PROFILING JESUS: A Q&A WITH REZA ASLAN
ZEALOT: THE LIFE AND TIMES OF JESUS OF NAZARETH
Random House. 336pp. $27
The biographer of Jesus of Nazareth has been fielding plenty of media interest and controversy over his new book Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth, which attempts to uncover the man behind the Messiah. We spoke to him about the constraints of biography, the challenge of researching a time before “history,” and Jesus as a political rebel in part one of our interview. Check back later this week for part two.
BIOGRAPHILE: Why did you choose biography, as opposed to any other way of writing about Jesus? What was it about biography that gave you new possibilities?
REZA ASLAN: When you write about Jesus it’s hard to avoid either Christology on the one hand, or apology on the other. For so many billions of people around the world, Jesus is more than just a man, so if you want to treat him as a man, you can’t avoid dealing with the theological implications of his life. The only way to do so is through the lens of a biography, because then you’re limited in how speculative you can be. There are many books about Jesus that challenge orthodox Christian views of him, but so many of those books are themselves a form of theology — they speculate about influences he may have had, places he may have visited, et cetera. What biography essentially forces me to do is to maintain a sense of grounding, to keep from making statements that cannot be backed by the history of the world in which Jesus lived.
BIOG: So it’s a way of limiting yourself to those known facts, which are so few and far between, and resisting speculation.
RA: Yes. What I’ve noticed is that people who criticize the book, and then read it, often respond by saying that it wasn’t that odd or weird; I think they expect wild accusations about Jesus. But there’s no pedagogical purpose in this book — it’s simply an attempt to unearth what little we can know about this historical figure.
BIOG: Can you describe a little of your research process and its challenges — for instance, the multiple languages in which sources are written?
RA: I often say that writing a biography of Jesus of Nazareth is not like writing a biography of Napoleon, because by the time Napoleon exists, there is a firm concept of a thing called history. The notion of history as an accumulation of verifiable facts and dates is a product of the modern world. When writing about an ancient figure like Jesus, and one endowed with spiritual significance, you have to make a differentiation between sacred history and history, right from the start. What the ancients thought when they said the word “history” was not what we think. They were much more interested in revealing truth about the characters they were writing about, rather than facts. Facts were secondary, if not irrelevant.
That means that we are immediately at a disadvantage when writing about Jesus, because essentially the only information we have about him is the New Testament, the Gospels — and as I’ve said [in the book], the Gospels are not documents of history. They are not eyewitness accounts of Jesus’s acts, his works — they are testaments of faith, written by communities of faith, many years after the events they describe. To put it another way, the Gospel writers already believed something about Jesus, that he was the Messiah, that he was the son of God, that he was God incarnate, and set about writing the Gospels to prove that belief. They are theological arguments, so they’re not that helpful in trying to reconstruct the Jesus of history. What I do instead is rely on the world in which Jesus lived, a world that — thanks to the Romans — we know a great deal about. By placing Jesus firmly within his time and place, we can fill in the holes of his life and create a picture of him that is in many ways more accurate than that offered by the Gospels.
The methodology for doing what I just described has been set for centuries — the quest for the historical Jesus is a centuries-long endeavor. The tools that have been developed to try to analyze as far as possible the claims of the Gospels according to the history of the time — to figure out what is more and less likely historical in the New Testament — have been used by thousands of Biblical scholars before me. I don’t do anything different.
BIOG: The book is a wonderful synthesis of so many things that have been known in the academic community, but just haven’t become a part of our larger cultural understanding of Jesus and his time.
RA: Oh, that’s the fault of academics. The biggest criticism I have of my colleagues is that they spend all their time talking to each other, that they rarely bother to synthesize their ideas and their research to make it accessible and appealing to a wider audience. Now, ironically, the biggest criticism my colleagues have of me is that I spend all my time synthesizing research and making it accessible to a broader audience. There is this culture in academia that tends to look down on those who try to reach a wider audience — we’re immediately tagged as not serious. And honestly, that explains why there is such anti-intellectualism in the media and in popular culture.
BIOG: The historical context you bring out seems so basic to understanding the story of Jesus and how the Gospels came to be written — primarily the importance of the Jewish rebellion against Rome and the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem in 70 CE. That’s generally understood as a decisive moment in Jewish history, but you show that it’s equally fundamental to the development of Christianity.
RA: It changes everything.
BIOG: So in the book you foreground the events leading up to the destruction of Jerusalem, and then fit Jesus’ life into that larger story.
RA: My goal was to so deeply and fully immerse readers in the social, political, and religious context of the first century that by the time you got to Jesus’s story, I wouldn’t have to explain it — you could figure out for yourself the larger implications of what he was saying and doing.
BIOGRAPHILE: At the beginning of your book, Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth, you quote the theologian Rudolf Bultmann, who says that the quest for the historical Jesus is ultimately an internal quest, and that scholars see the Jesus they want to see. What kind of Jesus emerged for you in the course of writing this book? He seems like a much more political figure than he is later understood to be.
REZA ASLAN: Well, let’s be clear that in Jesus’s time there is no difference whatsoever between politics and religion. So I don’t know if it would be correct to say that this is a political look at Jesus, because you can’t separate the two in the way that we do in the modern world. “I am the Messiah” is both a religious and a political statement; they are exactly the same. I’m just trying to make the reader aware of the political implication of what most people think are mostly religious issues.
BIOG: One theme that emerges so strongly, especially when you get to the later chapters about St. Paul and the Roman adoption of Christianity, is how certain aspects of Jesus’s life and his teachings end up being pushed out of the story. At the beginning you explain that this is a time of great inequality in wealth and tension between the rural poor and the urban rich, and Jesus is absolutely on the side of that rural poor, and comes from that background, and sees poverty as a virtue. That was always a difficult claim for Christianity to maintain, as the power and wealth of the church grew.
