Dr. Reza Aslan – The Author of “Zealot” Talks of Truth

The disclaimer has to come first.  I am Buddhist and have been for nearly 30 years.  Raised a Congregational/Methodist/Presbyterian, I left the Christian faith at 16 out of disbelief that its doctrines could condemn ¾ of the planet to hell. Once the schism was complete, I lived for many years without, as the Gen Xers might say, an affiliation.  So, Christianity, and all of its associations lurks in the back of my mind, like a well-remembered song, and on my tongue as I say “OMG!”, or “Thank God!” right along with the rest of humanity.  In fact, having been married to two Muslim men and having lived in both the Middle East and North Africa, I also utter “Inshallah”, “Barakallufik”, “Alhamdulillah” and various other situation appropriate remarks that have trickled down through those relationships and influences. Religious diversity has been a constant in my life and each one has left a little imprint and a repertoire of information.  Ramadan, Diwali, and Easter have added to my sense of universal citizenship. Despite this, Buddhism, with its ancient history and recent reform movements, one of which I adopted, defines the way my mind works and how I identify my personal philosophy and core connections to the great unknown.

Reza Aslan
Seattle Public Library – July 29, 2013

Dr. Reza Aslan has had a similar panoply of religious association in his multinational life. Born in Iran, his family fled that nation upon the arrival of the ultra-conservative Ayatollah Khomeini.  The U.S., where the family took root,  was not a welcoming place for bespoken Muslims, though the era they arrived was long before 9/11.  Not surprisingly, as he says in the Author’s Note of the new bestseller, “Zealot – The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth”, “When I was fifteen years old, I found Jesus…For a kid raised in a motley family of lukewarm Muslims and exuberant atheists, [his] was truly the greatest story ever told.”  That summer, he returned from this transformational revelation at summer camp a boy with a mission to espouse and convince.  Those passionate attempts to share what he had felt were met with the expected range of tolerance, rejection, horror, and humiliation by his friends and relations.  Aslan immersed himself in The Book (The Bible) and the Man with a fervor only granted the very young, reading voraciously, studying, and evaluating everything he could find.  As Reza grew, his scholarly nature led him to explore and sift the contradictory information found in verifiable historical texts and documents, particularly the copious records kept by the Romans, and the stories of the Bible.  Confusion grew as he grasped the extent of the erroneous information that passed as truth in the book of his chosen faith.  Soon enough, college studies and more questions arose, and along the way, faith-based views gave way to humanity-based comprehension.  By querying the validity of his new faith, Aslan felt more comfortable in re-examining the Islamic beliefs of his ancestors, ultimately re-establishing an active Muslim practice in his own life, while continuing to pursue wide-ranging religious studies.  “No longer chained to the assumption that the stories I read were literally true, I became aware of a more meaningful truth in the text, a truth intentionally detached from the exigencies of history [italics mine].”

This academic journey, one that began decades ago, has resulted in the book “Zealot”, and in the controversy that has surrounded its publication.  Most notable, and still creating a low buzz on YouTube and the web, was a nonsensical television interview with Lauren Green, a interviewer for Fox News.  Given the opportunity to talk with the author of a book offering a pragmatic view of Jesus and his times, she first asked  “You’re a Muslim, so why did you write a book about the founder of Christianity?” The question displayed not only a striking ignorance of Islam and its reverence for Jesus, but also an assumption that because Reza Aslan is Muslim, what he writes about Jesus cannot sustain any test of validity or impariality. Speaking politely to his interlocutor, Reza pointed out repeatedly that he is a scholar, possessor of a Ph.D.in fact, who has scrutinized hundreds of documents to ascertain a viable thesis on the subject of Jesus based on an interest that grew from his teen years. He gently established his credentials and rationale, but without seeming to satisfy Ms. Lauren.  She wanted him to justify his personal authorship of such a book.

That kind of blind bias was one of the reasons for the book itself. Aslan acknowledges that “for every well-attested, heavily researched, and eminently authoritative argument made about the historical Jesus, there is an equally well-attested, equally researched, and equally authoritative argument opposing it.” The proof is in the 100 pages of end notes at the back of the book.  Yet, this story, as much as the greatest story ever told, and not in contradiction to the compelling nature of that ancient tale, needs to be told. We cannot relate the Jesus of 1st century Palestine to the current world if we keep the umbilicus of his existence tied to parables and religious texts written long after his demise.

