A Brief History of Zealotry

Reza Aslan ’95 in conversation with three SCU scholars of religion

A Brief History of Zealotry
Photo by Charles Barry

Reza Aslan ’95 in conversation with three SCU scholars of religion—Paul Crowley, S.J.Catherine Murphy ’83, M.A. ’87, and David Pinault—about faith, politics, and how we talk about the life and times of Jesus of Nazareth.

The publication of Reza Aslan’s Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth in summer 2013 rekindled discussion of the historical Jesus. Not surprising are the questions about historical judgment that greet a popular work of religious history. But along with the book itself, it was an interview for Fox News that generated a storm of controversy—when Aslan was asked, repeatedly, as a practicing Muslim, does he have the right to write a book about Jesus?

In a program co-hosted by The Commonwealth Club/Silicon Valley, SCU brought Aslan to campus on Oct. 3, 2013, for a discussion about the broad range of questions his book has raised—and what the ethical implications are behind those questions. Aslan, who studied at Harvard Divinity School and completed a doctorate at U.C. Santa Barbara on the history of religions, is the author of books including No god but God: The Origins, Evolution, and Future of Islam. His interlocutors: Paul Crowley, S.J., the Jesuit Community Professor of Religious Studies; Catherine Murphy ’83, M.A. ’87, an associate professor of religious studies who has navigated scholarly publishing with work on the Dead Sea Scrolls and reached a broader audience with The Historical Jesus for Dummies; and David Pinault, a professor of religious studies and scholar of Islam, with works including Horse of Karbala: Muslim Devotional Life in India. Here are some condensed excerpts from the conversation.


A political JesusRead Catherine Murphy’s scholarly review of the book.

Paul Crowley: I think we understand that you’re not presenting this as a Muslim view of Jesus. You’re presenting this as Reza Aslan’s view of Jesus, and you happen to be a Muslim. But one of the things you’ve said is that you have been obsessed with Jesus for 20 years or more. I’m wondering if that might have been a motivation for your writing of the book.

Reza Aslan: Most definitely. I first heard the gospel story when I was 15 years old. I was absolutely transformed by it and converted to a particularly conservative brand of evangelical Christianity and spent the next four or five years preaching that gospel, as I understood it, to everyone I met, whether they wanted to hear it or not. Then when I went to school here and studied with you “godless atheists,” as Glenn Beck called you—You mean the Jesuit priests?—I had the experience that a lot of people have in my situation, where you are suddenly confronted with the fact that a lot of what you thought you knew about Jesus and the origins of Christianity were incomplete. Despite the fact that I ultimately left Christianity as a religion, I continued to delve into the scriptures and the historical Jesus because, to be perfectly frank, the person with whom I was confronted felt more real to me, more interesting, more appealing.

Paul Crowley: One of the things you also point out is that your view of Jesus is not precisely that of Islam. Does that create any tension for you?

Reza Aslan: No, it doesn’t at all. My Muslim faith plays a zero role in this book or frankly, in any of my academic work. That is not to say that this is a purely objective look at Jesus. There’s no such thing. I am bringing my own personal perceptions and even biases into this text, as we all do when we deal with sacred history. But that bias has nothing to do with Islam. It has everything to do with, again, you darn Jesuits, because the Jesus whom I was taught at Santa Clara University is the Jesus who is founded upon the preferential option for the poor, the Jesus whose entire ministry is predicated on the reversal of the social order, whose notion of the kingdom of God is an utter transformation of the world that he himself knew, not necessarily the world to come.

To a larger extent, I should say—and this is true of most people in the academic study of religion—we have to separate the historical study of religion, even if it’s our own religion, from the issues of faith that inform our spirituality. It’s our fault that people look at us with such confusion and mistrust, because we do such a poor job of communicating our ideas to the popular realm. In fact, when we do so, we get criticized for it, for being amateurish, or not serious enough, and that is a detriment to our discipline.

Paul Crowley: There’s also a widespread inability simply to talk about religion in a calm manner, in our culture—in many cultures. One of the things that we try to do in places like this is to give people the equipment to have a discussion about religious matters. Culturally, that just doesn’t seem to be possible, because there are all kinds of prejudices that become controlling in many conversations about religion.

