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A Conversation with Reza Aslan

Scholar and Zealot author discusses the historical Jesus

Reza Aslan
Reza Aslan

You couldn't call Reza Aslan a martyr, but people have tried to push him around — and ended up regretting it. 

The Iranian-born scholar's book, Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth, became a best-seller after a notorious Foxnews.com interview, in which correspondent Lauren Green tried to pillory Aslan for being a Muslim who dared write about Jesus.

Aslan's briskly written book claims that Jesus was concerned not with a kingdom in heaven, but one on Earth: an Israel free from Roman occupation. Later Christian writers, Aslan argues, downplayed those concerns, portraying a less subversive, more ethereal Christ who appealed to more non-Jews — and threatened Rome less.

The Pittsburgh stop on Aslan's book tour, hosted by the World Affairs Council, is a kind of homecoming: His wife grew up here ... and his brother-in-law preaches at a Wexford church.

A longer version of this interview appears here.

Should your portrayal of Jesus change how Christians approach their faith?

It doesn't have to. ... The core of Christianity is that Jesus is both fully God and fully man. Christians tend to only hear or focus on the fully-God part. I think the reason Christians have been, for the most part, very positive about this book is because it's giving them a glimpse of who Jesus the man would have been. 

Isn't any attempt to find the "true Jesus" kind of reductive? 

When you go to the church in Nazareth, they have this amazing display. They've asked Christians from all over the world to send depictions of Jesus and Mary. And it's remarkable: The painting from Peru depicts them as essentially migrant coffee-workers. The painting from China depicts them as Chinese. The painting from Thailand depicts Jesus as blue, as though he's a Hindu god. Part of the reason for the success of Christianity is that Jesus has meant so many things to so many people. 

In a sense, all of [those meanings] are equally valid. ... What I'm trying to do is peel back those layers of interpretation, and get to the core of who the person was. 

One critic says you depict Jesus as an "ordinary political revolutionary rescued by an extraordinary storytelling machine." Is that a fair take? 

I don't know if I would say Jesus was ordinary. You're talking about an illiterate, poor, marginal Jewish peasant from the backwoods of Galilee, who managed to gather a movement to himself on behalf of the poor and the weak that was so threatening to the religious and political powers of the day that he was arrested, tortured and executed.

... A lot of critics say I describe Jesus as some sort of violent revolutionary, but I say in the book that there is no evidence that he openly advocated violence — though his views on violence were far more complex than people normally think. 

But on topics like violence, critics say you cherry-pick which Bible passages to accept as historic. For example, you quote Jesus telling the apostles to sell their cloaks and buy swords. But you don't mention that when his disciples try to defend Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane, he says, "He who lives by the sword dies by it." 

You have to take that in context. ... The Garden of Gethsemane is not a place of fountains. It's a forest, a place to hide from the authorities. And all four Gospels talk about this massive force that comes to arrest Jesus.

... The skirmish was over time whitewashed so that it [fits] into the theological argument the Gospel writers were trying to make [about Jesus' nonviolence]. How can you take that event and cleanse it? Well, you have Jesus say, "Stop the fighting." 

... The fact that it's a swordfight, in and of itself, should make you pause and rethink the notion of Jesus as a pacifistic preacher with no interest in the cares of this world. That Jesus would have gone totally unnoticed. It would not have required an armed posse to arrest him.

This interview will be published Sept. 11. As someone with experience of both Islam and Christianity, how would you assess the dialogue between those faiths? Do we understand each other better than we did 12 years ago? 

I think the middle does, especially in the United States. This is the most religiously diverse nation in the history of the world: You have no choice but to know and understand your neighbor. 

On the other hand, the fringes seem to have gotten further and further away from each other. And unfortunately, because they are so much louder, that group is all we ever hear. But often the largest voice is the quietest. That's how change happens: not because religious leaders made it happen, but because neighbors made it happen. 

Hands off Rafah protest in East Liberty
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Hands off Rafah protest in East Liberty

By Mars Johnson