“When Messiah comes,” was the unvarying mantra for the Jews of Palestine, as they were called then by the Romans.  As oft seen as the homeless with signs asking for money in modern cities, fanatics and holy men wandered the rutted tracks of Palestine, Syria, Judea and Samaria, extolling the faithful to correct their behavior, prepare for the coming messiah, and join them to assure deliverance. The names of some of these men have come down to us in the scriptures and others reside only in the records kept by Rome.  It must be stated that to foment on behalf of a divine leader two thousand years ago was to run headlong into the political agenda of the predominant force, the Roman army and its puppet government.  These holy men, shoeless and penniless, but mesmerizing in their divine passion were summarily dealt with before they could prove themselves to be more than a mosquito buzzing in the ear of the Emperor.  A few raised small armies, others none.  It did not matter.

“…the authorities, sensing apocalyptic fever air, had become extremely sensitive to any hint of sedition.”

Very recently, I re-viewed “The Great Debaters” with Denzel Washington and Forrest Whitaker. The surface story is one of college-educated Negroes in the 1930s living and learning in the heart of Jim Crow’s Texas. Compelling on many levels, the overriding theme was of an oppressed people who knew that the situation in which they lived was largely dictated and designed by the oppressors.  The poor blacks, not unlike Jesus in his era, fully comprehended the precarious and potentially brutal life they lived or escaped day by day.  Outspokenness was punished, often fatally. Yet, in singles and then groups, people pushed toward change.

In his time, Jesus was speaking against the abomination of God’s land in chains. Says Aslan, “ …the same tribe that shed so much blood to cleanse the Promised Land…now found itself laboring under the boot of an imperial pagan power, forced to share the holy city with Gauls, Spaniards, Romans, Greeks, and Syrians, – all of them foreigners, all of them heathens – obligated by law to make sacrifices in God’s own Temple on behalf of a Roman idolater who lived more than a thousand kilometers away” (18).

Sadly, it wasn’t only the heathens.  In the manner of mistletoe in an oak tree, the Jewish priesthood had managed to establish a sort of détente with the Roman hierarchy, but one that flew in the face of the religious imperative at the very ancient center of Judaism.  According to God’s directive, Jews were supposed to be the sole occupants of the land and, as an imperative, bow to no man.  The Roman occupation contradicted and sullied this Yahweh–given tenet, and it called the legitimacy of the priesthood into question by those same holy men.  Thus, reformers targeted, not only the colonizers, but their own Judaic priesthood as well.  In those times, religion was politics, and there was no way to separate the two.  The Jewish temple was the center of life for Jews in the area, and even the Romans recognized the wisdom of granting the priesthood some autonomy.  Priests were given leave to arrest people for crimes near the temple and had mandates for other political action.

The phrase “I am the Messiah”, which was used by many, many people, was a call to arms in a way – a direct slight to the oppressive regime of the Romans.  In fact, “I am the Messiah” was a call for all believers to usher in the Kingdom of God, and to eradicate Roman rule. The concept a tipping point wasn’t lost on the Romans and explains the harsh response to those who challenged the state.  The entire zealot movement, of which Jesus of Nazareth was but one representative,  was a desperate response to the passionate belief people had in the righteousness of Jewish dominion over the land.  Thus, when Jesus took up his staff, a similar politically-jaundiced eye was cast in his direction.

Placing Jesus as a living being in that first century world is difficult because, outside of the Bible, he is not even a post-script in any official records. Well, perhaps a post-script. In the works of a Jewish historian, one Flavius Josephus, Aslan found, “a brief throwaway passage in the Antiquities, Josephus writes of a fiendish Jewish high priest named Ananus who, after the death of the Roman governor Festus, unlawfully condemned a certain “James, the brother of Jesus, the one they call the messiah…”” Thus the man responsible for the most popular religion on the planet is known only through a record of his brother’s stoning.

Picture a poor, illiterate, carpenter, a man just one rung up from the bottom of the social ladder.  Jesus was a man without status and yet, as he observed his world, was someone who felt a determination grow that change was necessary else  his people would forever be out of countenance with their God. It was a slow burn, as the author says, that took Jesus the man from carpenter to rabble-rouser. No one was there to observe the gradual transformation, but when we understand the times, we can sense the fervor which drove him.  When a people do not have any say in how they will live life, the pressure and push for space and voice is as unyielding as the body’s demand for air.  That was the reality for Palestinian Jews under the thumb of an autocratic conqueror and a corrupt priesthood. Thus, Jesus’s campaign was nationalistic and designed to overthrow the elite, creating an equitable balance of power in the tumult’s wake.   He took on the ruling class, plus a rapacious priesthood, and though his effort failed initially, around sixty years later, after his death, the Jews were finally able to bounce the Romans from Palestine, at least temporarily.