Reza Aslan: That’s because religion is far more a matter of identity than of beliefs and practices. I’m not saying beliefs and practices are not important. Of course they are. But it’s when you say, “I am a Christian,” “I am a Jew,” “I am a Muslim,” you are making an identity statement. It is hard to have a calm, rational, conversation when people think that you’re attacking who I am as a person.


David Pinault: Part of what intrigued me about your book is that I happen to be a Christian who has published on Islam.

Reza Aslan: How dare you!

David Pinault: Exactly. An interesting set of questions have come up for me in the course of my career. If you’ve ever had the experience of being someone who acknowledges that you are a Catholic, and you’re giving public lectures on Islam in Muslim countries such as Pakistan, you will be challenged. It’s been a series of challenges that have caused me to reflect more fully: “So what do I mean by being a Christian?” Is it simply identity politics, as it is for many people?

I was thinking about your own personal odyssey, and I was struck by how the conclusions that you came to tally up against traditional Islamic teaching. One of the ineradicable facts that we can’t get away from when we’re talking about the life of Jesus is the crucifixion and its historical reality. Traditionalist Islamic teaching denies the reality of the crucifixion. Then there is the issue of the virgin birth; the teaching of the virgin birth of Jesus is very dear to the hearts of even Muslims. You challenge traditional Islamic teaching about them both, because you mention in the book, “There’s really no evidence of this virgin birth.” Second, the fact that, actually, if anything happened in the life of Jesus, the crucifixion took place.

Reza Aslan: I’ve gotten concerned emails from very conservative Christians, but I’ve gotten just as many emails from conservative Muslims who are shocked by that aspect of it. Because Islam agrees with a great part of the gospel narrative except for the last part, which is the crucifixion. Islam traditionally believes that Jesus’ spirit left his body and entered another body and that the person crucified was not actually Jesus. We can trace that idea to the second century. It’s one that was clearly borrowed by Islam; this would be the story of Jesus that the Prophet Mohammed would have heard most often. So it’s only natural that it would become part of the Quranic teaching about Jesus. People say to me, “How can you call yourself a Muslim if you don’t believe X,Y, and Z that the Quran says?” My answer is, “Because I don’t call myself a Quranist.”

The notion that these texts are things to believe in, that they are an end instead of a means to an end, is something I rejected when I rejected evangelical Christianity. I try to maintain a deep appreciation for faith; a lot of people in our field look at faith the way biologists look at microbes. But I don’t, and I know that many faculty at Santa Clara do not, which is what makes it such a special place. I hope that respect for people’s faith comes across even when I am challenging the most basic elements of it. But I would be lying if I said that I hadn’t received a fair share of quite angry emails.

But it’s a conversation that I enjoy having. We do this because we like to argue. This book is intended for a general audience. It’s a very easy-to-follow version of a very complex idea. Because of that, and because it’s been somewhat successful in the popular realm, there’s been this weird response where people say, “Well, you know, this one scholar at Barnard disagrees with you on this point.” Stop the presses! Oh, my God. Scholars disagree with each other. How crazy is that? For us that’s called Thursday. But for a general audience, they’re unaware of it. That goes back to what I was saying: We need to do a better job of communicating with popular audiences.


Catherine Murphy: One of the things that makes communicating with popular audiences difficult is that we do debate, looking at the fine points and the historical data, trying to evaluate. We have to persuade one another. To do that, we have to have criteria for making judgments. We have to agree on what those are; bringing other people into that conversation can be a lot to try to do. In your first footnote in the book, you acknowledge one of the most important historical Jesus scholars, John Meier. He’s got four volumes that are about this thick each, and he’s not done. He has criteria that most scholars agree must be used when we’re trying to assess the historical Jesus. It’s never a matter of certitude. It’s more a matter of what’s more plausible and less plausible. Which methods were most important for you in the book?