RA: Right, you go from “It’s easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the Kingdom of God” to Joel Osteen, and “Jesus wants you to be rich,” and drive a Bentley. That sums up everything I think about how far we’ve got from Jesus’s teachings.
To go back to the question about Rudolph Bultmann – it’s absolutely true, and I think, by the way, it’s true of every historian, every biographer. Otherwise there would only be one biography of every character in the world. There’s no such thing as objective history: a scholar cannot help but bring his own impressions and perceptions into his study, no matter how hard he tries. For me, my quest for the historical Jesus was launched while I studied at a Jesuit Catholic college, Santa Clara University, and the Jesuits of course are famous for their focus on social justice and Jesus’s preferential options for the poor, so there’s no doubt that that influenced my look at Jesus. The scholars and professors who trained me — there’s no question that their focus on Jesus as a man dedicated to social justice impacted my own scholarly look into Jesus. I also think it’s historically accurate, but nevertheless, I absolutely admit that that influence exists.
BIOG: That Jesuit influence is so interesting, since at the end of the story you begin to get into these debates within the early church about the direction of the faith, but obviously as it develops that’s beyond the scope of the book.
RA: I’m glad you say it’s beyond the scope of the book, because a lot of people have said that this book is about Christianity, or it’s an attack on Christianity. But it’s not — it’s a book about Judaism, because Jesus was a Jew.
BIOG: And about the Roman Empire.
BIOG: It seems to me the book is grappling with a much bigger question, which is the tension between facts and faith, and how far it’s possible to reconcile history with belief.
RA: I think when it comes to a historical look at Jesus, the principal dividing line isn’t whether you believe he’s the Messiah or not, whether you believe he’s God or not. The line is whether you believe that Jesus was utterly unique or not. In other words, do you believe that Jesus was unlike every other Jew of his time? Do you believe that his perception of God, his reading of the scripture, his understanding of the Messiah and the messianic function, his view about the relationship between creator and creation, was completely and utterly different than every other Jew of his world — was totally and utterly innovative? Or do you believe that he was remarkable, that he was extraordinary, that he was charismatic, and all of those things, but he wasn’t utterly unique, that he saw the world the way most Jews in his time saw the world, and that he understood the function of the messiah, the interpretation of the scriptures, the way that most of his fellow Jews did? I think the historian falls in the latter category, and the person of faith falls in the former category.
In other worlds, is it possible that Jesus was utterly unique, is it possible that unlike ninety-eight percent of his fellow Jews he could read and write, is it possible that in contradiction to everything that Judaism has ever said about the nature of God and man, that Jesus thought that he was himself God? Yes, it’s possible. Is it likely? No. The historian’s job is not to say what’s possible: it’s to say what’s likely.
BIOG: I almost wanted a sequel to this book that talks about St. Paul, who did seem to be the one — along with the Gospel writer John — whose way of thinking about Jesus was unique and new and transformative. It was their interpretation of Jesus that broke the religion from Judaism.
RA: That’s right. If you want to put it in its simplest way, an innovation happened in Judaism, otherwise we wouldn’t have Christianity. The question is, when and where did it take place? Did it take place in the mind of an illiterate, uneducated, poor, marginal Jewish peasant from the backwoods of Galilee? Or did it take place in the mind of a Hellenistic, Greek-speaking, educated, deeply Romanized Jew named Paul? Again — choose one. The person of faith says it was Jesus and the historian says no, it was probably Paul.
BIOG: I know you’ve had plenty of extreme reactions to the book, but have readers of faith also been open to this alternative that you’re presenting?
RA: To be honest, the overwhelming response of Christians to this book has been positive. I have received countless emails, tweets, and personal messages from Christians saying that this book empowered and enriched their faith. I understand where that idea comes from. At the heart of orthodox Christianity is the belief that Jesus was both fully God and fully man, but the consequence of that belief is that Christians too often focus on the God part. When you go to church, you mostly hear about Jesus the God, and even when you hear about Jesus the man, there is this kind of safety net underneath him, because his motivations, his actions, the troubles that he encounters are always tempered by the fact that he’s also God. A lot of Christians don’t fully encounter what it means to believe that Jesus was also a man, that he lived in a specific time and place, that he was shaped by his world, that his teachings were in response to the specific social ills that he confronted, and that his actions were a response to the powers of this time. Christians don’t often get that that perspective in church. You can believe that this man that I am talking and writing about is also God, and still be enriched by this biography.
BIOG: The way you write about Jesus is so enriched by the history but also very aware that there was something extraordinary that marked him out, and we’re never going to know exactly what that was, what sort of personality attracted those followers that enabled a new religion to be built on the basis of this individual.
RA: In fact, I think that looking at him as a man makes him that much more extraordinary, more remarkable. The idea that a poor peasant could have started a movement that was such a threat to all the authorities of his time that he was ultimately arrested, tortured, and executed for it; the fact that an illiterate, uneducated man had the charisma and power of his teachings necessary to start such a movement is extraordinary. It makes him that much more powerful, that much more worth knowing and following. Whether you think he’s God or not is fine, but just looking at him as a man, you cannot help but be blown away by him. You can’t help but want to know him and to follow him. Part of the reason why I wrote this book was to show that you can be a follower of Jesus without necessarily being a Christian.
BIOG: You can find his example inspiring without believing that he’s God.
RA: Without the baggage of dogma, exactly.
BIOG: You end up with someone who is restored to non-Christians as much as enriched for Christians.
RA: In fact, the overwhelmingly positive response I’ve received from Christians has been matched by the extremely positive response I’ve received from atheists — both of whom thanked me for confirming their already-held notions of Jesus. Writing a book that brings atheists and Christians together — that’s probably what I’m most proud of.