When the Romans returned, approximately forty years later, they burned Jerusalem to the ground, including the Temple of God. It was not just a temple for saying prayers to God, but the temple to which Jews believed the spirit of God traveled down from heaven.  The Romans razed it to the ground and then re-burned the ashes – an act meant to erase all sign.  Jews were banished from the area, and, for those Jews who believed that Jesus was the Messiah, a directional dilemma arose.  Should they preach Jesus as the Messiah to the Jews or to the Romans?  Ultimately, early Judeo-Christians chose the Romans, and therein lies a tale, one Westerners hear in a myriad of variations.

Religion is a matter of identity, asserts Aslan.  As a scholar, historian, author, and teacher, he can speak of Christianity, Judaism, and Buddhism, but, at his core, Reza breathes Islam.  Consider that though 7 out of 10 Americans identify as Christians,  this does not mean that 70% of Americans understand Christianity, know anything much about Jesus except that he was born in a manger and died on the cross.  They don’t know the history, for example, of the Bible. The first book based on the life of a disciple, one of the Gospels, was written 70 CE, or seven decades after the death of Jesus.  Still, religion is a marker of identity, so those people, whether they know anything or not, consider themselves  Christians and hold fast to the communities, mythologies, traditions, and ceremonies that support that view.

Dr. Aslan parses the issue of religion in the same way he did the history of Jesus, by looking at the essential, verifiable elements.  In some ways, the process is contradictory, but valuable nevertheless for the keen analysis.  Essentially, the question of religion comes down to a personal query.

  1.  Do you believe that there is something beyond the material world?
  2.  If you do, does that something matter to you?
  3. Do you want to commune with whatever is “out there”?
  4. If the answer to these questions is “yes”, then, Aslan explains,  you need to accept that you are talking about something that is inexplicable, something that cannot be explained, because the laws of our universe do not allow for such a being, all powerful, supernatural, or otherwise.

Thus, the adherent will need help and specific language to explain what is felt, hoped for, and desired in terms of a relationship with a diety.  People need a way to frame the ineffable experience of faith, because their is no direct evidence in the tangible, sentient world.  Religion is a sign post that points you to that “something”beyond such matters, and man has developed a selection of languages to articulate the journey.

The choice of language and exemplification gave birth to what is now the Bible, the holy book of Christianity.  Yet, the tales told in the Bible are patently, provably false on many levels that Aslan details in his book, so how is it that rational minds can ascribe veracity to religious fairy tales?  “Because the people who wrote these stories,” says Aslan, “didn’t care about facts, they cared about truth. The truth was whatever would uphold the prophecy of the Messiah.”  Thus, the move to Bethlehem, a journey written about in the reports of several disciples and sung about in church,  was fabricated.

The census as described never happened.  The connection to the House of David was contrived out of the ether or something even more ephemeral.  How would a boy from a village so tiny it did not exist on any area map during those times have a genealogical connection with the family of King David.  Nazareth was too far off the beaten track to have even been a stopover on a royal tour of the region.  No time for a by-blow to have been put to seed.  Yet, the prophecy says, “He will be descended from King David (Isaiah 11:1) via King Solomon (1 Chron. 22:8-10)” and so the story came down of a laborious journey from Galilee, of bedding down in a stable, and of the birth of the Prince of Peace.  “He will be a messenger of peace (Isaiah 52:7).”   People in those times had no interest in facts.  Events and aspirations compelled a yardstick for truth, not for fact. This distinction is lost on the modern mind.

The assertion of fable has been enough to call down all manner of righteous sermons upon Reza Aslan’s head.  Critics, while not providing any opposing evidence that does not stem from religious texts, accuse him of bias.  Their criticism is short-sighted first, because, despite the fact that the authors of the gospels knew what they wrote was false, and those to whom the parables were communicated knew, the result has been the same.  Christianity is undoubtedly the most successful religion built by man.  It is not diminished by an investigation into truth, and it is, perhaps, even more of a marvel.

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