Reza Aslan: The methodology for looking at these kinds of scriptural acts of Jesus has been in place for a very long time, and John Meier is great at constantly putting them into the forefront: whether we have multiple attestations, or what I jokingly with my students refer to as the “sore thumb theory,” whereby if something sticks out like it doesn’t belong, it probably is more likely to be historical than not. In the end, it’s all about taking the claims of these gospels and analyzing them to the best of our ability with what we know about the world in which Jesus lived. I reject the birth in Bethlehem, as most scholars do. Is it possible that Jesus received this dramatic trial before Pilate, and Pilate did everything in his power to release him? Sure, it’s possible. Is it likely? No, no. It’s not likely. Is it possible that Jesus could read and write? It’s possible. Is it likely? No, it’s not likely.

Catherine Murphy: In terms of the issue of likelihood, it would be interesting to hear an example of a tradition that most historical Jesus scholars do think is historically likely, but you’ve made a different judgment. For example, the love of enemies. We don’t have it in—at least that we know of—any other Jewish tradition at the time. You say that if Jesus said it at all, he meant it about fellow Jews: that you’re supposed to love your fellow Jewish enemies, but not other enemies.

Reza Aslan: That is part of the Jewish context of his teachings, and it goes to the fundamental postulate around which this book is based: that Jesus was a Jew; that his teachings were Jewish teachings for Jews, founded upon the Torah, which is the only scripture that he would have been even remotely familiar with; that the only God that he would have any experience of is the God of the Hebrew Bible; that the only religious emotions that he would have had access to were those that were based in the Second Temple Jewish cult. So everything that he said has to be seen through the Law of Moses.

In the gospels, which were written post-70, post-destruction of Jerusalem, we see a deliberate attempt to transform those teachings into abstract universal ethical principles instead of keeping them within their ethno-nationalistic context. I want to keep them in that context.


Audience Member: I’m just starting out at the Jesuit School of Theology in the master’s program. I don’t think I ever really heard how the academic you has perhaps affected the you as a person of faith.

Reza Aslan: It goes back to this: My job as an academic is to study religion, not faith. I recognize faith. I take it seriously, but it’s not my field. For me, faith is ineffable. It’s indescribable. If you are talking about God, you are talking about something that is by definition beyond everything. All religion, as far as I’m concerned, is a language made up of symbols and metaphors that help us to express what is fundamentally inexpressible, to ourselves and to each other. What’s important is to not confuse the language for the thing itself, not to confuse the religion for what the religion is expressing. The Sufis talk about religion as a signpost to God—that it’s not an end in itself, it’s a means to an end.

Paul Crowley: As a scholar, you’re putting that in brackets—but to the practice of your faith, the Quran is not just any old text. That would certainly be true of Christians as well. One way or another, they understand it as a humanly mediated, inspired word of God.

Reza Aslan: Look, I believe that the Quran is divinely inspired, but I also believe Abbey Road is divinely inspired. I believe that God is in constant communion with his creation. As a Muslim, I don’t believe that there is any separation between creator and creation. I think that they are one and the same. People say, “Oh, well, then you don’t believe that Jesus is God. That’s why you’re not a Christian.” No, you’re misunderstanding me. I don’t believe that Jesus is exclusively God. I believe that everybody is God, because I refuse to acknowledge that there can be separation from God; that if you exist, you exist only insofar as you share in the existence of the only thing that exists necessarily.

Paul Crowley: Very Sufi.

Reza Aslan: The way I express that thought is through the symbols and metaphors that are provided by Islam. I’m not a Muslim because I think that Islam is more right than Christianity. It’s not. I’m a Muslim simply because the metaphors that Islam provides for God, humanity, the relationship between creator and creations—they make more sense to me. I appreciate these other metaphors and I’m familiar with them. When I say language, I mean that quite literally. I speak Spanish and French and Arabic and Persian, but I think in English. In the same way, I speak Christianity and Judaism and Hinduism and Buddhism, but I feel in Islam.


“This is what we do.” That’s how Reza Aslan wrapped up the conversation about history and theology. “It is fun,” he said. “It’d be better if we had beer.” If you’d like to imbibe more, pour yourself a cold or hot beverage of your choice and watch a video of the entire conversation or read an excerpt from the book at santaclaramagazine.com.

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