity itself?
ASLAN: I don’t think it does. The core belief of Christianity is that he was both God and man. And if he was also a man, then he must be seen in the context of his time. That doesn’t make him any less a divine figure if you’re a person of faith.
IDEAS: There are a lot of versions of Jesus throughout history, it seems.
ASLAN: In the 1980s with liberation theology in Latin America, Jesus was transformed into a revolutionary figure who takes up arms against the powers that be. Under the current situation in the US, the prosperity gospel preached by what I call charlatans like Joel Osteen and T.D. Jakes, there’s this notion that Jesus wants you drive a Bentley. The Christ of faith is malleable and can be reinterpreted over and over again for all time and for all people. The Jesus of history lived a very brief time and in a very specific time and place.
IDEAS: Is the Jesus that people discuss and worship today a figment of historical politics—or even good religious marketing, as cynics like to say?
ASLAN: It’s not about propaganda or lies or inventions that were spread by Jesus’ early followers that have duped millions of people into thinking that this man is God. What we refer to as history, the accumulation of empirically verifiable facts and events, would make no sense to the ancient mind. History was not about discovering facts, but revealing truths. The gospel writers who wrote about Jesus were not eyewitnesses to what they were writing about. They were making a theological argument about a man they had already decided was Christ.
IDEAS: You end by saying Jesus is someone worth believing in. You’re a Muslim. I was curious about what you mean.
ASLAN: I believe you can be a follower of Jesus without being a Christian, just like you can be a Christian without being a follower of Jesus. The example set by this man 2,000 years ago is as compelling today in the social environment we currently live in as it was in first-century Palestine.
Reza Aslan is speaking at the Boston Public Library on Sept. 26.
Michael Fitzgerald is a freelance writer in Cambridge.